If you ask a recruiter how to land a great job on Wall Street straight out of college, they will probably say the best way is through connections and a degree from an Ivy League school or a handful of other elite universities known as target schools. Other traits also confer an advantage. According to Goldman's latest numbers as reported by CNBC in March 2018, only 5.3% of Goldman's total workforce of around 35,000 is African-American while 37.6% is female. Despite of continuous efforts to increase diversity, Wall Street workers are still predominantly white and male. 

But there are other ways to get a Wall Street job. While a well-placed family friend and a degree from Harvard may open doors, people without these advantages have succeeded on Wall Street. There are plenty of examples of Wall Street CEOS that had humble beginnings, went to public schools, beat the odds and worked up the ladder. So how do outsiders make it to Wall Street?

Job-hunting Tips

Traditionally, a college grad vying for a Wall Street job was looking for any entry level analyst position at one of the big banks, like Goldman Sachs or J.P. Morgan, located at or around a financial district. But with the proliferation of boutique sell-side firms and buy-side asset management firms, including hedge funds, the definition of Wall Street has changed.  This article focuses on how to get an entry level job at any one of these Wall Street-like firms which include all types of investment firms, most of which are on the buy-side (big banks and boutique firms tend to be the only ones on the sell side). 

If you are still deciding on an undergraduate degree, majors like math, finance, economics, and accounting are natural fits for Wall Street. However, firms do hire from any major as long as the candidate understands markets and business. For example, legendary hedge fund manager George Soros has both a bachelor’s degree and PhD in philosophy.

The first step is to determine what type of Wall Street job is best suited for you based on your personality and skills.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- This category can be further divided into research analyst, portfolio manager and traders. At many firms analysts and portfolio managers are one and the same and often portfolio managers come up through the ranks of the research organization. Skills and traits for these jobs include mathematical and analytical mindsets, 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. Typically, investment teams begin and end the day the same way- prior to the market open and after the close, incorporating the most current economic, financial and company specific news into an investment thesis and deciding which securities to hold, buy or sell. This group is the hardest to break into at an entry level unless the organization has a many layer structure that hires new graduates.
  • Operations- This category includes everyone from client relationship, marketing, risk, and legal to other systems and back office functions. These positions are varied and can provide an entry point to an investment organization. Many of these jobs require some degree of analytical mind and a self-starter personality. Client teams additionally have strong interpersonal and communication skills along with a distinct understanding of the portfolio and markets. These jobs are very fast paced and 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 revenues for the firm. The traits necessary for that bear a strong similarity to the sales organization which sells the firms products (research in the case of the sell side or portfolios in the case of the buy side). Strong relationship buildings, interpersonal skills and communication are the necessary skills to be successful here. These jobs also provide entry points- either as sales assistants or entry level analysts. The hours are often long and demand intense customer interactions and a significant amount of travel.  The focus is on building relationships and while a financial mind is extremely useful here, it is not the most important trait. 

The second step is to generate a list of potential types of employers that fit within the chosen framework. For example, if you have a passion for investment banking, your search should also include any type of merger and acquisition firm like a private equity firm or a hedge fund. If you excel in sales, then include both the sell and buy side in your search. This list should focus on several areas:

  • Skills-  education major, skills acquired during internships or work experience
  • Personality traits- strengths and areas of of weakness, likes and dislikes, level of work ethic, etc.
  • Goals- what do you want to achieve and when
  • Life style- how much do you want to work, do you like to travel, etc
  • Types of firms- small vs large, willingness to move abroad or areas of the country willing to live

When generating a list of employers, also look for companies that may participate in investing in the markets but are not overtly known as asset managers. Such employers may help you get a foot in the door of finance and eventually launch you to a more conventional Wall Street position. Examples include insurance companies, local governments (like a local treasury department), or even a small accounting firm that offers investment advice and products. Large companies, like conglomerate General Electric or Chrysler, have asset management arms that manage internal pension plans. Even your college or university may have an endowment fund which can offer internships or entry-level positions.

The third and final step is to ask for a job. Call companies and send out resumes. Take advantage of resume and job search tools like LinkedIn. If you are still in college, apply for Wall Street or general finance internships. If you have graduated and cannot secure a front office, entry-level Wall Street job, consider applying for support positions. Former president and CEO of HSBC USA Irene Dorner got her start as an in-house lawyer for a bank. There are many other examples of starting out in Operations and moving into other parts of the organization. Risk is a function that has garnered a great deal of attention, especially after the global financial crisis in 2008. This function 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 the 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, persistent, and cast a wide net.

Even when 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. Another helpful activity is to join the local trade association. For example if you live in New York 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 for many. But Wall Street success stories follow many trajectories. Consider working for boutique firms, large corporations, and any other opportunity that will lead to experience in finance and connections on Wall Street.

Want to learn how to invest?

Get a free 10 week email series that will teach you how to start investing.

Delivered twice a week, straight to your inbox.