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How to Ace a Consulting Interview: Tips and Tricks

Today’s guest author is Jennifer Malach, a veteran management consulting recruiter and career coach, who is giving you the inside scoop on how to prepare for the management consulting interview process.
How to Ace a Consulting Interview: Tips and Tricks

After 16 years in corporate recruiting at one of the world’s leading professional services companies, I’m frequently asked about the management consulting interview process and what is involved. Each consulting firm may consider different aspects of someone’s education, background, and experience, but more often than not, most candidates are interviewed up to five times before an offer is (or is not) made.

Some firms conduct multiple interviews on the same day (either one-to-one or panel style) or combine the interviews with phone conversations, in-person discussions or even webcam interviews.

Let’s go through the process of a consulting interview.

The Consulting Interview: An Overview

Five interviews? Are you kidding me?

Nope, I am not kidding you.

Typically, the entire interview process begins with a Screening Interview (usually with a recruiter) to review your resume and overall background/experience to ensure you meet the basic qualifications for the position. Today, most of these interviews are conducted on the phone for about 20-45 minutes depending on your level of experience.

If all goes well, you would meet with someone for a Situational/Behavioral/Fit Interview that focuses on your past experiences and how they may relate to similar situations you could face at the company. Ultimately, this interview is to help determine whether you have been able to successfully manage various situations at school or work that may arise at a future client. You can provide examples of your experiences from class or work depending on your level of experience. This conversation could be between 1-2 hours.

In addition, you could also be given a Case Interview (this is mostly for more strategy-type consulting positions) in which you would be provided a client’s “problem” and asked to analyze the information and draw conclusions/make recommendations. The Case Interview focuses on your problem-solving and analytical skills as well as your business insight and communication skills. You may be asked to talk through the case and recommendations and/or provide a written summary. All in, it could take a few hours.

Afterward, a Skills Interview is conducted in order to assess your technical or functional qualifications required for the position. Here, you would provide specific examples of when you had to utilize these skills (again, at work or school) to demonstrate how they are applicable to the role and level. This meeting could be 60-90 minutes based on your level of experience.

Finally, a Confirming Interview with the group/department lead gives you the opportunity to demonstrate how your skills and personality will be a fit for the team and company. This is the time for you to address any outstanding questions or concerns and discuss the type of work you will be doing. And now, you wait for the offer decision.

Case Interview vs. Fit Interview

Remind me, how do I know if I’m in a “fit” interview or a “case” interview?

A Situational/Behavioral/Fit Interview focuses on your actual past experiences so the interviewer can learn more about what you actually did (and therefore how you “behaved”) in specific situations. The idea here is that if you were able to successfully navigate a specific situation in the past, then you would be able to manage a similar one in the future at that company (i.e., “fit” into the company).

The Case Interview focuses on what you would do in a given situation to help resolve a client’s business challenge in order to help the interviewer understand your thought process, communication skills and business insight. This interview is based more on a hypothetical business issue that you may face at a real live client engagement!

OK, I get it. But what are 3 “fit” questions that I should be most prepared to answer?

  • Tell me about a project engagement with a difficult client.

Here, the interviewer wants to know that you are able to remain professional throughout any type of interaction with a client and be able to handle this particular kind of situation with poise. You want to explain the overall situation, what your role was, specific challenges you faced and how you addressed them, action items you owned, and the overall outcome of the situation. This applies to all situational interview questions. Be prepared to go into more detail after answering the initial question.

  • Describe a time when you demonstrated leadership.

As a project team lead or manager, leadership skills are expected. Were you able to collaborate with and lead a multi-cultural team to support a global client? Was there a major client issue that you resolved without a specific direction or much information from others? For students or new graduates who may not have a work-related project experience, you can still convey how you have demonstrated leadership using class project work or extracurricular work. It’s also a great way to show that you are involved in other activities outside of school or work.

  • Tell me about your most recent major accomplishment.

Here is your opportunity to show the value you can bring to the team and company! Were you able to deliver exceptional service to a client? Did you effectively collaborate with others (at work/in class) to reach a goal or target by leveraging the appropriate resources? Have you needed to mitigate risk and quickly resolve issues? Were you able to build strong relationships with stakeholders and clients to create a future for continued engagements? This is the best way to demonstrate why you should be hired.

