The Dreaded Case Study (What I Wish I Had Known 2 Years Ago)

Friday, October 31, 2008

"The mind is wondrous. It starts working from the second you're born and doesn't stop until you get a case question." - Marc P. Cosentino

In this post, I would like to cover the topic of preparing for a consulting interview (so dear to my heart). It is that time of the year and seeing a lot of my peers go through it has conjured up horror stories from last year. So let us dive in.

First of all, recruitment is horrible. It is one of the most emotionally exhausting things you will do in your life. Or at least up to this point in your life. For most (read: me), it is a painful experience. When I went through it last year, no matter how confident I was in my abilities and worth as a potential employee, I still ended up feeling worthless and empty after countless interviews with banks and consulting companies.

In the end, I accepted a job with an economic consulting firm, but was definitely not spared from rejections from several potential employers. It was an extremely stressful quarter, I felt insecure and emerged from it slightly emotionally destroyed (I was then cured in Paris..but that is another story). Conclusion? You are not worthless, nor are you not smart or not intelligent or not hard working or lacking in any other good qualities just because you do not get a job with a top consulting firm. You are probably good enough to work there, but the supply of those jobs is very limited. Another conclusion? You were probably not properly prepared for the interview and, most likely, have trouble with case studies.

Which brings me to my next point. If you want to get a job in a top consulting firm, you better be prepared. Because you will be competing with hundreds of your peers, who will be extremely well prepared. You can count on it. So start now, right after you finish reading this post. What do you do? Anything that will develop your business acumen. Most of the feedback I got after my case study interviews was that my business intuition was not exactly quite up there (whatever).

So start getting yours up there. Reading Case in Point is only the first step. Try to read up on business management. Take a few courses on strategy (bonus points if the class consists of reading cases and talking about them). Form a group with 3-4 people where you can meet weekly and talk about business-related issues. In your discussions, try to be as detailed as possible in your analysis of a business - focus on costs, revenue streams, product mix, industry, market, customers, strategy, etc. If your campus has a consulting club or organization, join it. The key is to do these things for a year before you start recruiting to slowly, but surely cultivate the consultant in you (not the week before interviews, like most people do).

Remember that getting a first-round interview with a consulting company is pretty easy, given you have a fairly high GPA and a background that is loosely related to consulting. It is getting the second-round interview and the offer that is the real trick.

Finally, what you should practice is speaking and thinking under pressure. Yeah, right, how do you practice that, you might ask... Well, I would again get a friend to ask your math questions, case study questions (our of Case in Point, for example) or brainteasers (try as a starting point) under pressure. That means that you friend will not be all smiles and nods and happiness, but will stare you down somberly while you attempt to use your brain. And not give any clues. At all. And also be mean. The objective is to train your brain to function regardless of the stress that is channeled at you. This will come in very handy during case study interviews.

And here is where I hope you will let me digress. Because I believe that higher education in the U.S. has screwed us over a bit in the verbal performance under pressure department. I think back to my Soviet-educated parents' accounts of the way people were tested in schools and universities. Basically, their final exams consisted of drawing a specific question about the semester's material out of the proverbial hat, taking a half hour to prepare the answer, coming up to the board in front of 3-4 teachers (or professors) and reciting their answer. It was then followed by questions from the teaching staff, which the student had to answer, thereby defending their knowledge of the material and their final grade. As scary as that sounds, it definitely taught my parents how to perform under interrogation (by teacher/professor, not KGB).

Now, all my exams in (U.S.) high school and college have consisted of writing (group presentations do not count). Which is great at the time, until you realize that it has nothing to do with the real world. In the real world, you will be forced to be prepared for a meeting, where you will present your results. Verbal performance under pressure, people. Thinking under the pressure of people staring at you, waiting for the right answer. My parents got that training and I "lucked out." And then it came back to bite me during consulting interviews.

Digression over. Conclusion: practice thinking and speaking under pressure.

Final conclusion: good luck. You are probably smart enough to work there. Even if you do not make it, do not take it personally. But if you do, congratulations!

