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Max is an aspiring consultant who is looking to secure an analyst role with one of the top firms for the upcoming recruitment cycle in September 2011. His interest in management consulting was sparked by a failed McKinsey interview last year. In this series of blogs, he will be sharing his background, case preparation process, useful resources, and any breakthroughs or setbacks that he experiences.

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I recently had the opportunity to start my first Firmsconsulting coaching to prepare for case interviews, and would like to pass along my humble opinions. Overall, I was impressed with the way they handled the training for three reasons:

1) They made you think about the problem at hand, and did not immediately volunteer the solution if you got stuck. This really makes you think things through. Furthermore, they challenged your thinking to see if you can back it up.

2) The feedback was very specific, and clearly identifies which areas need more work. If you are practicing with your friends, other candidates, and even current consultants they may be worried about embarrassing you. Trust me when I say that you would rather get embarrassed during a case practice session with your buddy than with a McKinsey engagement manager during a real interview. For me, the area I need the most work on is communicating with more fluidity.

3) The quality of the interviewer is top notch. I’ve been practicing a lot of cases with other candidates, as well as consultants at BBM. In many cases, I feel that they don’t put enough stress on you during the practice sessions. It may be that they’re trying to be nice, or that’s just their interview style – but I think it is very useful to not only have an interviewer who knows what he’s doing, but also challenges you with every case.

One unexpected benefit of practicing in the Firmsconsulting coaching was that it actually stressed me out a bit! You’re probably pretty comfortable practicing with your friends and colleagues since you know them, but to do cases with former consultants who left the industry at a high level is slightly more intimidating.

During the session we went over both market sizing as well as general case problems. They would let you plug along on a case, but would stop you if you made a big mistake. Since you are on Skype, the Firmsconsulting team was able to share their screens and take you through a proper (or alternative) structuring of the case you just did. This allowed me to see different ways of segmenting a certain problem which is always interesting to see.

One unexpected benefit of practicing with the Firmsconsulting team was that it actually stressed me out a bit! You’re probably pretty comfortable practicing with your friends and colleagues since you know them, but to do cases with former consultants who left the industry at a high level is slightly more intimidating. In addition, you always know that your thinking can be challenged at any time, and that you have to have a good reason for doing something within the case. I think that overall I sounded pretty calm, and you probably wouldn’t notice anything different if you were watching me, but I could definitely feel a bit more adrenaline than my normal practice sessions. If you haven’t had any of these more intimidating practice sessions, I would suggest you try to practice cases with someone new every so often. I find that the “change of scenery” once in a while can really increase your alertness, and help simulate a real interview.

The way they teach you to solve the case is to be MECE. I definitely agree that this is the way to go, but I feel that it may be useful to teach a few frameworks as well to start off. The reason is that for people who don’t come from a business background, there may be things that they won’t know to consider in certain situations. If you are breaking a problem down, it is not too hard to get the top level of the issue tree, but some factors in the subsequent levels may get left out if the individual has never seen them before. I feel that knowing some frameworks will allow people with non-business background (myself included) to have some building blocks to work with during cases so they don’t feel as lost.

Now it is definitely not advisable to spew frameworks during a case interview, but they do give an overview of some common points of consideration in your MECE analysis. That being said, it’s fairly easy to learn frameworks on your own time, and maybe it’s not a good idea to waste valuable case prep time with them. I find that when I do cases now, I rarely use a framework in it’s entirely. Instead, I’ll pick and choose parts of different frameworks that are relevant, ensure that the analysis is MECE, and build a custom issue tree if the situation calls for it – at least that’s what I try to do anyways!

If you have any questions, please feel free to leave a comment.

Did you enjoy the program? If yes, how?

Yes, I thoroughly enjoyed the program. Reflecting on the preceding months, I find that the enjoyment of the program, for myself, was based upon the multiple avenues of learning and training, the attitude and adaptability of my coach, and the techniques and intuition I developed over time.

When I was accepted into the Firmsconsulting program, I had zero background in case or fit preparation, and this certainly showed in my first session with Michael. However, from there forward we established a schedule of sessions and topics. My preparation began early, about three months prior to interviews.

This was a very good thing, as the wealth of material available in TCO I and the video library requires sufficient time to cover; nevertheless I found this to be a highly effective way of learning. I would prepare for sessions using the video library and TCO I, and then focus purely on cases with Michael, where I could practice what I had learned and gain feedback.

