Interviews at Consulting Firms

March 18, 2019

Consulting as a general label can feel very vague, especially given that it is a huge and diverse industry. There are many different types of consulting firms and areas of practice within one firm. Some management consulting firms specialize in giving advice on business strategy and operations (downsizing, acquisitions, restructuring) while others are known for their expertise in specific industries like technology.

No matter the firm or the focus area though, consulting firms mainly run on their people and the intellectual capital they possess. Consultants are branded as smart problem-solvers who are expected to deliver results and firms look for candidates with these skills:

Top 5 Consulting Skills

  1. Analytical skills with a keen problem-solving ability
  2. Interpersonal skills and an ability to work well on a team
  3. Strong communication skills – both oral and written – especially presentation skills
  4. Creativity with a leaning toward an entrepreneurial spirit
  5. Ability to cope with pressure while maintaining flexibility

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How These Skills Are Tested in Interviews
Most consulting firms have a standardized and rigid interview process which consists of several stages for an applicant. Generally, you can anticipate an initial phone screen and multiple rounds of in-person interviews, where there will be two areas of focus: case interview and behavioral/fit interview.

Phone Interview – A preliminary phone screen is usually a half-hour conversation with either an HR representative or a consultant/partner. Expect a mix of standard interview and behavioral questions. Sample questions could include:

  • Tell me about yourself.
  • Walk me through your resume.
  • Why Firm X?
  • Why City Y?
  • Why consulting?

Behavioral/Personal Fit Interview – Don’t minimize the importance of your answers during this portion of the interview. You are often being evaluated for your fit with a particular team as well as the overall culture of the firm. Many firms report using the “airplane test”. This is when the manager will ask themselves, “In addition to having the qualifications and technical skills to do the job well, would I want to be stuck on an airplane or in an airport with this person?” Sample questions could include:

  • Tell me about a time when you exhibited leadership.
  • Give me an example of a time when you solved a problem creatively.
  • What is your greatest accomplishment to date?
  • What role do you normally assume within a group/team?
  • Tell me about a mistake that you made recently.
  • What is the last book you read for fun?

Case Interview – This is often an interviewee’s most dreaded part of a consulting interview, but it needn’t be if you remember that there is often no right or wrong answer. In a case interview, the interviewer will present you with an open-ended business problem or issue and ask you to discuss it or solve the problem.

There are two types of case interview methods:

  1. ‘Go With the Flow’ Cases (most common) – Your job is to ask the interviewer logical questions that will enable you to make a suitable recommendation. You are driving the discussion.
  2. Command and Control Cases – The interviewer guides the discussion and the case has a lot of quantitative work and brainstorming components.

Cases can cover any number of topics. It will be important for you to answer using a framework. Familiarize yourself with common frameworks; many samples can be found in books like “Case in Point” or “Crack the Case” as well as fee-based websites like AcetheCase.com. For case interviews, remember to ask questions and clarify any of your assumptions. It is extremely important to externalize your internal thought process as you lay out your strategy for answering the question at hand.

 

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NIH Alumni: Where are they now? Consultant

January 27, 2014

Name: Kara Lindstrom

Job Title & Company: Consultant, Booz Allen Hamilton

Location: Rockville, MD

How long you’ve been in your current job: Two years

What do you do as a consultant?
There are tons of consultants in the DC area. We almost outnumber the number of lawyers in the metro area! Generally speaking, consultants are people who assist other organizations in a common goal. I assist the military health system to increase their knowledge on traumatic brain injury and psychological health issues by summarizing current scientific literature. I also convene working groups of experts to make recommendations on standards of care for a specific clinical area.

What are the most important skills that you utilize in your current position?
Solid critical thinking skills and strong writing skills are definitely a plus. You can learn the consulting skills but you can’t learn the science skills that you get from a PhD in science. Organizational skills are important as is problem solving. Being able to anticipate problems that could arise and coming up with strategies on how to solve them. Those are a few of the top transferable skills that I am still developing.

A common impression of consulting is that it is project-based, but also team based. How much of a focus is there on team or group work?
There is a lot of focus on groups, but I don’t work in a group with just other PhDs. On our teams, we have people that are both senior and junior to us and the idea is to work as one entity with those different levels. You may be the only expert on a particular field of science and need to teach your team about this topic. In that same project, you may be the novice on another subject. So, it is a mix of assuming the teacher role and the student role – all within the same meeting. That is an important skill to have and something I use in my everyday skillset.

