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How To Break Into Investment Banking From A Non-Target School


You dream about a full-time IB offer at Goldman Sachs, but you come from a second-tier school that nobody knows. What can you do? Are you doomed? Or do you still stand a chance? 

That’s what thousands of students are asking themselves every year… In this article, we explain why it’s indeed hard to break in when you don’t come from a so-called target school, and we share a few tips you can follow to stand out and get a top BB offer, despite coming from a non-target school. 

I’m the living proof that it’s possible. I come from a very non-target school which you’ve probably never heard of. My grades were, let’s say, less than stellar… I didn’t have any family connections in finance. 

And yet, I was able to secure my very first internship at Lazard, before securing a full-time coveted spot at Goldman Sachs in London. You will learn how I did in this article.

The cold hard truth about investment banking recruiting
candidate selection

You probably know it already, but in case you choose not to believe it: yes, it’s true that investment banks mainly recruit candidates from so-called “target schools” (Russell Group Universities in the UK, Ivy League unis in the US).

According to SHL data, over 70% of new recruits at Goldman Sachs in the UK come from Russell Group Universities, including Oxford, Cambridge, and LSE. If you’re lucky enough to land a stop at a bulge-bracket, you’ll notice that most of your colleagues come from these top-tier schools.

You may think it’s unfair, that candidates from non-target schools also deserve a chance, but that’s just the way it is. And if you think about it, it makes sense. 

Someone who went to Oxford will be, on average, more diligent, rigorous, and academically bright than someone who went to a random university ranked 224th in the FT ranking. If you were a recruiter, you would also probably favor the candidate from Oxford than the other from the random uni.

Now, if you didn’t go to Cambridge or King’s College, the wisest thing you can do is to acknowledge this simple truth and find ways to differentiate yourself from other “target” candidates that are better than you “on paper”. 

Breaking into investment banking when you don’t have a target background is very hard, but it’s far from impossible. I managed to get a full-time offer at GS, despite having a very non-target background. You just have to be way more creative and proactive than other applicants if you want to stand a chance.

3 pro tips to get an offer at a top investment bank when you don’t come from a target school
Key tip #1: muscle up your CV with original/unique experience

There are certain areas in which you cannot compete with “target” candidates. For example, your school and your grades are unlikely to impress recruiters, even if you fully optimize the education section of your CV. There are however a few tricks you can use to increase the perceived value of your CV, and therefore reduce the competitive gap with elite candidates:

  • Contribute to an investment/finance blog by writing articles on a frequent basis. This is a very effective way to demonstrate your motivation to join the field, it implies that you have good writing skills, that you’re curious about financial markets, and that you’re capable of producing finance-related work of high-quality (especially if you’re writing for a reputable blog). If you write a few articles and those articles are well appreciated by their intended audience, this personal experience can be as valuable as a professional experience. Few candidates from target schools have the patience and determination to do that, so it can be an effective way to differentiate yourself.
  • Manage a portfolio of stocks. Managing a personal portfolio of stocks is a very powerful way to demonstrate your interest in finance, because it shows that you’re ready to lose your own money in the pursuit of your interest. This tactic is especially powerful since recruiters know that students have (for the most part) limited financial capacity, and that if they are ready to take financial risk in spite of the relative precariousness of their living conditions, then they must be pretty determined. Naturally, gathering a decent amount of capital (say a couple of thousand dollars) may not be within reach of every student.  If your family is not particularly wealthy or if you don’t have enough savings to feed an investment portfolio, it can be a bit tricky. In such cases, if you really want it, I would suggest taking a side job and hustle as much as you can to generate some extra cash until you have at least $2,000 in savings ready to invest.
  • Participate in any kind of reputable competition, and win. It doesn’t matter if it’s an oenology contest, an eloquence competition, or a speed-reading tournament: just do something competitive and do your best to win. It doesn’t have to be finance related. This kind of achievement signals to recruiters that you’re capable of outperforming your competitors by showing superior skills, which is a desirable quality in investment banking and finance in general. 
Key tip #2: Consider doing a Master in Finance at a top-ranked school

One way to overcome the “lack of prestige” of your educational background is to do a Master in Finance at a top university. This comes at a cost: top-tier Master programmes can cost over €20,000 for one year. 

But if you did a bachelor degree at a non-target uni, a programme like that can add a “prestige stamp” on your CV that will significantly increase your chances of getting a first-round interview (excluding the impact of networking, which we’ll discuss in a second). 

I know some people who went to some very non-target universities in France (schools that have a terrible ranking in the FT) but who’ve managed to pass IB screens relatively easily after getting a top Master from schools like HEC Paris, IE, or Bocconi. 

