Becoming a Strategy Consultant.
January 16, 2008 10:57 AM   Subscribe

I'm almost finished with my Masters in International Business and have started sending out job applications to a number of companies, nearly all of which are involved in strategic consultancy. The top companies, quite understandably, are fiercely competitive. I know I have what it takes, but I want the best chance possible of showing them that too.

I've sent out applications to some of the most well known and respected companies across Europe and I've even received some invitations to attend interviews. These interviews are infamous amongst business school students for being especially tough and often rather obscure. For example, in one book, a would-be McKinsey employee is asked to calculate the weight of a jumbo jet; another was asked to estimate the number of firemen in New York City. Obviously, they are not interested in an accurate answer (if you were, by some strange quirk, able to answer such questions, they'd probably not want you anyway) but they do want to see some innovative, clever patterns of thought.

What I want to know is, how can I best prepare myself for this kind of grueling? Sat down in the comfort of my own home, I was able to think of many possible responses to such questions but I'm not sure I could do it in an interview situation.

I'm also interested in suggestions with regard to improving general numeracy. I am rather good at working out arithmetic in my head but, to my detriment, didn't listen well enough at school so some of the things you just HAVE TO LEARN passed me by. A great deal of toil here at business school has helped me catch up a lot, but still.

I look forward to your suggestions! Feel free to contact me through private message.
posted by Zé Pequeno to Work & Money (9 answers total) 12 users marked this as a favorite
There's a couple of books around that give examples and suggestions for how to succeed at those questions, one that I remember - but am too lazy to look up - is actually about Microsoft which uses a similar system. If you good "Microsoft Interview Questions" some potentially useful stuff comes up.

Other than that, when I went through those kinds of interviews what would have helped is knowledge of some basic statistical number - i.e. the population of the US will make it easier to answer "how many people in the US are..." questions.
posted by RandlePatrickMcMurphy at 11:49 AM on January 16, 2008

I've been through this process (successfully) myself about 6 months ago for a US-based firm. In one interview, I was asked to figure out how many tennis balls could fit inside the structure of the Eiffel Tower. If you find and practice enough of these estimation questions you'll see that they frequently follow patterns, to the point that you can develop a loose process to follow each time.

A useful trick is to break the question down to a manageable number of sub-questions and solve for these separately. A graphical representation of this hierarchy, such as a tree, is extremely useful for keeping track of where you are in the question and prevents you from getting lost as you get into the algebra. Keeping things relatively small and organized (both conceptually and on the paper) will help keep you calm in front of the interviewer.
This trick can also be helpful in solving the more involved case questions.

If you haven't already, pick up and read as many cases as possible. Grab a friend, even one not of business bent, to practice with. You can get a lot of benefit from solving a case out loud and in front of somebody, even if they can't imitate the piercing glare and sardonic style that most consulting interviewers seem to have mastered. Working through 200 cases on your own, and 25-50 with a partner would not be an unrealistic target.

When you are really comfortable with the types of cases and the frameworks, you'll be able relax a lot more and be able to focus on you interviewer. Working through consulting interviews is really a partnership, albeit a lopsided one, where your interviewer has to give you the information you need and guide you through to a conclusion. Listen carefully for clues! Usually, you can gain a lot of information from the tone, phrasing, and word choices of the interviewer. Don't be afraid to change tack if body-language is giving you a unmistakable sign. If you're able to effectively gauge your interviewer, you'll find that cracking cases is actually easier with an experienced consultant guiding you.

Finally, some times your interviewer will be inattentive or outright rude. Sometimes, this is part of the interview, sometimes they're just bored or naturally jerks. Either way, don't take it personally and don't get flustered - after all, when you get the job you'll experience both of these situations frequently.

Best of luck in your job hunt!
posted by There's No I In Meme at 11:50 AM on January 16, 2008 [2 favorites]

Response by poster: That was an EXCELLENT response, There's No I In Meme. I'd never thought about doing so much preparation - 250+ cases, wow! I suppose it's a case of just doing so many that it becomes second nature. In terms of the actual interview, I've heard stories of interviewers scrunching up balls of paper, for example, and throwing it in the candidate's face, just to unnerve him. I'm worried about how I'd react to that. I'm quite opinionated in general and, and though I wouldn't go crazy, I can imagine coming out with some kind of insulting wisecrack. How do they expect you to react in such circumstances? Somehow, being restrained and ignoring it seems to be to show weakness and insecurity - or maybe it's just me. Do they expect you to laugh at them and say something funny?
posted by Zé Pequeno at 12:08 PM on January 16, 2008

I interviewed with McKinsey in 2001. They weren't for me and didn't make me an offer in any event. Horses for courses.

Be prepared for less abstract and more business orientated hypotheticals. I was asked how a chain of petrol stations (BP, I think) could increase its volume and margins on non-petrol sales. Correct answers included (but were no means limited to) partnering with supermarkets, good in store point of sales marketing materials, traditional above the line marketing activity, a focus on the retail of premium (high mark-up) food items, good quality in store hot food and drink, more attentive sales staff, better supply chain management to minimise empty shelf space and a whole host of other reasons I can't now recall.

Remember you're applying to them to be a 'business analyst'. Of course they want, and you want to prove yourself to be, whizz-bang clever but you've got to couple it to commercial awareness. They are after all going to be asking you to do things like analyse price elasticity on the job and not how many barbers there are in London.

And as an aside, if there is a brick on the table and you're invited to throw it out of the window don't get flustered - open it first.
posted by dmt at 12:16 PM on January 16, 2008

I've heard stories of interviewers scrunching up balls of paper, for example, and throwing it in the candidate's face, just to unnerve him.

Urban myth. If it were true, would you really want to work for a company that treated prospects that they're competing for in such a way, much less their staff?

