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The Fine Art of MBA Application

With nine (9) fully-funded offers, 5 out of which also included monthly stipends, from fourteen (14) applications to top 10 – 50 MBA programs in the US and Canada, I have learned that business schools’ MBA application is a fine art that should be honed. If you are not new to Firmsconsulting, you will have heard Michael talk about how networking isn’t different from dating. The same is true here. Now, before you call me Casanova (I assure you I am not) who courted fourteen different ladies, let me tell you a story. A story that puts the above in context.

MBA Application: my first attempt

Late 2018, I had applied to six MBA programs – Harvard (HBS), MIT (Sloan), Michigan (Ross), Toronto (Rotman), Washington (Olin) and Maryland (Robert Smith). I applied to HBS and MIT because I didn’t want to live a life wondering if I could have gotten in (looking back now, I guess I applied for the honor of getting rejected. hahaha). It didn’t take long for me to get a response – NO.

Maryland, I suspect, didn’t think I was going to accept their offer after I told them about the schools I applied to (wrong move). I knew my journey with Olin ended when I attended my admission interview with a baseball cap and polo shirt (I was as unprepared as anyone could have been; I should have just postponed the interview). I got into Ross with a 40% scholarship long after I had said Yes to Rotman’s 20% scholarship offer. Who does that?

Rotman stood out majorly because Canada, in my opinion, is a calmer society compared to the US. Now I know that that is opened to debate depending on how you define “calm”, but let us try not to argue because that is not the essence of this article. Remember, we are discussing the fine art of the MBA application? Right, let’s stick to that.

So I approached Prodigy Finance, an international loan company, to cover for the rest of the funds I couldn’t raise on my own. And they said yes. I quit my job to be a primary caregiver to my ailing mother. That way, my siblings could focus on their education while my mom received the medical help she needed. Everything seemed set until in June 2019, the Canadian Embassy said NO. They didn’t think I was going to return to my home country. Being my first visa denial (and hopefully the last), I was devastated. After a week considering all my options, including re-applying for a study permit, I decided to wait one more year and expand my list of schools using a different strategy.

I think the above story is very important because it taught me two hard lessons: one was on the significance of bottlenecks outside of your control. A beautifully crafted plan that doesn’t take into consideration that one piece you can’t control is bounded to fail. So when I applied again, I carefully considered the bottleneck to my MBA application – the Embassy.

In factoring the embassy into my application, I asked: “what does the embassy need to be convinced of, to know that I want to study and not migrate illegally?” The answer? You’d have to fund your MBA through scholarships and not loans. Now, I understand that not everyone can relate to this, but in my case, I had no rich parent or a well-paying job for that matter. Also, a few Nigerians had set unfavorable precedence that raised the bar for obtaining visas. Which leads me into the second lesson: in life, your actions will undoubtedly affect those that come after you. You create an impression that either aids or inhibits those behind you with a similar profile. The impact of your actions often goes beyond you and your selfish needs.

My MBA Application profile for context

Here is a brief overview of my pre-MBA application profile. I believe it is important that you know this as it would allow you to put this article in perspective.

Name: Chinedu Adegoke (Real name withheld)

Nationality: Nigerian

GRE: 321/340 (V: 159; Q: 162)

TOEFL: 110/120

Highest Academic Qualification: BSc. Civil Engineering

Grade: First Class Honour (Magna Cum Laude, top 15%: class of 32)

Pre-MBA Experience: Equally distributed between Tech entrepreneurship, Civil Engineering Consulting

Years of Work Experience pre-MBA: 5 years

Why my first MBA Application attempt failed

My first business school attempt failed not because of the visa denial. It was only a symptom of a flawed strategy. In retrospect, my first MBA attempt failed because one, my strategy was shallow, focused heavily on the business school’s brand. Second, I also didn’t understand the fine art of MBA application. I will briefly discuss the first reason before attempting to address the second reason later on.

