From Private Equity Internship to Bulge Bracket Investment Banking: How to Cold Email Like a Pro

You would think that after 5+ years of covering networking tactics across hundreds of articles, videos, and even a full-fledged course on networking, there would be nothing left to say about it. But you’d be wrong.

I was skeptical when our interviewee today contacted me and offered to share the story of how he went from minimal finance experience to a full-time investment banking offer.

After all, haven’t we already covered that story dozens of times?

It turns out I was wrong: he shared new tips and tactics, and even shed light on a few topics that have generated tons of questions over the years:

  • How off-cycle recruiting works in London and the differences in the process
  • How to move from a private equity internship to investment banking, the key objections you’ll encounter, and how to answer them
  • The truth about how to cold call and cold email effectively… and why even bulge bracket banks might still respond to cold calls and cold emails
  • What to do if you just graduated but have no internship or full-time job lined up

Let’s get started:

From No Job Post-Graduation to Bulge Bracket Banking Offer in Less Than 1 Year

 

Q: So, let’s kick things off by describing what exactly you did in the past year.

A: Sure. I graduated about a year ago (as of the time you’re publishing this) without a clear plan or a full-time job offer.

I did have a consulting internship for a few months after graduation, but that was a temporary thing and they would not be extending it.

So I started applying for full-time jobs in October and November because I didn’t want to end up with a 1-year gap on my CV.

I won a PE internship in January of this year, which I completed in February through May.

It was at a small, lesser-known firm, but it gave me the experience to network and interview at bulge bracket banks – and by the end of the internship, I had won a full-time offer at a bulge bracket bank here in London, all via off-cycle recruiting and aggressive networking.

 

Q: OK, so we’re going to dig into each part of that… let’s start with what you did in university up until graduation.

A: Sure. So I did have an advantage in that I went to a “target” school in the UK, which definitely helped – but I had also completed 0 relevant internships during my time there.

I was much more focused on extracurricular activities and didn’t even think much about what I wanted to do after graduating.

Really, finance appealed to me because it was a high-pressure environment with a steep learning curve… and I’d walk away with more tangible skills than I would in consulting.

 

Q: I’ll give you bonus points there for taking another jab at the consultants.

A: Thanks, appreciated.

Anyway, I kept applying to jobs, but due to my lack of work experience all I could get was the consulting internship – and this was not at MBB, but a much smaller firm.

I even went through the recruiting process again after I graduated, but I came away empty-handed yet again because the consulting internship didn’t look that impressive.

Q: So you didn’t have much luck through 2 full recruiting cycles – what made you think you had a shot in private equity recruiting? Isn’t that even harder than IB recruiting?

A: My thought process went like this:

  • Relatively few undergrads and recent graduates target PE firms, so the volume of applicants might be lower…
  • And many of these firms are so small that they have no formalized recruiting process.

When you apply to bulge bracket banks in London, you’re up against a ridiculous number of applicants from all over the world.

But I figured I might have a better shot at small PE firms since it takes more effort to apply, and since many undergrads / recent grads are uncomfortable with the networking required.

 

Q: OK, so how’d you find names and start contacting people at these small PE funds?

A: I found a list of PE firms in the UK (partially via online searches and rankings) and focused on the really small ones.

I did not have the names of specific people, but they were simple to find because pretty much all PE firms have websites with a “Team” page.

So I guessed their email addresses by trying combinations like firstname.lastname@firmname.com and  firstname_lastname@firmname.com and so on.

My process:

  1. Initially, I narrowed my list down to 100 firms.
  2. For each firm, I went to its website and focused on the more senior membersof the team – Partners and Managing Directors – and tried different combinations for their email addresses.
  3. I sent each person a very short email introducing myself, saying where I went to school and where I had worked, and expressing interest in interning at the firm.

 

Q: So what was your response rate like?

A: Out of the 100 firms, I got a positive response from 15 of them, where “positive” means they invited me in for an interview or informal chat.

  1. private equity interviews were all over the place – some interviewers asked technical questions, some were “fit”-focused, and some seemed to be making up questions randomly.

They did not give me any case studies or modeling tests because:

  1. I didn’t “market” myself as having technical / modeling experience; and
  2. Many of these firms wanted interns to source deals (i.e. cold call) or monitor portfolio companies, so technical skills were less important.

 

Private Equity Internships 101

 

Q: OK, so it sounds like the recruiting process wasn’t terribly formal.

I’m assuming you just went with the first firm to say “yes”?

A: Pretty much. One place was definitely the most responsive and interested, so I ended up interning with them.

