Asia School of Business

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“I try not to think about [how many hours I spent preparing] because the answer is a bit scary,” Katherine, a Class of 2018 MBA graduate and consultant, says. After a moment of reflection, she adds, “I probably spent 40 to 50 hours over the course of a few months preparing for the interviews.”

In the ASB Podcast with Sarah-Ann Yong (on Spotify and Apple Podcasts), Katherine explains how she prepared for her interviews at McKinsey, a prestigious global consulting firm. She now works for the firm in supply chain and service operations, completing projects that take her all over the United States. She gave the following recommendations for each step in the job search process, which helped ensure her success.

Step 1: Determine the fit.

The consulting interview process is not for the faint of heart. It can be arduous, full of late-night phone interviews and long bouts of waiting. This is why Katherine’s first piece of advice is to decide whether or not consulting is the right fit for you. The job application process is only a preview for the work itself, which can be overwhelming and exhausting, with long hours and constant travel.

To determine whether she would be cut out for the work, Katherine talked to multiple employees of McKinsey and other consulting firms before she started her application. As in many business schools, the process started in the Career Development Office (CDO) at ASB. The CDO connected her with employees at McKinsey, and she also attended Kuala Lumpur-based events for McKinsey, Bain, BCG, and other firms to get a sense of the culture and what types of employees succeeded at each firm.

And although most consulting firms have a straightforward application process, the name of the game is still networking. Katherine considers this the toughest part of the process. “The key is following up and finding the people you connect with the best,” she notes. “Not only are they the ones who might help you find a job, but it’s also an indication that you might be a good person to work there and have a good experience despite the crazy hours and long travel weeks.”

Step 2: Perfect the application.

Like most companies, consulting firms have standard online applications that all applicants must complete. The submission includes a resume and cover letter, which Katherine notes are important to customize for each firm. “The cover letter should explain why you’re interested in a particular company and what qualities you have that make you the best candidate,” she explains. Those who receive a response from the firm are asked to take an aptitude test, which assesses math and language skills, before beginning the interview process.

Step 3: Nail the case interview.

Those who are invited to interview should be prepared for multiple rounds of interviews. For example, Katherine completed six case interviews before receiving an offer, as well as preliminary interviews. “You spend 20 minutes doing a behavioral interview where you’re asked about a situation when you encountered a challenge, had a difficult teammate, or made an impact,” she explains.

“Then they ask 40 minutes of case questions where you dissect a business problem, try to come up with different solutions and analyze data.” Preparing for case interviews was a lengthy process for Katherine, with practice interviews with the CDO taking place every week for the duration of the summer in addition to peer interviews. In addition, she used Vocaprep, an online tool that teaches consulting frameworks and mental math and offers practice case scenarios.

It may sound like a lot of work, especially for business school students unsure about consulting, but Katherine notes that case interview preparation can also be useful when applying in multiple industries. “Get started early with Vocaprep and practice interviews,” she says. “Even if you decide halfway through that you don’t want to do consulting or you find something else you’re excited about, the way you think because of the consulting framework is invaluable in any interview process.”

She also recommends working with peers to prepare for the interviews. Students shouldn’t view the process as a competition for a limited number of jobs, but rather a collaboration, so as many people as possible can get into the best firms. “At the end of the day, you’re going to be on a team,” she notes. “With that mindset, doing practice interviews with my peers kept things going well for me.”

Finally, she argues that having flexibility is key when scheduling interviews. Because she applied to positions in the United States, she often interviewed around 10 PM Kuala Lumpur time, or in the morning for her recruiters. Though these interviews were exhausting, the recruiters appreciated her flexibility.

Step 4: Be patient.

The full interview process for a company like McKinsey will take place over several months, which can leave students mired in anxiety and self-doubt. Katherine’s preparation and networking began over the summer. Though she filled out her application in September, she didn’t interview until the end of the fall semester or receive her offer until she was close to graduation.

Because of this, she recommends balancing job search activities between consulting and other fields, continuously networking and applying to other positions while waiting to hear back from consulting interviews. This allows students to consider other options early on in case offers from consulting companies don’t arrive.

Bonus Tip: Stand out from the crowd.

Because there are many business school students from similar backgrounds applying to consulting companies, it is important to figure out how to stand out from the crowd. Katherine believes that part of the reason she received an offer from McKinsey was her unique experience at ASB. “I had done these Action Learning projects and I had lived in Southeast Asia, which isn’t the typical profile for an MBA candidate applying to McKinsey,” she says.

“This kept them interested in my profile.” She also advises maintaining a unique personality even while completing case interviews. Despite the temptation to give a perfectly prepared answer to each question, she warns against being “too robotic.” Instead, students should think of the interview as a conversation, paying attention to the flow and rapport with the interviewer.

Bonus Tip: Use Action Learning projects to prepare.

For Katherine, the Action Learning projects at ASB were the perfect preparation for consulting. For example, during her MBA, she worked with a multinational pharmaceutical company to improve its supply chain. Looking back, she felt that the skills she developed on this and her other projects were helpful preparation for similar consulting engagements.

Further, the breadth of projects she worked on at ASB gave her the ability to learn and shift gears quickly, preparing her for the constant changes in projects, teams, industries, and functions she experiences at McKinsey. Because she had completed similar projects in a short time frame, she was able to “ramp up” more quickly.

“You get put into a new situation and have a short amount of time to define the problem, develop a game plan to solve it, build trust with your host company counterparts, and implement the solution,” she says. “Each situation is ambiguous and it is easy to lose sight of the objectives if you aren’t careful.”

On the job

Katherine believes the most rewarding aspect of consulting is the people. Over just a few months, she has seen her clients develop into better leaders, accomplish their goals, and transform their organizations. She feels energized seeing her clients’ excitement over the progress they are making. She also appreciates the teams she works with.

“McKinsey is filled with incredibly intelligent, driven, creative people who are dedicated to doing right by their clients,” she says. “I enjoy solving problems with my co-workers, cracking jokes in the team room, going out to dinner, and doing ridiculous team bonding activities.” So for Katherine, despite all of the work and waiting, the consulting interview process has paid off in a big way.