For better or worse, Wall Street is a "who you know" sort of world where reputation and image go a long way. Although getting a job with a Wall Street firm does not require a degree from a top-notch university, the fact remains that many top banks recruit at a limited number of schools, and those schools are often prominently placed on the ubiquitous "Best" lists. In fact, in some cases, particular firms will hire only from a narrow list of specific universities; if an outsider applies, their resume will "be kept on file," but the odds of an interview are quite low.
The reason this matters is that over 40% of undergraduates in the United States attends a community college, and not surprisingly these schools are not on the itinerary for Wall Street recruiting trips. The question, then, is how community college attendees can go about getting a job on Wall Street.
A Waypoint, Not a Destination
Many students attend community colleges for reasons relating to academics and economics. Perhaps they didn't prioritize their studies in high school, or for whatever reason failed to get good grades and test scores. Alternatively, a student may not have the economic resources or the access to loans and scholarships necessary to attend a better-regarded school.
In any case, starting off a college career at a community college does not automatically lead to ending it in the same place. Students can, and do, transfer from community colleges after one or two years, and it's worth noting that college degrees don't specify how many years the student attended that particular institution.
It may seem ambitious to go from a community college to an Ivy League or Top 25 school, but it can and does happen.
Local Work Experience
Many outsiders underestimate just how much Wall Street firms prize a strong work ethic and clear ambition. To that end, supplementing a community college education with relevant work experience is an underappreciated way of enhancing a resume.
Most metro areas will have at least one or two asset management, private equity or venture capital firms. Getting a job at one, even if part-time or unpaid, is a good way to not only acquire relevant work experience and connections, but also to establish that desire or willingness to work that Wall Street firms look for in entry-level candidates.
To be sure, getting such a job is not easy. This is where ambition and creativity play a role. Be sure to learn as much about the firm and the principals as possible, and be creative when it comes to presenting yourself to them. Buying somebody lunch and encouraging them to talk about themselves and their job (and/or asking for guidance or advice) can be a good way of establishing a relationship. While you will almost certainly hear "we're not really looking for anyone right now," polite persistence can pay off - particularly if you're willing to structure your employment as an unpaid internship.
Those who wish to work on Wall Street should also not limit their options to buy-side shops. Even communities that have no investment banks or buy-side shops typically have at least a few brokerage offices. Working at such a place and assisting brokers is again another good way of establishing that "will to work" and also learning something about how parts of Wall Street actually work.
Even better than local work experience is an internship with the sort of Wall Street firm that you hope to work for after graduation. Although how-to guides tend to overstate just how often interns (particularly at the undergraduate level) are later hired for full-time positions, the fact remains that a Wall Street internship is a huge foot in the door.
Internship programs have become a great deal more organized, structured and competitive over the last 15 years, and some firms will only look for interns that are currently at or went to the same schools as their regular employees. Nevertheless, here again is where hard work and persistence can pay off. Wannabe interns should canvass the Internet, libraries and job guides for as many addresses and contact names as possible, and then hit them with professional-looking resumes and cover letters.
Perhaps more than anything, community college students need to understand that they're in a numbers game - the odds of hearing "yes," "maybe" or "come in for an interview" from any particular firm is quite low, but that can be offset by contacting as many firms as you possibly can. After all, and this may be the most important bit of advice that can be given about getting a Wall Street job, it only takes one "yes" to get a career on its way.
Starting at the Bottom
Community college students who cannot transfer to a more prestigious school or secure a strong internship have a more difficult road, but not an impossible one. To be fair, a community college graduate sending a "cold call" resume to a top investment bank is not likely to get an internship from a junior banker or analyst position. However, that doesn't mean that it's not possible to still get a foot in the door.
For all of the talk about analysts, bankers, traders and fund managers at buy-side and sell-side firms, the reality is that these firms also employ numerous assistants. While secretarial work may not seem satisfying to someone who wants to work as a banker or analyst, working with bankers and analysts at least gives you face time and exposure to these people. Do a good job and it is possible to go beyond an entry-level position.
Although movies like "Working Girl" are pure fiction, hard-working and ambitious assistants can find themselves eventually considered for entry-level positions in banking, research, trading or institutional sales. In my time working for sell-side and buy-side firms, I knew close to half a dozen people who started their career at the firm as administrative assistants and ultimately got a chance to work in banking, research, sales or trading. A few of those people built on the opportunities they were given, attended part-time MBA programs and now work as analysts for buy-side firms with very recognizable names.
To be sure, this is not an easy route. A person wishing to advance through this path has to be willing to go well above and beyond the normal expectations for an assistant/admin position, and a lot of the opportunities to really shine will require unpaid work and/or extra hours. Nevertheless, impressing an analyst, banker or trader with your work ethic, attitude and ambition can go a long way - particularly since many firms hire from top-notch undergrad programs, not so much because of what the students learn there, but because of what these firms perceive as the above-average odds that these graduates will have those same attributes of ambition, attitude and work ethic.
The Bottom Line
None of the above should be read as sugarcoating a basic reality of Wall Street - Wall Street is a world where image and perception make an enormous difference, and graduates or attendees of community colleges are starting with a very real handicap. Consider this as just another part of the evaluation process, and regard it as a challenge to be surmounted through hard work and a positive attitude.
Transferring to a better college is likely the best opportunity for a community college attendee to secure a Wall Street position. Failing that, establishing a work history in the industry, particularly through an internship with a Wall Street firm, can be a great supplement to the resume and one that attracts the attention of recruiters. Finally, yet importantly, if a transfer or internship is not attainable, try to get a foot in the door through an entry-level assistant/admin position, particularly one that gives daily exposure to people in businesses like research, trading or banking. But above all, remember that hard work, a good attitude and other critical workplace skills (being a good listener, dressing/acting appropriately, etc.) are ultimately the most critical factors in getting and keeping, such a job.