juniors, and seniors filed into a recruiting session for Morgan Stanley, where they would hear a one-hour pitch for the bank’s virtues and, hope- fully, score a business card or two. When most of the seats were filled, the lights inside the room dimmed, and a Morgan Stanley recruiter pressed Play to begin a promotional vid- eo. Upbeat pop-rock music played as the screen filled with text banners: IN THE FINANCE WORLD, EVERY DAY IS A NEW DAY. SOME DAYS, FORTUNES WILL BE MADE. OTHER DAYS, HISTORY WILL. THE STORY OF A NEW GENERATION OF LEADERS. FROM THE FIRM THAT BROUGHT YOU GOOGLE, UPS, AND JETBLUE COMES THE OPPORTUNITY OF A LIFETIME. BOUNDARIES WILL BE SHATTERED EVERY VOICE WILL BE HEARD. AND THE FUTURE WILL BE BRIGHT. When looking at schools to visit, I singled out Penn for a reason. Like all Ivy League schools, Penn sends a chunk of its graduating class into the fi- nancial services industry every year—about 30 percent in 2009. But Penn’s link with Wall Street is particularly tight because its Wharton School, a business program that contains both graduate students and undergrads, is considered America’s primo farm team for budding young financiers—a sort of West Point for Wall Street. More than half of Wharton’s six-hun- dred-person undergraduate class typically heads to banks, hedge funds, pri- vate equity firms, and other financial services companies after graduation. Among the celebrity financiers the school has churned out are SAC Capital billionaire Steven A. Cohen, the junk-bond impresario Michael Milken, and real estate megagoon Donald Trump. Wharton’s list of famous alum- ni, and the fact that its graduates emerge armed with advanced finance training, has made it a place where recruiters are prone to drooling. “Penn, and especially Wharton, is in a league of its own,” one hiring manager at a top Wall Street firm told me. “It’s the only place where you go to campus and it’s already done and dusted—it’s a matter of which financial services firm students want to go to, not whether they want to go into finance.” (Patricia Rose, the head of Penn’s career services depart- ment, gave a slightly milder diagnosis: “To come to Penn is to, at some point in your undergraduate years, ask yourself the question, ‘Should I think about investment banking?’”) These days, financial firms—as well as top-tier management consult- ing firms like Bain and McKinsey—court Wharton students in a manner reminiscent of very polite stalking. They barrage students with informa- tion sessions, interview workshops, lavish restaurant meals, “sell days” in New York City, follow-up calls, and follow-up calls to the follow-up calls. At Wharton, these firms behave less like faceless corporate entities than like insecure middle schoolers, desperately fishing for clues about whether their favorite students like them back. Getting a job at a top firm on Wall Street, even with a Penn degree in hand, is never easy. But it’s especially hard when the financial industry is in turmoil, since a similar crowd of applicants competes for fewer spots. (In one recent year, Morgan Stanley received 90,000 applications for 1,200 full-time analyst positions—an acceptance rate of 1.3 percent.) And most banks draw between 50 and 90 percent of their full-time hires from the previous year’s pool of summer interns, meaning that competi- tion for the best offers is often all but locked up by junior year. The race for Wall Street jobs is so cutthroat that an entire cottage industry has sprung up to give aspiring bankers a boost.
Still, as a result of the work they’d chosen, they were experiencing the financial industry’s pariah status right along with their elders. Being young on Wall Street has always been a bizarre combination of glamour and masochism. On one hand, you’re a budding Master of the Universe—an apprentice at the feet of some of the world’s most talented moneymakers. You earn significantly more than your peers in other in- dustries, get to witness billion-dollar deals unfold, and have a prestigious launching pad for the rest of your career. On the other hand, the work itself is often repetitive and boring, and the long hours and hellish life- style associated with the job can wear down even the brightest and most ambitious recruits. After the crisis, Wall Street recruits also had to cope with their industry’s new stigmatization. Many of the young people who came to Wall Street expecting champagne and caviar got dirty looks and ignominy instead. I first realized how far the financial sector had fallen during a dinner party held at the home of a friend’s parents in Manhattan, shortly after my graduation. During dinner, an acquaintance mentioned that she’d The young woman blushed, cast her eyes downward, and sheepishly croaked out: “Gold…man…Sachs?” The topic of conversation changed quickly, and for the rest of the night, she looked ill, as if she’d spilled wine on the host or hip-checked a family heirloom. If one bank recruit felt this way, there were doubtless others. For years, thousands of graduates of the world’s most prestigious colleges and uni- versities have gone to Wall Street, most only halfway knowing what they’re getting themselves into. At Harvard in 2008, 28 percent of se- niors who had jobs at graduation were headed into the financial services sector. At Princeton in 2006, it was a staggering 46 percent. At Brown, my alma mater, about one in eight employed graduates typically went to Wall Street immediately after graduation—not as many as at some schools, but still a larger chunk than went directly to law school or medi- cal school combined. These numbers struck me as being incredibly important. After all, the junior bankers who flock to Wall Street every year are some of the na- tion’s most credentialed young people—the kinds of people who will make up the financial and political elite for decades to come. They are the next generation of American capitalists, and they’re coming of age in an era of tremendous shock and upheaval. I realized that if I wanted to understand what Wall Street, and America, would look like in the future, I had to figure out who these people were, and how the crash was changing their initiation process. After my Excel boot camp was over, I decided to back up a bit and try to answer a more basic question about young financiers: namely, how do they get to Wall Street in the first place? So I booked a ticket to a place where the vast majority of financial careers are born—the campus of an elite university—and went to see the finance recruiting machine in action. I wound up in Philadelphia, on the campus of the University of Pennsylvania. On the day I arrived, it was raining buckets, but a biblical flood wouldn’t have kept a small army of students from making their way to Houston Hall. There, in their ill-fitting suits, their leather padfo- lios clutched tightly to their sides, hundreds of eager Penn sophomores, just gotten a job in finance. “Where?” a parent asked. “Downtown,” the acquaintance replied. “At a bank?” the parent prodded. “Yeah,” she said. “Which one?”
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