There's no issue more sensitive than age. In the UK, and the US age discrimination is illegal, which means banks are unlikely to explicitly ask you how old you are. But this doesn't mean that they won't be able to work it out.
Most banks will assess your "age" by looking at how much full-time work experience you've had after graduating from university.
Chances are that 10 years of full-time work experience makes you at least 30 - unless you were a child prodigy and graduated university at age 15, but then you wouldn't be doing finance anyway.
And when banks see those 10 years of experience they mentally switch into "Too old / experienced to be an analyst" mode.
This has an interesting implication:
· The more full-time work experience you have, the harder it gets to break in at the entry-level.
Yes, finance is the only industry where experience can actually count against you.
· Analyst-Level: Banks rarely hire anyone at the Analyst level with more than 2-3 years of full-time experience.
· Associate-Level: If you've done an MBA banks usually want 3-5 years of experience but not more than 10.
For Associates, it's less about the years worked and more about the level you've attained. If you were too senior in your non-banking role, they won't be interested.
Someone at the mid-level could potentially come in as an Associate, but a top executive will not take a pay cut and start correcting spelling mistakes in pitch books 100 hours a week.
Why Do They Do It This Way?
You might now be asking, "Why? Shouldn't they want people with more experience who are better leaders and problem solvers?"
And I agree with you - it's silly to be this rigid.
But banks don't see it that way - they have 2 main concerns with more experienced candidates:
1. You can't prioritize work above all else and be on-call 24/7.
2. You won't do whatever senior bankers ask you to without questioning orders.
Concern#1 applies mostly to Associates.
Banks assume that if you're older you might have a family and actual responsibilities outside work, reducing your willingness to stay at the office until midnight all the time.
Concern #2 applies to everyone - banks know that only less experienced hires are likely to follow instructions all the time without pushing back.
This is why it's difficult to break in if you've started a company or done something off the beaten path that required a lot of independent thought - you might not be able to follow orders.
So What Do You Do If You're "Too Old"?
It might be difficult to break into investment banking if you have too much experience, but there are other options:
· Pursue something like trading at a small prop trading firmwhere they care more about your results vs. your age or pedigree.
· If you're too experienced to be an Analyst but not too old to be an Associate, a top business school is your best bet.
· If you're already beyond business school or you're in a very senior position at a company, think about Operating Partner-type roles at PE and VC firms.
And if you're frustrated with the rigidity, find a less structured industry.
As bankers might say, "It is what it is."
A version of this article first appeared on Mergers & Inquisitions..