Part 4 of “Breaking down the interview”: how to approach brain teasers and numeric questions

On our last article ahead of Christmas break we bring another instalment of the series on the different part of the Finance job interview. Today we focus on the numeric questions. These can have many different natures, as brain-teasers, logic questions and or math problems.

The overarching message is: remain calm and be prepared. Besides testing whether you can confirm your experience, CV and savvy you claim to bring to the table, the interviewer will use this segment of to see beyond your rehearsed answers and see you thinking in real time. Furthermore, “cornering” a candidate with a number of tough numerical questions or brainteasers, can be as close to real life as it gets in a 45-60 minute interview, and the interviewer will be able to see you as if you were under stress with a project deadline.

When I was preparing for interviewing in the Winter of 2007, an American banker actually revealed that he liked to throw some brain teasers or simple mathematical questions at the end of the interview (ie. Throwing you tough multiplication as 23 times 338), as this was really as close as you can test the reaction of an associate or analyst when, after the adrenaline and wearing of long nights, you get yet another round of comments to the document or model.

Now let’s look at some practical points:

  • If you know the teaser, tell it to the interviewer and ask to have a different one. It will project honesty and seriousness and send a good signal.
  • Whenever possible, ask if OK to take paper out and sketch your thoughts and the solution. In one further step, a good friend in Argentina who at the time was coaching me to get into Private Equity, suggested I not only asked if OK to take out a note pad, but that also after some minutes of working on a case study, I rolled up my sleeves to show I am ready to work a lot and my potential bosses saw me as an analyst that was ready to work long hours
  • Do not jump into the solution. Rarely are the numeric questions or brain teaser the type of questions you were asked in primary school. For example, when I started interviewing candidates for analysts in PE in Buenos Aires, I used to ask them “What is the amount of hot dogs sold and eaten in the City of Buenos Aires on any given Monday?” Most of the candidates broke down the problem and try to work out some plausible number; however, the weaker candidates threw random numbers up in the air, including one that said “30,000”…seeing my poker face he changed to “300,000”…and then went down to “3,000” to then say “OK what is the number”. So that was the wrong answer!
  • Instead, show them how you think! Explain the steps you take to break down the problem
  • Practice! I can’t say this enough times. Practice at home, at school or in a friend’s office. Practice under real time pressure, so that when the tough numeric question comes up, you are ready to answer.

With the Christmas break almost with us, I take the opportunity to wish you all a happy holiday season, to try and re-connect with your loved ones in this strange year. And after all this happens, use the extra down time to practice for the hopefully busy recruiting season when the New Year comes.

Until then, subscribe to our newsletter or get in touch with us through to discuss our BIF Program or anything else we may be of help with.

When the going gets tough, is it better to try and stay in school or go out and face the recruiting market?

The fast answer: it depends. You can argue both ways. On the one hand, being at school, in that “cozy” and friendly environment feels better than going through a tough recruiting environment. On the other hand, it is always great to be out there, facing reality, networking and, if you manage to get your desired job, it will speak greatly about the value of your candidacy.

In my experience, when Lehman Brothers imploded in 2008, recruiting felt ugly, cold and uncomfortable and sitting in a classroom felt like a very protected environment, and the prospects of adding some extra credits, another masters or even a PhD were out there being considered by the student body. In my case, I had no doubt that my choice was to go head first into recruiting; I gave myself no choice than giving 100% to networking and recruiting and that I should get a job offer to be working full time by graduation in the Summer of 2009.


