How To Prepare For A Consulting Interview

  The “How To Prepare For An Interview” series is supported by Gillette.

business suit tie

Photo: karsten.planz via Flickr

So, you want to be a management consultant.

You’ve got your MBA hanging on the wall, your resume tuned, and your favourite suit pressed and ready to go.

Now: to ace that interview.

Fortunately, unlike other professions, the consulting interview is relatively standard across the board — which means you can know exactly what to expect, and prepare accordingly.

We spoke with Kevin Gao, an ex-McKinsey consultant and the founder of interview preparation company Management Consulted, to find out the best ways to get an interview, what interviewers are looking for, and how you should prepare for each type of question they’ll ask.

Click here to learn how to prepare for your consulting interview >

Where to look for consulting jobs

The most surefire way to score a consulting interview is through a network connection in the business or a contact at a firm.

'The thing about consulting is that most of the big management firms don't do postings on job sites. You're going to need to get introduced internally, or know a recruiter,' Gao tells us.

Make sure you're working those LinkedIn relationships, as well as your school's alumni network and career services.

If you don't have any connections, you're not completely out of luck -- you just have to be more resourceful. Actively search for new contacts in the business, and be persistent in reaching out personally to recruiters at firms of your choice.

And check out Vault's 2009 ranking of the top 50 management consulting firms to make sure you're targeting the best companies.

The resume and cover letter

All consulting positions will require you to submit a resume with a formal cover letter.

'For the resume... keep it short, keep it results-oriented, keep it looking very, very nice,' Gao advises.

'For the cover letter... keep it short, keep it focused on 1-2 important topics/stories only, and personalise it to the extent that you can (e.g., mention people you know at the firm, a tidbit or two about the company that you read in WSJ or NYT, etc).'

One thing Gao says to keep in mind, 'For big companies, it's all about the resume. For small companies, the cover letter matters more.'

How to dress

The dress for a consulting interview is standard professional business attire: a nice, plain suit (for both men and women). As usual, make sure you're clean-cut (for men, clean-shaven), neat, and not wrinkled.

Gao's one warning: 'don't be too fashionable.' That means no flashy ties or trendy accessories.

Be neutral; keep it simple.

Be on top of current events in the industry

You won't make it through your interview if you can't show that you pay attention to current events. Knowing what's going on in finance and politics (both domestic and international) is a crucial part of consulting.

Gao advises candidates to scan the general news the morning of the interview. It's even better if you also know what's been going on with the firm that you're interviewing with and you drop some of those tidbits into your interview.

The Case Study

During the case study portion of the interview, you'll be given information about a business situation (real or hypothetical). You'll then be expected to analyse it and propose a solution.

The point of this exercise is to see how well you understand business, and how strong your analytical, problem-solving, and logic skills are.

The key to preparing for the case study is simply to practice, practice, practice -- you have to do as many practice cases as you can.

'Get grilled by friends and current consultants willing to help you,' Gao suggests.

You can find plenty of sample cases on the web, or you can purchase a case prep book -- one of the most highly-recommended is Case in Point: Complete Case Interview Preparation, by Marc Cosentino.

Sample case question #1 : Logic Question

You have a 3 liter bucket and a 5 liter bucket. How will you measure out exactly 4 litres of water? Assume you have an endless supply of water and no markings on the buckets.

(from Ace the Case)

Possible answer

Fill the 3L bucket and pour all of its contents into the 5L bucket. You now have 3L of water and 2L of empty space in the 5L bucket .

Fill the 3L bucket back up and pour as much as you can into the 5L bucket (i.e. 2L). This leaves 1L in the 3L bucket. Empty the 5L bucket and pour in the 1L of water you have sitting in the 3L bucket.

Now fill the 3L bucket to the top and pour it into the 5L bucket -- and you're done. 1L + 3L = 4L measured exactly in the 5L bucket.

(from Ace the Case)

Sample case question #2: Market-sizing/Estimation

Estimate the size of the U.S. disposable diaper market.


Possible answer

First, I'm going to assume that there are 250 million Americans. I'm going to further assume that the average life expectancy of an American is 75 years. I'm also going to assume that there are even numbers of people in each age group. And that there are exactly same numbers of 8 year-olds as 68 year-olds.

You divide 250 million by 75 and you get about 3.3 million people per age group. Children wear diapers from ago zero to 3 so that's 9.9 million kids wearing diapers. So we'll round it off to 10 million kids. You said disposable diapers. So I'll estimate that 80 per cent of children wear disposable diapers. So now we're talking 8 million children wearing 5 diapers a day. That's 40 million diapers a day times 365 equals approximately 14.6 billion diapers a year.


Sample case question #3: Market-sizing/Estimation

How many ATM machines are there in the United States?


Possible answer

I live in Needham, Massachusetts. The population of my town is approximately 30,000. There are fifteen ATM machines in town so I'll assume that each ATM services 2,000 people. I'm going to assume that the population of the US is around 260 million people.

Next I'll divide 2,000 into 260 million and come up with 130,000 ATMs.


Remember: personality and attitude are as important as your answers

Your answers to these questions are important. But Gao assures us a critical part of getting that consulting job is whether or not your interviewer thinks you're a good match personality-wise.

'The consulting interview is all about the energy and the vibe that you give off,' he says.

Some important traits that interviewers look for:

  • Excellent people skills: Communication is an enormous part of consulting.
  • Natural curiosity: You'll constantly be learning about new industries.
  • Attention to detail, 'or the ability to fake it well,' says Gao.

Ultimately, the interviewer is thinking, 'Do I want this person communicating and interacting with our big clients?'

Also: 'Would I be happy to spend 10 hours in a room with this person?'

So don't try too hard during your interview -- be on point, but be yourself.

The follow-up questions

Shrugging your shoulders when your interviewer asks if you have any questions is not an option.

If you can't come up with any good follow-up questions, Gao lists some great sample questions on his blog. A selection:

  • What's been the most difficult client issue that you've faced?
  • If I got this job, what advice could you give me to help me get off to a fast start?
  • What would you say are the most common mistakes that new hires make?
  • Which project has been the most (challenging/exciting/engaging) for you?

What matters most?

The most important things to focus on: 'Case, ability to synthesize and communicate succinctly, and ability to connect with the interviewer,' Gao sums up.

The keys to preparing are practicing as much as possible, and getting comfortable enough to be yourself.

'Each firm has a different 'formula', but it comes down to basically 2 things: are you able to think quickly and thoroughly about business-like problems, and are you able to communicate them convincingly and succinctly?'

Remember, don't over-stress about answering every question perfectly. Overall, your personality, analytical abilities, and communication skills are going to be the major deciding factors.

Good luck!

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