If you ask a recruiter how to land a great job on Wall Street straight out of college, he'll probably say the best way is through connections and a degree from an Ivy League school, or one of a handful of other elite universities known as target schools. However, your gender and racial background could still be an issue. CNBC reported in March 2018 that at Goldman Sachs, for instance, only 5.3% of the total workforce of around 35,000 was African American and 37.6% was female. Despite reported efforts to increase diversity, Wall Street workers are still predominantly white and male.

But not fitting the stereotype isn't a reason to be deterred. While a well-placed family friend and a degree from Harvard may open doors, people without these advantages have succeeded on Wall Street. Plenty of Wall Street CEOs had humble beginnings, went to public schools, beat the odds, and worked their way up the ladder. Here is a look at what it takes for an outsider to make it to Wall Street.

Key Takeaways

  • College majors often matter when seeking out positions on Wall Street.
  • Internships are an important way to get your foot in the door, especially if you're an undergraduate student.
  • Identify the kind of work you want to do, along with a list of potential employers.
  • Make calls, send out resumes, and apply for a variety of open positions.
  • Network constantly.

Wall Street Jobs Have Changed

First, it's important to understand how these jobs have changed over time. In the past, a college grad vying for a Wall Street job would seek an entry-level analyst position at one of the big banks like Goldman Sachs or JPMorgan located at or around a financial district. But the proliferation of boutique sell-side firms and buy-side asset management companies, including hedge funds, has altered the definition of Wall Street.

So let's take a look at how to get an entry-level job at one of these Wall Street-like firms, including different types of investment firms—most of which are on the buy-side. Just to note, big banks and boutiques tend to be the only ones on the sell-side.

What Was Your Your Major?

College majors like finance, business administration and management, economics, accounting, and mathematics are natural fits for Wall Street. However, firms do hire from any major if the candidate understands markets and business. Legendary hedge fund manager George Soros, for example, has both a bachelor’s degree and a Ph.D. in philosophy.

From a salary-by-position perspective, analysts who made the most money majored in management and strategy, according to Business Insider. The highest-earning associates majored in math and statistics, while vice presidents and directors at the top of the salary scale studied engineering. Interestingly, the outlet found that, on average, across all finance workers in New York City, computer science majors were paid the highest.

If you're still an undergrad, try to get an internship at a Wall Street firm or similar institution the summer after your junior year of college. Many firms hire from their intern pool, and even if you end up working somewhere else after college, a successful internship will give you an edge in the hiring process, along with a better understanding of the world you're hoping to enter.

Identify a Suitable Position

Determine which type of Wall Street job is best suited for you based on your personality and skills. Rather than limit yourself to a specific niche in the market, make sure your net is wide—the larger your job search scope, the better your chances of getting your foot in the door. There are numerous jobs at investment firms and each has its own characteristics and requires specific skills and traits. These can be broken down into three main categories:

Investment Team

Jobs in this category include research analysts, portfolio managers, and traders. At many firms, analysts and portfolio managers are one and the same, with portfolio managers often coming up through the ranks of the research arm of the organization.

Skills and traits you need for these jobs include a mathematical and analytical mindset, knowledge of accounting and economics, and the ability to focus and see the trees among a dense forest. Hours are often long but not overwhelming.

Investment teams typically begin the day before the market opens and end it after its closing. Members of the team incorporate the most current economic, financial, and company-specific news into an investment thesis and decide which securities to hold, buy or sell. This group is the hardest to break into at an entry-level unless the organization has a multilayered structure that hires new graduates.

Operations

Positions in operations include client relationship, marketing, risk, legal, back-office functions, and other systems. These positions are varied and can provide an entry point to an investment organization.

Many of these jobs require some degree of an analytical mind and a self-starter personality. Client teams additionally require strong interpersonal and communication skills along with a distinct understanding of the portfolio and markets. These jobs are fast-paced, demanding and often the least heralded.

Sales

This is a broad category. In sell-side firms, investment bankers are successful when they build and maintain strong relationships that translate into revenue for the firm.

Necessary traits here bear a strong resemblance to the sales organization that sells the firm’s products—research in the case of the sell-side or portfolios in the case of the buy-side. Strong relationship building and interpersonal and communication skills are necessary to be successful. While a financial mind is extremely useful here, it is not the most important trait.

These jobs also provide entry points—either as sales assistants or entry-level analysts. The hours are often long, demand intense customer interactions and require a significant amount of travel. The focus is on building relationships.

Make a List of Potential Employers

Generate a list of potential employers that fit your skillset and personality. For instance, if you have a passion for investment banking, make sure you include mergers and acquisition (M&A) firms such as private equity firms or hedge funds. If you excel in sales, include both the sell- and buy-side firms in your search. This list of employers should consider:

  • Skills: College major, skills acquired during internships, and/or work experience
  • Personality traits: Strengths, areas of weakness, likes, dislikes, and overall strength of your work ethic
  • Goals: What you want to achieve and when you want to achieve it
  • Lifestyle: How much you want to work and whether you like to travel
  • Types and location of firms: Small versus large, willingness to move abroad or to other areas in the U.S. 

When generating a list of potential employers, don’t forget companies that may participate in investing in the markets but that aren't overtly known as asset managers. Such employers may help you get a foot in the finance door and eventually launch you into a more conventional Wall Street position. Examples include insurance companies, a local government treasurer’s office, or small accounting firms that offer investment advice and products. Large companies such as General Electric or Ford have asset management arms that manage internal pension plans. Even your college or university may have an endowment fund that offers internships and entry-level positions.

And don't go blind—do your research. Make sure you know the most important details about each company in which you're interested. Nothing shows your dedication more than being prepared.

Doing your research on companies you're interested in shows how dedicated you are to your career.

Apply for a Position

Start your job search. Call companies and send out resumes. Take advantage of resume and job search tools such as LinkedIn. If you are still in college, apply for Wall Street or general finance internships. If you've graduated and cannot secure a front office, entry-level Wall Street job, consider applying for a support position. Former president and CEO of HSBC USA Irene Dorner got her start as an in-house lawyer for a bank. There are numerous examples of people who started out in operations and moved into other parts of an organization.

Risk is an area that has garnered a great deal of attention since the global financial crisis in 2008. This area has transitioned from operations into the investment team in many organizations. Client relationship managers have skills that parallel sales, and often these two functions share mobility. There have also been examples of administrative assistants moving into marketing roles. While the investment team often gets the glory, every other part of the organization is necessary to make a firm a success. The key is to have the required skills and education to be able to propel yourself to the next level. Be assertive and persistent and cast a wide net.

Network Constantly

Even when you are not actively applying for a position, continue to network. This is where social media can be extremely useful. Use your business or social network to find someone who knows someone who can make a useful introduction or serve as a mentor. You can join groups related to your job search on LinkedIn as a start. But you can also search for social groups with financial industry experts on Facebook.

Often overlooked, Meetup groups are another way to help expand your base of network contacts. Depending on where you live, you may find regular events in your area for likeminded individuals who you can meet with in person in a social setting. This is a great way to get your face and name out there to people who may be able to help you out in your job search.

Another helpful activity is to join the local trade association. If you live in New York, for example, and have your sights set on becoming a security analyst, join the New York Society of Security Analysts. If you are not in New York, find your local chapter. These types of associations can lead to invaluable networking opportunities.

The Bottom Line

Landing a glamorous investment banking analyst position at a large bank on Wall Street right out of college may not be realistic. But Wall Street success stories follow many trajectories. Consider working for a boutique firm or a large corporation or pursue any opportunity that promises to deliver experience in finance and eventual connections to Wall Street.