Reason 1: I focused heavily on the business school’s brand name

Now, there is no problem doing this if you are in the 1% bracket of intelligent people, or if money isn’t a problem for you. In my case, my profile didn’t match my level of intelligence (which I do judge to be uniquely high). Also, my parents barely finished high school and that heavily limited their earning capacity, and in turn, my earning capacity (working hard to change that narrative).

Focusing on school’s brand also propagated a subtle but self-defeating misconception – success was only guaranteed at a top 10 business school. I am glad that Michael helped uproot that misconception in many podcasts and articles. I wish I found out about “Firmsconsulting University” before my first attempt. I would have realized that top 10 MBA program in US/Canada/Europe wasn’t the only way to get into MBB, and certainly not an assurance that I will get the job. I soon realized after reading many FC’s article and listening to many podcasts (some of which I list below), that I would only end up paying >150k for a consulting interview. A move that made no sense to me after listening to alternatives Michael presented.

This article titled “Is Harvard MBA enough for McKinsey?” also completely changed my outlook on the concept of elite schools, addressed many inherent misconceptions I had, and laid bare the reality many current and past MBA candidates at elite schools rarely talk about.

Reason 2: I didn’t understand the fine art of MBA application

I didn’t fully understand the benefits of networking and attending business school fairs; I didn’t reach out to admission officers/current MBA students in the program; I didn’t carefully evaluate the funding limitations each school had; I trusted MBA ranking – perhaps, I should call it advertisement – with all my heart; I didn’t follow-up with my application; I didn’t even try to negotiate offers. I was what you call, a perfect MBA novice: applying to schools people and ranking system say are great schools, hit submit, wait, get decisions and just say yes without attempting to negotiate.

The fine art of MBA application: it starts with the strategy right for you

I believe I succeeded in my second attempt because I immediately said goodbye to brand names and focused on schools that could provide full MBA scholarships. If they couldn’t, I didn’t bother applying. It was as simple as that and it made my life easier.

Now I understand that this strategy isn’t one-size-fits-all. I have friends who have rightly argued for the benefits of taking a loan to attend an M7 business school. There is no right or wrong strategy. What many fail to understand is that the enemy of better here, is not bad, but what is good for everyone. You are not everyone, you are YOU. I hope that by sharing the thought process behind my MBA decisions and choice, you may be able to fashion out a strategy that works for you.

I call it “fine art” because it takes some level of finesse to apply successfully to an MBA program. Every single part should be controlled, nothing within your sphere of influence should be left to chance. And that starts with the factors that influence the kind of school you apply to.

MBA Application graduation-2

MBA Application Step 1: think deeply and categorize factors that affect your MBA program choice

Yes, split it into primary and secondary factors (you may even add a tertiary list!). In my case, I split it into two buckets: primary and secondary factors. On no occasion did I wavier on my primary list: if a good school (and there are many of them if you open your mind beyond top 20 business schools) fail to check the box on all my primary factors, I wasn’t going to apply. It was a no-brainer.

It is important that you first compile all the factors that will impact your MBA decision. Once that is done, critically examine each, based on your peculiarities, and categorize them into the primary and secondary categories.

Below is what that list looked like for me. I then used each of these factors to create my ranking pulling data from numerous ranking sources. My favorite being the Poets and Quants ranking system.

Despite having a very strong consulting post-MBA goal, I didn’t list it as a determining factor on my list. The reason is simple: I am already attending the “Firmsconsulting University” – renowned for its practical education on problem-solving. What else do I want if I carefully follow the well-curated courses it offers? In another article, I will expound on this for those who are not subscribers yet.

MBA Application Step 2: identify the shools and decide on whether to apply 

I admit this involves a lot of research. Research that could span into months if you are looking to increase your odds by applying to many schools. In my case, I identified a ridiculous amount of schools – probably about 23 of them. And this spanned one (1) month and three (3) business school fairs: the MBA Tour, Education USA Fair, and the UK Business Schools’ fair.