This model worked well for me, as I was able to learn the material at my own pace and schedule, and then refine and tailor it with Michael, giving me the sense that I was continually progressing and improving.

I should also mention Michael’s overall attitude and perspective. He continually stresses in articles and podcasts that preparing for interviews is unique for each person, and depends heavily on one’s background, experiences and style of learning. Michael took this approach consistently, adapting the order and content of our sessions according to my performance.

His attitude was consistently encouraging and attentive; he truly cared about my progress, and worked to tailor our sessions, his feedback, and his followup in-between sessions to the areas where I needed the most development.

It was clear that the material I was learning would help not only in my interview process, but also in my aspiring future time as a consultant. While there were plenty of concrete ideas and strategies developed along the way, there was less of a feeling of forming a toolkit and more of a sense of creating intuition, backed up by a series of guidelines.

This was a rewarding feeling, knowing that over time I was getting better at recognizing what to think about when, and this applied both to the case as well as the fit portions.

Did the program meet your expectations? If yes, how?

Given my lack of background in any other case preparation method, I had few expectations about how the program would progress. However, in the time between my MBA acceptance and matriculation, I had gradually listened to all of Michael’s posts in the Firmsconsulting podcast library and had developed a sense for what the Firmsconsulting training program would be like.

Therefore, I would say that the program exceeded my expectations in content and result, but was less structured than I anticipated. Although I was a bit concerned early on, being someone who likes to know where I am headed before I put in the work to get there, this turned out to be beneficial, as Michael was able to adapt our sessions to my progress and weak points without making me concerned that I was deviating from a prescribed plan.

What was the most important learnings from the program?

The most important takeaways, for me, were those that were least concrete. For instance, learning the importance of, and techniques to, make a favorable first impression, adapt to the interviewer’s style, and use body language effectively were crucial.

Likeability is a key component of getting passed forward by interviewers; it does not matter how good one is at cases if they are not seen as someone the interviewer themselves would enjoy working with.

Additionally, the training for the fit portion of the interviews was exceptional. Michael helped me to take my experiences and stories and re-frame them in ways that covered the key points interviewers would be looking for; he has an almost uncanny ability to ferret out the core essence of a story, and then teach you how to convey this essence in a direct, streamlined and engaging way.

Given the post-interview feedback that I received, fit was a very strong point for me, and I credit that completely to the coaching that I received from Michael.

Do you feel the program provided an advantage for you versus your own/other preparation? If so, in what way?

Unfortunately I found that our on-campus consulting club had very little value in the preparation process, merely promoting a variety of preparation books with few additional resources and support.

For one of the more well-regarded business schools, I found this to be quite disconcerting, and the results were apparent.

Other students were drowning in an overabundance of preparation material, which often provided conflicting advice, emphasized memorization over real learning, and offered no prescribed plan of attack. Most notably, many of my peers were completely neglecting fit in favor of case preparation, which, given their post-interview feedback, seemed to have been to their detriment.

I therefore believe that the Firmsconsulting program’s emphasis on developing intuition for cases, practicing extensively with consulting partners, and focusing substantial time on fit preparation provided me with an enormous advantage over other preparation methods.

Can you recall any memorable moments?

There are quite a number of times Michael went above and beyond to ensure that he was doing all he could to enable me to succeed in the program, but one that stood out was a combined session that he did with myself and my case partner. I had been practicing with a friend, who was having a challenging time with cases at higher difficulty levels, and when I explained this to Michael he offered to do a joint session with us.

Although it took advance planning between Michael and myself to maintain my confidentiality as a client and not allow this to be divulged to my practice partner, the session pinpointed some of the reasons for my partner’s weaknesses and was key in helping her overcome them. Although this group session was not part of the prescribed training, Michael’s eagerness to do it stood out as an example of his dedication to helping candidates.

What would you like changed in the program?

I sometimes found it challenging to link up episodes of TCO I with our coaching sessions, especially in the later half of the training. We reached a point where Michael and I worked solely on McKinsey-style interviewer-led cases, and although some of the sessions did not directly pair up with TCO I episodes, I found it helpful when I could complete a set of TCO and then put what I had learned into practice during my next coaching session.

