Consulting is one of the biggest sectors of interest for bright, job-hunting graduates and with the attractions of variety in both work and locations it's no surprise that top consulting firms have demanding screening processes.
Succeeding in these interviews can be tough, especially as many of them focus on an exercise that is arguably more difficult to practise: a case study.
As a consultant, you'll constantly be pushed into unchartered territory, helping your clients solve their problems - from cash flows to expansion to changing the internal structure of a company. In a case study, you'll be given a simplified business situation (normally fictional but modelled on a real case the company has worked on) and assessed on how you have the potential to deal with this calmly and logically.
Here are four little hints on how to approach case studies.
1. Work out what sort of exercise you have been given
This will help you break it down in your head and work out how you can best answer it, and what your interviewer will be looking for you to demonstrate. You might be given a brain teaser (why are manholes round?), an estimation exercise (how many cars are there in the world?) or an analysis exercise (we have started to make losses to two fast-growing competitors, how can we turn this around?).
Go prepped with a few basic macroeconomic details that you can use (e.g. the population totals for the world, the UK and the USA), and think your way through the problem in stages - just how you'd tackle an examination at university. Did you know that China's population has now reached 1.3 billion? If you thought it was roughly 1 billion, remember you've just rounded out the entire population of the US. It's these sort of macro figures you need for a graduate application, so swot up.
2. Make the most of all of the information you are given and break it down
Your interviewer will explain the exercise to you and give you any information you will need. If there is anything you don't understand, or that you would like clarified, make sure you ask the interviewer, rather than sit in silence and think you'll be able to work it out for yourself. If you need more information, you can ask for it. As you go through the exercise, make sure you take each issue or bit of information you're presented with one step at a time.
3. Silence is not golden
Don't shut your interviewer out of your thought process as you go through the exercise. Talk them through every stage and show them how you work.
Remember in GCSE or A-level Maths when you had to show all your working to get full credit for an exam answer? It's like that here: how you approach the problem and the information you have is key. In fact, there may not even be a "right" answer, just a sensible range of responses that require intelligent thought processes to get there.
It's all because communication is a vital business skill, especially on client projects, and you're being assessed on whether you have the ability to do this throughout your interview.
4. Be creative but credible
This exercise is a good way of assessing how you will cope and behave if you're put in front of a client. Once you've gained some consulting experience, you'll be expected to take on more responsibility, so you can use the case study to show your assessor you have the potential to be a real credit to their firm.
Firms use consultants to help them find solutions to problems they can't solve, so you'll need to be able to think creatively - supported by analysing the data you've been given. Suggesting a new product or strategy without being able to justify to your client why they should implement it will leave you red-faced. There may not be a "right answer" but make sure your suggestions are credible.
Finally, make sure you sum up your creative thinking and credible findings and analysis in this exercise with a strong, concise conclusion (including some next steps that the client could act upon).
So there you have a few bright little hints for cracking one of the more challenging tasks you might be presented with at an interview - whether you're looking to start a graduate career, change sectors or move from industry into consulting.