Of these 23 schools, I streamlined it down to 15 and eventually applied to 14. The number of Reach, Match and Safety Schools I applied to were four (4), nine (9) and two (2) respectively.

If my profile was significantly lower than the school’s profile average/mean in GRE/GMAT, Academic grade, and age, such school was considered my “Reach School”. If it was slightly lower or higher, those schools became my “Match Schools” and if it was significantly higher than the school’s average, it became by “Safety School”.

I went for the >5 business schools strategy because my first attempt taught me that 7 MBA applications could quickly, in a matter of weeks, become only one (1) real option, with no room for you to negotiate and make choices. I wanted to have options right down until the end.

MBA Application Step 3: now its time to start courting the admission officers and current students

You see, this is where the date nights start. There are many ways to approach this. You could decide to go via LinkedIn (this article explains how to leverage LinkedIn for this), or actual MBA School fairs (or in this case, virtual webinars), or you email the school directly and ask them to link you up with an admission officer and/or current student as you would like to learn more about the MBA program and MBA application process.

This process is incredibly important as it does two key things for you. One, it shows the school that you are genuinely interested and trust me, an MBA application is indeed a very personal process. With all the objectivity schools claim to have, there is a significant amount of sentiment/subjectivity involved in the decision-making process. Secondly, it also allows you to get a feel for what the admission committee is looking for in a candidate. This makes your life easier. I once spoke to a student who told me if I failed to mention the school’s location in my essay, my chances of getting in will get slim. In another conversation, I learned that if I failed to use the word “innovation”, or its variation, in the interview, I will lose the interviewer quickly. You don’t get this information online. And yes, I got into both schools with the best scholarship offer they could give.

MBA Application Step 4: continue to engage

Even after your application, continue to keep the admission officer and students posted about the progress of your application and important milestone or achievement at work. Don’t wait for the final decision before you engage again. In another article, I will explain the dos and don’ts of these calls. You don’t want to sound needy in these calls. Instead, approach it from the genuine stances of wanting to learn more about the program. And even when you get waitlisted or rejected, still email and thank these contact people for their effort. I once learned about an aspiring MBA candidate who did this after being rejected from a top 30 MBA program. She emailed her contact people and thanked them for the help. This contact person (funny enough, a student) walked up to the admission office to enquire about the candidate’s candidacy. You can guess what happened next.

You just never know, always stay in touch. Don’t be a pest, but stay in touch.

MBA application Step 5: you are allowed to negotiate. It is expected

This is where your multiple offers come in handy. I was spoilt for choice that I negotiated freely with the schools I wanted to attend. Now, here is where many people miss it. When they here negotiate they think I am referring to that proud approach where you say “give me more or I leave”. Nahhh, that’s never going to work. If for some reason, it does, and you would have still successfully alienated people who would otherwise be very useful to your overall MBA experience. In a different article, I can expound on how to negotiate, without negotiating. But know this, let the negotiation be about what the school wants, and not what you want. Show them how what you want can help them get what they need.

MBA Application MBA admission decision

MBA Application Step 6: speak to more students before you decide

I always go for a fellow country/continent person, where I can. There is some level of subtle understanding of a shared background that allows the conversation to be down-to-earth. Now I am not saying that someone with a different experience from you can’t advise you well. They can and I have received great advice from someone from a different alignment. What I am saying is try both sides, but if you only have one shot, go for the former.

This is especially useful for International MBA Candidates who don’t have the luxury of flying to the school’s location to experience its campus and people. If you have been already speaking to these students, you will have no problem getting them to tell you the truth about their experience. I once spoke to a candidate in an MBA program I liked and was considering. He said to me “If I am going to be honest with you, diversity is not as great as the school claims on its website. They are not even make any effort.” My decision was easy afterwards.

In conclusion

To round up this article, success at MBA programs is heavily influenced by your networking skills, this is even more important if you hope to become a management consultant at the Big 3. There is a fine art to these things, horn it even from your MBA application process. Start early, learn as you go and constantly evaluate your successes and failures for lessons you could use in future. There is a finesse to networking that is applicable everywhere. If you already know how to network in a different scenario, bring that fine art into your business school MBA applications. And if you don’t, I hope this article exposes you to just enough to get the admission and scholarship offer you so desire.