There wasn’t too much technical work and I did not work on any live deals – they had 5-10 portfolio companies to monitor, but none of them were at the “deal” stage.

I did go to lots of meetings because the team was so small, and that definitely helped in future interviews.

I spent most of my time on “deal origination work” (cold calling and emailing to find companies) and tried to learn as much of the technical side as I could in my downtime.

Post-banking associates did most of the modeling, so I had to be proactive to get any real work.

 

Q: Were you getting paid for this internship?

A: The first 3 weeks were unpaid because I offered to do a free “trial” internship so they could assess me first.

After the 3 weeks had passed, they thought I could be useful so they started paying me and kept me there in the months afterward.

 

Q: And did they know that you wanted to move on and get into banking?

A: Yes, we had a mutual understanding that I would work there for a few months, I would go into banking for “training,” and then I might consider moving back after I had worked in banking for a few years.

If the firm likes you, they’ll support you in making the move – plus, most PE funds have solid connections to banks, which is yet another advantage of doing a private equity internship first.

  1. office politics side is easier to navigate and the hours aren’t quite as intense – so I also had more time to email people and network after work.

Off-Cycle Recruiting in London

 

Q: OK, so you were then able to write “private equity” on your CV, you had some networking help from this firm, and you had free time each day to network on your own.

What was your next move? And how does off-cycle recruiting in London work?

A: The off-cycle recruiting process in London isn’t much different from what you do in the normal process – bigger banks still have online tests and assessment centers, whereas smaller ones are more spontaneous and informal.

I spoke with quite a few boutique and middle-market firms here that gave me interviews after chatting informally.

A few places said they would give me an online test or group exercise, but it never seemed to come together.

The entire process was more disorganized since off-cycle recruiting often comes down to: “We need someone ASAP to replace this guy who just left!”

 

Q: And what was your networking strategy?

A: I know you’ve written a lot about networking before, so here’s what I did differently:

  1. I focused on Group Heads at each bank. You’ve recommended focusing on senior bankers and MDs before, but I went a level higher and focused on Group Heads because I figured they would have a better sense of vacancies in each office – plus, more “voting power” on offers.
  2. I always made it about individual teams rather than “the bank.” So if one team turned me down, I did not give up – I would just move onto the nextindustry or product group.

Sooner or later, you’re bound to find a group where someone just left and where they really need a replacement because the turnover rate in finance is so high.

I did other things such as alumni networking and focusing on teams that fit my background – for example, the Financial Sponsors Group – but you’ve covered those before.

 

Q: So went after very senior people and targeted multiple teams at each bank – but how did you decide who to contact in each of these teams?

A: Here’s what I did:

  1. With alumni, I focused on those with similar degrees or another connection such as a shared club or activity.
  2. I focused on people with difficult-to-find email addresses. All else being equal, you get a higher response rate from people whose contact information is difficult to find – I consistently got better responses when I had to try several guesses for the person’s email.
  3. Sometimes I focused more on women – I got better responses from them when I had no connections to anyone else on the team. I can’t explain that one logically, but that’s what I observed.

 

Q: OK, so let’s take this a level deeper… are you willing to share the email you wrote to contact Group Heads and other senior people at banks?

A: I’ll share an example email and then explain each part of it:

“Dear Mr. [Last Name],

I am writing to you to see if [Bank Name] might be interested in taking an intern in its [Industry Name] team. I am available to start immediately.

I am a [Year] [University] graduate ([Grades and GMAT score]) with six months’ consulting experience at [Firm Name], fluent in [European Language] and technical skills which I have developed in my current private equity internship at [PE Firm Name]. My CV is attached.

I understand that [Bank Name] has a formalized recruitment process, but if the [Industry Name] team is currently experiencing high deal flow then I could be of assistance.

Would it be possible to arrange a call? I would be very grateful for an opportunity to discuss this with you.

Thank you,

[My Name]“

A couple things to note:

  1. Language Skills – Even if you’re not “native speaker”-level, knowledge of another European language is super-helpful in London.
  2. “Formalized Recruiting Process” – I wrote this because I did NOT want them to respond with: “Oh, sure, I’ll forward this to HR.” That means nothing– that just means they’re forgetting about you. In some email I actually wrote, “I know you might normally forward this to HR, but if you know of anything personally, please let me know directly.”
  3. Aggressive Phrasing – I was very direct and I didn’t even bother asking for informational interviews. I figured there was no point since this was off-cycle recruiting anyway.
  4. GMAT and Grades – I had high GMAT scores and grades, which helped my story since I had not worked at well-known firms.

