Virginia Matthews finds out the ingredients that add up to success

Despite, or perhaps because of headline-grabbing incidents such as Northern Rock, the sink or swim culture of the City attracts thousands of graduate job-seekers every year. Not all of them, however, will find their own pot of gold.

Keith Redhead, principal lecturer in financial economics at Coventry University, believes that while the "unpredictability and hint of danger" in today's financial markets can be a potent lure, few outside the confines of the City appreciate the sheer pace of life for employees.

He argues that with rapid changes of job function and employer now the norm, a career in investment banking, equity capital, fund management or compliance is not for the faint-hearted or risk-averse.

"If you're working in the Square Mile nowadays, it's all about being flexible and versatile and not expecting that things will stay the same," he says.

"While banking or accountancy used to be the familiar, umbrella term for most jobs, the career labels are changing and proliferating and so are the settings; with the opportunity to work in New York or Tokyo now the norm rather than the exception."

He adds: "Ten years ago, it would have been incredibly rare to have worked primarily in hedge funds, whereas today, with private equity being so fashionable, these jobs are proliferating, but I would predict that in another 10 years, they will be very rare again."

It's a view supported by Caroline Britton, a partner at the giant consulting firm Deloitte; whose four strands of work are tax, audit, consulting and corporate finance.

Britton believes that while the job descriptions are constantly changing, what the City looks for in a graduate remains the same. "We still seek out the brightest and the best and to me that means intelligence, academic achievement and an inquisitive mind," she says.

"When a candidate comes to see me and all he or she can do is regurgitate what they have read in the FT that day or the Economist that week, it is pretty unimpressive. We want people who can analyse the week's business stories – the Northern Rocks or whatever – someone who can look behind the headlines and perhaps relate the story to their own experience of banking or finance; however humble.

"If they aren't genuinely interested in how the City works and if they haven't thought about its impact on other areas of life, it soon shows," she adds.

Deloitte looks for a 2.1 minimum and while the majority of its graduate trainees will have a background in business studies, maths, accountancy, economics or science, a fair proportion will have a first degree in history perhaps, or a modern language.

"We don't need an advanced level of numeracy, but we do expect a reasonable GCSE pass in maths," says Britton, "but again, it's the thought processes that we are looking for more than the subjects or grades."

Of the 1,400 graduates recruited by Deloitte each year; selected from some 15,000 applications, around 36 will be chosen to join the London banking division and to specialise in audit. Starting salaries are £25,750.

Over at Goldman Sachs; a global investment, banking and securities firm, three years spent poring over books in the university or college library won't be enough to persuade Jonathan Jones, the European head of recruitment, to hire you.

"The people who succeed best here have enormous amounts of energy and this often comes through in terms of how they spend their leisure time. However good their grades are, we're also interested in finding out what graduates actually did at university aside from study."

"Most of our recruits will have been involved in sports or in leadership roles in student clubs and societies and personally, I'm particularly impressed by graduates who took on casual jobs while they were studying," he says.

"We make a distinction between an interest in what we do here and a detailed knowledge of how the City works. While we may expect graduates to be very interested in our business and the markets in which we operate, we're looking for people with an ability and an appetite to find out far more."

"Two character traits that I think are tremendously important in this business are maturity and good judgement. I see them both as fundamental, even to new recruits. We want to hire people we can trust and whose judgement we can rely on.

"We need to be sure that when it comes to dealing with our most important clients for example, that our people will have the poise needed to navigate their way through any situation," adds Jones.

Goldman Sachs will take on 350 new graduate analysts in 2008; most of them in London, in a variety of roles including investment banking, sales and trading, investment or asset management and IT. Many of them will be offered spells working in New York, Tokyo, India, the Middle East and Africa.

Although it is undoubtedly true that the City has a large appetite for what Coventry's Keith Redhead calls "bright and assertive graduates," particularly those who can understand complex maths, he warns against "inflated optimism" and unrealistic expectations of what a City career really means.

"A few of today's graduates will end up earning seven-figure salaries on a trading desk and driving Porsches home to their central London flats, but they are a minority," he says.

"A lot of 18-year-olds come to Coventry expecting the earth out of their career, but by the time they get to their early twenties, most of them are willing to play it safe and go for something like accountancy."

'It's a long day but it's non-stop and I don't notice the time'

Helen Ward, 24, is a Cambridge graduate with a Masters in Engineering degree. She joined Morgan Stanley's two-year graduate training programme in July 2006, following a successful internship elsewhere in the City. She currently specialises in hedge fund investments.

"I start work at 6am and spend an hour or so getting up to speed with what has been happening in the US since the previous evening as well as checking on Asian and European commodities and currency markets.

By 7am, I am ready to talk to my first client and I spend much of the rest of the day on the phone, talking to people and advising them.

At 4.35pm, the last European deal is closed and I'm usually out of the office an hour later unless I have a presentation to go to or a client entertainment event, which is usually somewhere very luxurious so it's no real hardship. It's a long day but it's non-stop and I don't notice the time.

It all sounds very serious and of course there's a lot of money at stake, but there's also time for frivolity with colleagues and some laughter.

Although I worked briefly in engineering, I find the City far more exciting. Even though it's been a steep learning curve for me. It's all about relationship-building and I enjoy that aspect of it, plus the fact that I've been given responsibility pretty much from day one.

Morgan Stanley is a meritocracy and although it's male dominated, I've never felt I'm being treated any differently. There are other women on the trading floor and we're just as happy to talk about the weekend football as the men are."