Saturday, June 23, 2007

Self-Awareness Questions in an Interview

If you’ve read the title of this section and quickly checked the cover of this book
to ensure that you haven’t accidentally purchased Dr. Phil’s Guide to Investment
Banking Interviews, hear us out. Contrary to popular opinion, the number of
interview questions intended to test your knowledge of finance is significantly
smaller than the number of questions designed to test your knowledge of you—
not just your resume, but the choices, motivations, strengths, weaknesses, and
failures behind that resume. This surprises a number of candidates, especially
those who have spent the majority of their interview preparation time cramming
an undergraduate business degree—plus 6 months’ worth of the Wall Street
Journal—into their already frenetic schedules.
Don’t let yourself make this mistake. At their best, self-awareness questions
provide an opportunity to tell your own unique story and let the radiant light of
your personality shine through. The most straightforward self-awareness questions
ask you to describe why you decided to attend a particular university, pursue
your chosen field of study, or indulge your quirky intellectual interests through
extracurricular pursuits seemingly unrelated to investment banking. At the other
end of the self-awareness spectrum, self-awareness questions (typically those
encountered in later rounds of interviews) often require a significant degree of
judgment, diplomacy, and tact, as interviewers probe for motivations or personality
traits that would turn into vulnerabilities on the job.
Perhaps the most frequently used self-awareness question asks you to describe
your biggest weakness (or, perhaps, your three biggest weaknesses). Other
favorite self-awareness questions include the following:
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• Walk me through your resume and tell me how you decided to pursue a
banking career.
• Explain your role in the such-and-such job listed on your resume.
• If I were to call up your [most recent supervisor, best friend, older sister],
what would s/he say about you?
• If you could go back and complete your undergraduate education over again,
what would you do differently?
• What didn’t you like about [your last job, your college or university, your
MBA program]?
• What did your last performance review say?
• Tell me about a time you made a mistake. How did you handle it?
• Tell me about your biggest failure.
• Describe an ethical dilemma you have faced in the past. How did you
resolve it?
• What achievement are you most proud of?
• What are you passionate about?
• What motivates you?
• If you could have any job in the world other than banking, what would it be
and why?
• What is a common misconception that people may have about you after they
meet you for the first time?
What They Tell Your Interviewer
Self-awareness questions (along with interpersonal questions, described later)
allow your interviewer to become acquainted with the person behind the
resume. Through both the content and the delivery of your answers, these
types of questions allow you to showcase your maturity, thoughtfulness, and
humility and to prove that you are as comfortable describing your mistakes and
failures as you are your achievements.
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In addition, they give you an opportunity to explain any apparent gaps in your
resume or transcript and to tie seemingly disparate experiences and achievements
together with common threads and themes. With enough preparation, selfawareness
questions will allow you to prove that your decision to pursue a
banking career is not only well-thought-out, but completely consistent with
your past decisions and achievements. And by putting a positive (and honest)
spin on your story, you can paint a consistent picture of yourself as someone
destined to excel in investment banking. As you answer these questions, your
interviewers will be assessing the following:
• How well you understand (and how eloquently and convincingly you can
describe) the motivations and decisions leading up to the experiences
summarized on your resume
• To what extent you understand others’ perceptions of you
• Whether you are thoughtful, honest, and candid about your weaknesses,
limitations, and vulnerabilities (particularly as they pertain to a career in
• The thought process and motivations driving each of your important
decisions to date
• Whether you are honest about your past mistakes and actively seek to learn
from them
Why They Matter
If you think these questions come dangerously close to the touchy-feely, you’re
only partly right. Self-awareness is of critical importance to bankers for a
number of reasons. First, your responses to these questions offer the interviewer
insight into your motivations and decision-making processes, enabling
him to determine whether your motivations for seeking an analyst spot are
likely to be well thought-out and sincere. On Wall Street, there’s no shortage of
compelling reasons to throw your hat in the recruiting ring: attractive compensation
packages, the prestige of working among the elite of the financial world,