What is your favorite aspect of your current job?
I like the flexibility and the fact that it is not the same thing. Similar to grad school, there is something different daily. One day, I might write a lit review and the next day, I may attend a conference or work with our clients on a strategic plan. You are constantly using different skills, so you don’t get bored. In a similar vein to how we have to assume the role of both teacher and student, I like how I get to continuously learn about new topics. I have enjoyed learning about different areas and kind of becoming an expert in a different way than I was able to in grad school.

What are some of the challenges of being a consultant?
I am lucky because I don’t really have to travel with my current job. I would say I travel once every four months. However, that is a decision that you have to make if you go into consulting: Are you willing to do the Monday – Thursday travel schedule? This issue factors into the work-life balance issue, which everyone has to contend with. You have to put limitations on what you will and will not be available for and those decisions may impact your career trajectory. This is just a fact; you just have to decide what you are comfortable with and what you value.

What has been the hardest aspect about transitioning into this career?
The general consulting skills (i.e. project and client management, product preparation) because you get used to the world of academia, so switching into a more professional environment is something that took a little bit of effort on my part. I was hired because of my subject background and so I came in thinking I was the expert, but I hadn’t had much experience making client-ready documents. Making things look pretty wasn’t something I was used to doing. In grad school, it is more about the content and in consulting content matters but it needs to be accessible to different audiences. To do this, you have to think about formatting and what level of language you will use. Most of the time, you aren’t speaking to other experts; you are speaking to the general public. It is a different kind of writing; it is not the technical writing that you do when writing journal articles.

What was your job search like?
I graduated in November 2010 and took a little time off to finish up some work. Then, I started to research what firms were available in the area and the different types of consulting firms. I needed to decide if I wanted to go into commercial/management consulting (like McKinsey) or if I wanted to go into government consulting (like BAH). I also had to decide if I wanted to leave my subject area and go into general consulting or if I wanted to stay in my subject area and consult in that field. There are a lot of different firms and I took the time to try and get to know them. First it was identifying the target; then learning the differences within them; applying to the various companies, and finally preparing for the interviews.

What was your interview like?
I went on a few different interviews, but there were two types of interviews- the behavioral interview and the case interview. The behavioral interview is more of the traditional interview where you walk through your resume and they tend to ask situational-based questions. They want to figure out if your personality and thought process are a fit for the team. Then, there is the case study interview and this can be wide-ranging. They give you a scenario and then you have to ask questions to figure out what the problem is and what you would do to solve the problem. They can also give you numbers associated with the case where you have to figure out ratios and do some mental arithmetic. For example, this drug store is having customer service issues; what percent of their profit is being affected? Then there is a subset case interview where you come in and you discuss a journal article. It is basically like a journal club. Those were the types of interviews I went through during my job search.

How did you prepare for your interview?
There is actually quite a bit of information online. There is a book called “Case in Point” which offers a lot of different strategies to help to prepare for a case interview. It is mainly geared toward an MBA type of candidate. It is good to help you understand what type of questions could come up and it gives you the general format of a case interview, but one thing that you have to factor in is that the book is preparing an MBA candidate and you are a PhD candidate.  They don’t need you to know all these finance terms; they want you to display your critical thinking skills, so again that problem solving aspect and being able to identify a problem and organize it into some logical process in order to solve it.

The other thing that I try to impress on people from NIH is that you are not interviewing with your peer group. You are interviewing with people who have no idea about the field of science. When you say I was a graduate student in this lab and I led this study, you really need to spell out what skills you used. By listing your publications, most people at NIH can look through and see what kind of a scientist you were – if you were more of a bench or a clinical scientist. But in consulting, they don’t really know that, so you need to explicitly state your transferable skills. For example, did you manage people? Did you collaborate with postdocs? Did you have any collaboration with leaders in your field? Spelling out all of those different experiences and skills are important to help your interviewers figure out what things they could use from your skill set.

Any last bits of advice?
Consulting is a very logical next step from academia. When making the transition, I kept thinking it was just a huge step, but it really isn’t that big of a jump. The people who are able to adapt to new situations end up being successful in consulting. Those who are much more black and white and need to have stability and structure don’t tend to find consulting to be a good fit for them. It has been a great move for me and I have really enjoyed it. There are lots of opportunities for individuals just coming out of NIH with a PhD to come over to consulting.