Recommended books:

business ethics succeeding as a management consultantSucceeding as a Management Consultant

When people think about the business strategy we often think about the field of strategy consulting/management consulting and firms like McKinsey, BCG, et al. If you are interested in learning how to conduct a management consulting engagement, you will likely enjoy this book. Succeeding as a Management Consultant is a book set in the Brazilian interior. This book follows an engagement team as they assist Goldy, a large Brazilian gold miner, in diagnosing and fixing deep and persistent organizational issues. This book follows an engagement team over an 8-week assignment and explains how they successfully navigate a challenging client environment, develop hypotheses, build the analyses, and provide the final recommendations. It is written so the reader may understand, follow, and replicate the process. It is the only book laying out a consulting assignment step-by-step. (Published by FIRMSconsulting.) One of the best business books if you are interested in management consulting and strategy. This book will be very useful as well if you are a small business consultant. If you were searching for answers to questions about consulting, this book is a gold mine, according to many readers.

business ethics Marketing saves the worldMarketing Saves the World, Bill Matassoni’s Memoir 

Bill Matassoni’s (Ex-McKinsey and Ex-BCG Senior Partner) Marketing Saves The World is a truly unique book. Never before has a McKinsey partner published his memoir publicly. This book is a rare opportunity – a true exclusive – to see what shapes the thought process of a partner and learn about marketing and strategy. The memoir essentially lays out McKinsey’s competitive advantage and explains how it can be neutralized. (Published by FIRMSconsulting.) One of the best business books if you are interested in marketing, strategy, how McKinsey and BCG operate, and overall in management consulting. 

business ethics Turquoise eyesTurquoise Eyes: A Novel about Problem Solving & Critical Thinking

Turquoise Eyes started off the groundbreaking new genre developed by FIRMSconsulting that combines compelling narrative while teaching problem solving and critical thinking skills. Set after a bank begins implementing a new retail banking strategy, we follow Teresa García Ramírez de Arroyo, a director-general in the Mexican government, who has received some disturbing news. A whistleblower has emailed Teresa with troubling news about a mistake in the loan default calculations and reserve ratios. The numbers do not add up. The book loosely uses the logic and financial analyses in A Typical McKinsey Engagement, >270 videos.

WHAT IS NEXT? We hope you found the “The Fine Art of MBA Application” post helpful. This article was contributed by a member of FC community. Sign up for our email updates on FIRMSconsulting.com/promo. This way you will not miss exclusive free training episodes and updates which we only share with the Firmsconsulting community. And if you have any questions about our membership training programs (StrategyTV.com/Apps & StrategyTraining.com/Apps) do not hesitate to reach out to us at support @ firmsconsulting.com. You can also get access to selected episodes when you sign-up for our newsletter above. Continue developing your strategy skills.

Cheers, Kris

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Okay, you got into Harvard, Wharton, INSEAD, and Oxford etc. In 2 years you will have a Harvard MBA. Don’t celebrate yet. The real battle is just beginning now.

Many candidates slave away to get into elite schools, assuming that entry into the school alone is sufficient to get into McKinsey or BCG. A Harvard MBA comes close to guaranteeing an interview but it is far from an offer.

And if all you wanted was the interview, then you just spent $150,000 for an interview. That is a sobering thought.

So getting to a good school is just the start. Once you get in, you need to be organized to succeed. In a previous post, I talked about how the type of scholarship you get matters to your future success: it can be a significant career competitive advantage. This stemmed from an even earlier post which explained why we misunderstand the competitive advantages in our careers.

But the competitive advantage occurs not for the reasons you may think. I plan to elaborate on that in this article.

Finances and confidence

It is important to understand that you need at least two assets to make it at competitive schools: finances and confidence. I realized this very early. I saw everyone falling over himself or herself just to get into the Ivy Leagues or their equivalent.

