“Sucks to B-U!”
The unfortunate consequence of attending Boston University (BU).
Immediately after I graduated from City College with an engineering degree, I pursued my master’s degree in mathematical finance at BU, assuming it will give me a competitive advantage when applying to roles in the financial services industry.
Mathematical finance, also known as financial engineering, is the study and use of complex mathematical theories to solve “fancy” financial problems. These financial engineering programs are designed to train the next generation of quants.
Quants, short for quantitative analysts, are people, usually with master’s or PHDs, who specialize in mathematics and statistics for financial applications. Quants go on to work in the “sexy” divisions of the financial services industry, like sales, trading, or other alluring areas. They are highly desired and well paid on Wall Street.
The problem with BU’s mathematical finance program was that, even though it was in the top 15 financial engineering programs in the nation, financial services companies did not waste their time recruiting there. Why would they recruit from BU, if just a few blocks away, you have some of the most elite universities in the world, Harvard, MIT, and Boston College?
Bulge-bracket banks, the likes of JPMorgan and Goldman Sachs, would organize recruiting events at different universities across Boston, but rarely at BU. We had to find ways to sneak into other universities and attend their recruiting events.
One time, Bank of America had an event at Boston College for their undergraduate summer investment banking internship program. My classmate and I sneaked into the event pretending we were BC students. At the event, several Bank of America analysts presented on why their bank is better than the other Wall Street banks. After the presentation, the analysts opened up the floor for questions. I decided to inquire if they would be attending BU in the near future.
“Thanks for the presentation,” I began. “I understand that Bank of America is recruiting all over Boston. Does this mean you are also recruiting at Harvard, MIT, and,” I hesitated a little before I continued. “Boston University?”
What the analyst said next may seem improbable, but I kid you not, it was true.
“Good question. I have colleagues who are Harvard and MIT alumni, who will be recruiting from their respective schools. As for Boston University,” the analyst paused for a few seconds before continuing. “Well, Boston University sucks! Sucks to B-U, am I right?”
Laughter from the BC students and other analysts ensued. It was a disturbing revelation, a complete surprise that this mentality existed in the financial services industry. I began to realize that my chances of landing a worthy internship and, eventually, a full-time position at a large bank were low.
In order to increase my chances, I continued attending various events across Boston and New York City, dropping my resume off at every recruiting table and networking with many working professionals. I applied to thousands of internship listings on LinkedIn, career websites, and even Craigslist. I would also cold email hundreds of people requesting for a quick phone call to learn more about their roles, hopefully so that they can see how dedicated I was to working in their respective companies.
Nevertheless, back-to-back, I was getting rejected. I did not understand why I could not get any call backs.
They say that you should currently be enrolled in a four-year undergraduate program (even better, I was currently enrolled in a graduate program), have a GPA above 3.0, solid problem-solving skills, strong analytical skills, excellent written and verbal English language skills, be able to multi-task and manage expectations on multiple projects, be experienced with Excel, PowerPoint, and Word, have an entrepreneurial spirit, and be able to adapt to a fast-paced environment. Or often, they say you must have 1-2 years of related experience, which I find detestable when companies seek this qualification for their internships. I felt I checked off every single one of the requirements on the internship listings.
What they don’t say is that none of those qualifications matter if you’re an Ivy League student or, have ties in the company. From experience, either of these “credentials” gives you a free pass to the best roles in the top companies.
I was losing hope and began to panic. It was feeling like I made the biggest mistake in my life, dropping thousands-and-thousands of dollars in a seemingly fruitless education.
During my spring semester at BU, my wife, Fara, called me to forward my resume to her “A-S-A-P!” You see, Fara was in New York studying to be a nurse. After classes, she worked part-time at a retail clothing store and there, she befriended a coworker who recently retired from Merrill Lynch, one of the biggest investment management firms in the world. This coworker of hers told Fara that she could get me in their summer wealth management internship in New York City.
It was a Wednesday, a week after my call with Fara, when I received a phone call from a number with the area code “212.” My heart started racing, hoping it was a recruiter from New York City. And it was! A recruiter at Merrill Lynch called to set up an interview, which was going to take place on Thursday, the following day. Right after the phone call, I left class, packed my bags, and took the next bus home to Queens.
I prepped all night for the interview, researching everything about Merrill Lynch and its top brass. For hours, I would practice hundreds of interview questions most commonly asked in the financial services industry, and memorized everything on my resume. I made sure no loose ends were left unattended.