With the understanding that each candidate will be different, a general primer for how and when to utilize TCO I episodes in the coaching program would be helpful.

Another point would be to consider having a couple extended sessions built into the program. Although an hour with Michael is intense, during my McKinsey final round I had three hours of continuous interviews. While a three hour session is likely too long, one or two 1.5-2 hour sessions would be helpful, both for allowing a variety of cases and fit questions to be covered back-to-back and for building stamina in preparation for lengthy interview rounds.

[Note from Michael: Thanks for this feedback. We understand that with about 250 hours of case coaching videos and 250 individual cases, it can be overwhelming. We have since been guiding clients before each sessions by indicating which videos should be watched to prepare for the forthcoming session.

We have also started guiding clients on the sessions to watch after their coaching so that they can continue their preparation. In the future, we will automate this process based on your feedback]

Do you believe your coach was effective?

I found Michael to be highly effective, for several reasons.

First, Michael put a great deal of effort and focus into his sessions with me, and clearly expected the same in return. Although I considered myself to be very independently motivated throughout this process, I consistently found that Michael’s expectations of me drove my desire to make the most use of our time and to enter each session as prepared as possible.

Second, the style that Michael employed ensured that I was receiving direct and forthright feedback. I did not want a coach who made me feel good about myself and ignored my shortcomings.

I wanted a coach who was truly concerned about my progression, who never hesitated to point out areas for improvement and back them up with recommendations for how to improve.

Although there were a couple sessions where I felt my performance had been quite poor, those were the sessions from which I received the most useful and accurate feedback, and consequently was able to make the most improvement.

The third, but by no means least important aspect, was trust. Throughout this entire process I always felt that I could trust Michael, and knew that I would always receive a straight answer from him. There is such a large amount of misinformation and speculation surrounding the case interview process: online forums, fellow students who spent two years as analysts and believe they are experts, students who received offers last year and who believe they know exactly why.

Loud voices are often given credibility simply for being loud.

But Michael effuses true credibility; he flies very much under the radar, allowing no advertising of his services and adhering to a strong value system, in much the same style as the firms for which one is interviewing. This candor and credibility gave me confidence that I could rely on what I learned from Michael.

Do you personally believe the sessions were tailored for your own development?

Yes, absolutely, as mentioned throughout the above questions.

What are your thoughts on using former worldwide practice leaders to coach clients?

I was provided with the opportunity to interact with a former senior partner and practice leader, and found this experience highly valuable.

First, this perspective gave me a deeper view into the case interview process, what is being sought by interviewers, and how the process has been changing over time.

Second, the ability to gain exposure to a different style of giving cases than one’s coach is quite valuable. Between my first and second round interviews across three firms I encountered 11 different interviewers, all who had unique styles and personalities. Having exposure to the style of a senior partner in addition to the style of one’s own coach provides an additional reference point and trains candidates to pivot and adapt.

Is there anything else you would like to add?

Michael has developed a program with material that is second-to-none.

That said, it should be noted that this is a double-edged sword: there is so much material that one could easily become overwhelmed and rush through it; on the other hand, this allows one to deep dive on improving a particular weakness.

What is most impressive is Michael’s dedication to continually seeking feedback, and then improving upon and expanding the methods with which Firmsconsulting coaches clients, as evinced by the launch of TCO II.

Additionally, I should also mention that I believe there is some degree of luck in the case interview process; luck with regard to the type and personality of interviewers one receives, and the cases that are given. For me, however, knowing that I had put forth my best effort in preparation, and that I had received Michael’s coaching and guidance, gave me confidence in interviews.

In the end, it worked out; I received second round interviews with two firms and offers from both. I feel fortunate to have discovered Firmsconsulting, and am confident, given the experience of many of my peers, that I would not have achieved the same result without Michael’s coaching.

But furthermore, I believe that the skills I have developed via Firmsconsulting, particularly structured brainstorming and case intuition, will be directly applicable to my work this summer.

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We have published the most useful client feedback. Our commitment to confidentiality prevents us from disclosing the identity of our clients and other confidential information, and we may alter details to prevent such disclosure. Some client feedback may be lightly edited for grammar, spelling or prose, though we never alter or remove any information. Clients in our consultants coaching program are forbidden from sharing sensitive client data with us.

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