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and (for analysts) the opportunity to defer a longer-term career choice for at
least 2 more years. While none of these motivations is inherently wrong, none
is sufficient to justify the lifestyle sacrifices and the unique physical demands
that come with the territory.
The intensity of the work environment tends to exaggerate an individual’s
unique strengths and weaknesses: Interviewers know this all too well, and they
want to make sure they know the real person—not your interviewing alter
ego—before they bring you on board.
In particular, questions regarding your mistakes and failures tap into your ability
to learn from past experiences and continuously improve your performance.
They also reveal whether you’re honest and accountable when it comes to your
mistakes. In banking, the volume and pace of the work (and the sleep deprivation
that’s an unavoidable part of the job) mean that in all likelihood, you’re going
to make a few mistakes along the way. Recruiters want to know whether you’ll
assume responsibility for the wrong number in the pitchbook as readily as you’ll
take credit for the flawless LBO model you built from scratch. They want to
assess whether you’ll readily bounce back when you oversleep and arrive late to
a roadshow presentation, or whether you’re likely to make excuses and assign
responsibility to external circumstances (or, even worse, to another team
member). As a junior banker, knowing when to admit you’ve screwed up (and
knowing how to mitigate the damage) is key.
Finally, self-awareness is closely linked to interpersonal effectiveness, which
we’ll discuss in later sections. People who are self-aware have a leg up in
interpersonal relationships, because they are conscious of how others perceive
them. They are (typically, but not always) sensitive to the ways in which people
may react to them and cognizant of how their particular audience may require
them to tailor their communication style. The candidate who can deftly address
his most notable weakness without coming across as evasive, dishonest, or
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completely unsuited to banking usually wins points for forethought, diplomacy,
and good judgment. In a profession in which client interaction (even at the
junior levels) is not uncommon, these skills are absolutely critical.
Rules of the Road
Rule 1: Predict, prepare, and practice!
Some questions arise so frequently in one form or another that you’d be foolish
not to take the time to outline your response well before your interview. Questions
regarding your choices, motivations, and everything on your resume are
fair game and should be prepared well in advance. Give some serious thought
to how you’ll attack those gnarly weakness questions, and make sure you’re
armed with two or three talking points about each line item on your resume. If
there’s something particularly unusual on your resume (e.g., you ran the New
York Marathon, you went to medical school before you completed your MBA),
you can be sure that it will come up again and again. Consider the points you’d
most like to convey, and then practice your spiel.
Rule 2: Be honest, but emphasize the positive.
We all like to present the best possible image of ourselves during job interviews,
so it stands to reason that none of us particularly enjoys talking about our
faults. Still, these questions are an opportunity for you to really shine. No one
likes perfect people anyway. If you can demonstrate your maturity, humility,
and sense of humor about your foibles, your likeability (and credibility) will
skyrocket. Be honest about your screw-ups, but end on a positive note; emphasize
what you learned from each experience. Use the infamous weakness
question to prove that you acknowledge your Achilles heel and that you’re
constantly working to improve it (or, better yet, give a specific example of an
instance in which you overcame it).
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Rule 3: Keep your audience in mind.
This is an interview, not a confessional. Selfawareness
questions are not an invitation to inappropriate
self-disclosure. Don’t delve into anything
you wouldn’t (or at least shouldn’t) discuss on a
first date: your political views, religious beliefs, or
anything else known to spark controversy. (Cats
and lawyers are less obvious—but equally
dangerous—examples of topics that tend to
polarize people. You never know who your
interviewer’s got waiting for her at home. Maybe a
cat and a lawyer!) Your objective is to highlight motivations and strengths that
are compatible with a career in banking. Along these lines, remember to temper
your honesty with a healthy dose of good judgment when addressing your
strengths and weaknesses—try to steer clear of anything so incompatible with
banking that you’ll send your interviewer headed for the hills.
Just because you can be honest doesn’t mean that there are no wrong answers:
“I tend to take things personally,” “I’m not very detail-oriented,” and “I get
nervous when I have to interact with others,” for example, are bad answers to
the weakness questions.

1 comment:

Ashelle said...

Thank you for sharing your input, it was very insightful,I am using it to prepare for my interview.