Read the Big Interview guide to preparing interview stories for these and other behavioral questions.

What else do interviewers want to know about me? What other questions can I expect in a consulting interview?

Be prepared to answer the following (sometimes multiple times throughout the interview process- it’s good practice!):

Tell me about yourself.

Interviewers tend to ask this question first to get a high-level understanding of your career history and progression before digging deeper for details. Take no more than a few minutes to provide your answer. However, your response should provide insight to your education, training, and experience as well as applicable and transferrable skills. Don’t forget to highlight major accomplishments!

Articulate how you have grown professionally with each new project or challenge, and do not be modest in discussing your achievements. This is your chance to tell your story and sell yourself!   You should practice out loud so it flows naturally during the interview.

For example, you can respond: “After receiving my Bachelor’s degree in Accounting and quickly progressing from Auditor to Accounting Manager with XYZ Company, I gained extensive project management and supervisory experience by acting as the PMO for the department’s financial system transformation and helped reduce costs by $100,000. I then joined ABC Company and partnered with Fortune 1000 clients in leading their strategy development, financial system transformation, and business process reengineering efforts. I was promoted from Manager to Senior Manager within 18 months and completed my Six Sigma Black Belt soon after.

Most recently, I oversaw a cross-functional project team of 15 for a global insurance company that helped reduce overall costs by $5,000,000 through the implementation of a proprietary global financial system and process automation.”

Why do you want to work in management consulting?

As a student or new graduate, this answer does not have to be super detailed. A general, high-level response is expected. However, what can make a student or new graduate stand out from other entry-level candidates is demonstrating your understanding not just of the management consulting practice, but what the specific (entry-level) role may entail.

You can choose three or four areas that get you most excited about management consulting and explain why they resonate with you. Make sure you are current on the most recent industry news as reference.

For example, you can respond: “Consultants help businesses improve their performance and grow which can result in an increased value of the business for its shareholders and other stakeholders. I understand that most new management consultants typically spend the majority of their time at a client site conducting research, analyzing and synthesizing data and presenting their results to the project team.
Getting the opportunity to travel and collaborate with different clients and projects teams is exciting to me. I get both professional and personal satisfaction from helping clients address their challenges and solve business problems. It’s never boring. I learn new skills with every project and look for new ways to apply them to other engagements. It’s important to show clients that they are getting value for their dollar. Being part of an industry that is strategic, innovative, and transformative is very rewarding.”

Why do you want to work at this firm?

Most interviewers ask this question to ensure candidates have done their research on the firm.  Before your very first interview, you should understand the company’s history, mission, and vision and be able to articulate how your education, skills and experience can add value in meeting the company’s goals.  For example, you may mention a press release about the company expanding into the government market and that you have the industry knowledge and recent experience in the field.

You can then highlight your related project work in that area and the relevant skills that would be required by the company to achieve this goal. This demonstrates what specific value you could add to the company as it grows into this new space.

In addition, it’s important to be able to differentiate the company’s offerings over their competition. Do your research. It’s not just about stating facts and figures (which are still crucial to know). If the company has recently been in the news, ask questions about the topics covered and turn the answer into more of a conversation with the interviewer. Understand who is on the leadership team, describe how you can fit into the company culture, and explain which new offerings, technology, or industries you’re eager to learn more about and help grow.

What are your biggest strengths and weaknesses?

This is the time to sell yourself and highlight your strengths! Adding thoughtful insight as to WHY you chose those particular strong points will help you stand out from other candidates. By structuring your response in this way, you can incorporate how you possess those qualities and strengths that make you a successful management consultant.

For example, “My strengths include strong communication and listening skills, exceptional analytical thinking, and the ability to combine quantitative math skills with business insight. First and foremost, interpersonal and communication skills are needed to build a professional, trusting relationship with the client and project team. It’s also crucial to demonstrate analytical thinking with an open mind to allow flexibility and creativity in problem-solving for the client. And having the ability to interpret data and synthesize results in order to devise the best recommendation for the client is essential.”

On the flip side, it’s important to choose your “greatest weakness” wisely. You want to tell a story about something that you have been able to improve upon quickly, illustrate how you took the criticism with grace, and learned from the experience.

