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How to get an entry level job in M&A

In the public perception, investment banking is M&A and M&A is investment banking. American Psycho’s Patrick Bateman, the platonic ideal of how the public sees bankers, doesn’t work in capital markets – he’s a VP in M&A (erm, sort of).

M&A – also known as M&A advisory or just advisory – is the part of an investment bank that advises clients on (M)ergers (&) (A)cquisitions. Deals can be, although aren’t always, worth billions of dollars, and with clients spending that money (and millions more in fees) comes an expectation of flawless service at any time of day.

That service varies according to the role of the banker involved in the transaction but generally requires extensive scouring of financial records, creation of financial models, and… lots and lots of work on Excel and PowerPoint. Although there is progressively less as you become more senior, and you get to meet the clients at some point.

The work hours are tough, with 90 hour weeks common, and Goldman Sachs juniors complaining at one point about 120 hour weeks. Generally, you work less as you climb up the ranks, and MDs (the top rungs of the banking ladder) can see around 45-70 hours weeks, although the hours can be wilder due to the nature of maintaining client relationships, which is what MDs are primarily responsible for.

So why do people work for potentially up to 120 hours a week in an (seemingly) tedious job? Well, because the pay is spectacular. A first-year analyst (the first rung on the ladder) can earn over $200k. VPs (a mid-career position) can earn four times as much. And MDs can earn seven figures.

So, fancy getting in?

How to get an M&A job

It starts when you’re in school (ideally). You’re going to want to plan your studies at university to be in either business or finance (ideally). Then, when you’re at your (good, ideally) university, you’re going to want to keep your eye open for insight days hosted by various banks.

After you attend these insight days (ideally) you’re going to want to start applying for summer internships at the banks of your choice. Your grades are important from day one, by the way, in case you thought you could have a relaxed first year.

When you get one (which is hilariously hard to get), it’ll probably be for the coming summer (internships are usually during the summer of the second year of your university course), although some banks seek applicants two years in advance. Congratulations if you get an internship offer: it's the main hurdle for getting into banking.

If the winds of fate set you up so far, and you’re an incoming summer intern, you can be rest assured that you – no, of course it’s not that simple (have you gotten the idea yet?). You’re going to have to “convert” that internship into a job offer.

Banks offer jobs to around 50-75% of summer interns – which is a better number than the 1% to 3% that get an internship offer in the first place – and if you’re in the unfortunate 25-50% without an offer, well, you can always apply for another internship next year... 

... Unless you have the money to do a Masters in Finance. This can give you another opportunity to get an internship. Alternatively, you can go into an adjacent industry (eg. consulting) and then switch into banking after doing an MBA. MBAs enter banking as associates (second rung on the ladder); it’s possible to come into banking this way after a few years in a related industry.

The skills

An analyst (which is what you’ll be joining a bank as) spends most of their time working on financial models, so you need an aptitude for mathematics and the ability to create them, mostly in Excel, although increasingly banks are interested in coding abilities using Python.

In terms of personal skills, you have to be adaptable, hard-working, and technical. Wendy Nivar, COO of global M&A for Credit Suisse, said successful junior bankers “need a strong work ethic, an ability to develop superior technical skills and a positive attitude to manage the unpredictability of a deal process.”

Adaptability is also key, and banks look for “those who are able to apply the skills they learn from one transaction to the next – as this is important for anticipating the next steps in a transaction and being able to address both internal and external client needs,” Nivar says.

Find your voice, too. “Those who can speak up and meaningfully contribute in team discussions are able to differentiate themselves early on in their career.”

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AUTHORZeno Toulon
  • Ro
    Rodrigo da Rocha
    26 December 2014

    Hi everyone,

    After work more than 5 years as Marketing and Business Development Analyst in the main players of the legal market (one of those is a Magic Circle firm) I've decided to change my career focus on M&A. Actually, I completed a postgraduate on investment in a very known financial business school to help me with this change.

    I have been reading a lot about the skills and daily work for those professionals, apparently there is a strong marketing component in this kind of job regarding teasing clients for either sell or buy side and preparing client facing documents. Of course I understand that some maths and financial knowledge are needed, but there are more over these knowledges.

    My personal experience in this move is very frustrating... Even with a very good Resume, I feel a huge barrier to get into this area. It appears the market just has space for professionals with at least 2/3 years of related experience, even for entry levels as analyst.

  • Ef
    Efinancial John
    23 October 2014

    Interesting article. I am thinking about doing an MSc in strategic management at HEC, and taking their M&A certificate. Do you think this would be a good degree to get into M&A, or what is the preferred degree for someone at a young stage of their career?

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