From Ad Agency & Non-Target School to McKinsey Offer

I wanted to share this field report from a F1Y who took a non-traditional route into consulting, had to prepare without the resources available on campus, and faced numerous disadvantages but still secured an offer.

Field Report:

You have undoubtedly changed my life. And I mean that in the most sincere, non-cliché way possible. It is because of the resources you have made available online that I was able to secure an offer from McKinsey as a Business Analyst... which I signed and returned yesterday.

I have a unique background, and am what I consider an unlikely candidate for a top 3 consulting firm. First of all, I have a liberal arts degree from [U.S. university] (a US top 40 that is not on any firm's target school list).

Second, after college, I got a job at [ad agency], a top advertising agency, but not exactly a common (though not unprecedented either) route to management consulting. It was my achievements during my first two years [there] that I think caught McKinsey's attention, and prompted them to reach out and ask me to apply. 1. I got promoted two levels at once right before my 2-year anniversary, and 2. I led the program strategy for a new practice area at [the ad agency], and was covered in the New York Times. (And maybe, 3. The fact that I work on [large client] which is a huge name).

But after I made it past the impressive resume part and the first 30-minute personal experience interview, I had to face the unpleasant reality that I wouldn't just have this job handed to me as a result of my accomplishments. I had to learn how to do a case interview.

Now, I had heard of them, but never was interested in consulting before, so I didn't fully understand what they entailed. Thus, I thought I would be OK with a few hours of preparation.

Then luckily (or as I felt at the time, unluckily), I read in one of your newsletters that successful candidates often have between 100 and 200 hours of preparation. I thought to myself that I could never fit that much practice in, given the fact that I still had to work at my normal job, and that I was really, really jealous of students who were on campus with resources, peers, etc. to help them (plus the knowledge that case interviews require a lot more preparation than a normal experience interview with four questions that any smooth talker can quickly ace).

But if ever there were story to give hope to experienced professionals, mine may be it. I gave up all my free time for about a week and had my first 30-minute case interview phone screen with a McKinsey alum. While I did well enough to move onto the next round, the results were rattled with constructive feedback.

According to my interviewer, I needed to work on analytical skills, quantitative skills and conceptual skills. So basically the whole case! I quickly went home and downloaded LOMS and found it was a complete gift (even though I paid for it, it was kind of a steal if you think about the value/compensation trajectory of working at McKinsey).

In total there were five rounds:

  • 30-minute personal experience interview with the recruiter (phone)
  • 30-minute case interview with an alum (phone)
  • 1-hour personal experience and case interview with an Engagement Manager (phone)
  • 1-hour personal experience and case interview with an Engagement Manager and problem-solving test (in-person)
  • 3 1-hour personal experience and case interviews with Partners or APs (in-person)

It was a grueling process, but in the end I got the offer and in fact I was over-prepared (I re-read the post about Victor Cheng being too picky and was able to fully appreciate everything it and you had said). Literally, LOMS filled the void of not having a school, a career center, a consulting club, any of the normal on-campus resources normally available to student candidates -- and very much helped me get the job.

I learned a few key things that I'd like to share with you and the rest of your readers.

1) Persistence. I know you're fond of saying that many people who are successful have to face failure first. It might seem on the surface that I was successful on my first attempt, but please do not underestimate just how much rejection and disappointment I felt as I prepared for these interviews. At every round of live practice, I was met with former consultants who berated my inability to think outside marketing (this was big), do math (so frustrating) or apply a hypothesis-driven approach correctly.

I wanted to give up, and thought that my decision to use all my free time in [three] months to practice for cases was very much a waste of time if I didn't get an offer. But I never gave up, I stuck with it through all five rounds until I had the offer in-hand. I was persistent even in the face of brutal, insensitive and hard-to-hear feedback.

2) LOMS is not a silver bullet. That means, it's not going to do the brainstorming for you, the structuring, the math or the synthesis. When you're in a case interview, it's still you and you have to address the client problem at hand. If you can't do that, you won't pass. But LOMS does teach you how to do some really important things very effectively.

3) Synthesis. To me, the language of the standard close always seemed pretty straightforward. "We think you should do X, here are three reasons, so we think you should do X." But I soon learned that concepts, ideas, even acts of verbal repetition that seem "straightforward" in everyday life are actually not so under the pressure of a real case interview.

But by practicing the synthesis so often that the structure became straightforward, even in the context of the real life interview scenario -- I was able to focus on the part that wasn't straightforward, which was the "X" in that sentence, as well as the 3 reasons. I actually found that, once the "straightforward" parts were "second-nature," I was able to start annotating during the case, tracking the parts that I wanted to bring up during my synthesis -- so at the end, I actually had all three points clearly marked and didn't have to scramble to find them at the end. It was a remarkable experience.

4) Structuring. Another interesting note was the third example of the Fashion case (I think Case #9). In this best practice example, the candidate used a custom issue tree. It's amazing to me that just by doing the active listening, repeating it out loud and truly understanding it, I was easily able to come up with my own issues trees in my case interviews. It was shocking to me, but as someone who is, like you, very interested in the psychology of learning (I was a psychology major in college and aspire perhaps to be a psychologist at some point in the distant future), I found it fascinating.

In the end, I truly believe that despite how much the firms may view case interviews as a measure of raw skill, I think they are much more a measure of how well you can do a case interview. There is, I'm sure, a direct correlation between preparation and performance and for me, a combination of over-listening to LOMS and over-doing the practice cases with anyone I could get made me shine on the day of my final round interview.

The feedback I got from two of the partners were respectively, "we were all really impressed," and when I decided to join, "we're lucky to have you."

Thanks again for all you do for the vast community of WW CIBs and F1Ys.

My Reply:

In a word, AWESOME!  Thank you so much for sharing the wonderful news and being so detailed and specific in your experiences.

Despite having numerous disadvantages -- non-Ivy, no career center support, coming from advertising which is perceived as a non-analytical field with a huge bias against the profession from MBB, your initial inability to be hypothesis driven, the difficulty to think beyond the marketing aspects of a case, the relative weak math skills -- you still did it!

In summarizing your disadvantages, my initial reaction was wow... there sure were a lot of them!

But I love that you persisted through all of it. Like anything, the ability to solve cases is a skill. And while this skill does require a fair amount of raw talent, like any skill, it can be developed.

I'm glad it worked out for you, as clearly you more than earned it. Big time congratulations!

Additional Resources

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1 comment… add one
  • Steven L. May 12, 2012, 5:21 pm

    I’ve been holding out on buying LOMS for a few months now, but I can no longer resist after reading this article. I hope I can share my ‘Success Stories’ article here soon!

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