I am a senior who is graduating. Like all of you, I knew about the bad economy. Eventually, I was able to secure a job just a month before my exams. It might not sound very impressive, but through this I knew all about interviewing and jobs. I figured that I should give back to society by sharing the insights that I analyzed (being an organized person, I kept thorough record of the time taken, questions asked and industry segments), which might be useful. For the record, I am just a normal student like anybody, so I certainly do not have any special perks or connections.
It is completely fine to not know what you want to do with your life. After all, we chose our courses when we were only 18. I was in the Science Stream in JC, but I chose a completely unfamiliar course—Business Administration. Like many of my peers, I speculated about which specialization to choose—often changing my mind. If you are someone who liked writing and marketing, then you should know that internships are a good way to get a taste of the working world. However, after actually doing internships it is also ok to realize that they were not what you expected. But just as Steve Jobs said about connecting the dots, I did not regret those experiences and I made the best of my internships and learnt a lot.
Exchange programmes are really a good time for reflection. During my third year, I went to China. Due to the different system, I came back a changed person. I saw that in China, it was really normal for students to do part-time internships while juggling 10 modules. I decided to take a lot of Finance modules with my friend. Yes, my 4 semesters in NUS saw me taking 16 Business Core Modules, but only 1 of them was related to Finance. That was when thoughts of changing my specialization again (for the last time) crept up my mind.
When I came back, I already had a social media internship offer at a Fortune 500 company. I only applied to 8 companies because I was busy after my exchange. However, when I received my results for my exchange semester, I found that Finance was my strength. It came easier to me compared to other majors. It was a really difficult decision but I decided to try to break into Finance even though I might get blacklisted at the Fortune 500 company. Should I make the easy choice or the right choice? I was lucky enough to go to KPMG for the summer. Even though the role was not Finance, it was research-oriented and client-focused, and I met a lot of people there who told me about their roles. KPMG was also one of the most structured internships out there (the others include P&G, Unilever, OCBC, other Big 4s etc.). I would be receiving a certificate as well as a testimonial, like everyone else. It was my lucky break because my second internship company actually closed down and I was unable to obtain a reference.
I started really thinking about my future career in August of Year 4 Sem 1. For the banking industry, recruitment started one year before the first day of work. I was at a crossroads. With only 3 internships from very diverse industries under my belt, I did not know what I want to do. It was indeed quite a hard period to find jobs. I knew lots of people who had prestigious internships but did not get converted. They were the people that I would technically be competing with. Imagine going for an interview at a small bank, and finding out your competitors are people who interned at the Big 4, top 5 investment banks etc. Well, guess what, each job position receives more than 100 applications. For example, two companies’ HR told me that 106 and more than 200 people applied respectively, but only 43 went on the first round, before finally ending in 6 and 10 people for the last round. How would I differentiate myself? Doing more internships was the way to go. My internship company was big enough that I could send cold emails to lots of people and listen to their stories. Their previous experiences ranged from engineering, journalism and banking, before all ending up in private equity.
As August and September was when most of the banks’ recruitment talks were held, I just went along with the flow and applied to everywhere, even dubious roles that I was not interested in. And when I say everywhere, I mean it. I must have applied to more than 60 companies including banks and even retail, Japanese companies, all sorts of Fortune 500 companies, Management Associate (MA) Programmes and even consulting, which I knew nothing about. Obviously, the interviews did not go well. I faced a bunch of problems dealing with Japanese companies like Sojitz and Muji—language barriers (it was conducted in Japanese), sexism, and clash of culture. I am not a clock-watcher who cared about face-time, but rather an efficient employee. Thus, the only thing that I gained from interviews at places such as Uniqlo was tight-knit friendship between my fellow candidates. We continued to offer each other support and advice on resume and interviews.
It was only when I was doing my fifth internship that I knew what I wanted. Thus in January 2016, I decided to only apply to the jobs that were a good fit. That could mean smaller companies, non-MA programmes and finance-specific. I also narrowed down which aspects of Finance I am interested in—there were some areas that I thought I would like but it turned out that I did not, such as Compliance and Risk. This time around, I was getting a very high interview to application ratio. I found out about different industries, and my final decision was to go into a company that provided an excellent experience.
