One of the major pre-application hurdles alongside writing your CV is the cover letter, or in some cases, pre-application questions. If you have entered into the swing of application season, you’ll know that many firms have now opted for these questions instead of asking for a cover letter.
I included some examples of specific application questions in the cover letter post and will expand on these here because although these initial hurdles must never be overlooked, completing them efficiently is key. This efficiency will give you the time to master other application components before the wave of interviews properly hits such as psychometric test practice, competency answers, technical questions, commercial awareness, brain teasers and your interview technique.
Linked to the point on efficiency, the word count will usually be given e.g. 150 or 200 words, but if not, sticking to a max of 150-200 words is usually sound judgement.
Hacks for pre-application questions
Before I go into the various types of questions, here are the main hacks that will boost your responses:
Avoid the following words
- On one hand, …, on the other hand, …
- I was fortunate enough
- Ignited, fuelled, sparked (interest)
The golden rule is to get rid of unnecessary words and just say what you did so that you get to the point quickly. When in the industry, using long connectives between sentences and writing your sentences in a long-winded way is not possible due to time constraints, so you need to be extremely concise.
NB: avoiding these words is difficult and I am a hypocrite since you’ll probably find many examples in my own posts, but I still feel it is important to outline the correct stance you should take when writing your own responses, to at least strive towards writing more concisely.
Being genuine is easier said than done when you know you’re one of 1000s of applicants and that to get noticed, you need to show motivation and excitement for the role. However, striving to show your interest can all too often lead to responses that lack authenticity and that don’t show off you as an individual.
One of the risks of me including example responses below is that reading other examples before writing your own can prevent originality in your own writing. It goes without saying that responses where you are true to yourself are most successful, and where you don’t exaggerate your interest in the firm.
3 Types of Questions and Example Responses
Any example responses I provide naturally won’t be perfect, but hopefully, they’ll be able to give you an idea of one approach for answering the questions below. I have broken down the types of questions into 3 categories:
“Are you an interesting person” type questions
These questions can vary massively and while some find them easy to answer, others find them more difficult. Giving you examples isn’t the best way to help with such questions in my opinion, since they extend into the most personal level of an applicant and must be unique.
In the story of your life so far, what would be the title of your autobiography?
This question is where you need to unlock creativity, which can be tough when you’ve been practising technicals and psychometric tests. Getting a sheet of A4 paper and mind-mapping your ideas can be a great way to start and if you feel like you’re getting “writer’s block” (when you can’t think of the words to put on paper), take a break and come back to it, giving yourself 25-minutes to write what you can. Setting yourself a time limit instead of the goal to finish it in one sitting can be massively helpful in not getting overwhelmed.
What is the one question you would ask our founder if you had the chance?
This is more of a firm-specific question and to answer it well, you’ll need to build on the firm profile that I mentioned in the cover letter post. By delving into the company’s website and looking for a video of the CEO talking, or an excerpt from their annual report, you’ll be able to spot keywords that you can tie into your own response. Words like “nurturing the next generation of employees” and “becoming an influencer” can hint to you what the founder or senior person values in juniors at the firm.
Motivational questions, whether “why this firm”, or “why this division” are a classic for pre-application questions and a key example of where these questions overlap with the cover letter.
Networking is by far the most effective way I found to uncover genuine and unique reasons for wanting to work at a particular firm. Reaching out and asking someone you’ve never met for a quick 10-minute call might be overwhelming at first, but I uncover an approach that worked well for me in this post, where I talk about how the insights you can gain from those calls can act as ammo for the motivational questions.
‘What the role entails’ type questions
As well as the standard “why firm” and “why division” questions, several firms ask you for a summary of the division you’re applying to in an attempt to see if you’ve taken to the time to research what the role entails. Remember to adjust this to the firm e.g. they may segment their teams using different terminology to the coverage, region and product classifications.
As I mentioned in the “How to answer technical questions” blog post, the Andrew Gutman book on how to become an investment banker is useful for developing an understanding of the typical divisions and the way they interact with each other.
[E.g. 1] Please describe the function of the division you have selected:
The Investment Banking Division is made up of different industry coverage, region and product teams whose aim is to advise clients on the execution of a mandated or potential transaction. These transactions commonly include a merger or acquisition (M&A), leveraged buyout (LBO) or capital raising.
[E.g. 2] What attracts you to a role in Global Investment Banking and what activities do you expect to carry out on a day to day basis?
[I have cut out less helpful parts]…I am attracted to the project-based work involved in the [firm] summer internship, which will involve financial modelling, valuing companies, and developing pitch books for senior management. Having delved into competitive landscapes at [previous internship], reporting on industry research to colleagues greatly appeals to me. Finally, providing insights to leadership and the [firm] buddy programme interests me as I can appreciate the power of mentorship having shortened my learning curve while debating at Warwick and seeking advice from highly skilled debaters.
[E.g. 3] Two hours before a pitch for a FTSE company, you notice an error in a calculation included in the pitchbook. No one else has spotted the error and you’re not sure if the calculation affects the answers from the analysis. Outline your response to the situation.
Firstly, I would quickly trace the implications of the error by seeing how it might affect the conclusions drawn from this analysis. Tracing the error would allow me to be more specific when notifying colleagues of the issue and deciding on how to resolve the problem.
Secondly, I would tell my colleagues about the error and estimate how much time it would take to make the correction and amend the conclusions drawn from the analysis. Based on estimating what needs to be changed and the time required, I would discuss with my colleagues how many people are needed before drafting a plan of execution to make the correction ahead of the meeting.
The final stage is to execute the plan. If we run out of time in correcting the analysis, I would aim at being transparent with the client. Despite the client being the board of a FTSE company for a significant M&A assignment, developing trust and building a long-term client relationship is a priority for [firm].
Some firms have recently asked for company analysis type questions, which would involve giving an overview of the business through trailing through the company’s website and annual reports. This exercise strongly overlaps with assessment centre case study interviews, which I’ll be covering in a future post. The key to such analytical exercises is taking a birds-eye view of the situation beforehand, marshalling your resources and clearly understanding the task at hand, then planning your time to locate the most important information and finally using clear communication skills to articulate your response (the Pyramid Principle is a goldmine for developing these skills).