  • Continuing to add skills that will serve you when you finally graduate and look for a job
  • You can twist and steer your major or specialisation depending on the market moves
  • Procure an exchange quarter or semester to one of your target cities (ie. Go to London if you are somewhere else), to be a student while you are closer to future employers


  • Continued education has explicit and implicit (opportunity) costs. If you go straight to working (even when it takes longer than wished for) you have no education cost and you start earning money faster
  • By being actively recruiting you are fully connected with the reality of the market, what employers in your sector are looking for and developing connections that will serve you now and in the future
  • The market reality can be brutal at any time, but in the middle of COVID uncertainty, it is not inviting or a friendly place. But if you manage to succeed in this market, it will greatly boost your confidence and put a stamp on your CV

It doesn’t matter which camp you are on, one thing is constant: the need for deep and professionally executed networking. If you decide to continue to be a student, networking should keep you in touch with reality and avoid you looking only with “happy glasses” at the market by the time you graduate. If you decide to shorten your study program or graduate when originally planned, networking will ensure you not only have the formal roads into job opportunities, but also knock all doors, backdoors and windows that can get you a full time job or internship. Case in point of shortening study program: a good friend and star candidate at a leading European MBA, decided to speed up the 2 year MBA program and go face the market 6 months ahead of original graduation; not without efforts and pain, he landed a handful of internship and full time offers and has now agreed to join a top PE firm.

In either case, act with “Extreme Ownership” as Jocko says. If you stay in school, don’t be lazy or just face away from challenges. If you decide to look for your job right away, don’t waste energy complaining about how bad the market is, but rather look for the opportunities and capitalize on them. In both cases, networking and a mentor, will keep you in check, as we always say in our Breaking into Finance program.

Stay in touch at and let us know your thoughts and the decisions you are pondering or have made. We are here to help! Until the next one.

2008 versus 2020 – Reasons for being positive and negative comparing with the Great Financial Crisis

In September 2008, Lehman Brothers filed for bankruptcy; Lehman was one of the biggest investment banks and an icon of the 80s, 90s, and 2000s Finance and Real Estate exponential growth. The fall-down from Lehman Brothers signaled the peak of uncertainty in that global crisis that lasted from late 2007 to 2009. We analyze in this write up reasons for being more positive and more negative this time around

  • Better
    • No signs of over-leverage / healthier banking system
    • No widespread property over-building/Real Estate bubble
    • Fiscal and monetary policy responses were very fast, while in 2008-9 it took some time to get a unified fiscal response and a later entry of quantitative easing
  • Worse
    • From East to West, economic shutdown like in a war
    • Challenge at three levels: economic, sanitary, political
    • The speed of the crisis is unprecedented, in how quick it shut down economic activity, how fast the major stock indices and bond markets reflected the correction and how the whole World entered into a recession

It is too soon to make solid forecasts. The end of the tunnel is not yet in sight and all forecasters lack visibility.

But what we can say for sure is that history doesn’t repeat, but it rhymes. After a gloomy period of companies canceling summer and full time offers, news about people getting fired constantly from banks and funds and an apparently ever-shrinking finance sector, the sun always comes up and the firms need to expand into the most profitable sectors post-crisis, firms that over-fired (like big investment banks tend to do) go into an aggressive re-hiring and new niches grow fast. Let’s hope for a not-so-long “tunnel” and, in the meantime, safety first for you and your family, and then

  • Keep up the work on your story, your profile and your marketing materials
  • Continue your networking efforts
  • Polish your interviewing abilities
  • Be alert and aware and try to seize specific crisis opportunities like joining firms that are actually going to be extremely busy in H2 2020 or H1 2021 (ie. Special lending, distressed investing, restructuring advising)

And let Breaking into Finance help you with that.

Breaking into Finance: an all-weather course to get your first or your next job in Finance

Navigating the 2nd year of my MBA at Columbia Business School. The financial and real World as we knew it when I started the program, had changed dramatically. Full time and Summer offers are being cancelled or put on hold; foreign workers find it hard to get sponsored for a visa by financial institutions and all plans to develop a career in Finance seem to be vanishing.

That was 2008 and 2009, but when a similar music started “playing” in March 2020, I could see the rationale of the popular phrase: “history does not repeat, but it rhymes”. The COVID19 crisis, sweeping through the World from East to West, has changed in an unprecedented (a very popular word these days) way.