Overcoming Internet Addiction

Thursday, October 2, 2008

Hi, my name is Irina and I am an Internet addict.

No longer can I deny that this is a problem. It first started about two years ago when I was looking for a way to consume information on the Internet. Back then, I was still (surprisingly) starving for information. Over the last two years, I have worked out a system that has consumed all my free time and has eaten into my sleep. It is no longer sustainable.

It started with answering emails as promptly as I can. Then I let Google dictate the rest of my life. I started making use of Google Reader and subscribing to any blog that caught my attention. This included economics blogs, life-in-Paris blogs and fashion blogs. I then moved on to attempting to read every article from the Gmail "Web Clip" sidebar (the one on top of your most recent messages)that caught my attention. I picked those articles based on how much the headline would spark my interest. Finally, I read all articles and blog posts for full content and understanding, which left me with no time to listen to my own thoughts.

I cannot do this any longer. This is a problem. There has to be a better system than consuming ALL the information that is coming at you, even if you have signed up for it. Now that I am back at school for my last quarter, I am busier than I have ever been in college. I still need to keep up with current events and my interests, but I have to do it in the most productive way. I need to come up with explicit rules.

So I searched for "dealing with information overload" on Google. And, of course, I got a lot of hits. I was looking for actual tips that I could implement, not simply discussions that technology is transforming the way our brain functions (there are a lot of these). Here are the few useful implementable tips, adapted from the different sources I surveyed:

  1. Commit to checking email only 2-3 times a day. Well, it is more like 10 for me right now and that is down from what it used to be. However, I now try to keep my Gmail window closed unless I am actually working directly with Gmail. I used to have this window open "just in case," but it really only resulted in me going back to it every minute or so when I wanted a break from what I was working on. Well, it is better to just look at the ceiling. It is pretty liberating to have that "Gmail - Inbox..." tab closed.
  2. Turn off GChat. I use GChat inside the browser and I used to always have it open. This leads to a great productivity loss, since I expend my mental energy on checking who is online and having meaningless exchanges with many of those people. Now, I only sign into GChat if I have the intention of speaking to someone specifically. Otherwise, off!
  3. Update RSS feed regularly. My Google Reader displays only unread posts. If there are posts that have been unread for longer than a week, chances are they are not that important. No reason to spend time on them. Hit "Mark all as read."
  4. Read off the Internet, on paper. I know that seems like a crazy idea and you are asking yourself why you would ever want to do it, considering how sweet the Internet is. Well, it helps your brain to calm down. You cannot switch from one book to another as easily as you can switch from tab to tab. It teaches your brain how to focus in case it forgot. I also find that my heart rate slows down when I read a book. Good all around.
  5. Do not try to constantly keep up on all news. The world will not stop if you fall behind. And do not be afraid to fall behind. The first two weeks after Lehman went bankrupt, I read 20 news stories about it a day. When the bailout plan came out, I read 20 news stories about it a day. Then I burned out. I could not do it anymore. So now I limit my intake of finance-related news to about 1 article a day. And miraculously, Congress is still negotiating on the bailout. I think. Or not. I do not know, because I have not read about it in a couple of days.
  6. Read a novel that has nothing to do with classes or work before going to sleep to prevent your brain from functioning at the same pace as during work. This is especially helpful for those of us who work right up until going to sleep. My current novel of choice is Emile Zola's "Thérèse Raquin." In French. Which is great, because I end up focusing on understanding the novel and trying to immerse myself in turn-of-the-20th-century Paris and the raw animalistic emotions of the main characters, which takes my mind completely off work and the Internet. Then I can fall asleep faster.
These are my first attempts at optimizing my information intake and productivity subject to the constraints of my time and energy. I think the most important realization was that I need to deal with this explicitly, make specific rules and stick to them. Or...let's be real...almost stick.

Most useful sources:
  1. How to Reduce Information Overload
  2. Dealing with Information Overload
  3. Eight tips to thriving on information overload