Are you consumed by the idea of landing a dream job at one of the finest financial firms in the world?

In that case, here’s some good news — there’s no secret handshake required. Securing this kind of position is relatively simple.

Unfortunately, simple doesn’t mean easy.

Goldman Sachs receives more than 10,000 applications each year. Standing out in a slush pile of that size is no small task. Yet it’s not until you’ve cleared the first hurdle (securing an interview) that the real work begins. Edith Cooper, Global Head of Human Capital for Goldman Sachs, was interviewed by Fortune and listed some of the criteria the firm seeks when interviewing prospective hires. These include:

  • Leadership in a variety of contexts
  • The ability to work well in teams
  • A roving intellect — particularly with regard to global finance
  • An ability to thrive in uncomfortable situations
  • Talent that manifests itself in multiple avenues

Firms such as Goldman Sachs use these criteria to separate candidates who merely look good on paper from those who bring real value to the table. If you think this sounds a bit like an Ivy league university application essay, there’s one vital difference — it’s harder to secure an offer from Goldman Sachs than it is to be admitted into an Ivy League school.

As you probably expect, any interview with a major firm is a rigorous and lengthy process. Cooper told Fortune Goldman Sachs interviews are known for being extensively in-depth, even by finance industry standards. The firm wants candidates to talk about things other than business, including personal history. Because hiring and training is a significant investment, top tier firms want to ensure prospective employees are able to integrate easily into the company’s social environment.

It’s also important to distinguish yourself personally and intellectually. A cookie cutter persona is far less memorable than someone who offers a contrarian perspective or a wealth of interesting and relevant anecdotes. A Goldman Sachs banker wants to know if you’ll be able to hold you own intellectually and conversationally at a lunch with a high net worth client. If you can’t discuss anything other than mergers or last night’s Yankees game, odds are good you’ll be perceived as a bad fit.

Other steps to take

If you’re serious about landing a job at a blue chip investment bank, it helps to have the right academic pedigree. An Ivy League degree opens doors that other credentials simply won’t. Yet this isn’t a deal breaker — it just means you’ll have to work a little harder  in other areas. If you’ve already graduated, business school is always an option.

A thorough knowledge of what firms such as Goldman Sachs do is a prerequisite. It also helps to be able to put this knowledge in a broader context. Reading the Wall Street Journal and the Financial Times on a daily basis will help you cultivate the appropriate knowledge base.

Connections are also important. A well-connected mentor can open doors that would otherwise remain firmly planted shut.

Looking the part

High-level finance culture is conservative to the core. For example, UBS Financial became notorious for issuing new hires a 44-page handbook on acceptable company style. That extremely particular dress code banned “trendy” glasses, perfume that clashed with skin lotion and the practice of ironing one’s own shirts.

While not every firm goes to those lengths, the prevailing style on Wall Street hasn’t evolved much over the years. Conservative jackets, minimal makeup and a few tasteful adornments remain the order of the day. Calibrating your dress perfectly won’t land you a job, but a misjudgment in this area may certainly cost you one.

The bottom line

Firms such as Goldman Sachs are extremely exclusive organizations. You can do everything right and still fail to get your foot in the door. Yet that’s hardly reason for discouragement. A position with an elite bank doesn’t confer success; nor does a position with a smaller bank portend failure. In finance there are many paths to success.

As long as you prepare thoroughly and maximize your odds, you can rest securely in the knowledge that you’ve laid the groundwork for securing the best possible job.

[Photo credit: Got Credit]

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