Investment banking assessment centres uncovered

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Investment banking
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Whichever investment bank you apply to, the assessment centre is likely to be an integral part of the application process. Whether you thrive in this kind of environment or the very thought of it breaks you out in a cold sweat, they are not to be taken lightly.  How you prepare for the centre and how well you perform on the day can mean the difference between a job with a leading firm or a major rethink of your career options. 

Most assessment centres involve a number of stages, each with their own unique set of challenges. We spoke to Carla Beard from the graduate recruitment team at Bank of America Merrill Lynch about what to expect from each phase of the process and their top tips for candidates.

The Numerical Test

What’s it for?

No secret here: numerical tests are designed to assess general maths skills, which are usually a prerequisite for an investment banking programme. They aim to replicate the kind of numerical tasks you are likely to come up against in many finance roles. You don’t need to be a mathematical genius but you will need to be comfortable dealing with large volumes of numerical data in a potentially time-sensitive environment. 

What to expect

Many employers typically ask candidates to take an online numeracy test as a precursor to attending an interview or assessment centre, though some will also provide a computerised or paper-based version on the day itself. The good news is that these tests are fairly standardised across the different banks and generally relatively straightforward in nature. They will usually contain between 20 and 30 questions, with roughly a minute allowed to answer each. 

Though the types of maths problems you are likely to come up against don’t tend to differ much (you can usually expect to find questions relating to percentages or ratios for example), questions will normally be packaged for the specific employer and role for which you are applying, so don’t be thrown by this.  For a position in Global Markets the questions may be based on calculating exchange rates or stock prices, for instance. 

Ways to prepare and mistakes to avoid

Practise, practise and practise again. There are literally hundreds of websites offering numerical tests where you can hone your skills in timed conditions.  Most will closely resemble the real thing so there really is no better way to prepare. 

When it comes to scoring the maximum number of marks, timing is everything. Often the biggest challenge is not the questions themselves but leaving yourself enough time to get through the entire test, which means knowing when to move on and to not linger on any more challenging points. The level of difficulty tends to increase the further along you get so make sure to leave yourself plenty of time for the questions at the end.  The biggest mistake we see candidates making is running out of time and leaving questions unanswered.  

When it comes to paper-based tests you also need to ensure you correctly fill out the answer form. This may sound obvious but it’s amazing how many candidates lose marks by failing to do this properly.

The Group Task

What’s it for?

Group tasks are a favoured exercise used by investment banking employers when it comes to the graduate assessment centre. They aim to test a range of skills, from communication and organisational skills to how you operate in a team or group setting. Banks will want to know that the people they hire both have good ideas and are able to effectively communicate these to colleagues.

What to expect

Candidates are usually split into small groups; they will then be given an information pack or article to read through quietly, before being asked to discuss the topic as a group and come to a conclusion. 

The conversation will be monitored by a representative from the line of business to which the candidates are applying. They will be looking for candidates who make a valuable contribution to the discussion, and who put forward an argument or potentially take a stance that they need to defend against an opposing view.  

Ways to prepare and mistakes to avoid

The key to thriving in a group task is to have the confidence to voice your opinions without coming across as loud or overbearing. Employers will be looking for candidates to demonstrate their leadership skills by providing direction to the group and taking ownership of one or more parts of the discussion. A particularly effective way to do this is to volunteer to be the group’s timekeeper or chairman, if there’s the option. 

Be careful, however: not listening to what others have to say or talking over people is sometimes just as big a turn-off to a potential employer as being too quiet and letting the discussion pass you by.  

These kinds of exercises are not the easiest to prepare for but any experience you can gain in a group or team setting is likely to prove beneficial. You might want to think about asking a contact or relative if you can sit in on a business meeting where you’ll get to see how people interact and communicate in a professional environment.

You should also aim to read up on recent economic / business developments and current affairs, which are likely to form the basis of the conversation. This goes for the application process as a whole and especially the interview stage; as someone hoping to work in banking and finance, you will be expected to have a good handle on what’s going on in the business world.

The Presentations / Case Study

What‘s it for?

Depending on which firm you apply to, your investment bank is likely to include either a presentation or case study task at some point of the assessment process. 