It is naïve to think the degree in itself is the accomplishment. A student unprepared and unequipped for their Harvard MBA is going to be slaughtered.

Granted, it is a great achievement to get into Harvard but if you are unprepared it is a little like being a Gladiator at the Roman Coliseum who has had his weapons taken away, hands bound behind his back, and facing hungry lions. But he is at the Coliseum, the height of his career.

This Gladiator has fought many smaller battles to get the chance to fight for his freedom at this great venue, but he is still going to die since he has too many disadvantages at the moment when it counts.

It is his choice if he wants to get eaten at the Coliseum. To me, being mauled by a lion at the Coliseum is the same as being mauled in some decrepit jungle pit, and there is no point of pride for it to happen at a great venue.

Therefore, getting into Harvard MBA program but not having the tools to be exceptional is going to hurt. You will get mauled. Your career may die before it is born.

Education is a zero-sum game in the short-term. Not many people realize this.

Every year we see the dance of the applications as thousands sit for the GMAT/GRE and apply to schools in Europe, the USA and Canada. These students have been seduced into thinking that getting in is the hardest part and if they just did, everything would click into place.

They will graduate into a middle-income life, and with some luck, proceed to an upper middle-income life.

The most unprepared students

The most unprepared students usually come from poorer backgrounds, so it is important to place this in perspective.

Did your family really spend their entire lives paying for extra tuition, mortgaging their lives, eating leftovers, investing less in the other kids, wearing hand-me-downs just so you could get a degree, even if it is a Harvard MBA, and mediocre full-time employment somewhere?

Do you really think your father wanted to be over-weight eating cheaper and less healthy food so he could save for an education that led to your average performance?

Do you really think your mother likes counting pennies so that she can spend just the right amount on bread and protect your education fund?

The answers are all “No”. No one wanted to do this but they chose to do it for you.

Therefore, how can being average by getting a degree in an average manner, albeit a great school, possibly be rationalized?

When you become the first generation in your family to attend university, your actions are not your own. You are part of a tag-team, with your family, and you need to make decisions so that the entire team benefits. You carry the weight of generations. What you do will decide your family’s legacy.

You need to get in, do your thing and tag someone else into the game. Too many students forget the last part. The more people you tag in, the less you have to carry on your own shoulders since you give others the opportunity to develop themselves.

Therefore, never let good enough be the enemy of great. Do not rationalize away mediocrity. That is the worst disease you can pick up with unprotected socializing on campus.

McKinsey hires fixed numbers per year. So does Goldman Sachs. So does BCG. It is a zero sum game. When one offer is made, another one does not magically open up.

Therefore, getting in only counts if you have the tools to succeed, and money and confidence are crucial.

Most of my friends at university were self-funded, using loans, or partial scholarships or some combination thereof. Many were smart but did not even know about corporate funding. They got in but that was just the start of the battle.

So how did this lack of funding hurt them?

I recall the throng to the lab every day around 5pm. My friends had to be at the computer lab to run the simulations for their physics models. Getting there late created many problems. There was only one printer and if you sat too far away, someone was going to take your printouts. There were not enough computers to go around so you could end up spending hours for one to become available.

Worse, if you needed to step away for more than 5 minutes, the computer automatically logged you out and indicated that the machine was available. Did I mention the nearest rest room was about 5 minutes away?

I had the confidence to request a laptop from the scholarship committee, which made my life much easier.

Ah, the days of sitting under the trees on the campus lawn in summer and building simulation models or heat displacement models.

Today, there is commentary everywhere about how privileged students from India, China, Brazil, and Mongolia etc. must now be, since they are studying at Princeton, Booth, Yale, LBS, and Oxford, etc. Yet being at a great school does not automatically level the playing fields. How the student operates in that environment matters enormously.

Let’s look at my own life as an example.

At university my life was relatively easier since everything was paid for me. I could rent my own off-campus apartment and did not have to share a place. In fact, I lived in the same building and had the same type of apartment as my physics professor.

