When improving your consulting interview performance, it can help to get back to the fundamentals. Legendary basketball coach John Wooden was famous for telling his players in during their first practice, "Gentleman, this is a basketball." Clearly, these top-notch college players already knew they were looking at a basketball. The point was that by returning to the fundamentals, they were able to focus on what really mattered and ignore the rest.
In tackling consulting interviews (which I'll refer to interchangeably as "case interviews" the more common term), it's quite possible to experience a sort of mental overload associated with case interview frameworks, tips, and feedback coming from a dozen different sources.
So, in this two-section article, I'll first address the key questions interviewers are asking themselves when speaking to candidates. In the second section, I'll outline the key stages within the consulting interview and offer some quick tips to help ensure that you're conveying the right answers to these questions.
Key Questions Interviewers Ask Themselves in a Consulting Interview
Consciously or subconsciously, interviewers are continually asking themselves seven questions to evaluate the candidate as a consulting interview is unfolding. In approximate order of being answered, these questions are:
- The personality question: "Do I like this kid?"
- The professionalism question: "Can I put this guy in front of a client?" [dress, manners, language].
- The organization question: "Can she put forth a clear plan?"
- The analytical question: "Does he understand how to use numbers?"
- The insight question: "Does he get the main point?"
- The synthesis question: "Can she tie it all together?"
- The enjoyment question: "Will he burn out?"
1) The personality question: "Do I like this kid?"
The cliché goes "you never get a second chance to make a first impression." This is true in the consulting interview and in life. The first minute of the case can make a significant difference. Can you handle sustained eye contact? Do you have a firm, dry handshake? If not, the interviewer might doubt that you're confident and/or trustworthy.
On the visual side, other mistakes include sporting super-trendy clothes, smirking or conveying excessive swagger. Complaining about the interview scheduling, hotel, or travel experience is another great way to turn off the interviewer.
Ideally, you want to convey warmth, interest, energy, and humility. You want to give the impression that you're a normal, functional, friendly guy who's really excited about the opportunity to work at this consulting firm.
Whether consultants call it the Cleveland Test, Airport Test, or Conference Room Test, they all want to know the same thing. Does the idea of spending many hours working in close proximity to her seem pleasant to me? Being boring, cocky, timid, or weird all point in the opposite direction.
2) The professionalism question: "Can I put this guy in front of a client?"
Usually undergraduates have a bigger potential problem with this question. Sometimes the problem is dress and sometimes it's language.
Common dressing snafus include:
- Insufficient formality. Your interviewer may be in jeans on a Friday, but you should not be. You'll want to wear a standard (gray, blue, black) suit and shirt/blouse (white, blue) without any crazy stylings.
- Wearing cologne / perfume. The extra body heat associated with interview nerves plus small rooms can create an overpowering, head-ache inducing aroma.
- Showing too much. Modest is best. Candidates sometimes reveal too much through plunging necklines, short skirts, or extra tight-fitting garments.
- Being wrinkly. Take the time to iron in advance.
- Hair. Ensure that head hair is neatly-placed and that facial hair is appropriately shaven and/or trimmed.
Language can be a bit more subtle. Don't tell any stories involving drunkenness or other poor decisions. Do not swear or use lots of slang. You might even watch out for over-using terms such as "cool" and "awesome." The latter words are a bit informal for the occasion.
3) The organization question: "Can she put forth a clear plan?"
The worst way to approach a consulting interview case question is to just dive in. For example, if immediately after hearing about the client situation she demands, "Tell me about the customer segments," you're losing points.
Planning clearly doesn't necessarily mean using a popular, pre-existing case interview framework. So, you need not memorize every last one. Indeed, many interviewers complain that candidates are framework-reciting robots.
The Business Situation Case Interview Framework is a versatile approach that will often serve you well -- but it's not a crutch to be used in every interview. For any given question, sometimes a framework is appropriate, sometimes it's not.
Whatever your approach, you'll want to have a hypothesis in mind that you can clearly support or refute from data, and you'll want to provide some sort of preview / agenda / roadmap that shows where you're going. You might simply say, "In addressing this question, I want to look at three key elements." Then list them.
4) The analytical question: "Does he understand how to use numbers?"
Consultants spend a lot of time crunching numbers, so the consulting interview will test you on your ability to manipulate numbers. This testing boils down into three key analytical skills.
The first analytical skill is recognizing what to do with the numbers. Often candidates will get excited when they're shown an exhibit, or given their first set of numbers. They immediately dive into multiplying or dividing the given numbers when the resulting output provides insight. Then I'll ask, "Okay, so you calculated $6. Why is that number relevant?" Often it's not at all. Think before you calculate!
The second analytical skill is computing the figures. Executing arithmetic that results in errors will damage your credibility in a hurry. It may have been a while since you were practicing your times tables in sixth grade, but you'll need those skills in force. Often it's the number of zeros following the answer that provides the most trouble. "That's $30 Million; oh no wait, I mean $3 Million." Visit the math page to practice. You want to convey answers quickly, accurately, and confidently.
