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!