Top 5 Tips to Nailing the Management Consulting Interview

This guest post is by Neal Dodd, a former McKinsey consultant who has interviewed and prepared well over 100 potential candidates over the years. Neal currently manages Briefcases Direct.

TOP tier management consulting companies are the preferred destination for many MBA graduates, as well as graduates with less traditional backgrounds. In general, the consulting positions for those straight out of an undergraduate program are fewer and farther between. That’s because the more junior analyst positions typically don’t lead to partner track consulting positions in most firms; analysts are expected to return to graduate school and only then, should they return, be on a partner track. This can vary from firm to firm but is definitely true for the McKinsey, Bain and BCG type firms.

That doesn’t mean that fresh graduates cannot find positions, even in financial times as difficult as these. Believe or not, consulting companies are busier now than in the prior recession of 2001, so don’t lose hope. I have personally coached over a hundred potential candidates and many were truly amazed that they were able to secure the coveted offer letter during a competitive interviewing season. In order to maximize your chances during the interviewing process, it’s important to prepare carefully, below are some tips to help you ace the interview:

1. Make a good first impression

This goes for any interview you’re on but is particularly true for fields like management consulting. Make sure you look like a consultant – what does that mean? Many of the smart people that interview for consulting positions have not interviewed anywhere before or only for academic type positions. Others are foreign born graduates of top MBA or other programs – whatever, the case may be, they have never interviewed for a top tier management consulting job or similar positions in companies. The fact that these firms interview the brainy types only makes the situation worse. Invest in well made suit, dark blue or grey with or without pinstripes is perfect for men, for women, black can also work. A tie with a splash of color is fine, it can convey a little bit of energy or pizzazz, but nothing too flashy, they like energy but not attention seekers. A briefcase or attaché is a perfect complement to an outfit, you can always borrow a friend or colleague’s and it doesn’t necessarily have to be new to convey a polished look.

2. Keep your poise

Much of the interviewing process is very intense, with some companies intentionally playing “good cop, bad cop” between their interviewers. All this means is that you need to remain poised, don’t let them ruffle your feathers with abrupt or unfriendly behavior, pushing paper around or looking angry. Remember, you’re not here to make friends, you’re here to get a job and they’re here to test whether you can deal with nasty clients, managers and co-workers should the occasion arise. Keep smiling and a resilient positive attitude, you’re interviewers will find it irresistible.

3. Think and listen

This might sound obvious, but most people don’t do this during the case interview and miss the boat on what the interviewer is asking for or don’t get the hints that are being dropped during the discussion. A classic issue for interviewees is writing too much instead of listening to the question being asked. Practice listening to case questions and writing very few words, use symbols for profit (π), revenue (R) and other common words and don’t write down the fluff in the questions, flowery language is there to confuse, good consultants can spot the key facts quickly. Listen and then think about the implications of the question being asked. If there are declining profits in a business that is becoming commoditized, then opine as much and state your rationale. You can be thoughtful and comment on the question at hand based on what you know. Continue this process throughout the case interview, each piece of information is a clue, not just a plug into an equation or out of the box framework so common in business schools.

4. Ask questions

Now that you’re thinking about the case and the information you’re being given, be sure to ask intelligent questions; start a dialogue rather than barreling down a path that is preconceived or based on early inferences on the case at hand. Remember, you are expected to be engaging during team problem solving situations, be sure to appear this way during the interview and engage the interviewer. There is probably a lot you know about a particular industry based on general reading (you should be reading business publications to build your business acumen if you don’t have a typical business background). If the case is about the magazine industry, you should be able to guess what their sources of revenue are without having worked in the business – that’s just common sense, practice applying this common sense. Curiosity is a relentless trait in good consultants, mix this curiosity with intelligent thought to come up with hypothesis driven questions: “One would think that the roofing industry is seasonal…..are there seasonal variations in this company causing cash flow issues?” rather than, “is there uneven earnings throughout the year?”

5. Pass the airport screen

Consultants always ask, is this someone I’d like to be stuck at an airport with for 4 hours or in a small team room for 8 – 12 hours per day for weeks on end? Be sure you’re the type of person that is tolerable, hopefully enjoyable, to be around. Be yourself, don’t be too pushy or aggressive, it just turns people off. Have fun with the interview, if you’ve prepared well it should be fun for both you and the interviewer. Be sure to prepare well for the interview and the fit questions on your background, resume, interests, strengths and weaknesses – these all count, remember, they’re looking for the next round of leaders for their organizations, their people are their product so show them what a great product they’re looking at!

Case Interview Guides & Books

THIS list of guides and books is a a work in progress. If you come across any other useful resources that I haven’t listed here, please let us know.