Keep the 'war for talent' in mind. Don't let it go to your head but you're interviewing them too. They're in competition for the very best people and they've got to put their best foot forward to get them through the door. If Bain/McKinsey/etc started doing this to prospects people would simply go and work for their competitors.
posted by dmt at 12:19 PM on January 16, 2008

How do they expect you to react in such circumstances? Somehow, being restrained and ignoring it seems to be to show weakness and insecurity - or maybe it's just me. Do they expect you to laugh at them and say something funny?

They are testing you to gauge how you react to and handle the uncertainty of sitting in front of a client who doesn't know what he wants and is paying you a lot of money to tell him. So, they want to see if you can remain professional and on your feet when strange, illogical, confusing, preposterous or just plain difficult situations - either personality, politics or business oriented - are plopped in your lap. You probably know (or you will learn quickly) that clients and their problems come in all shapes and sizes and many clients feel that the money they are paying you means that you can pull magic out of your asshole with minimal information while standing in front of the VP that is fucking the CEO and who knows nothing other than how to do that but is tasked with implementing new PeopleSoft system globally. The point of these questions and these tactics is to see if you can handle it. So, they expect you to react by remaining calm, managing expectations, providing answers that are politick but perhaps non-committal, and otherwise keeping your game face intact. It's rather simple if you've been in the business world before. If not, just remember this: THE CLIENT IS KING.
posted by spicynuts at 12:34 PM on January 16, 2008

Having re-read that, the simple answer is: THEY WANT YOU TO THINK ON YOUR FEET.
posted by spicynuts at 12:36 PM on January 16, 2008

And as an aside, if there is a brick on the table and you're invited to throw it out of the window don't get flustered - open it first.

Are you telling me that if you flung it out the window in a hail of shattered glass and then answered any questions with, "It worked, didn't it?" it would be a bad thing?
posted by averyoldworld at 1:29 PM on January 16, 2008

I went through the consulting interview process as well, and ended up having about 10 different cases thrown at me over the course of three rounds of interviews. They ran the gamut in terms of different styles and types of problems.

The ones that were the most interesting to me (all of which were real situations they had been in) -

1. An Asian beer company is looking to increase market share, but the industry is tightly regulated by the government of that country. What can they do to increase their share of the market?

Each response I gave, which included answers on a variety of distribution tactics, novel marketing techniques, promotions, exporting, and several other areas was shot down, and I was told that the government would not allow it. After about 15 minutes of throwing every idea I could at my interviewer I was stumped and frustrated basically said that I was uncertain whether attempting to circumvent the strict government regulations was the best use of their time and money, and for them to consider either expanding to a less regulated industry or finding a way to get what they could out of that country.

My interviewer then told me that they had similar frustrations when they were actually working for this client, and had been unable to do much for them, but that he liked the question because it was helpful for consultants to realize that sometimes nothing can be done to make a situation significantly better, and that continuing along a particular course of action can be futile at times.

The takeaway - keep your cool, don't get frustrated when every course of action you suggest comes back at you as impossible or wrong (especially in the interview). They want to see how you can handle that type of situation. Sometimes recognizing that resources are better spent elsewhere can provide more value to a client than actually solving their initial problem.

2. Two roommates sharing an apartment, each likes the temperature at a different level at night versus in the day. How do you accommodate both of them? That was all I was given.

I first asked for a floor plan of the apartment, and got a diagram drawn for me. Then I asked about which way the doors swung and also found out that they both needed doors open during the day and closed at night. I ended up getting their full routines, why they preferred the temperature they did and the locations of air and heating vents through the apartment. After trying all sorts of things to make it work, including having different doors in the apartment opened or closed to direct the flow of cool or hot air (depending on the season), I asked if it were possible to adjust the vents to only be partially open or closed.

It turns out that this could be done and I then did calculations on what percent each vent would need to be open, assuming a variety of initial temperatures in the house, and depending on the setting of the heating and air system.

It turns out that my interviewer was an industrial engineer and likes to throw that very different kind of question at people to see how they react in novel situations. Although having an engineering background gave me a bit of an advantage in this problem, he said that some people didn't even get as far as getting a map of the room, and instead go straight to trying to negotiate a way for both roommates to compromise (although it was repeatedly stated that we should assume this was not possible).

In addition to the full 'case studies' there were a number of estimation problems such as those referenced above. The ones that stick out from my interviews were the number of golf pencils in the US and the total number of tires worldwide. Here, all they care about is the process and how you get to your answer. Demonstrate that you can think creatively about a problem, and that you can make a few estimations and run with them. You will face different but similar problems all the time as a consultant, where a client will throw something at you and will expect an answer almost immediately, even if its not something you've thought about before. They are definitely looking for someone who can think on the fly about any topic and come up with a reasonable answer, even if it is not perfectly correct.

Also, don't be afraid to ask for a minute or two to jot a few notes down on any problem, and feel free to stall briefly for time by repeating the details of the question back to ensure you have things like numbers correct for your mini-analysis. It may feel awkward to sit there writing for a few minutes, but collecting your thoughts can make a big difference.

Also one anecdote from a friend who eventually accepted a position at a different firm - Ten new recruits had been hired and were taken out to dinner by the firm to celebrate. Nice steakhouse, some of the partners were there, and the wine and drinks were flowing liberally. They finish dessert and the partners say they have a problem for them, and that they need a solution and a presentation by 7am. One of the ten didn't make it in to his first day before he was let go.

Moral: Be prepared for anything in the interviews, as you never know who is watching what you do.

A little long I guess, but hopefully you can take away some good advice - if you have any follow up q's feel free to MeMail me.
posted by langeNU at 3:17 PM on January 16, 2008 [1 favorite]

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