It’s September, and depending on how old you are and what your ambitions are, this month means different things. For some, it’s the season of school re-entry. All across the world, students are returning to their universities with grand plans. Some have plans to master their classes by attending every office hour the instructor offers. Others have plans to make the social moves to advance their extracurricular interests.
However, for a particular group of students, the start of school means one thing only: Wall St. internship applications. That’s right, just as the summer (and, presumably, their internship placement) wraps up, future investment bankers and stockbrokers are already preparing updated resumes, cover letters, and researching contacts for follow-up emails. In fact, global investment bank Goldman Sachs, which is often regarded as the world’s most prestigious private financial institution and currently sits at #2 on the Financial Times League Tables, opened their applications in mid-august this year. Even before the most eager interns had wrapped up their 2017 placements, they were jockeying for 2018 spots at “the firm”.
The competitive nature of investment banking internships, in which top students strive tirelessly to earn a top placement, is largely unique. There’s no doubt that as professions grow more specialised, and undergraduate educations grow ever-more common, the competition for internships grows. This trend is helped by the systemic departure from a long tradition of unpaid internship placements in favour of more comprehensive paid summer positions. However, investment banking is unique. Acceptance rates at firms such as JPMorgan Chase and Citigroup often sit well below 3%, and Goldman Sachs attracted a quarter of a million student applicants in 2016. For reference, the most selective post-secondary institution in the United States, Stanford University, admitted 4.8% of applicants in 2017.
What’s more, it’s not easy to even get your applicant materials looked at. Many firms only accept applicants from schools identified as traditional “core recruiting” institutions. These include the names you’d expect: Harvard, Columbia, Princeton, Stanford, etc. Rarely is a public university featured on this prestigious list. Since this is a Canadian publication, it’s worth noting that the landscape in the great white north is even less equitable. Only students at 4 schools can expect to be considered “core recruiting” for Wall and Bay Streets alike. Unless you attend the University of Toronto, University of British Columbia, McGill University, or Western’s Ivey Business School, your path to an investment banking career is treacherous at best.
Another unique aspect of an investment banking career is the number of opportunities for entry. The prospect of breaking into 200 West St. (Goldman Sachs' Global Headquarters) hinges on two intake cycles. If you don’t make the cut to be a summer analyst in the summer of your penultimate undergraduate year, you are afforded one other opportunity as a summer associate halfway through graduate business school. In today’s competitive environment, there is simply no other opportunity to break into the business. Gone are the days of clever ex-engineers walking into the office with a resume and dazzling a managing director in order to win a position as an analyst. There is virtually no lateral movement of experienced financial professionals from retail banking into “i-banking”.
All of this effort, competition, and potential heartbreak. And for what? For these applicants, an offer letter at the end of their summer placement is the holy grail. The opportunity to be a part of the largest mergers, IPOs, and municipal bond issuances that represent the projects that will change the world. For these eager 20-somethings, the money is good. But the prestige is better. It’s an opportunity to play a key role in a global market of resource allocations. And to them, at least at this stage in their life, it’s worth every bit of effort. It has to be.
Noonan, L. (2016, June 5). Goldman Sachs Attracts 250,000 Student Job Applications. Retrieved from CNBC Website: https://www.cnbc.com/2016/06/05/goldman-sachs-attracts-250000 student-job-applications.html
Stanford University. (2017, September 3). Undergraduate Admissions. Retrieved from Stanford University Website: http://admission.stanford.edu/apply/selection/profile.html
Picture titled, "wall street sign", taken by nakashi on April 27, 2010, obtained through Creative Commons (https://flic.kr/p/7XWn9f)