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What to expect in consulting interviews
Let’s not sugar-coat it: consulting interviews are one of the most rigorous interview processes around. Here’s what to expect in the behavioural and case study interviews.
When recruiting, consulting firms usually hold two or three rounds of interviews, with one to four interviews per round. The further you progress, the more senior your interviewer is likely to be, so if you find yourself meeting with a partner you can be confident you’ve made the final shortlist!
There are two main types of interviews used: the behavioural interview and the case study interview. Some firms also begin with what is known as the fit interview, but most of the time this is included as the first part of a behavioural interview.
The behavioural interview
Your first interview is likely to be with one of the firm’s analysts or associates, and will typically last 30 – 45 minutes.
At this early stage the interviewer wants to get a feel for who you are – your personality, the way you communicate and your interpersonal skills. While engaging in a discussion about your resume and supporting material, the interviewer will be weighing up whether you are a good fit for the firm and its culture.
Rookie error #1 is the candidate who simply regurgitates their resume. Instead, choose the most relevant points to expand on, highlighting examples where you used key consultancy skills that we’ve discussed here.
Consultants work with all kinds of people, so the interviewer wants to see that you are likeable and approachable, not to mention tolerable in the lunchroom! Keep your manner professional but relax and let your personality come through. Find opportunities to mention outside interests or even crack a joke!
During this ‘get to know you’ stage, it’s important to show the interviewer what sets you apart from other candidates. This might be your impressive diversity of skills, strong passion for a specific area or your willingness to take risks and go that extra mile. Ultimately, the firm aims to hire a team of unique individuals who together cover a broad range of skills, qualities and interests, so have a good understanding about what makes you different and how you could add value.
The second part of your interview is likely to take the format of a standard behavioural interview.
Behavioural interviews are founded on the theory that past behaviour is the best predictor of future behaviour. They involve the interviewer asking questions to discover how the candidate behaved in prior situations. This behaviour, and the skills and competencies it uncovers, allows the interviewer to get a sense of the candidate’s suitability for the role at hand.
Instead of asking questions such as “What does teamwork look like?” which only requires the candidate to hypothesise about a skill rather than show their true capacity in that skill, the interviewer will ask questions such as “Tell me about a time you worked in a team. What skills did you use to overcome conflict or reach a unified course of action?”. This prompts the candidate to provide information about their real-life actions, rather than their thoughts.
How do I prepare for a behavioural interview?
Even though you won’t know exactly which questions you'll be asked, it's easy to work out what the recruiter ultimately wants to see. They want to see how you behaved in situations where you used key consulting skills and qualities. This gives you the opportunity to prepare examples from your life that can then be adapted during your interview.
Two ways to prepare for this are:
- Make a list of consulting skills and qualities, and then find examples from your life where you have demonstrated these.
- Create or find mock interview questions, and then formulate answers showcasing times in your life where you utilised key consulting skills.
To complete the first step, have a closer look at the role description you are applying for. It will often state exactly what skills the firm wants to see. It’s also worth checking out the firm’s website in case it states further qualities that are central to their vision. Lastly, look over the skills and qualities we’ve compiled here. Then you’ll be ready to think of interesting real-life examples where you utilised these.
If you’d prefer to prepare with mock interview questions, there are a wealth of books and websites out there that can help you. If you’d like to create your own questions, we suggest completing the first step above and then weaving your list of consulting skills into your mock questions.
Examples might be:
- Describe an experience where you were a leader. What did you do well? How did this affect the outcome?
- Talk to me about a time where you used logic and judgement to solve a problem.
- Tell us about an experience where you failed. What were your weaknesses?
- Provide an example of a time where you had too many things to do. How did you prioritise your tasks?
- How have you handled a situation where you have had a conflict with someone? How did this make you feel?
- When have your analytical skills helped you overcome an obstacle?
How do I answer these questions?
