A Complete Guide to Consulting First Round Interviews
Consulting firms typically have two different rounds of interviews before extending consulting job offers to candidates. Roughly 10% to 30% of applicants pass consulting first round interviews and move onto final round interviews.
Given these low percentages, how do you ensure that you are part of the group that passes their consulting first round interviews?
In this comprehensive article, we’ll cover everything you need to know about your upcoming first round interview to give you as much of an advantage as possible over your competition. You’ll learn:
- What to expect in consulting first round interviews
- The most common consulting first round interview questions and how to answer them
- 9 tips to ace your consulting first round interviews
What to Expect in Consulting First Round Interviews
Consulting first round interviews typically consist of two back-to-back-interviews that are 30 to 60 minutes each. Some firms may have three back-to-back interviews while others may only have one.
If you are recruiting as a student, interviews will typically be held on-campus or at a venue near campus. If you are recruiting as a working professional, interviews will typically be held in the office that you are applying for.
If the firm does not have the resources to interview you in-person, they may conduct first round interviews through the phone. This does not change the format of the interview or what questions to expect.
What is Tested
Think of first round interviews as a filter. They are a way for consulting firms to quickly identify strong, promising candidates and remove weak candidates from the application pool.
By far the most important component of consulting first round interviews is passing your case interviews. A case interview is a special type of interview that every single consulting firm uses. You’ll be placed in a hypothetical business situation and will work with the interviewer to develop a recommendation or answer to a business problem.
Case interviews assess a variety of different qualities, such as structure, problem solving, business acumen, and communication. You must demonstrate that you can solve case interviews smoothly and efficiently in order to make it onto the next round of interviews.
Another aspect of consulting first round interviews is demonstrating your fit with the firm’s culture and values. However, this is a much smaller component in determining whether you will move onto the next round.
Unless your personality or behavior raises significant red flags, the fit component of the interview should not prevent you from getting a final round interview. As long as you are polite, respectful, and friendly, you will pass this component of the interview.
Before the Interview
Some consulting firms may require candidates to complete an online assessment before their first round interview.
McKinsey, for example, requires candidates to take their McKinsey Digital Assessment, which is a video game style online simulation used to assess cognitive abilities.
BCG asks some candidates to take the BCG Pymetrics Test, which is an online assessment that assess cognitive traits through a series of twelve mini-games that take 2 to 3 minutes each.
Other consulting firms may use more standardized written assessments that assess quantitative and analytical thinking. For example, Oliver Wyman and L.E.K. both have a numerical reasoning test.
Questions Asked in the Interview
The interview will likely start with small talk with the interviewer. They’ll ask how your day is going or what you are looking forward to this week.
Then, the interviewer may ask you to walk them through your resume to get to know you better.
Afterwards, the interviewer may ask a behavioral or fit interview question. They’ll ask you to draw upon a time or experience in the past in which you demonstrated a particular skill or trait.
Instead of a behavioral or fit interview question, the interviewer may ask a motivational question instead. They may ask why you are interested in consulting or why you are interested in working at their firm.
These first one or two questions will take about 5 to 10 minutes of the interview. The remainder of the interview will be focused on the case interview.
There are two types of case interview questions that are most commonly asked in consulting first round interviews: profitability cases and market entry cases. We’ll go into detail on how to solve both of these cases in the next section.
Case interview formats may also differ among consulting firms. McKinsey uses interviewer-led case interviews in which the interviewer will lead the direction of the case and directly ask you questions to answer.
Other consulting firms, such as BCG and Bain, use candidate-led case interviews in which you’ll be expected to drive the direction of the case. You’ll need to decide what questions you want to answer and what the next step is.
After the case interview, the interviewer will save a few minutes for you to ask questions. This will conclude the interview. You will repeat this process with your next interviewer.
After the Interview
After the interview, you may choose to send a thank you email to your interviewers later that day or the next day. This is completely optional and does not have a significant impact on whether you move onto the next round.
Depending on the consulting firm’s recruiting schedule, you may hear back from them as soon as the same evening of your interview day. However, most of the time, you’ll hear back within a week.
If you hear back on the same day of your interview, you’ll likely receive a phone call. If you hear back later that week, you’ll likely receive an email.
If you don’t hear back from the consulting firm within a week, it does not mean that you did not make it onto the next round of interviews. Interviewers may be too busy to call you or they may be waiting to complete other interviews before making their decision.
Differences between Consulting First Round and Final Round Interviews
There are a few major differences between consulting first round and final round interviews.