The third analytical skill is determining what those resulting numbers mean. You'll want to put those figures into context with each other and with the case as a whole. Sometimes the story they tell is that there's nothing to see there. For example, "I see costs have been increasing by about 1% a year, and generally below inflation. It seems that something else is at play with our dwindling margins." Other times, they will convey a massive insight that redirects the whole case. For instance, "Product A is four times as profitable as Product B; that's why we're losing margin."
5) The insight question: "Does he get the main point?"
Sometimes candidates can use a lot of sophisticated business jargon and ask lots of interesting questions from a given exhibit. However, none of that means anything if she's not grabbing the key insights along the way.
Much of the art in the consulting interview boils down to learning how to separate what's relevant from what's irrelevant. That process is a skill that's developed with much practice. Generally, a given slide or exhibit has one (sometimes two) insights buried inside it.
Sometimes an exhibit will also offer some additional fodder to go about quantifying an opportunity or diving into additional detail; however, the main point is to identify the main point! A line chart may have many intricate, dancing lines -- but try to focus on the forest instead of just the trees.
6) The synthesis question: "Can she tie it all together?"
There's a fun acronym that's very appropriate for consulting interviews: ATFQ. This stands for "Answer the [Freaking] Question." Structures, calculations, questions, and insights all need to get tied together into a clear recommendation for the client.
There are a thousand potential interesting pathways you could explore within a given business scenario. The key is not to pursue pieces that are merely "interesting," but rather, the pieces that will lead to answering the question. All your analysis needs to get packaged together neatly into a clear conclusion.
Wrap up by sharing a clean, compelling storyline about what you've discovered and what that means for the client. Make sure that your conclusion clearly answers the question being asked.
7) The enjoyment question: "Will he burn out?"
Finally, while performing to shine on the first six questions, don't forget that this should be fun. Seriously, case interviews do a decent job approximating much of the mental work a consultant does. If you're not enjoying the process, consulting might not be the right choice for you.
Now, you might not be enjoying the process because you're totally stressed out and nervous. Being well-prepared will certainly help with that. If however, you're not enjoying the process because you don't like the problem-solving process, you should look elsewhere.
Interviewers can tell if you're having fun or dreading the experience. If they pick up on the dread, they may assume that you may snap and quit one day when you're working at 2am at the client site. (Yes, those hours do happen; and yes, some people do snap.)
So loosen up, show a little bit of your personality, and enjoy the process. Feel free to react emotionally to a surprising piece of data or noteworthy insight. Those moments enhance your connection with the interviewer, make things more enjoyable, and reassure people that you're a good fit for the job.
If your consulting interviewer can provide an enthusiastic "YES" response to each of these seven questions, you're in great shape to move on to the next round.
Key Stages of the Consulting Interview
In order to ensure the answers are coming up the right way, below are some quick tips to increase your performance at each stage in the consulting interview process.
These tips fall into seven stages. In chronological order they are:
- Months before the consulting interview
- A week before the case
- The day before the case
- The morning of the case
- The opening of the case
- The middle of the case
- The conclusion of the case
1) Months before the consulting interview
Once you have targeted the firms and offices you're interested in pursuing, take some time to understand the specific interview format they're using. Ask HR or whatever connection you have with those firms. If you're humble and enthusiastic, you need not worry about sounding presumptuous.
You might just say, "I'm really hoping to interview with XYZ firm in ABC office this fall, and I'm trying to be well-prepared when the time comes. Can you tell me a bit about the format?" You may score points by showing proactive interest.
Some more specific questions to ask about the format include:
- Is it one-on-one or in a group?
- Do we have time to read it in advance?
- Will there be exhibits -- graphs, slides or other visual aids?
- Will it be more of an interviewer-led or interviewee-led approach?
During these months you'll also want to practice, practice, practice! Some candidates downplay the importance of practice. They may have a "You've either got it or you don't" mentality or spend the same amount of time -- a couple hours -- that they'd spend preparing for more traditional interviews. That's a mistake.
It usually takes dozens of practice cases for most people feel confident about their ability to tackle the case curveballs coming at them. While practicing, I recommend starting by getting familiar with the key books and practicing with others who are seeking consulting opportunities.
Having established these basics, you'll be able to get more bang for your buck on the bigger investments such as practicing with a former consultant, listening to Look Over My Shoulder®, or working with a case coach.
2) A week before the case
The firm often calls to schedule a consulting interview with about a week's notice. (At that very moment, candidates typically feel a surge of excitement and a sinking feeling wishing that they'd practiced more.) When speaking to the firm's representative, make sure to schedule wisely. Don't try to just squeeze it in among a jam-packed week.
Being tired, stressed, or having dozens of other things on your mind is not conducive to outstanding case performance. What you want to avoid is arriving in the city of your interview at 2:00am, getting four hours of sleep, and then having a sluggish mind when it's time to perform.
If you have a lot of obligations occurring immediately before or after the case, think carefully about how you might get out of them. Can you delegate or reschedule? Undergraduate students: many professors are willing to make accommodations if you clearly explain to them what's at stake.
