Common Finance Interview Questions and what they’re REALLY asking for

After participating in more interviews than I’d like to remember, I’ve come to this conclusion: interviewers LOVE to ask open ended questions—“so tell us about yourself,” “where do you see yourself in 5 years,” etc—but that doesn’t mean they are not looking for a particular answer.   Interviews, like most communication in business, don’t always encourage the most straightforward language.  They tend to require a bit of translation into layman’s terms, which can be especially daunting to inexperienced interviewees who are just trying to find the best response among a sea of possible answers.

What’s the right thing to say?

There are two vague, yet true, answers to that question— “what the company wants to hear” and “the truth”—both of which can often be frustratingly at odds with each other.

So instead of telling you which of the two to go with, I offer my interpretation of questions that financial candidates often encounter in interviews.  But before that, here are some general tips:

  • Be prepared for technical questions—accept it. It’s going to happen. And if you don’t know anything about finance, you might want to reconsider applying for a financial services position.
  • Be brief—I believe it was Albert Einstein who said, “if you can’t explain it simply, you don’t understand.”
  • Saying “I don’t know” is okay occasionally, but not too many times—because if you really don’t know, it’ll be obvious eventually.
  • Once it’s surfaced that you don’t know something major, it’s hard to make a comeback.  Simple solution? Know your stuff.

And on to the questions!

Tell me about yourself. What makes you a good candidate for this position?

This one’s easy.  The interviewer wants to make sure you have an understanding of the position you’ve applied to and what skills and characteristics it takes to succeed in that position. In my experience, this question usually comes before they verbalize the job description so that you your answer is in your own words, not a carbon copy of theirs.  It’s also an opportunity for you to give specific anecdotes and situations to support blanket statements like “I’m hard working.”

For example, in a previous post, I said investment bankers work long hours, are great at teamwork, and work equally well with people and numbers. Here’s a chance to give examples that prove you are up for all those things.

Why do you want to work here?

What’s most important to you in a job? Salary? Mentoring? Work/life balance? It’s good to muse and know these things for yourself because it’ll make addressing this question easier.  Aside from letting the interviewee know that you know what you’re looking for, your answer should say, “I’ve done my research on company culture, employee turnover and transitions, mentoring practices, growth potential, etc.”

The upside is, if you don’t know some of these things, they make awesome questions at the interview’s end when you’re asked “so do you have any questions for me?”

Walk me through a cash flow statement.

Technical questions are pretty straightforward (I know! It goes against my blog theme here…)—they’re simply testing if you’re actually interested in and knowledgeable about finance, or if you’re green and just looking for a job.  (Depending on how much they like you already, they may also be trying to determine how much they’ll need to invest in training for you)

How would you choose to buy a particular stock?

Scenario questions are another type that’s bound to arise.  As daunting as scenarios can be, they’re an easy way for the interviewer to see a) if you know and understand best practices and b) if in your creative quick thinking you can come up with a solution or process that’s never occurred to them before. Both are good—the only way to know which one is better is to know the state the department is in (in other words, are they looking for someone to innovate, or just get the job done?).

So do you have any questions for me?

Here’s your chance to show that you’re mature, that you really care about what this job has to offer and that you’ve been paying attention to what details the interviewer hasn’t mentioned. It’s also a test to see if you are socially adept enough to not ask about salary upfront even though it’s been on the tip of your tongue throughout the entire interview (refrain! It’s not worth it!) US News & World Report has a really good list of questions that are appropriate to ask.  My suggestion is, stick with questions about company culture.

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By Abena, Wall Street Services Reporter