How To Ace A Consulting Firm Interview

Because McKinsey, Andersen Consulting, Mercer, and the rest are only as good as the people they recruit, and because a job as a consultant demands that you be intellectually rigorous and nimble, all while keeping your poise in front of clients paying six-or seven figure sums for your wisdom. Here are four main types of interviews consultants use to test these skills, plus tips on handling each one.

  1. The classic case study.
    “Let me tell you about a project I’ve been working on,” says the dark-suited partner, smiling ominously. “Our client makes ring laser gyro-based inertial measurement units for fly-by-wire aircraft. They’ve been losing share recently and they want us to figure out why. What do you think?”

    Of course, you haven’t a clue. You don’t even know what a ring laser gyro is. That’s exactly the point here: You’re not supposed to guess the right answer; you’re supposed to ask the right questions. Don’t worry about industry jargon. Start by asking questions like: “Who are the client’s competitors and which ones are gaining market share from us?”; “Is the client losing share to all customers or just to some customers?”; and “Are the customers choosing other gyros because they’re lower in cost or because they work better?”

    The consultant is looking to see if you can think logically, absorb all the information he’s throwing at you, and not get sidetracked or discouraged by blind alleys (“No, our client’s gyros are just as good as everyone else’s!”). Above all, stay calm.

    Some people try to use clever consulting techniques (such as Five Forces, a framework for analyzing the profit potential of an industry, or the Four Ps, an analytical tool used in marketing) to help structure their approach to the case. These techniques work when they’re relevant to the problem, but it’s safer to use a common-sense method than to show off. It’s also a good idea to jot down brief notes. All consultants worth their salt continually take notes.

    Interviewers want candidates who can think and perform complex analyses and be pleasant while doing it. Unfortunately, your interviewer may be a brilliant consultant, but there’s no guarantee he’ll be any good at conducting a case interview. Faced with a rambling consultant, try to get the discussion focused. Above all, don’t get discouraged: Consultants love “tire biters.”

  2. The fire-fight.
    This is the interview where the consultant wants you to estimate the number of golf balls in America and then calculate 752 x 13 in your head. These questions are common in first interviews (sometimes referred to as “brain screens”), when consultants want to weed out candidates who aren’t budding Mensa members. They’re also used to test applicants whose degrees aren’t in science, economics, or engineering.

    Refuse to be flustered. Most problems are easier than they seem. To solve them, you must make assumptions and sensible guesses. In the prior golf-ball example, estimate what proportion of the U.S. population plays golf and how many balls average golfers have in their club bags. As with case studies, how you think is more important than producing right answers (Nobody knows how many golf balls there are in America. In fact, probably nobody cares).

  3. We’re so impressed.
    A seemingly easy interview is often a deadly trap. Your interviewer immediately puts you at ease, telling you how impressive your reasoning skills were in the previous round. “Your resume is superb,” she says. “So, what would you like to know about us?” Sounds like you’ve landed the job with twenty-five minutes left in the interview. Is it time to ask how soon you can expect to make partner?

    No! It’s another test. You have just been given control of a block of time. The interviewer wants to see how well you use it. This is equivalent to the moment in a meeting with clients when the consultant stands at the white board with a pen and two hours before lunch. What are you going to say? Boring questions about the consulting firm’s history or ambitions will get you dinged.

    It’s far better to say something like this: “I’d like to spend about ten minutes each on three topics. First, your company’s training programs, what are they, how seriously are they taken, and what skills they are designed to teach? Second, how do the day-to-day duties of an associate at your firm differ from those at competitors X and Y? Third, I’d be interested to hear how you came to choose this company, how your own career has evolved, and whether it’s been what you expected. Shall we start with training first?” Done right, this sort of structured approach will get you a job offer every time.

  4. Team games.
    You’re in a room with three equally nervous applicants. You’re given a fat packet of information: lots of tables, data, and text about a business situation. “Read it,” they tell you, “then work as a team to answer the five questions at the end. Write up a short report and decide which of you is going to make the presentation. You have thirty minutes. We’ll be watching.”

    It’s another impossible assignment, fairly typical of real-life consulting. It tests your ability to work in a team. Can you lead the group in a direction you believe is important? Equally, can you take direction from your peers? During this exercise, avoid being domineering or a wallflower. If you can, display a sense of humor. Listen carefully to your teammates and build on what they say, rather than turn discussions to your own ideas. In these exercises, teams are judged as one, doing well or poorly together. There are no individual winners.

Conclusions

Management consulting firms are hungry for talent, which is great news for job seekers. But major firms remain very choosy and applicants can expect to sweat during the interview process. The interviewer’s goal is to find out if you have the smarts and if you’ll interact well with clients. It’s your job to prepare in advance for the tricky techniques interviewers use to separate posers from performers.

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