I’ve recently secured a front-office internship at a leading European investment bank in Singapore. Landing an internship is never straightforward, but for someone like me – who comes from a lower middle-class background and studies at a local university – it’s extra tough.
Kids like me don’t typically go to banking feeder-schools like Raffles Institution and we don’t typically have bankers in the family. So we don’t really know anything about careers the industry when we choose our university degrees. I became interested in IBD during the first year of business school and had to go to careers days at banks just to understand what most of my fellow students already seemed to know from day one.
I soon realised that I faced another (more serious) problem in my quest to be selected as an intern: some of the people applying for intern jobs were Singaporeans (mainly from rich families) studying at elite universities overseas. Clearly, if you’re a Singaporean at (for example) U Penn or Wharton, you have a huge advantage over me (I simply can’t afford to live and study overseas). The job market is a rat race for me, but a comparative walk in the park for you.
My university, NUS, has a deservedly excellent academic reputation, but its reputation is not specific to banking. It’s a no-brainer for banks when hiring interns: they know the Ivy League-based Singaporean will already be building a great global network for working in banking. Moreover, banks will perceive that person to be a better student and a better fit to their business than a local student.
Studying in Singapore also puts me at a disadvantage because I’m graded on a bell-curve system whereby only a set percentage of students can ever score the top grades required to get an internship or graduate job in investment banking. By contrast, most universities in the US use absolute grading, which doesn’t limit the number of high marks they hand out. So even though overseas Singaporean students are perceived to be better (largely because of their university’s brand name) they might not always be in reality.
The Singapore university system – which is designed to control the number of top students within our small country – makes the junior job market ultra competative. If you’re studying locally like me, you might get 85% in an exam, but still be awarded a sub-par grade.
And the way we’re assessed as local students encourages rich parents to send their kids overseas, where they might get a slightly easier ride academically and will probably still be highly sought-after as “returnees” (overseas educated Singaporeans).
So how did I manage to secure my internship? For one thing, I worked hard to get a spring internship and worked even harder to keep on the right side of the bell curve.
I think my semester exchange at an American university also helped. NUS makes it fairly easy for us to do these optional exchanges by allowing us to incorporate them into our course programme so they don’t extend the length of the degree. They look good on your CV when you apply to a global bank and are useful during job interviews when you’re asked to talk about your life ‘experiences’ and extracurricular activities.
In summary, you have to look for every possible way to fend off competition from overseas-based students. If you don’t, they will probably get the internship that you so desperately want.
Josie Lei (not her real name) is a student in Singapore.
Photo by paolo candelo on Unsplash