Your ultimate guide to the application process for commercial banking graduates

Get ahead of the pack with your ultimate guide to blitzing the application process for your commercial banking graduate program.
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The application process

Alright, let’s get down to business.

The hiring process can be hectic and intense but also exciting (depending on what you consider exciting!). We’re going to attempt to arm you with all the tools, hints and tips you need to go into this process guns blazing.

With the right application, preparation and planning there’s no reason why you can’t score your dream job in commercial banking. However, it’s also important to recognise and appreciate any weak points in your application, with a plan to offset and address them. While there are certain weaknesses you may find tough to overcome (such as a transcript with below credit average), there are always proactive steps you can take to offset these impacts – which we will discuss in this section.

We’ve broken down the hiring process into two key components – the application process (or ‘the hook’) and the selection and interview process.

Let’s start with the application process – pulling together your resume, cover letter and that online application.

Part 1: The resume

Resumes are a funny thing.

Trying to summarise yourself (and your many achievements!) on a page or two can be a tricky task for many. At the same time, you know that your many hours’ work on these pages will be glanced at for a few seconds by an assessor or HR recruiter. You need to quickly grab their attention while effectively communicating the key highlights of what makes you right for this job in particular.

To maximise your chances in these precious few seconds, we think there are two areas of focus you should build up in your resume. The first are the actual sections you include in your resume. This involves everything from what sections you provide, the order of these sections and their formatting to grab attention. The second area is how you tailor these sections to the specific criteria and requirements of the role you’re applying for – can the reader see how your experience relates directly to the role?

Let’s talk about the sections of your resume. In addition to the staple categories of ‘professional experience’, ‘education’ and ‘extracurricular or leadership’, there are a few areas you should also consider including:

  • Career objective (or career profile): A quick sentence or two at the very start of your resume to state your motivations and ambition can be useful for the assessor to gauge what’s driving you – as well as highlight very quickly how your experience relates. A typical example could look something like ‘having excelled in my studies with a focus on business and finance, I am seeking a graduate position at a leading commercial bank. I wish to apply my strong analytical skills, customer-facing experience and leadership capabilities to the challenges of the banking industry’.
  • Highlights: A highlights section can be valuable to bolster your chances of quickly grabbing the reader’s attention. This could be a few sharp bullet points describing your main achievements and summarising your resume. For example – ‘ranked 1st in Finance: Valuations at the University of Sydney’, ‘Promoted to team leader at ABC Co’, ‘Elected president of Commercial Society’. These achievements can often get buried in the content of your resume, so it’s important to pull them out and give them some punch up front.
  • Honours and achievements: This is where you can detail any further awards, promotions or achievements that you have gained. While this doesn’t have to be at the top of a resume, you want to make sure it’s punchy and can be easily read. The aim here is to highlight a diverse range of achievements (academic pursuits, sporting, extracurricular etc.) to demonstrate to the assessor that you can achieve excellence in a variety of areas.

So once you have these sections nailed and the content is spot-on, we want to think about how your resume reads and flows as a whole. There are three areas you want to evaluate to achieve this:

  • Order of sections: What goes first? What goes last? Generally, your career objective and highlights should go first as the attention-grabbers. After that, either your professional experience or education (whichever one is more impressive!). Following these, you can start to add your supporting stuff, such as honours and achievements, extra-curricular activities and leadership positions.
  • Formatting: Never underestimate the power and importance of good formatting! It plays a crucial role in grabbing the attention and interest of your reader, while also helping with the clarity of your sections and points. This can be subjective, but there are general rules you should always try to follow. This includes larger and bold text for your section headings, consistent heading, subheading and bullet point structure and leaving enough white space between sections so it doesn’t become too cluttered. While black and white (limit any colours) is a safer bet, don’t be afraid to use shades of grey if you want to distinguish between different points and subpoints. Using horizontal lines to break up titles and areas of the page can also be more visually striking.

