Management consulting has long been one of the primary career choices for MBA graduates. A quarter of Harvard Business School’s Class of 2016 went into consulting, second only to financial services (at 28%). But what do consultants actually do, and how can you get a job at an elite consulting firm?
The most sought-after roles in consulting have traditionally been in strategy work. Stylized in books and shows like House of Lies, consultants traditionally provided long-term strategic direction to an organization’s CEO. But strategy consultants were caught flat-footed during the 2008 financial crisis, when they were poorly placed to help guide organizations through the darkness. Struggling firms were unwilling or unable to pay top-dollar for their work, and consulting firms had to apply their skills towards reforming their own businesses.
Today, consultants can no-longer deliver a flashy PowerPoint presentation and pocket an impressive salary. The industry has moved towards operations, implementing ideas, improving internal processes, and other tasks not traditionally in the realm of “strategy consulting.” While these fields are traditionally considered less sexy than strategy, consulting giants like McKinsey now generate the lion’s share of their revenue from non-strategy work.
To match this change in their industry, consulting firms increasingly look for candidates who possess strong analytical and problem-solving skills. People often ask me if this means Excel skills – and while, yes, being proficient in Microsoft Excel is definitely a bonus, most elite firms tend to (correctly) believe that Excel skills can be taught on the job.
The traditional consulting job interview includes cases, of which there are two kinds. Some consulting firms ask simplified versions of real-world problems. Candidates are then expected to think analytically about an appropriate framework for solving the problem, ask clarifying questions if needed, and then propose and justify a solution. For example, I was once asked how a firm could increase its profits. A successful answer to this question would have involved breaking profits into revenue and costs, and approaching each separately. Revenue consists of the price of goods and the quantity sold; what could the firm do for each of these? What about costs?
On the other hand, market-sizing questions often require a little more creative thought. Consider the question, “How many ping pong balls do you think can fit in an airplane?” The interviewer is not looking for the “correct” answer, they are looking for how the candidate approaches a complicated problem and breaks it into smaller and manageable parts.
When I was interviewing candidates for consulting positions, one of my favorite market-sizing questions to ask was, “Picture an ice cream store near your university, and tell me how much profit they make.” Of course, I didn’t know anything about the candidate’s university or its market for ice cream; the candidate was free to make up any (reasonable) assumptions such as neighborhood population to estimate foot traffic. Successful candidates needed to (1) break profit into revenue and costs; (2) break costs into major drivers such as rent, labor, and raw materials; (3) understand that revenue for ice cream stores is probably highly seasonal; and (4) not make any glaring calculation errors.
One key to case interviews is to recognize that the interviewer is a resource – it’s ok to ask the interviewer if an estimate seems reasonable and ask them for feedback. In the above example, very few candidates can accurately estimate commercial rent, and I didn’t expect them to. But a successful candidate can gut-check their final answer to judge whether it is too high or too low, and make adjustments accordingly. For example, an ice cream shop that loses $1 million per year is probably incorrect because the shop would have gone out of business a long time ago; what assumptions can we revise to create a better estimate?
Despite rapid changes in the industry, consulting remains a rewarding and lucrative career option for both undergraduate and graduate students. But the key to securing a consulting career is lots of case interview practice. Luckily, these thought exercises can be tremendously fun to practice – indeed, successful candidates often tremendously enjoy the interview process.
Nearly all universities have consulting clubs that can offer guidance and practice. Find friends or alumni who can answer questions about the firm, its culture, and the interview process. And anyone who has spent more than two years at a consulting firm has probably interviewed candidates; ask them to run you by one of their favorite cases. But most of all, enjoy the process! Case interviews and preparation can be a lot of fun. If you enjoy the interview process, you’ll likely enjoy the actual job.
Sasha Ramani, CFA, is a summer intern at MPOWER Financing from the Harvard Kennedy School. He spent five years as a management consultant with Mars & Co and Deloitte.
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