3) The day before the case
The day before the case, the last thing you want to do is stay up all night "cramming" to "ace the case". Instead, it's useful to spend a quick minute thinking through each case interview you've done thus far. Ask yourself:
- What industry and challenge did this case highlight?
- What were the key insights that cracked this case?
- What did I do well on that case that I'll repeat tomorrow?
- What did I bomb on that case that I'll not do tomorrow?
After having reviewed your practices, visualize the next day and plan out the specific timing with ample buffer time. What time will you set the alarm? When will you walk out the door? What's the traffic going to be? When will you arrive near the office?
Walking through these questions can sound pretty elementary, but unfamiliar cities can present all sorts of surprises. A little advance thought can help ensure you don't have to make a panicked sprint from the parking garage to the firm's office to get to the interview on time.
4) The morning of the case
On interview day, take great care of yourself. Do whatever you need to do to feel energized, confident, and brilliant. Some people thrive on a hearty breakfast; others find that weighs them down. Similarly, some feel amazing with 9 hours of sleep; others feel groggy. Whatever those variables are for you, do whatever you need to do to bring about maximum brainpower.
It's also helpful to arrive early at a coffee shop or restaurant near the office. This eliminates any remaining risk of having to rush or stress to be there on time. During your last few minutes, you can warm up the brain with some case math problems.
5) The opening of the case
When you're presented with the case, first confirm that you clearly understand the case. Make sure you're clear on the industry, the scope of the problem, and the precise question being asked. There is no need to parrot back exactly what the interviewer said, but you do want to get confirmation on the key elements.
Of particular importance is clarifying the objective. Get explicit confirmation from the interviewer on what's being asked. Do we want growth in revenue, market share, profits, or profit margin percentage? Is there a goal in mind for how much? Is there only that one objective, or are there others you should think about as well? Sometimes a case will ask whether a client should pursue a given course of action.
Let the word "should" trigger the question "based on what objectives?" Clarify that with the interviewer, "Now, when we say 'should the client launch this marketing campaign,' is the primary objective to win customers whose profit contribution will exceed the cost of the campaign? Or is there another way I should be thinking about the underlying objectives of this campaign?"
Once you've got clarity on the case and the specific question being asked, ask for a moment to collect your thoughts. (Note: in an interviewer-led interview, sometimes the interviewer will just fire out the questions and expect you to respond immediately. Here, you might still ask for a moment at the beginning -- or you can write down your initial thoughts while speaking your responses at the same time.)
During this period of quiet thought-collection (20-70 seconds), write down all your hypotheses for what the solution might be and the burning questions you have in mind. Then write down a roughly MECE approach to covering the issues required to answer the case.
Your approach may resemble a framework, or it may not. Either way is fine, so long as you're hypothesis-driven. Share your plan with the interviewer, and the game has begun!
6) The middle of the case
The key thing to remember as the case evolves is: Focus in on what information can confirm or disprove your hypothesis -- not just on what's interesting. Keep the overarching question and hypotheses in mind at all times. That alone can save you from following blind alleys and wasting your time.
When viewing slides/graphs/exhibits, try to focus in on one key insight. Ask how this new piece of information fits into the broader story about the given question and hypotheses. Don't try to parse twenty things from a given slide. 90% of the time there are only one or two key takeaways.
Whenever you encounter numbers, take a breath. Just because you have the numbers required to calculate something (e.g. market share), it doesn't mean that's what's necessary. Think clearly about what you want to know from those numbers and only then perform the calculation.
Often while calculating figures, candidates can get confounded by the appropriate number of zeroes. (e.g. $5 Billion vs. $500 Million). One useful way to address that challenge with percentage problems is to think about the rough fractional equivalent of the percentage being asked for.
For example: If a client spends $40 Million on IT personnel, and they're planning on reducing their spend by 1.8%, you'll probably quickly get the numbers 7 and 2, but knowing where to put the decimal point can be challenging. Thinking about the fractional equivalent of 1.8% (i.e. just under 1/50th) helps put that in perspective. The final number needs to be just under 1/50th of $40 Million. $0.72 Million ($720,000) fits that bill, while $7.2 Million or $72,000 does not.
Also, when calculating the same ratio for a series of related things (e.g. profit margin percentages of different products or cost-per-unit from different factories), note that the ratios will likely be fairly similar. If you calculate product A to have a 6% margin, B has to have a 9% margin, and C to have an 80% margin -- double check that C is accurate. A useful rule of thumb is: if one result is greater/smaller by a factor of 5, go ahead and double-check that result.
7) The conclusion of the case
When the case comes to a close -- either because you've clearly answered the question thoroughly or the interviewer tells you it's over -- recap the key insights and answer the question. You need not rehash everything, but highlight 2-5 critical discoveries that point to your chosen recommendation. You may also mention some potential next steps or questions to tackle in implementing your recommendation.
The conclusion highlights that you understood what mattered from what didn't. It also gives you an opportunity to sample how you'd present your findings to a potential client.
These tips will aid you in each stage of the consulting interview. But bear in mind that there's often a significant gap between knowing what to do and actually doing it. Closing that gap all boils down to what occurs during the first stage: practice!