Finally, let’s think about the actual content you have in each of your sections. To stand out from the crowd, you want to tailor your points to the selection criteria of each bank as much as possible. Try and include the words that each bank uses in its selection criteria throughout your resume – so these are apparent to the reader at a quick glance. While the selection criteria for each bank differs slightly, there are always some common themes to include and keep in mind:

  • Customer focus: All commercial banks want to see resumes that demonstrate an understanding of the customer and how to cater to their needs. Crank up that customer focus throughout your resume as much as possible! Whether that’s the job at the supermarket answering customer enquiries, the data entry gig where you had to respond to client requests or liaising between your football club and players. All of it can be relevant to managing customer needs!
  • Working in a team: Managing stakeholders, building consensus and collaborating effectively are all things that banks are looking for in successful graduates. Try and show this as much as possible through your work experience, uni group assignments and extracurriculars.
  • Business experience: Do you have exposure to how a business operates? Either through uni, your work experience or other avenues, you’ll want to demonstrate a solid base of commercial acumen and how a business works. Even if your degree wasn’t in commerce, you should find plenty of examples in your work experience or extracurriculars.

It’s important to remember that these themes will be tested throughout the entire hiring process, not just in your online application but also your subsequent interviews and assessment centre. Learn them up and align your experience with them as much as possible!

Part 2: The cover letter

If your resume is the shiny ‘product’ you’re showing to the banks, your cover letter is its supporting quick reference guide or user manual. It explains the contents of your resume more directly and looks to address any questions the assessors may have when looking at your credentials. Cover letters offer more scope to tailor your address to each bank, so make sure you use them to do so!

As a general rule, you’ll want to cover off a few things in this:

  • Summary introduction: Just like the resume, you want some punchy sentences upfront that summarise the rest of the letter and grab the attention of the reader. Highlight your motivations, relevant experience and key points of differentiation in a few sentences to begin. A typical example could look like ‘I am writing to express my interest in applying for a graduate position at ABC Bank in XYZ division. Having interned at The Big Bank Co. with success, developed strong analytical skills at university, and demonstrated excellent interpersonal skills with enquiries at Customers Co., I believe I can continue to add significant value to ABC Bank’s future projects and initiatives.’
  • Motivations: Why do you want to go into commercial banking and this division specifically? What do you know about this bank and what appeals to you about it? How will you align with the organisation’s culture and values? This is where your research comes into play. Learn all you can about the bank, its culture, its benefits and speak to anyone you can about what it’s like to work there. Then reflect all of that in this paragraph. You want to show that you’ve done your homework, understand what the bank’s about and know how you can add value to this environment.
  • Relevant experience and achievements: Last but not least, highlight where your experience and skills align with the requirements of the job. Make this as explicit as you can so the reader can clearly draw links between your capabilities and the selection criteria. Examples such as ‘the service capabilities I developed while at Customer Co. will allow me to quickly understand customer needs and contribute significant value to the customer-focused environment of ABC Bank.’
  • Address weaknesses: Only if you think it is necessary, it is sometimes useful to include a short paragraph to address and explain any weaknesses in your application (such as a poor transcript or lack of finance background). In here you’ll want to highlight areas that offset this perceived ‘weakness’. If the area is something that you’ve been lacklustre in (for example, a poor transcript) make sure you illustrate what you’ve learnt from these shortcomings and double down on your demonstrated experience, skills and commitment to working hard to prove yourself. Playing the blame game in this section will not earn yourself any favours, so make sure to strike the right balance between explaining any weakness without sounding like you’re shifting the responsibility.

Part 3: The online application

Okay, so your cover letter and resume are all good to go. Now it’s time to shoot them through the online application. While this can be a pretty simple process, some online applications require you to answer interview-style questions – like a written behavioural interview. The online process acts as the first ‘filter’ or screen for your application, so it’s important to ensure you maximise your chances by having well-written responses.