The following day was my interview at Merrill Lynch. On my way to their global headquarters in the World Financial Center, I was extremely nervous. I couldn’t stop envisioning different scenarios where I bomb the interview.
But, I was also excited about my future, watching people in suits, rushing through the crowded downtown streets of the Financial District, holding their leather briefcases in one hand, while clutching a copy of the unbleached paper synonymous to the Financial Times under their arm. I craved for this lifestyle.
When I arrived at Merrill Lynch’s headquarters, they directed me to the waiting area where I met several other students who were also interviewing for the same summer internship. They were from the top schools in the country: Harvard, Wharton, Stanford, Yale, and Princeton, to name a few. Tensions were high, and competition was strong. Given that I was from a non-target school, I really needed to impress the hiring manager. As the famous rapper, Eminem, once said, “You only get one shot, do not miss your chance to blow.”
I was the last candidate to interview. The receptionist called my name and escorted me to the manager’s office. I shook his hand, introduced myself, and sat in front of his desk.
The manager stated that he needed to finish responding to an email before the interview begins. There was a television in his office, with Bloomberg Financial news blaring out the major stock market movements. It was loud and distracting. I assumed that once the interview starts, he would shut it off.
After the manager finished typing his email, we begin. The television was still on and un-muted.
“Gerome, thanks for coming,” the manager began, speaking over the commentator on the television. “How was your commute from,” he pauses and looks at my resume, “from Boston, right?”
“Yes, Boston,” I said. “It was fine. The usual three-and-a-half-hour drive to NYC. I took the overnight bus, so we didn’t hit any traffic.”
The manager grabbed the controller and changed it to ESPN.
“Good. Good. Good,” the manager replied while looking at the television. “Gerome, who do you have for the Final Four on March Madness? I sure hope the Ohio Buckeyes make it. I have a bet with my golf buddies on the Final Four.”
This caught me off guard. I do not follow NCAA basketball, so I wasn’t sure what was happening during March Madness at that time. “Um, actually, I did not create a bracket this year because of grad school. The financial engineering program at BU is intense!”
“Oh, okay,” the manager said. “Well, Gerome, walk me through your resume.”
His tone had changed, no longer upbeat. I felt the interview was off on a bad start.
“Sure, so I am currently a grad student at Boston University, studying mathematical finance, or also known as financial engineering. Prior to attending BU, I received a bachelor in mechanical engineering from The City College of New York.”
“Oh wow,” the manager interjected. Did my degrees impress him? “Ohio State Buckeyes made it to the final four! I knew it, I fucking knew it.”
“Oh,” I said, startled. “That is great!” I guess he wasn’t paying attention.
I waited a few seconds before continuing my overly practiced elevator speech, and the manager never ceased in watching ESPN. Even though he wasn’t paying attention to me, I did not let it stop me from talking about my internships at City College, academic achievements, extracurricular accomplishments, and entrepreneurial efforts. I assumed this was all part of the interview, and they were testing me on how I reacted in these situations.
After I was done with my resume spiel, I was expecting a bombardment of questions from the manager. But he was quiet, staring at the television, watching the basketball highlights on ESPN. Finally, after ten minutes, he spoke.
“That’s great, Gerome,” the manager said. “So, Gerome, here is the deal. You got the internship. Congratulations. We will place you with a senior wealth manager and you will help him out with whatever he needs. The internship is unpaid. But, since it is illegal to not pay our interns, we are offering college credits, which will save you money on tuition. Fantastic, right? Please fill this form out, give it to your school’s bursar, and return it to me by next week Friday. The internship starts on May 25th. See you then!”
That’s it? I speak for five minutes and I get the offer? That easy!?
Yes, it was that easy. I ended up getting an internship at one of the top financial services companies in the world because, by chance, my wife was working at a retail store in Queens while studying to be a nurse. All it took was Fara’s coworker to pass my resume along to a friend at Merrill Lynch.
The uphill battle, long haul, and tough grind that was required to obtain the content on my resume did not matter. All my achievements and accomplishments were meaningless and unimportant to the eyes of the hiring manager.
At the end of the day, I couldn’t complain. I was grateful to even acquire an internship that summer, given how difficult it was for others at BU. It was an unpaid summer internship, but at least it was in NYC at a great company.
I was finally in the “door.” My career was starting to look bright. Looking back at the highlights on that T.V., both the college basketball players and I had something in common: we were one step closer to achieving our dream. Or so I thought.