For example, “I was implementing a new financial system at a client and was on point to present a final overview of the system to the Training Manager before she started the formal training program with the client. I created a slide show and presented the content. I felt great. However, after I finished, she looked at me totally confused. She said the content was spot on, but I was talking so fast and moving around so much that she could not follow along. I guess I was so excited about the material and rolling out the system that I forgot to mind my presentation skills. I stepped out of the room to take a deep breath, collect my thoughts, and present again. That moment changed everything. Something so small like spending five minutes clearing my head before beginning the presentation had made a world of difference on that day and every day since.”

How has your experience prepared you for a job in management consulting?

Management consultants help businesses improve their performance and grow. They offer objective advice, expertise and recommendations in solving problems, and developing and implementing improvements to a business’s management, processes, operations and technology in line with its strategy. This results in an increased value of the business for its shareholders and other stakeholders. I understand that most new management consultants typically spend the majority of their time at a client site conducting research, analyzing and synthesizing data and presenting their results to the project team. Given the opportunity to collaborate with a team and help deliver a solution for the client is exciting!

Think about yourself as a product that can fulfill a need for the consumer (company). What is unique about you? What experience, education, projects, etc. are relevant and unique to providing the company with your service and expertise in order to support their clients?

What I truly want to know is what my interviewer is thinking.

Once your consulting interview begins and you are asked about your career history (are you qualified?), your interest in the company (did you do your research?), various situational questions (have you been down this road before and were you successful?), and case-study questions (do you have strong analytical and quantitative skills?), your interviewer is really thinking…

  • Would I want you on my project team? Do you have a good attitude to be a team player?
  • Can I put you in front of a client? Do you have the confidence and professional presence needed?
  • Are you able to clearly articulate a recommended plan by summarizing key points along with the relevant detailed data?
  • Are you enthusiastic to learn? How quickly can you come up to speed?
  • Can you think on your feet and clearly communicate your logic and thought process?
  • Have you done your research to learn about the company?
  • Are you really interested in this position/company or just looking for a (bigger) paycheck?
  • Will you be motivated to work hard here if hired?

You need to make sure your presence, communication style and answers all point to “Yes” for all of these important questions.

Great. I can do that. What should I NOT do in a consulting interview?

Do not:

  • Be late for the interview.
  • Use inappropriate language (verbal and non-verbal).
  • Dress unprofessionally or inappropriately.
  • Answer a phone call or text.
  • Seem disinterested in the conversation or act arrogant.
  • Complain about past job or criticize a former boss/colleague/professor.

Other things that can “turn off” the interviewer:

  • Not showing how you learned from a situation that did not go as planned.
  • Not providing specific examples to demonstrate your skills/experience.
  • Not being prepared to discuss your understanding of the position and the firm or having any relevant questions to ask at the end of the interview.
  • Not demonstrating the confidence and knowledge to answer the questions in a specific way (being too generic) and sharing irrelevant and unrelated or personal information.

Phew! When is it my turn to ask the questions?

At the end of each interview, the interviewer expects you to ask insightful questions. Remember that your questions are also giving your interviewer information about you.

Always have at least 5 questions ready.

  1. “What brought you to this company and what makes you stay here?” This will help you gauge how the interviewer feels about the company and its culture.
  1. “If you could improve anything about your role, what would it be?” A great question that can be used to determine what the interviewer really likes and doesn’t like about his/her job or the company.
  1. “What constitutes success as a management consultant/on a project/at this company?”

This question can help you understand the job expectations and whether the position is the right fit for you.

  1. What upcoming projects do you think could use my industry knowledge, skills, and experience?” This can help you figure out if the interviewer is already thinking about where you can be staffed based on your relevant experience.
  1. “What is the next step in the process?” A great question to show how eager you are to continue the conversation.

Don’t forget to follow up with a “Thank You” email within at least one day of the interview, and instead of sending a stock letter indicating your thanks and excitement to hear about next steps, write a more thoughtful note referencing specific points from your conversation. Also, send a personalized LinkedIn invitation to connect with the interviewer for future networking opportunities.

If you manage the process right, your interviewer should be thinking about you well past your meeting and figuring out how to match your skills with what the company needs.

Main Photo Credit: David Baxendale

Pamela Skillings
Pamela is the co-founder of BigInterview and an expert interview coach on a mission to help job seekers get their dream jobs. As an HR authority, she also provides consulting services to companies wishing to streamline their hiring process.

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