The similarities of the crises, save for the lock-down part of the current one, gave me the final push to launch Breaking into Finance, the program that compiles 20 years Finance networking and recruiting experience throughout 3 continents, for my own career and coaching other professionals. Because there might be yet another crisis of unknown length and consequences, but one thing is sure: as long as you are standing (and healthy), aware and prepared, you shall find your Finance place.

Breaking into Finance: pre-launching in Columbia

t the end of April, I came back to Columbia Business School to present webinar that summarizes the Breaking into Finance program which, unsurprisingly, is an all-weather course. It is not a used-car salesman pitch, but rather, the simple truth that getting the best job you can get in Finance always requires a similar kind of “gymnastics”, for which you need to do more or less reps depending on how bad or good is the cycle, or how much effort you are ready to put into getting the best you can out of your career.

You can go through the video HERE. In the webinar I went through an overview of the Breaking into Finance 4-module program, with practical ideas on what you can do to improve you candidate profile while you spend extra time at home due to the lock-down:

  1. What’s in Finance for me?
  2. Crafting your story and designing your marketing materials
  3. Guide for an effective networking
  4. Getting through the door: rise and shine in the interview process

Breaking into Finance is now fully online

In May 2020, our website has gone fully online, and I encourage you to learn more about our services, explore the rest of the blog articles with practical tips, subscribe to our bi-weekly newsletter and express your interest in the Individual or Institutional Program , or in the soon to come, online course.

Hoping to hearing from you soon, and to have the privilege of being your coach.

What will happen with my internship or my full time job?

As banks, funds and corporates all go through the same cycle of 1) contingency plan 2) realistic assessment of the overall scenario and 3) action plan for “the day after lock-downs”, the situation can be stressful for a student in advanced talks, going through the recruiting process or even that who had received an offer.

The first thing to do, is to avoid panicking and give in to the urge to call every day your potential employer. Instead, at Breaking into Finance we suggest you have the following decision tree handy and, when reaching out to your would-be employer, do it in a calmed and planned way:

If you have an offer and you have already received confirmation that it is still valid (post lock-down started) and you will start in June or after the Summer: then nothing else to do but to prepare to start in the best possible way

  • If you have an offer but have not yet confirmed, then reach out to your point of contact. Either if it is an HR or your future boss or a future colleague, use the occasion to gather information on how they company is doing and what is the house view. I suggest you send a crisp e-mail (always sent on weekdays and during working hours, to avoid being washed out with overnight or weekend traffic) in which you suggest if it is OK to talk on the phone, then have a short phone call where you should have a few questions prepared in advance. Don’t let it transpire that you are too anxious, or worse, don’t waste anyone’s time with an unprepared call.
  • Your offer has been put on hold or cancelled: as unfortunate as it is, there is not much you can do or blame yourself for. I would suggest to use the occasion to speak with your potential boss or potential colleagues, as it may be an occasion in which, out of feeling sorry for having canceled or delayed your entry, they might be more willing to help, suggest alternative courses of action, give you more insight on the market and even point you to other firms in the market that may still be interested in hiring you.
  • You are in an advanced process, but it has stopped altogether: as is the case if you have an offer, I suggest you reach out in a professional way to your point of contact to try and get the latest news and any clarity on the continuity of the process. Always best to have a clear e-mail with a suggested phone call to follow up.
  • If you have already spoken and they have told you that the process is on hold until more clarity is gathered, try to use the information given to you by HR or the front-office to improve your candidacy (they might hint to room-for-improvement aspects of your profile) or your overall search process (they may give you information regarding the market and other players).

You will see a similar course of action suggested for either option. This is because in Finance it is always best to play it safe, be professional and not show too much anxiety, while at the same time signaling you really want to be part of their team. Stay tuned for more tips from Breaking into Finance and always use the opportunity to make yourself an ever-stronger candidate.