The most important distinction is that first round case interviews are very predictable. You should expect a profitability or market entry case that is very structured.
Since the emphasis of consulting first round interviews is on case interviews, you will not need to focus too much on demonstrating fit.
The Most Common Consulting First Round Interview Questions
There are six questions you should expect in your consulting first round interview:
- Walk me through your resume
- Why consulting? / Why this firm?
- Behavioral and fit questions
- Profitability case interview
- Market entry case interview
- Do you have any questions?
Walk me through your resume
The “walk me through your resume” question is typically asked in the beginning of the interview. It is important to answer this question well in order to leave a great first impression.
When you answer this question, follow this strategy:
- Start with a strong opening statement that summarizes your areas of expertise
- Highlight your most relevant and impressive experiences and accomplishments
- Connect your experiences to why you’re interested in consulting
Why consulting? / Why this firm?
These motivational questions assess your passion for consulting or your interest in the firm. Consulting is a tough job and many people quit in their first year. It is a huge waste of resources for a firm to hire and train someone only for them to leave after a few months.
Therefore, interviewers want to know that you are seriously interested in a career in consulting with the firm.
To answer these questions, identify three compelling reasons why you are interested in consulting or the firm and use the following structure when giving your answer:
- State that consulting or the firm is your top career choice
- Provide three reasons to support this
- Reiterate that consulting or the firm best fits your professional goals
Behavioral and fit questions
Consulting behavioral questions ask you to draw upon a time or experience in the past in which you demonstrated a particular skill or trait. Examples of behavioral questions include:
- Tell me about a time when you displayed leadership
- Give an example of a time when you disagreed with your manager
- What achievement are you most proud of?
- Describe a situation in which you resolved team conflict
- What is a piece of feedback you have received from a supervisor or colleague?
Although there are hundreds of different behavioral or fit questions you could be asked, you only need to prepare 6 – 8 different stories to be able to answer almost all of them.
Pick 6 – 8 different stories from your professional and personal experiences that are the most impressive and impactful. Ensure that these stories are diverse and cover a variety of different themes, such as:
- Problem solving
- Decision making
- Interpersonal skills
When asked a behavioral question, mentally run through your list of prepared stories and select the one that is the most relevant.
Use the STAR method, which stands for Situation, Task, Action, and Result, to structure your answer to make it clear and easy to follow.
Situation: Provide a brief overview of the situation and any context needed to understand and appreciate the story.
Task: Describe what you were asked to achieve or complete.
Action: Explain the exact steps you took to meet the goal or complete the objective.
Result: Describe the outcome that your actions had by quantifying the impact and effect you had. Reflect on your learnings from the experience.
Profitability case interview
A profitability case is the most common type of case in consulting first round interviews. There is a very good chance that one of your case interviews will be a profitability case.
Profitability cases ask you to determine how to improve a company’s profitability. There are also variations that may ask you to determine why a company’s revenues have decreased or why a company’s costs have increased.
There are three steps to solving profitability cases.
Step One: Determine quantitatively, what is the driver causing the decline in profits?
Profit is revenue minus costs. So, you will need to determine whether revenues have decreased, costs have increased, or both have occurred. Afterwards, dive deeper to understand what specific revenue or cost driver is responsible for the decline in profits.
For example, on the revenue side, is the decrease due to a decrease in quantity of units sold? Or is the decrease in revenue due to a decrease in price? If quantity of units sold has decreased, is the decrease concentrated in a particular product line, geography, or customer segment?
Looking at costs, you’ll likely need to break down costs into variable costs and fixed costs to determine which specific costs have increased.
Step Two: Identify the qualitative factors that are causing the decline in profitability in the drivers you have identified in the previous step.
To do this, you’ll need to understand customers, competitors, and overall market trends.
Diving deeper into customers, have customer needs or preferences changed? Have their purchasing habits or behaviors changed? Have their perceptions of the company changed?
Diving deeper into competitors, have new players entered the market? Have existing competitors made recent strategic moves? Are competitors also seeing a decline in profitability?
Diving deeper into the market, are there any market trends that are important? Have changes in technologies or regulations impacted profitability?
Step Three: Brainstorm ideas to address the profitability issue and prioritize recommending the idea that has the largest impact and is the most feasible.
To summarize, you can use a framework similar to the following to help you solve profitability cases:
Market entry case interview
A market entry case is the second most common type of case interview in consulting first round interviews. There is also a very good chance that one of your case interviews will be a market entry case.
Market entry cases ask you to determine whether a company should enter a new market.
