The dark art of the aggressive banking interview question

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The dark art of the aggressive banking interview question

When you're interviewing with an investment bank, you should never go in expecting your interviewers to be gentle. Banking interviews are not about being nice.

In a situation where you’re already feeling under pressure, a banking interviewer will often do his (or her) best to make things worse for you. You'll be hit with questions about everything from the number of bicycles in Beijing, to the items you'd take to the moon, to complex mathematical conundrums. 

Goldman Sachs, for example, is said to ask an interesting question based on an old French betting game called Martingale. The rules are as follows: The interviewer flips a coin. If it comes up heads, you pay them a dollar (or a pound) and the game is over. If it comes up tails, you pay nothing and you flip again. If it comes up heads the second time, you pay the interviewer twice the original amount and the game ends. If it’s tails, you flip again. If it’s heads on the third flip, the amount you pay doubles again, and so on.

The interviewer asks, “How much would I have to pay you, up front, to play this game?”

While you sit there thinking, you need to take a step back and consider what's really being asked. This question examines your approach to risk. If you ask for a dollar to play, you're not thinking properly. If you ask for $50, you're being excessively cautious. How do you want portray yourself? How are you going to explain your rationale?

Whatever you do, don’t get frustrated, confused or flustered. Irrelevant as they may seem, these questions have a purpose: they’re intended to assess how you think independently, tackle complex ideas, communicate and react in stressful situations.  It’s natural that banks should want to examine this during the recruitment process.

Remember, therefore, that banks are examining four key skills: Problem solving (Can you make a coherent, logical case that attempts to solve the problem in the heat of the moment?); analytical and critical thinking (Can you look at the big picture, establish what is important and analyse the important information to reach a coherent conclusion?); creativity (Can you articulate original ideas using structured arguments?; and performance under pressure (Can you keep your cool in a high-pressure situation for which you are unprepared?).

To succeed, you need to be systematic. It will help if you repeat the question, or if you ask the interviewer to repeat the question. There's nothing wrong with deliberating about your answer as you work your way through the problem strategically.  Remember that your aim is to emerge from these interviews as an impressive problem solver. The worst thing you can do is freeze up, or to be defensive or aggressive in return.

Victoria McLean is the founder and CEO of City CV, a London-based CV writing service. She was previously a recruiter at Goldman Sachs and the equities division of Bank of America Merrill Lynch.


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