It won’t guarantee that you’ll be invited to interviews at BBs, but it will help you a lot, that’s for sure. I’d say if you have money or are willing to bear more student debt, it can be a great investment. 

That being said, make sure the school you’re applying to really is “target” (best way to know that is to check if GS, JPM, and other BB banks are organizing campus recruiting events at those schools).

Key tip #3: Network as aggressively as you can

That’s the most effective tip I can give you, by far. I personally didn’t do a Master in Finance at a top uni to compensate for the relative lack of prestige of the uni I studied at. Instead, I networked extremely hard to land interviews at some of the best IBs in the world. 

Now, the question you’re probably asking yourself is: how to network exactly? Who should I contact? What should I say?

The first thing to know, which you probably know already if you have been reading our posts, is that investment banking recruiting mainly works by referrals. A referral is when someone in a position of power (typically VPs and above) endorses the application of a candidate, leading HR to invite this candidate for an interview. 

Most interviews are obtained via referrals, whether candidates are aware of having been referred or not. If you know how to get referrals, you know how to get interviews, no matter how prestigious the firm is, and no matter how “non-target” your background is. 

Nearly all the interviews that I had as a candidate (I had dozens of them back in the days) were obtained via referrals. Without referrals, it’s extremely difficult to secure interviews at tier-one investment banks if you come from a no-name school. 

Now, you’re probably wondering: ok, but then how do I obtain referrals? The answer, as you probably guessed it, is networking. 

How to land referrals and interviews when you don’t have a target background, without doing a single networking event

Now, I know what you’re thinking…

Many students roll their eyes to the sky when they hear the word “networking”. 

That’s because the internet is filled with vague articles repeating to you that networking is key, without actually showing you HOW to do it.

But let me reassure you: 

With the networking strategy that I’m about to present, you’ll know exactly what steps to follow, and you won’t need to step a single foot outside your house to land multiple interviews fast. 

This is the exact strategy I’ve used to land my very first internship at Lazard with zero experience, and coming from a university which you only go to when you have no other choices…

Before I present to you this strategy, let me first clarify what networking really is about.

What students THINK networking is:

  • Putting on their best suit and going to random networking events packed with sweaty students who don’t really want to be there.
  • Asking stupid questions to recruiters in the hope that their CV will magically get retained.
  • Engaging in awkward small talk with other candidates, pretending to have fun, just because they’re too afraid to speak to recruiters directly.

What networking really is:

  • Connecting with bankers directly, not recruiters (bankers make the referrals, not recruiters).
  • Cold emailing bankers and jumping on 1-on-1 calls with them.
  • Asking simple and sound questions, and carefully listening to their answers with genuine curiosity.
  • Having enough fun during these conversations to be in a position to ask for an internal endorsement directly.

The no-BS definition of networking:

  • At the end of the day, networking is just about connecting with someone in a position of power, and giving enough value to this person to make her want to help you in return.

You give value to someone, and this person will reward you with value in return. It’s the foundation of every human transaction. 

Right now, if you are reading these lines, you’re doing a transaction with me: I’m offering value to you by giving you helpful advice, and you reward me with your attention.

The same reasoning applies in Investment Banking: you give value to an investment banker, and he/she will help you get a job.

The question you may ask yourself is:

“How do you “give value” to investment bankers as a student with no experience?”

Simple: By making 1-on-1 calls with them that are worth their time. 

By making these calls enjoyable, rewarding, interesting. 

My whole networking strategy consists in three simple steps: 

  • Cold emailing hundreds of investment bankers to obtain 1-on-1 calls (in less than 15 minutes a day).
  • Asking them simple, thoughtful questions and listening to them carefully, with sincere curiosity.
  • Respectfully asking for their help.

I got nearly all my interviews using this cold emailing & networking strategy. 

After 4 years in the IB industry, I can confidently tell you that there is no faster way to get referrals and interviews, especially if you have a “non-target” background.

If you want to get your hands on the exact same strategy that I used to land multiple interviews at bulge-bracket investment banks, check out our networking online course in which we reveal:

  • Which exact cold emails I sent to obtain dozens of recruiting calls and informational interviews at top investment banks as fast as possible.
  • How to send 250+ persuasive cold emails per week fully automatically, while spending less than 15 minutes a day on applications
  • Which exact phone scripts I used to secure “internal referrals” from powerful investment bankers, and get my CV on the list of shortlisted candidates.
  • Which step-by-step networking strategy I used to land 10-14 interviews a month at elite investment banks, without writing a single cover letter.

Learn more about the course on this page.


A word about the author

Aurelian Tran is the founder of Alpha Lane and an ex-Goldman Sachs analyst who has spent 4+ years working in the investment banking industry.

He founded Alpha Lane to help students and young professionals achieve their highest professional ambitions, by securing offers at top-tier financial institutions.