Act your interviewers age

Act your age really means act my ageWe’ve all heard the phrase “act your age” but is that acting old enough for your interview?

Undergraduate students I’ve met during summer internship recruiting over the past few weeks have all told me about their case preparation.  They’ve read ‘crack the case’ bestsellers, completed mock interviews and surfed company websites for case hints.  This makes a ton of sense, since cracking the case is critical to landing the job.  A subset of students also spent time to solidify answers to hygiene questions like “Why consulting” and “Why firm X.”  A smaller subset spent time reflecting on their leadership and teaming experiences to prepare for typical behavioral questions.

No candidate I came across however thought about how their age or maturity might be perceived during an interview.  This is interesting, because one of the first things an interviewer has to assess is whether a candidate is ‘client-ready.’  For a candidate to pass this test, they cannot come across as too young or too immature to be part of a meeting with senior client executives.

Tests of maturity are common and often directly linked to age.  For example, at 18 the law deems you are mature enough to vote and at 21 mature enough to consume alcohol.  Figuring out whether a candidate is client-ready is not as clear cut, and interviewers have to rely on indicators of maturity that are ambiguous and difficult to define.  Similarly, it is difficult for candidates to figure out what behaviors to avoid in preparing for their interviews.  For example, casual language could show that you are relaxed, calm and personable.  It could also make you seem unprofessional and immature – so what’s the right approach?

To decode this, I surveyed a group of BCG interviewers to find out what behaviors indicated a candidate was too immature for the job.  Their top responses were

  1. Use of colloquial language e.g. words including ‘like,’ ‘dude,’ ‘so cool’
  2. Too much giggling
  3. Overly animated hand gestures and/or facial expressions
  4. References made to fraternities, sororities, roommates and parents (excluding leadership examples)
  5. Too much variability in vocal tone i.e. speaking with sing-song cadences, lots of ups and downs

Other issues included ill-fitting clothes (too big or too tight) and poorly finished outfits (eg un-ironed shirts and ties).  ‘Up-speak’ was also cited as an issue.

For candidates preparing for consulting interviews, this means that practicing case and behavioral components is not enough. They also have to ensure they come across as mature. And while maturity won’t get you the job, immaturity will lose it.

This also makes sense from the perspective of running a client-facing business. To be commercially viable, consulting firms depend on their employees to build credibility with clients through their intelligence and their presence. Recent college graduates who speak colloquially, giggle and dress inappropriately can damage attempts to build credibility, even if those graduates are super-smart. To manage this risk, some firms go as far as placing prescriptive rules on how employees may dress and look.  In 2010 UBS issued staff with a 43-page manual on the do’s and don’ts of dressing, hygiene and grooming.  While most firms don’t go to this extreme, it speaks to the conservative dress cultures in place at many client-facing firms, where a polished appearance is important.

So as you prepare for your consulting interviews, remember that showing maturity beyond your years is important.  Smile and speak warmly, but don’t giggle or use colloquial language.  Be expressive and engaged, but don’t wave your hands in the air like you just don’t care.  In other words, don’t act your age.  Act your interviewers age.

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