How to apply for a job at an investment bank

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There was a time when applying to work in an investment bank meant manipulating a CV - on paper - to do little more than emphasise an early infatuation with the markets, or working behind the scenes to secure an interview with a friend of the family. That has changed.

Online application forms are helping to streamline recruitment and have made it more important for graduates to present themselves in the best possible light at the application stage.

The forms are designed to screen candidates quickly in various ways, and when applications can outnumber places by more than 50 to one, that is a lot of screening.

Instead of sifting through paper forms, recruiters can identify French speakers or mathematicians, for example, at the push of a button. So ticking the right boxes has never been more important.

At many banks, initial screening is on the basis of academic qualifications. To survive the first fall of the electronic guillotine, you need to be heading for a 2.1 and, in many cases, to have a minimum of 24 UCAS points.

Sounds promising? In fact, this stage screens out woefully few candidates. Derek Walker, head of graduate recruitment at Merrill Lynch, says: &quotIt is becoming increasingly hard to use A-levels alone as a differentiator between candidates, because so many have top grades.&quot

&quotNinety per cent of candidates have a 2.1 or above and straight 'A's at A-level,&quot says Heidi Plant, graduate recruitment manager at UBS Warburg.

Differentiating yourself from the mass requires no little preparation. Before even toying with the form, read all that you can on the organisation.

Mike Tiley at the London School of Economics careers service advises students to look carefully at banks' brochures and websites, and to carefully consider their own position before beginning to fill in the form.

&quotThe more you know about your own strengths and weaknesses, the better. It's a question of matching up your previous experience to what is required,&quot he says.

Application forms ask which division you are applying to. From the start it is necessary to know about the bank's activities and where, and why, you think that you can fit in.

Merrill Lynch offers assistance with an &quotonline careers&quot matrix which directs you to different divisions according to your interests.

Recruiter consensus is that the most important parts of the application form are the &quotfree-flow&quot areas. These are boxes left blank for candidates to enter a written response.

Common questions include: queries as to how previous work experience has contributed to competencies why you consider yourself appropriate to the role that you have applied for and why you have applied to that particular bank.

Recruiters rely upon responses to these questions to differentiate between candidates. Because responses are critical, it is worth taking some time over them.

Firstly, read the questions. &quotIt is amazing how many students don't actually answer the question. A lot merely seem to cut and paste very standard answers from covering letters,&quot says Plant at UBS Warburg.

&quotMake sure that the answer is original, and specific to you. It really is about putting thought into your responses and using them to sell yourself as though you are being asked them in an interview situation,&quot she says.

Mark Blythe of GTI, a company that has designed online application forms for CSFB, Merrill Lynch, Arthur Andersen and KPMG, advises that candidates prepare responses to freeflow questions in advance, so that nothing is overlooked.

&quotScan through the questions that you are going to be asked. Write your responses offline in Word. Only when you are satisfied with what you have written should you paste them into the form,&quot he says.

Before pasting some answers, it may be advisable to gauge how the bank is perceived by the outside world.

When banks ask why it is that you particularly want to work for them, they are providing an opportunity for flattery.

Find out where the bank is placed in mergers and acquisitions rankings (by Thomson Financial), or how its analysts performed in recent surveys (by Reuters, Institutional Investor, Extel or Greenwich) results are available in the archives on the Financial News website.

Instead of baldly stating that you want to work in a top-class financial institution, it is then possible to state that you want to work in a top-class financial institution known for the strength of its research team in areas such as telecommunications or tobacco.

In as yet rare cases, filling out the application form may also involve psychometric testing. UBS Warburg and Merrill Lynch require this and other banks are expected to follow suit.

Numeracy tests seem set to become most common. UBS Warburg's test also includes multiple choice questions with a personality focus.

Plant emphasises that there is no right or wrong answer to these questions and that candidates are not screened as a result of this section.

Applicants are simply encouraged to respond honestly. Responses are collated and then compared to those given by previous successful graduates.

In this way, the bank has built a profile of the kind of person it is looking for in each position.

While Deutsche Bank, Morgan Stanley and UBS Warburg are among those who require all applications to be made through their websites, at some banks applicants are spared the somewhat arduous online application process.

Goldman Sachs continues to operate a hybrid paper and online system - although this has vagaries of its own: the firm offers detailed advice on how to fill out a CV, including the suggestion that references to pets are unnecessary.