He was a wunderkind professor but my apartment had a better view. I could buy shiny new copies of every textbook and also buy the CD-ROM versions. I could eat very good food every single day and wear relatively good clothing.

The right kind of scholarship conferred that advantage.

I even had a Siamese cat in my apartment. I did not own the cat. He just arrived one day and never left.

Even he could sense my privileged status on a guilt-scholarship.

Think about the trauma of finding an internship. That is one of the most stressful parts of student life.

I was able to arrange high-profile summer employment, if needed, through the scholarship committee relationships. I, therefore, did not have to worry about the horrors of weak internships or no internships decimating my resume.

For one summer internship I arranged to work on a feasibility study reporting directly to the EVP of Research & Development. I ended up running that study and it garnered lots of positive feedback and exposure for my career. The scholarship paid for my travel expenses each year to fly to the committee and discuss my leadership profile.

I did not need to work part-time, share textbooks, live at home and car-pool through horrible traffic.

That time saving was enormous. This is something we take for granted and something lower-income students do not have. In hind-sight, I know plenty of middle-income and upper-income clients who also do not have that advantage.

Education is just that expensive in most of the world. It just compounds the disadvantage since it leads to less time available, but having to do more in that time.

An expensive arms race for advice

My point is, and I am repeating this in multiple ways to make sure it sticks, just because you got to a good school does not mean the battle is over. It is just starting. There are tremendous difficulties and most, but certainly not all, tend to emanate from financial constraints.

I felt then, and still feel, that students assume getting in means they have won the great battle to success. It comes as a shock to many that, after getting in, they then need to engage in an expensive arms race for advice which they cannot afford and which they should not need to afford.

The arms race being dressing correctly, networking by attending expensive class trips, dinners etc. All of them add up and cost a ton of money.

It is tough to have their families mortgage their homes, if they are lucky enough to own a home, spend thousands of dollars paying for a university and then realize they need to spend even more just to compete for interviews.

For many lower-income students in my time, and certainly today, they are the only hope for their families. They are the back-up plan and the failure is not an option.

In reading this, I hope candidates think more carefully about how they will compete once they get into an elite school, and hopefully get more creative with funding themselves.

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My story is not a Michael Moment but a Michael Revelation.

I was not successful with MBB while working with Michael. That said, I have no regrets taking the program and continue to refer friends and colleagues to Michael. I realized after the training ended that I was not ready for MBB.

I had started my pursuit because everyone else was doing it. When Michael asked me why I wanted to work at McKinsey, I, sadly, had no good answer. I had never even thought about it until I was asked this question. I felt like a lemming.

The training was excellent but the desire to be at MBB was missing and that was my weakness which the interviewers could easily see. They needed to have been blind to miss it.

After my MBA I took 12 months off travelling around Central and Pacific Asia. The journey centered me and helped me realize what I wanted to do. I returned to the US and joined the Obama campaign.

Everyday I used my consulting training to do things that matter. I am grateful for Michael giving me these skills. It is probably not the best story but it shows the power of using skills effectively and especially where you personally believe it will have the greatest impact. Michael told me that the skills FC could teach me could potentially change the world in the right hands. I believe that.

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.

Did you enjoy the program? If yes, how?

I enjoyed all training sessions, the networking guidance and the general conversations with my coach. The discourse was always respectful, professional and tailored to my professional development.

My coach made it very easy for me to share my concerns and ideas, and also discuss any challenges I was having. I believe the dual focus on communication and cases is unusual and was instrumental in gaining me an internship at McKinsey, which with FC’s guidance; I was able to convert into a full-time offer.

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

I did not have great expectations coming into this program. FC’s non-disclosure policy made it difficult for me to find former clients and I only met a handful of Harvard second-years who had been through the program. All but one had successfully placed at MBB: he had joined Deloitte S&O.