The STAR technique is a fantastic way to answer interview questions. This acronym reminds you to explain the Situation or Task that relates to the question, the Actions you took (which highlight your skills) and the Results that came about because of these actions. Some people also know this technique as the SAR (situation, action, result) or PAR (problem, action, result) method.
When preparing practice answers, make sure you provide enough information for the scenario to make sense, while still being concise. You should have a clear understanding of which real-life examples highlight which skills, and how to walk someone through these step by step.
By the time you reach your interview, your goal is to have a variety of stories up your sleeve showing you in various situations and roles. As you answer your interview questions, the interviewer will be assessing how you listened to their question, formulated your response, and presented your answer.
Tips for answering behavioural questions
- Make sure you answer the question that is asked! It’s easy to go on a tangent, especially when you are nervous. Preparation is paramount.
- Speak with confidence. You are being asked about your experiences. There is no greater expert than you.
- Practice speaking your answers aloud (and preferably with someone) to ensure they have a clear beginning, middle and end. Don’t ramble!
- Draw on experiences from university projects, employment, volunteer work, community life etc.
- Avoid criticising others. If you are asked about how you dealt with someone who wasn’t pulling their weight, or a conflict with a colleague, focus on ways you persuaded someone, validated their ideas, understood that everyone had something to offer, diffused the situation etc.
- Think widely about any leadership opportunities you might have had – class projects, sporting teams or family duties. If you get stuck finding leadership examples, think of times where you have taken initiative.
- When talking about your weaknesses, give these a positive spin by highlighting how you are actively working to improve the issue.
Case study interviews
All firms use case study interviews in one way or another.
In a case study interview the candidate is given a real-life or fictional business problem which they are required to analyse and problem-solve. Typically firms begin recruitment with a behavioural interview and then move on to a case study interview, but there are select firms who provide candidates with a case study straight up - weeding out the competition before they even get to know them! Successful candidates are likely to work on a number of case studies throughout their interview rounds, in front of increasingly senior members of the firm. Each of these interviews can last between 20 minutes and 2 hours.
During these interviews, candidates are expected to quickly comprehend a business problem, analyse information and provide recommendations. This process allows the firm to see how a candidate thinks through a problem, applies logic, uses problem-solving skills, works under pressure, formulates solutions and communicates their ideas. It can also provide an indication of mathematical skill and commercial knowledge.
How are case studies presented?
At many firms the interviewer will explain the case verbally, requiring the candidate to talk through their problem solving process on the spot and without preparation. In this instance the candidate may be fed further information in response to the questions they put forward. It’s important to note in these interviews that firms do not always expect candidates to reach the ‘right’ solution, but instead are focusing on the candidate’s thought processes and reasoning.
Some firms will provide the candidate with a written case study in advance, allowing them anywhere between 5 minutes to 1 day to prepare. In this case, they may be given a series of questions to be considered before the interview.
As well as individual case study interviews, some firms also conduct these in groups allowing the firm to see a candidate's teamwork skills and which type of role they naturally take on in a group. In this situation, candidates are likely to be given a formal presentation of the case in person or via video.
Tips for case study interviews
Case study interviews are designed to be tricky! There are also several types of problems you might be asked to work on, including business cases, guesstimates and brainteasers. That’s why we’ve written a separate article about case studies here.
In the meantime, remember that your problem-solving process is as important as any solutions or suggestions you put forward. The firm doesn’t expect you to have all the answers, but they need to see your analytical potential. Talk through your processes and focus on your reasoning. If you make a mistake, show the firm that you can let it go and move on.
And although industry knowledge is not a prerequisite, it could give you an added edge over your competition. So speak to people in the industry or at the very least, get yourself up to date with the news. Have a good understanding of how current events are affecting the market and take the time to form well-thought out opinions on these.
Lastly, when you are about to enter your interview, remember that consulting firms are not just looking for people with the highest IQ! They are seeking candidates with a mixed bag of qualities: people who are polite, well-presented, well-informed, intelligent, curious, driven, passionate, and interesting.