If you want to be the one person who secures a strategy consulting role of the 100 people who apply, you need to know how to get through multiple case study interviews. Consultants and investment banks tend to attract similar types of candidates, but it’s this interview style that really proves a stumbling block for most people.
I’ve worked at a big three strategy company for the last three years, and now interview graduates coming on to our training programme. Here’s a few insider tips to get you ahead...
No one has an innate talent for to solve case studies; it’s a learned skill like everything else. Once you’re in a strategy consulting role, firms will invest significant resources in training new hires to tackle real life scenarios according to their own style and philosophy. In the meantime, you’re on your own.
At interview, candidates are expected to show an elementary understanding of how to solve case studies and demonstrate significant potential to become ‘expert’ problem solvers with practice. They want to see that you are able to construct logical and efficient approaches to tackle varied scenarios.
This means you have to tackle the materials that these firms put online, and those of their competitors, before you step into an interview. All the best candidates practice, and it’s this practice that gives them the confidence to tackle new problems during the interview process.
Still, the best practice you will get is actually at the interviews. Explicitly or through nudges and steers, you will receive feedback and guidance during each interview you have. If you seem to be receiving hints, you probably are. Graciously accept them and don’t be afraid to change course based upon them - or argue why your approach is better. Give your interviewer confidence in your ability to learn by demonstrating to them that you understand feedback well.
You should study all the analysis frameworks needed to tackle case study problems. These need to be in your back pocket at an interview.
As simple examples, you should know to break cost problems into variable and fixed cost parts, or revenue problems into price and volume parts. Then dive into more problem-specific approaches, using things like the 4Ps of marketing (product, place price, promotion), for instance.
Interviewers will expect you to know a handful of these ‘frameworks’ or business logics. Consultants use them day-to-day. They give structure to your thought process and help you to quickly come up with a solid set of mutually exclusive but contextually exhaustive (MECE) options to solve a problem.
Stand-out by doing two things with your frameworks, however.
First, don’t labour through what your frameworks are or why you’re using them. They should structure your answer, not be your answer. Clients do not care about how a framework works - they will just care about what it means for them. Treat your interviewer as though they’re a client.
Second, think ‘outside of the box’ that your framework sets up for you. Moulding the known to solve the unknown is how top tier consulting differentiates itself. So acknowledge where your framework is relevant and where its assumptions are less relevant for your scenario too.
If you can, then go on to suggest adjustments to it given this. As an example, in a heavily regulated industry, the primary stakeholder could be a Government rather than any ‘customers’, which may change the way you would operate and promote your goods. Show deep understanding and intuition by adapting well to the specific problem.
Consulting interviews are a test of potential ability, not maths. Interviews do involve maths, however, and lots of candidates (I’d say up to half) fail in part because of concerns over their ability to handle data. Many candidates bring this upon themselves, trying to impress interviewers with unnecessarily complicated approaches to problems.
For detailed calculations consultants use Excel. In discussions we stick to round numbers and simplified calculations. Take the initiative to do the same in your interviews. Don't actively avoid maths, but do actively simplify it. Often you get to choose the numbers, so be smart and do so strategically.
Each of McKinsey, Bain and BCG have distinct personalities that they look for. If you can, speak to an employee or two to scope this out. Very broadly, McKinsey is the most ‘white-collar’, BCG is the most academic and Bain is the most down-to-earth.
You should adapt your interview style to project yourself as a perfect ‘fit’ for each culture. Competition between the rivals is fierce, and if you project yourself as a great consultant, but perhaps better suited to a rival, the chances are that you will be rejected. Courting a candidate likely to opt for a rival is an expensive game that firms are reluctant to play. Make it known why you are specifically keen in that firm over its competitors.
As a consultant you will quickly be put in front of clients. Partners (typically the final round interviewers) therefore want to be confident that you'll be a ‘safe pair of hands’ for their brand. This will be tested in particular if you're applying straight from university. They want to hire candidates that possess the gravitas to get clients to buy-in to difficult concepts, or de-stress challenging situations.
Always act professionally and project self assurance in your ability to manage each situation, even when being asked difficult questions. They are purposefully testing your resilience. If you can demonstrate an ability to remain composed and persuasive under pressure, partners are sure to be impressed.
These are the guidelines I have to make it through the consulting interview, but remember there’s no secret recipe. Consultants value diversity in their new recruits, so show your personality throughout and have some fun…
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The author is currently working for a large management consultant in the City of London. James Smith is a pseudonym.