When I was a college senior interviewing with top consulting firms, I had two problems. Information about how to interview wasn’t readily available and I wasn’t ambitious enough to seek out what was there.
I went into most of my interviews cold, just planning to be myself. And I failed miserably. While I encourage people to be themselves during an interview, it is also imperative to be prepared. If you are interviewing for a job at a consulting firm, here are some tips to make the interview more successful.
1) Be a problem solver
In grade school, many students have trouble with word problems. They have trouble taking a paragraph of information, some of which is irrelevant, and creating math problem out of it. But that’s the real world. All this stuff is going on. Define the problem, determine the relevant data, and solve it.
At the entry level, consulting firms are looking for smart problem solvers. Whether your degree is in engineering, information technology, marketing or something else, they certainly will ask you questions about how well you have learned your area of study. But more importantly, they want to know how you will be able to apply that knowledge. Will you be the type that just takes orders and does the job? Or can you take what you have learned and apply it to real world problems facing your clients. It is the difference between being able to do word problems, and just answering the problems on a test.
2) Be prepared for case study questions
Some firms, particularly in management or strategy consulting, will give you case studies. This is the true problem solving test.
Case study questions come in three categories:
The business scenario:
Here they give you a really business issue and ask how you would solve it. They’ll describe a challenge your client is facing like new government regulations or an increase in their fixed costs and ask you how you would advise the client.
It’s important to have an approach in mind to address these types of questions. Porter’s 5-forces or a SWOT analysis is a good start. As you solve the problem, they may judge you more on the questions you ask than any final answer you come up with. The final answer is one of their least concerns. They want to see how you frame the problem, how deeply you delve into the details and the process you follow to get there.
The estimation question:
“How many basketballs would it take to fill this room?” With a question like this, they obviously aren’t looking for the true answer. Again, they want to see your ability think when you’re on the spot, come up with an estimate and your approach to solving the problem.
You might immediately say something like, “Well, I’d estimate this room to be about 8’ x 8’ and about 10’ high. Therefore, assuming a basketball is about a foot in diameter, it would take 64 basketballs for one layer, multiplying that by ten and it would take 640 basketballs to fill this room.”
That’s great, but there might be some assumptions you made and some details you didn’t think of. For instance, are the basketballs inflated? That would change the number significantly. Is there furniture in the room that you need to account for? You made some assumptions about the dimensions of the room which could maybe be argued, but some others that you didn’t ask about – namely that the balls will be inflated and that you would remove all of the furniture from the room.
The logic question:
Here they might ask a question like, “How many times in a day do the hands of a clock overlap?” You might assume that they cross once every hour and just throw out 24 as your answer. But if you think about it, at the end of the 11th hour and 23rd hour, it crosses at the end of the hour, which should be included in the next hour. So the answer is really 22.
Here they also want to observe how you think about the details and consider all possibilities rather than how quickly you can come to an answer.
3) Show your understanding of consulting
Consulting is about more than just being able to solve problems in your area of study. A consultant comes face to face with clients on a daily basis. A consulting firm wants someone that they can be comfortable putting in front of the client. Do you have a professional demeanor? Are you comfortable talking to a client executive or do you clam up and sweat profusely?
They want someone who understands that you have to develop relationships with clients to foster sales development. Consulting firms are also looking for someone who has the communication skills to write and speak clearly and succinctly. Someone who is not afraid of public speaking to facilitate a meeting or present a solution to a group of clients.
Consulting firms want to hire consultants that have the diplomacy to be forceful, but subtle enough to know their place with the client. Showing your understanding of these aspects will impress an interviewer more than knowing the intricacies of computer programming or finance.
For more information, check out Getting In to Consulting
4) Know the firm’s workspace
Consulting is a broad spectrum of an industry that covers everything from offering the services of a single worker to supplement a staff during peak times (also called staff augmentation), to providing project teams to perform a project for a client, to high level strategy firms that help a company define and implement a new strategy. There are many different variations of firms and the services they provide across the spectrum.
Before a candidate goes into a job interview, it is important to know the types of services the firm provides, the size of companies they focus on serving, and their industries. Having this knowledge will allow the interviewer to better prepare for questions asked of them. They can also prepare more intelligent questions to ask the interviewer when that opportunity is given to them.
The standard advice for interviewing is to do your homework. That would be good advice if it weren’t so ambiguous. Doing your homework in college means reading the assigned material and doing the assignments. When preparing for an interview, many people don’t know where to start.
One of the most important aspects of doing one’s homework is to practice for some of the questions. Go online and see what types of questions interviewers ask and practice answering the questions.
My advice is, rather than practice, rehearse. Meet with a friend and rehearse doing interviews with each other. Reserve an interview room at the library or student union. Dress for the occasion. Wear a suit and act like it’s a real interview. Shake hands, say hello and sit across the desk. Have your partner ask questions and answer them. Maintain the role playing until the end of the interview. Then have your partner critique you. Switch sides and do the same thing in opposite roles.
You can’t possibly prepare for every interview question. The more important preparation is answering questions intelligently and knowing how to avoid getting flustered for the answer you don’t know. Rehearsing is the best way to do that.
How do you prepare for consulting interviews?
As always, I welcome your comments and criticisms.
If you would like to learn more about working in consulting, get Lew’s book Consulting 101: 101 Tips for Success in Consulting at Amazon.com