As well as a test around presentation and analytical skills, this task looks to assess candidates’knowledge of the business line to which they are applying. Whether Mergers & Acquisitions (M&A), Equity Research or Leveraged Finance, you will be expected to have thoroughly researched the role and have a fairly good idea of what’s involved. 

What to expect

The aim of the presentation / case study is to replicate the kind of work you will be doing in the job itself. You could be presented with a real-life work scenario, past project or a fictitious version. Alternatively, you might be asked to discuss a business topic that’s recently been in the news.

Candidates will usually be given a case or scenario to read through and then given time to digest this information and deliver a presentation to one of more of the employees in the division to which you’re applying. 

Ways to prepare and mistakes to avoid

The key thing is not to go in blind: have a clear understanding of the line of business you are applying to as well as your prospective employer.   

For a position in M&A, you might start reading about recent deals managed by the bank to which you are applying that have made the news. Spend time getting your head around the different processes in a deal and think about how you might explain them to someone. You could also look to brush up on the basics of financial analysis; what are the key fundamentals you would look at when valuing a company, for instance?

For market-facing positions you need to be up to speed with what’s going on in the world’s major financial exchanges. For example, how will increased volatility impact traders of equities and other financial products?

A common mistake we see as graduate recruiters is candidates failing to make good use of their preparation time before the presentation or case study. They might spend too long reading through the material, not leaving enough time to write-up and rehearse their presentation. Another common error is delivering a presentation that’s too long or too short, which implies poor time management skills. 

The Competency / Technical Interview 

What’s it about?

Interviews help determine whether a candidate is the right fit for the position in terms of their technical skills, personality and core competencies.  

Interviewers might also look to further probe a candidate’s knowledge of the company and industry they are applying to.  As well as technical skills and commercial acumen, your interviewer is likely to be looking for evidence of key competencies like teamwork, problem-solving and client-facing skills. 

What to expect

There is likely to be a fair amount of variation in the types of questions you can expect to face, which may depend on the firm, the nature of the role and the person interviewing you. 

Generally speaking, they will consist of a combination of competency and technical based questions delivered by one or more employees from the division to which you are applying and possibly a member of the graduate recruitment team as well.  

Your interviewers will want to know how you would handle certain scenarios, including how you might look to manage a situation with an unhappy client, for example.

In terms of the technical skills being tested, this will relate directly to your chosen specialism and the role for which you are applying. In a technology role you could face questions that pertain to your programming skills or understanding of technical language. 

Ways to prepare and mistakes to avoid

The key is to really know yourself, your strengths and your weaknesses. This means knowing your CV and application form like the back of your hand and anticipating anything that could be flagged up by your interviewer.

Aim to pick out five key strengths or achievements that you want to highlight and think about how you could weave these into your answers. 

It’s also important to have a few questions of your own up your sleeve about the role or the company. This shows engagement and that you have a genuine interest in the industry and the company to which you are applying.  

Remember to remain in the interview mind-set even when you leave the room. Some investment banking assessment centres involve a lunch or networking session with employees from your prospective division; the way you interact is still under observation so make sure you remain engaged, interested and curious even when the spotlight might not seem like it’s on.

Be curious: our tips on how to approach the overall experience 

One of the most important pieces of advice we can offer candidates at any stage of the assessment process is to be original. You want to stand out from the rest of the pack so avoid giving standardised, generic responses wherever possible. 

You also need to present a clear (and original) reason why you want to work in banking and finance and be able to explain your motivations for pursuing this career path. A great way to do this is to demonstrate that you have gone out of your way to find out about the company and industry by speaking to someone at a campus presentation or careers fair. 

Remember too that not all banks are the same: you need to be able to express why you want to work for ‘this bank’rather than another. This means making sure you fully research the company to which you are applying, have an idea of their recent work and what sets them apart from the competition.

Be curious. The assessment centre is the best opportunity you’ll have to get to see the company you’re applying to up close and to get answers to any questions you might have about the role or the industry. Don’t be afraid to ask the people you meet what they enjoy about their job and for a clear idea of what you can expect to be doing on a day-to-day basis. 

It may be a clichébut it really does hold true: assessments and interviews are as much a test of whether the company is a good fit for you as it is for them to vet you, so use the process to your advantage.  

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