I went for a double-digit number of interviews, before becoming the finalist in 8 different companies, and finally resulting in 2 offers. Some of the things I noticed were the unpredictability of the interviewing process. Sometimes, a “better” company like Credit Suisse invited me for interviews, while CreditSights, a smaller one rejected me straightaway. It is not guaranteed that as long as you are a first class honours student, you will get all the interviews you applied to. It really depends on what the job is really looking for, which is not something you can tell from the generic job description. Secondly, it is also possible to gauge your performance based on the number of days taken for interviewers to get back to you.
Based on a sample size of 19 companies including those in Retail, Japanese, F&B, SME, banking, blue-chip, Fortune 500, it takes an average of 15 working days to get a positive response to your application. The fastest ever was 2 days for an F&B company, while slowest was 41 days for a financial company. For negative rejections, you would already know after 2 months have passed.
In between rounds, it was a much faster decision. You could get informed within 9 working days. Often, it is possible for them to get back to you the next day. Even the slowest would only take 24 working days. If at this period you got rejected, it is likely that you would receive a formal rejection email together with the people who did not even get an interview.
The most nerve-wrecking thing is waiting for the final decision. Now most companies would send you a different kind of rejection email. The time taken can range from 1 to 41 working days.
Another type of advice I can give is the interview type. I have been to literally all sorts of interviews, and I tend to do better at some than others. For first interviews, they range from phone, video, group, individual, essays, to technical tests. Anything can happen. For phone interviews, it is relatively simple, but the difficulty is when they call you at the worst timings. I had friends who got called while they were brushing their teeth, eating, or in the toilet. For me personally, Burger King called me at 8pm, and I was expecting a friend to call me. So I did not realize it was an interview. For networking interviews, the hardest thing to overcome is nerves. Candidates should talk to everyone in the room. Yes, do not stand at the corner and eat. Generally, I have not heard very positive reviews about video interviews from anyone.
Unfortunately, unpleasant interviews do happen. At Inditex and Credit Suisse, my interviewers paid more attention to their phones than to me, asking me only one or two questions which can be found on the resume like when I am graduating. When that happens, it is because they have so many candidates that they tend to make a snap judgment the second you step in. So the best thing to do is move on. There were also cultural issues. I noticed that interviewers from countries like Hong Kong and China were much more focused on formulae and technical abilities. They will ask you pages of questions in front of them. Local and Malaysian interviewers will really probe and ask behavioural questions. Caucasians tended to be more approachable, but they are still really experienced and can tell from your behaviour.
Video interviews are common for Fortune 500 companies. They are actually more difficult than you thought. Technical difficulties always happen, and sometimes it can be hard to work around them. Other companies will want you to answer weird questions through email, like “what is the colour of creativity”, questions which are not related to the job and they expect you to wax lyrical and write at least 500 words. It really depends on how much you can write.
Sometimes, instead of bored interviewers, you get difficult interviewers. People who challenge each sentence you said back at you, and stress you up. Well, the best thing to do is to stay polite but know that you probably do not want to be working with them anyway and they are just wasting your time.
For challenging questions, contrary to expectations, brain teasers were not used as questions. Sure, IQ questions were asked, but not really of the “How many piano tuners in Singapore” sort. Personally, I felt the weirdest question my interviewing group got asked was: “How to improve the procreation rate in Singapore”.
For final interviews, usually they are conducted by very high-levelled executives. They would ask behavioural, fit questions. On the other spectrum, is the assessment centre. I would just recommend trying to be the best candidate, rather than just avoiding being the worst. That means one would have to stand out. You can do that by volunteering to be first, and think out of the box. Once I even cold-called a Marketing Director for an internship.
If the HR ever asked you for expected salary, do keep in mind that the graduate employment survey expectations are too high. None of my job offers was higher than the median salary of $3,750 reported. A reasonable range is $3000, negotiable. Some companies will really call up applicants to ask this question only, and you do not want this question to prevent you from having a chance to proceed to the interview stage.
So, how about juniors? How is this article useful for people who just started university? For one, this article dispels the myth that your degree actually means anything to your interviewers. They are hiring a person, not a degree. You can then start planning your career by choosing the internships to apply, and also attending networking sessions. One day, I saw on Linkedin that the people who were successful have different class profiles with one similarity. They come from all walks of class, a few were occasional dean’s listers, some second lower. One thing they had in common was their hunger. In NUS, it is not compulsory to do any internships. But they take up to 7 internships. With the competition this competitive, it would be good to jump on the bandwagon. You can still do the CCA stuff you like, if you already know how you will address that in the interview. Ultimately, just stay relaxed throughout the interview, and back up your points about what makes you a successful candidate for the role.