Examples of real questions that have been asked in the past include:

  • How do your skills, interests and qualifications match the work undertaken in this business unit?
  • What are your top three reasons for applying for this graduate program?
  • What key skills set you apart from other applicants and why do you think these skills are important?
  • Why is a career at this bank appealing and why have you chosen this specific program?
  • Describe a time you needed to stretch yourself and you got results that exceeded your own and others’ expectations. Briefly describe the situation, the actions you took and the outcome.
  • Thinking about your work experience, describe what you have done in the last six months to foster effective internal and/or external customer relationships.
  • Have you ever been asked to do something that you disagreed with because you felt it was wrong or inappropriate, if so, what was it and how did you handle it?
  • Describe a time when you were given negative feedback on your work and asked to do things differently. How did you respond?

As you can see, these are questions you would expect to come across in a face-to-face interview. It’s almost as if the bank is giving you a taste of what’s to come, while pre-screening for some of their more critical criteria.

There is also a clear overlap between a number of the questions. So, provided you prepare for the following key themes then you shouldn’t expect any major surprises with these:

  • Skills and experience: How do your skills align to this graduate program, what makes you stand out from the crowd and what specific experience can you demonstrate?
  • Why this program or bank: Essentially a ‘motivations’ type question. Why do you want to join ABC Bank, what appeals to you about this graduate program specifically?
  • Challenge: How have you risen to a challenge before? What was the end result and how did you respond (ideally with success!).
  • Values and integrity: Have you demonstrated an ability to stand by your values and moral compass when faced with difficult requests? How do you manage these situations?
  • Resilience: Do you have the ability to manage and deal with adversity? How do you respond in these situations?

The ‘hook’ and addressing weak points

Now that we’ve gotten all the paperwork out of the way, let’s have a chat about the best way to grab the attention of your chosen bank and stand out from other applicants – the ‘hook.’ This is particularly important if you have weak areas of your application that may require some explanation or a leg-up in an online application.

Usually, in these online processes, banks will have an automated filter that screens your application before shooting it on for someone to physically read.

This means that applications with an academic average of less than a credit (for example, 65) will be discarded without a human being ever seeing it!

If you’re in this position, how do you get around it? Or even if you have an accomplished application, how do you ensure you maximise your chances and smash through that initial application?

The classic answer for this is networking. Reach out to the graduate program staff (a bit of LinkedIn stalking should do the trick!) and ask to have a chat. Make use of any contacts you have working in the bank, attend any careers events, presentations or fairs where members from the bank will be present and talk to them. Hustle, hustle, hustle!

What you’re trying to do is create as many alternate avenues and inroads into the bank that you can. This could be through existing staff that refer you or getting in touch with the right decision-makers and impressing enough people that they look out for your application in the process – giving you that extra bit of attention.

Don’t underestimate the power of this. A proven example comes from the personal experience of one of our very own writers – let’s call him Johnny. Having not been the conscientious student that you (dear reader) are, Johnny took it easy and absent-failed a few subjects in his first few semesters. Realising the error of his ways, he applied himself in later semesters and picked up his grades. However, with the damage of earlier years already being done on his WAM, Johnny knew he had to find additional ways to bolster his application in the online process.

He attended a Commonwealth Bank (CBA) presentation at his university and chatted to the presenter at the end, asking to be put in touch with anyone at the bank that would be open to him completing some work experience. After many months of being turned away by different people via email, Johnny was given a chance by the Premier Banking division of CBA. He excelled during this work experience and was referred to the graduate program by his team.

With the backing of the grad coordinator, his online application sailed through to the assessment centre where he scored a role in the Retail Banking graduate program. Fast-forward 15 months and Johnny was ranked as the highest performing graduate in his cohort – dreams do come true!

While this is a bit of a fairytale story (but no less true!), it highlights the importance of being able to make connections and inroads into a graduate program through non-traditional routes. For a lot of students with the right work ethic and approach, it’s about getting past that first online filter to prove their value.

Once you’re past that filter, the fun begins…

Up next: What to expect in the selection process for commercial banking graduates.