 

Q: What was the process like after your initial email?

A: Sure, I’ll walk you through exactly what happened at one bank:

  • One Week After Initial Email (Day #7): I hadn’t heard back, so I sent a 2-sentence follow-up email to the Group Head (“I’m following up to see if you have internships… if you are experiencing heavy deal flow then I could be of immediate assistance given my PE background.”).
  • The Next Day (Day #8): He responded and CC’d another team member, who said they had filled all their internship slots.
  • The Next Day After That (Day #9): I responded and asked if there were any openings on other teams at the bank and I cited a specific group (Oil & Gas) that I knew recruited for off-cycle internships.
  • That Same Day (Day #9): He responded and CC’d someone in another coverage team at the bank (an SVP) and forwarded my CV to the O&G team.
  • The Next Day After That (Day #10): Instead of waiting for the SVP to contact me, I reached out to him and set up a call, also offering to come into the office if it was more convenient (hint, hint).
  • Monday the Next Week (Day #14): I spoke with the SVP, and then they invited me in to speak with 4 bankers on Thursday that week.
  • Thursday (Day #17): I went in for the interviews and spoke with 2 SVPs and 2 VPs.
  • Thursday the Next Week (Day #24): I hadn’t heard back, so I followed up with the original SVP again, mentioned that they were my top choice but I had another offer to respond to and asked about the time frame for making a hiring decision, reiterating that I liked everyone on the team.

And it went on like that at various banks – lots of emailing, following up, trying different teams, and always aiming for the Group Heads initially.

I always waited a week before following up.

I could have started attaching models or sending reports or presentations at that point, but I kept my emails short and avoided bells and whistles.

 

Q: OK, so you sent a lot of emails and it worked well since you got at least a few interviews.

What were the most common interview questions you received?

A: I got the most questions, by far, on my story – consulting to PE to banking is a difficult one to tell.

My basic story went something like (this is an example of what I used in one Leveraged Finance interview):

“I wanted to work in ‘professional services,’ but consulting wasn’t technical enough for me – so I started thinking about banking, but recruiting had passed so I took the PE opportunity when I found it. In PE, I became more interested in Leveraged Finance and in what types of debt terms make a deal work or not work, as I gained more exposure to investment banking. I’m interested in the LevFin group because, in my view, it’s the one group where you can add the most value as a banker by getting better terms for clients and getting deals done, and that’s what I see myself doing in the future.”

Of course, some firms were not persuaded no matter what I said.

One well-known “elite” boutique, for example, prides itself on having everyone stay for multiple years, and they were convinced I would leap back into PE after 1 or 2 years on the job.

Other places were more relaxed and didn’t care about analysts leaving after 2 years.

I definitely got more technical questions than the average person – but I didn’t shy away from them, and sometimes I even encouraged interviewers to ask me about LBO models, for example.

 

Q: So what did you cite as reasons for the PE to banking move?

A: I said:

  1. You spend a lot of time monitoring portfolio companies in PE, which is less interesting to me than doing deals – so IB would give me greater exposure to transactions.
  2. Performance is less correlated to short-term results in PE, in the sense that you have to stick around there for years or decades to see investments pay off. With banking, it’s easier to correlate your work in a given year to your performance in that year.
  3. The technical and modeling side appealed to me more than sourcing potential investments, and I would gain better exposure to a variety of modeling in IB.

Final Thoughts & Last Minute Improvements

 

Q: Awesome. I guess this strategy worked well since you won the offer.

With off-cycle recruiting, often you need to improve your profile quickly at the last minute to have a good shot.

What’s the best way to do that?

A: First off, look at your CV and see what experience you already have that they might find impressive.

I had a good GMAT score, which I knew might impress people who had attended business school.

Even if you have only 3-4 months to improve your profile, you can think about:

  • Classes – accounting, financial modeling, etc.
  • A part-time internship
  • The FSA exam in the UK
  • Language classes

While they care most about business-level proficiency in languages, even a lower level of proficiency can help in borderline cases.

 

Q: All good points. Any final thoughts?

A: Let’s see… you’ve mentioned this one before, but you really never know who will be helpful so don’t “write off” anyone prematurely – always stay in touch.

For me, the most important strategy was attacking from multiple angles - I’d go after clients of the group, the team itself, the Group Head, and even alumni that were loosely connected.

You do not want to contact 10 people in the same team repeatedly, but this type of “multiple angles” approach works quite well.

 

Q: Great, thanks for sharing all that! And good luck as you start your new full-time role.

A: My pleasure.

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