Online case interview guides

  1. Make Your Case: Master Consulting Interviews | WallStreetOasis.com
  2. ATKearney – interview casebook
  3. Deloitte – 2007 Boston College – Conducting Case Interviews
  4. Deloite – 2005 Michigan State University – Case Workshop
  5. University of Pennsylvania – interview guide
  6. Yale School of Management – sample interview questions

Books

  1. Case in Point: Complete Case Interview Preparation by Marc P. Cosentino
  2. Crack the Case: How to Conquer Your Case Interviews by David Ohrvall
  3. How to Get Into the Top Consulting Firms: A Surefire Case Interview Method by Tim Darling
  4. Management Consulting: A Complete Guide to the Industry by Sugata Biswas and Daryl Twitchell
  5. Mastering the Case Interview: The Complete Guide to Management, Marketing, and Strategic Consulting Case Interviews by Alexander Chernev
  6. The Fast Track: The Insider’s Guide to Winning Jobs in Management Consulting, Investment Banking, & Securities Trading by Mariam Naficy
  7. The Harvard Business School Guide to Careers in Management Consulting by Maggie Lu
  8. Vault Case Interview Practice Guide
  9. Vault Guide to the Case Interview
  10. Ace Your Case! Consulting Interviews (WetFeet Insider Guide)

The consulting case interview: 10 tips for a successful performance

THIS is the first of a series of posts looking at the consulting case interview. Below, I provide ten insightful tips that will help you achieve success in your case interview. The information below is from my own thoughts and by reference to Vault Guide to the Case Interview.

1. Practice, practice, practice

Preparation is important for three main reasons:

  1. The interview process is extremely competitive. You are unlikely to succeed without a lot of practice;
  2. Case problems are indicative of the type of work that you will have to do as a consultant. So, your ability to answer case problems indicates your readiness to start work as a consultant; and
  3. Your preparedness for the interview is an indicator of your motivation and passion to be a consultant. If you can’t be bothered to prepare, then you don’t want the job badly enough.

2. Take notes

You should take notes when the interviewer is giving you the facts of the problem question.  Remember to bring a notepad and pen to the interview because the benefit of writing things down is that:

  • It helps ensure that you don’t need to ask the same question twice;
  • It helps you to structure your thoughts; and
  • It allows you a moment to pause and think before addressing the question.

3. Don’t make assumptions

Your interviewer will most likely leave information out when giving you the facts. You should not assume facts that have not been given to you. The interviewer has more than likely drawn the business case from the interviewer’s experience of a real world business problem. In answering a business case problem, you should assume the persona of a consultant trying to learn about an assignment. For example, you should ask if the company, or another company in the industry, has encountered a similar business problem, and what they did about it. Although your interviewer may not release that information, the interviewer will be impressed that you asked these sensible questions.

4. Ask questions

Your interviewer expects you to ask questions in order to obtain an accurate picture of the relevant facts in the case. For example, if you don’t know the first thing about the automobile market, ask how much it costs to manufacture an engine. If you are asked to estimate the demand for hamburgers in Sydney, feel free to ask how many people live in Sydney and the surrounding areas. Your interviewer is likely to direct your line of questioning to a specific area, but you must always be ready to control the conversation in case the interviewer does not direct your reasoning.

5. Engage in active listening

It is not wise to stick religiously to asking a list of pre-prepared questions. Listen to the information that you have received and the answers you get to your initial questions and how this affects your understanding of the problem. What is unclear and what do you still not know? Make sure you respond to the information you receive and incorporate it into your analysis.

6. Maintain direct eye contact

Eye contact is important because it demonstrates confidence and authority. As a consultant you will have to meet with upper management and boards of directors regarding matters that you have been briefed on only hours before. The case interview is a practice for the real thing.

7. Take your time

It’s okay to take a minute to collect your thoughts. However, it’s probably not such a good idea to leave the interviewer hanging for 5+ minutes while you ponder the deeper aspects of the problem. In short, it is more important to give a well thought out and structured response than to respond immediately.

8. Clearly structure your answer

Clearly structure your answer by identifying to the interviewer the analysis framework you are going to use and the structure of your answer. For example, “firstly I will consider X, secondly I will consider Y, and finally I will make a recommendation.” A large part of a consultant’s job is to explain complex ideas clearly and succinctly. By structuring your answer, this will help you to structure your thoughts and may alert you to factors that you would have otherwise failed to consider. Providing a clear structure will impress your interviewers by avoiding the impression that you “made it up as you went along”. I will consider the main analysis frameworks that you might be able to use in a later post.

9. Think out loud

The business case is an opportunity to show the interviewer how you think. As you analyse the elements of the business case, be sure that you talk out loud and explain your reasoning. This is the only way the interviewer can assess your performance.

10. Summarise your conclusions

You have limited time in your case interview to make your point. It is important to be able to briefly summarise the conclusion you have come to based on your analysis of the facts and to make a recommendation.