Interviewing can be like a blind date – you’ve never met the person before, but based on some pre-screening you’re expected to have an engaging conversation that builds connection and rapport. Chances are, the date goes poorly and you are left wondering what went wrong.
“Am I not ridiculously hot? Do I not possess a heart of gold and a laser-sharp wit?”
So you’re not actually asking these questions, but if you didn’t make it through your consulting interviews you will be wondering why. Some consulting firms offer you the opportunity to get feedback. If so, it’s an excellent idea to make time for this even in the midst of recruiting commitments, mid-terms and extra-curriculars. As James Joyce said, “Mistakes are the portals of discovery.” In this case, discovery could be critical to helping you land the job next time, whether in consulting or elsewhere.
If you weren’t able to get feedback specific to you, read on. After our first round interviews, I conducted one-hundred and eleven feedback calls for unsuccessful interviewees. Across those candidates, consistent patterns emerged. Below are the top six shortcomings that interviewers cited.
1. Long answers that failed to directly answer behavioral questions: this is when the candidate launches into a 2-5 minute monologue in response to a question like “do you enjoy working in teams?” Long answers can confuse your audience and make it seem like you’re avoiding the question. A better approach is to provide short answers, allowing the interviewer to probe for more as needed. Not only does this ensure you are providing relevant information, it also draws your interviewer into the conversation so that you can connect with them.
2. Used generic case framework not tailored to the problem at hand: when stuck for an approach, many candidates go for a framework that ‘usually works’ – a common one is Customer, Competitors, Company, and Product. The problem is that it may be irrelevant for the case you are solving. For example, if the problem is an airline struggling to run on schedule, ‘Customer’ and ‘Competitors’ is less relevant than simply getting to the bottom of the delays. Using a generic framework demonstrates an inability to think critically, so it’s important to make sure your framework only contains pieces relevant to solving the problem at hand.
3. Failed to ‘drive the case’: this is when the interviewee relies on the interviewer to prompt them, and leads to doubts about whether you can work independently on a team. For example, after laying out your framework, you should have an opinion on where to start based on your intuition and hypotheses. Don’t rely on the interviewer to direct where you should start.
4. Unable to derive insight from analysis and recommend action: so you’ve worked out that 3 manufacturing plants is optimal. Ok. Now what? Interviewees often feel a sense of relief once they’ve made it through the math, but forget that this is where the fun starts! What should the client do then? If we go from 10 plants down to 3, can we get enough skilled labor to those 3 locations? We might also need unions approval. So investigate those issues next – don’t stop at the number you’ve painstakingly calculated.
5. Slow and tedious math: this is exactly what it sounds like. If you were writing out all your zeros, doing long division by hand or copying down data, this is you. Why is it important? Consultants are often in client meetings where brainstorming requires quick calculations – there isn’t time to write out all your math in those conversations, so you shouldn’t do that in interviews either.
6. Summary was long and did not focus on key points: Many interviewers give you a chance to summarize your findings at the end of a case, or what is internally known as an ‘elevator speech.’ It is supposedly the 30-second spiel that you would give if you ran into the CEO in the elevator. This is a pretty steep challenge, and many candidates waste 2 minutes recapping their approach and analysis before even getting to conclusions. To short-circuit this, you could try something like “I’ve been looking into problem A and found that solution B is what we should go after. Doing so would have financial implications of C-D million. For a next step, I suggest E.” That is a lot to pack into 30 seconds – for summaries, less is more, so leave out some of those pieces if you deem them less important.
There are other issues – for example, a lack of a hypothesis-driven approach, immature communication, lack of enthusiasm, uncertainty about why consulting, erroneous math, incorrect use of business terms, poor business judgment….the list goes on. The ideal approach is to gain specific and honest feedback from your interviewers. Where this isn’t available, reflecting on the most common pitfalls can help. Do any of these apply to you? If so, don’t worry – you’re in good company! The important thing is to recognize your mistakes and learn from them. And don’t delay – your next blind date could be just around the corner.