Consulting without Business Background

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I have been looking through your website very attentively over the past few days because I might be fortunate enough to have an upcoming first round interview with BCG.

I am extremely interested in pursuing a career in management consulting; a lot of friends and family are either currently consultants or have been consultants in the past. I know a lot about the position, the requirements, and I feel like I have a good sense of what it takes to be a consultant - I really want to work in consulting.

I have been reading the book "Case in Point" and watching your videos and I find myself getting more and more anxious about being able to think like a business person, for lack of a better word. For example, when I think about a potential case question such as "Company XYZ has steady sales but a declining profit. What is going on?" I am not quite sure where to begin despite the many steps proposed by various case study frameworks.

I am wondering if you think that, realistically, I can 'teach' myself to think in a 'business sense' like these case studies require. I know there are many frameworks and systems for approaching the cases, but without a business background am I being naive to think that I, too, can be a successful management consultant? Is this a career I should pursue after perhaps investing my time first in an MBA?

I would really value your perspective. I have been struggling with whether or not to push myself to figure out how to think like a consultant and ace the cases.

My reply:

A business background is not required to be successful in the case interview or on the job. An analytically-oriented, step-by-step, linear thought process is most definitely required. An MBA teaches gives you a broader business perspective, but doesn't really change one's default thinking process.

On the analytical side, high standardized test scores in math correlate extremely well with analytical ability.

For example, at McKinsey if you look at the SAT scores of current consultants, their math scores were all over 700 (out of 800 - not sure how the SAT is scored these days).  Personally, I had perfect scores on my math SAT, achievement tests, and advanced placement. Similar patterns exist for GRE, GMAT, LSAT, MCAT - top 5% or 10% on math tends to correlate with this ability.

If you don't intuitively think this way, I would say (with many years on hindsight, perspective, and wisdom on this) you shouldn't try to force it.  Even if you make it through the interview process, you won't enjoy the work. I know several people where this was the case. It's like being naturally right handed, but forcing yourself to use on your left hand. Maybe you're so good at forcing yourself, you can be competent with your left hand, but it's definitely not effortless and often not enjoyable.

Another good test is to see if you enjoy the case interviews themselves. Those who go into consulting and are successful at it tend to get somewhat fascinated by the cases in the interview process itself. Everyone starts off a bit nervous, but those who have a knack for this stuff really get into the case and dying to find out what happened to the company. This is a good sign.

If you can't wait until the interview ends, that's a bad sign.

If you think a case interview is tough, try doing the same thing everyday at work with a hostile client. The case interview process very closely approximates many aspects of the day-to-day job (the part it doesn't approximate is the client interaction, collaboration, and people skill requirements, which is why some firms have been using a group case interview).

I would recommend going through the videos one more time (in sequential order - use my Case Interview Guide as a reference). Don't jump around. See if you find it any easier. If not, I don't think its a good fit for you.  If during the 2nd time around you realized you missed something critical in your first run through of the videos, then take another shot at it.

Incidentally, and at the risk of being quite frank and honest with you, the "Company XYZ has steady sales but a declining profit. What is going on?" case question is by far the easiest question in which to "open" a case and get started with. It's the question that everyone hopes you get, because it's straightforward (as oppose to some weird cases that are totally off the wall and you have to come up with some approach on the fly that you've never used before).  Go through the videos and handouts one more time, if it's not super obvious which framework to use, probably not a good fit.

Also for what it's worth, in my video I say verbatim "If you get a case interview questions where the interviewer says Company XYZ has steady sales but a declining profit, then use this particular framework."  So I'm thinking its possible you  didn't go through the videos and frameworks very carefully (e.g., careless error) as opposed to saying you don't have the innate ability to do this.

I'll add a final thought.

The Case in Point book's section on estimation questions is excellent.

If my memory serves me (and I could be off on this one), the book's approach for the more traditional cases has lots of different frameworks for lots of different situations. If this is the case, I totally disagree with the idea that you need lots of cases to cover every possible situation. I used just 3 frameworks in my 63 interviews and in the 10% of the time where those 3 frameworks didn't work, I ended up making up something totally customized on the fly - and the frameworks out of the books wouldn't have been applicable anyways.

If you have to remember a dozen frameworks, it's unlikely you'll master any of them.

Finally, my approach definitely is different from many of the case prep materials out there. There are many ways to be "right" and my approach is only one of them. If you look at the Consulting Job Offers page, you see the approach taken in its entirety and as a whole works. What I would be very careful about doing is mixing and matching different approaches and philosophies. You'll find conflicting points of view and inconsistencies across the different approaches - which most people just find more confusing, than helpful.

My approach is internally consistently. Other people's approaches are internally consistent. Merging my approach with others into a "frankenstein" approach is not internally consistent. So I definitely recommend finding one of these proven approaches, and sticking primarily with that approach for 90% of your prep.

Good luck.

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1 comment… add one
  • Simon Phelan Oct 11, 2010, 9:02 am

    Dear Sir/ Madame,

    I have an upcoming interview with a top 3 firm and was wondering which case study guide is more helpful; “Case in Point” or “Ace the Case”!

    Kind regards,


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