Graduate selection step 1: Online application

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Weak grades and poor answers to online questions are the main stumbling blocks.

If applications to work in investment banking were a horse race, most people would fall at the first hurdle. According to the Association of Graduate Recruiters, a large investment bank receives on average 42 applications for every graduate level job. That's 8,400 candidates for the 200 or so places on the average bank's graduate recruitment scheme. More than 7,000 are eliminated by the online application form.

Academic criteria are a major hurdle. Banks such as Merrill Lynch, Bank of America and Deutsche Bank specify that would-be candidates must be on track for a 2:1 and have a minimum number of UCAS points (typically 320 or more). If you don't meet the grade, you won't get any further than this. However, even if you're on track for a first and you've got five A grades at A-level, the application form could still trip you up.

SallyAnn Birchall, head of graduate recruitment at Deutsche Bank, says most candidates fall down on the grounds of poor spelling, poor punctuation and a lack of attention to detail. Calum Forrest, head of recruitment at Goldman Sachs, cites a tendency for candidates to cut and paste responses from one bank's application form to another: "People will apply to us saying they've always wanted to work at Merrill Lynch," he says.

To "ace" the application form, it's a good idea to prepare your answers offline and to proofread them carefully before submitting. Make sure you're answering the questions, and try to do it concisely. It's also an idea to get your application in early. Vivienne Dykstra, a former investment banking graduate recruiter-turned graduate recruitment consultant, says the best applicants are the first off the mark. Banks are quick to invite these early applicants for interview as soon as possible, she says.

Most banks invite final year university students to apply for full-time analyst positions from early September onwards. It's good to do so as soon as possible: few banks will admit to it officially, but the sooner you get your application in, the greater your chances of success. Competition between banks for top candidates is so intense, that when a good applicant comes along, offers are often made immediately. "We start interviewing and making offers when the first applications start coming in," says a recruiter at one large US investment bank. "If we fill all our vacancies and applications are still coming, we just have to write back and say there are no vacancies left."

Even banks like Citigroup, which consider applications right up to their November deadlines, admit there are some benefits to applying promptly: "There are definite advantages to getting an application in early," agrees Brian Hood, head of graduate recruitment at Citigroup, "We won't necessary view you more favourably, but if you respond before 10,000 other people it will at least show enthusiasm."

The exception to the early applications rule comes when banks invite candidates to apply only after they've visited particular university campuses. Lehman Brothers, for example, visits Oxford University in late October and invites its students to apply in the week following. "We don't review applications from Oxford candidates until we've made our visit on campus," says Fiona Gaffney, head of analyst recruitment at Lehman Brothers. "This is because we will often give a campus specific deadline during the presentation."