Despite my low expectations, the program exceeded my expectations in several key ways:

1) Working with former McKinsey and BCG partners is an experience. The level of detail they could provide, explanations of the recruiting process and behind-the-scenes discussions on extending offers was extensive and right in 95% of the occasions.

2) I believe FC sincerely went the extra-mile to help me as a person and took a keen interest in my personal development. I liked being able to Skype with my coach and getting feedback in real-time. Michael, my coach and I became friends during the course of my training, over my internship and thereafter. I continue to rely on FC for career advice.

3) FC was the closest to teaching cases the way McKinsey expects you to do them. There was intense energy on helping me brainstorm structures and develop hypotheses. I had read every book out there and visited most of the websites yet none of these worked. I liked the clean objective-function basis used by FC.

4) FC kept a lot of data on my performance and made some of this available to me. I could see a drop in the time I took to solve cases and this data-based approach to my development gave me lots of comfort going into the interviews.

What was the most important learning’s from the program?

Both my coach and my mentor from Bain & Company were genuinely sincere in their advice on the needs of women in management consulting. They said the things that others would not say for politically-correct reasons. They actually made a point of saying things the firms could not say on the record. I truly value this advice because it gave me a chance to effectively plan my personal life.

They showed me, by replaying my calls, how I shifted from having a barrier in the way I interacted with them to trusting them and then sharing my fears. Michael pinpointed this as the reason many women struggle in management consulting. They want to share their fears, but tend to pick their direct superiors, when they should seek mentors outside the firm, but preferably ex-partners.

Michael also wisely counselled me to seek a male mentor who would groom me to operate in a largely male-dominated industry. I feel Michael more than helped by finding me an appropriate mentor and facilitating a discreet introduction.

My mentor, told me in clear terms that if I wanted to have a family in the next 5 years, then I should seriously reconsider my commitment to the industry. There was no practical way I could balance a family and build a successful career. The advice was honest and meant to help me, and coming at the time it did, it helped me think through some personal decisions I had to make.

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

Yes – in one dominant way. Harvard uses the case method. I naturally assumed this would prepare us to do cases. I read books like [Redacted] and several others but none of them could provide a logical technique which made sense. They either provided frameworks, told me to throw out hypotheses and even my case guide books for class were too broad and of little use in a time-compressed environment.

The main advantage is that FC provided simple and august techniques which were so logical that I could grasp them quickly and apply them immediately. There was a natural flow to the solutions.

I liked the enormous amount of time spent on the building blocks of cases like calculations, brainstorming and frameworks. Therefore the main advantage was presenting a way to tie together loosely linked ideas I knew I needed to know, but could never link together in the past.

Can you recall any memorable moments?

Near the end of my training, I kept cancelling sessions to meet my obligations for the Harvard travel program. I was struggling to meet my assigned economic modelling obligations for my student project. Around 12:30am EST I get a Skype message from Michael asking if I had 5 minutes.

I said yes – and expected a complaint that my cancellations were getting too frequent.

I was pleasantly impressed when Michael simply wanted to know how I was coping with my studies. He wanted me to know that grades do matter to FC and the cancellations are not a problem if I believed they were helping me prepare better.

I was very surprised by this. In the remainder of the call we discussed my economic model and Michael provided very useful insights for how I should build the model. I was amused to see how the teachings on objective functions, decision trees and drivers should be used to design a model.

That is my memorable moment with FC. They showed me they do not talk about their values, but live them every day.

I do not know if Michael interacts with every client this way, but I get the feeling he does, even when he is not the assigned coach. I am not sure how everything works since they always seem to be travelling but things worked for me very well.

What would you like changed in the program?

My overall experience with FC was pleasant and memorable so I have no suggestions for improvements to the program. I believe that the program should be better advertised since it was difficult for me to find it. I also think the non-disclosure agreement should be adjusted to allow clients to interact more.

Do you believe your coach was effective?

Yes.

Across all two coaches I think one thing surprised me the most – it felt like I was talking to the same person. Each coach had access to the same file on me and was able to build on the work done in a previous session. It was very efficient since less time was spent “catching up.”