To recommend entering a new market, there are typically four things that should be true:
- The market is attractive
- Competition is not too strong
- The company has the capabilities to enter the market
- The company would be profitable from entering the market
You’ll need to explore each of these areas to develop a recommendation on whether the company should enter the market.
Market attractiveness can be measured by market size, growth rate, and average profit margins. The level of competition can be measured by the number of competitors, how much share each competitor has, and whether competitors have competitive advantages or differentiation.
To enter the market, the company likely needs to have the right distribution channels and synergies with existing capabilities.
Finally, you can calculate the company’s expected annual revenues and costs to determine the expected annual profits. Based on the initial costs needed to enter the market, you can calculate how long it would take the company to break even and if that timeline fits with the company’s financial goals.
To summarize, you can use a framework similar to the following to help you solve market entry cases:
Do you have any questions?
At the end of the interview, the interviewer will usually save a few minutes for you to ask them any questions that you have.
You may think that the interview is over once you finish the case, but asking questions at the end of the interview is an opportunity to connect with the interviewer on a more personal level. It is a chance to leave a positive and memorable impression.
You should ask personalized questions focused on the interviewer.
One way to get the interviewer to like you is to express genuine interest in their career and life. It is human nature for people to enjoy talking about themselves.
If you ask personalized questions to the interviewer and get them to talk about their work and life, they are more likely to have a positive impression of you.
Here are a few great personalized questions that you can ask:
- What was the most challenging case that you worked on?
- What was your favorite case?
- What do you enjoy the most about your job?
- Looking back at your first year in consulting, what would you have done differently?
- Do you plan on staying in consulting for the foreseeable future? Do you have any ideas on what you would like to do next?
- How did you become interested in consulting?
- How did you choose the industry or specialty that you are currently in?
Tips to Ace Your Consulting First Round Interviews
Below are 9 tips to help you ace your consulting first round interviews.
Tip #1: Start preparing for your interviews early
It takes time to master case interviews because many of the skills needed to solve cases can’t be learned in just a day or week. To ensure that you have enough time to prepare for your consulting first round interviews, start preparing at least two months in advance.
Tip #2: Don’t use memorized frameworks
Interviewers know when you are using memorized frameworks. Using memorized frameworks demonstrates that you are not thinking for yourself and are reliant on other people’s thinking.
Additionally, the problem with using memorized frameworks is that they often aren’t tailored to the specific case that you are solving for. Often, many of the elements in these frameworks won’t be relevant to the case. Instead, learn how to create unique and tailored frameworks for each case.
Tip #3: Structure your approach before solving any math problems
Before solving any math problems, lay out an upfront structure to walk the interviewer through your thinking and the process that you are planning to take. This helps you avoid making unnecessary calculations and prevents you from reaching a dead-end.
Tip #4: Talk through your calculations out loud
Talking through your calculations out loud helps the interviewer follow what you are doing. It makes it easier for the interviewer to jump in with feedback or suggestions to help make solving the problem easier. Additionally, talking out loud helps you reduce the number of math mistakes you’ll make.
Tip #5: Talk through the axes of charts and graphs
When the interviewer gives you exhibits to look at, the first thing you should do is read the axes. This will help you understand what information is being shown and also helps the interviewer understand your thinking process.
Tip #6: Structure your answer to qualitative questions
Just as you would use structure to create a framework and solve math problems, you should also use structure when answering qualitative questions. Your structure does not have to be complex. You can use a simple two-part framework such as the following:
- Internal / external
- Short-term / long-term
- Economic / non-economic
- Quantitative / qualitative
Tip #7: Answer the “so what?” after every question
Don’t just stop after answering a quantitative or qualitative question that the interviewer asks you. Instead, take your answer a step further by asking yourself: “so what?” How does your answer help you solve the case? What implications does your answer have on your recommendation?
Tip #8: Use a hypothesis-driven approach
A hypothesis is an educated guess based on the current knowledge or information that you have. Develop a hypothesis for what the answer to the case is to make solving the case easier. Refine your hypothesis as you get more information in the case.
A hypothesis helps ensure that you are focusing on areas that are relevant to solving the case. It also makes it easier to pull together a recommendation since you already have a working answer that has been refined several times.
Tip #9: Be enthusiastic
This may sound simple, but displaying enthusiasm is an easy way to distinguish yourself from other candidates. Being enthusiastic not only makes the interview more fun for the interviewer, but demonstrates that you are passionate about consulting.
Interviewers look for candidates that love their job and work hard. Having enthusiasm is a big indicator for these characteristics.
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