I believe I am a better person from this program and it is due to the very pin-pointed training.

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

I knew second-years who went through the same program and their sessions were different. Therefore, I believe the program is very different and I feel all my development needs were addressed well.

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

I worked with a mentor. I felt the mentor/coach idea was brilliant and worked for me well. My coach played the role of a trainer and was tough on me, while the mentor was easier on me. In fact, after spending time with my coach, it was easier to work with my mentors.

Having a senior partner of Bain strategy sit down over lunch and discuss career choices must be one of the highlights of the program. He was professional, sincere and very approachable. Our discussion went well over the allocated time but I never felt he was trying to simply “put in the time.”

Is there anything else you would like to add?

This is the best investment I made in my career development and I continue to work closely with FC in my career. I look forward to the changes in FC and excited to see what they will do next.

Michael introduced me to Marvin Bower through the FC podcasts. I sincerely believe that he runs the firm to the highest standards of a professional organization.

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.

Did you enjoy the program? If yes, how?

The program was a very pleasant experience. The FC team was polite, professional and very accommodating to my hectic IBanking schedule! They were also very honest and this honesty, more than anything else, made me want to work with them. I was one of their first CF clients back in 2010 and Michael was upfront  they could train me, but had never before trained someone targeting CF. He offered to reach out to an INSEAD professor whom he knew and had been a super-star at McKinsey Corporate Finance, and use his thoughts on building the program.

Overall, my coach took the time to explain concepts in great detail and build an effective program around my limited weekend availability.

I liked the constant availability of my coach. I could always reach him on Skype to get a response. This is a BIG advantage since not everything can be planned in the short 1-hour sessions we had to practice cases. I felt Michael was always willing to answer questions and take the time to find better explanations if I did not understand anything.

Michael also never tried to dismiss or belittle a question when he did not have an answer. I recall a call where I wanted to know if McKinsey would test my ability to calculate betas in a case interview. He did not know and followed up with his professor friend. This greatly improved my confidence in the program.

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

Yes, because I obtained an offer from McKinsey Corporate Finance. I liked the emphasis on communication, networking and values but that was not my main interest areas. They were more a “nice-to-have” rather than anything I expected or felt was that crucial to my success.

The balance between detailed finance and strategy training was good. There was enough of both and while the program was new, the coaches knew the material well enough to get me to understand the basics better. I did learn lots of new ways to handle corporate finance issues from the training.

What was the most important learning’s from the program?

I was very impressed with the way Michael taught me corporate finance strategy cases. The shareholder-value-creation approach was sublime! That was the biggest lesson for me: all of the frameworks I was learning to create through brainstorming had to snuggly fit into the SVA approach: if it did not, there was a problem with the framework I created.

This easily topped any other learning’s I had. By knowing this master framework, I could tackle any corporate strategy or corporate finance case. It was like having a map to any strategy case. Thanks for teaching me this Michael.

One thing business schools can do better is link up all the different skills we learn. My training did this. I was trained what skill to deploy and when to deploy it.

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

I cannot speak for others but there is no corporate finance case interview advice anywhere! It was the problem when I did the training and I believe it is still a problem. In my case, having this program was a big advantage.

The advantage came from three areas:

1) Michael’s knowledge of corporate finance was very high and he was able to discuss something at the high strategy level of an M&A decision and then zoom into a technical concept like calculating Beta’s to see show how changes in assumptions would affect the valuation and the decision on the deal. This was a good skill which I did not have but seems obvious to have – now anyway! People with whom I trained, and even at McKinsey, where good at one or the other. Very few are good at both and these are the people who become partners and can handle complex client issues.

2) The decision tree approach to build frameworks was great. I did not have time to study every type of case and by focusing my training around decision trees I was able to develop a technique I could apply to any case. I am not saying this was easy to learn at first, but I figured it out at the end.

3) Hypotheses are poorly taught in other books. Michael has this neat trick to develop hypotheses from decision trees. That was so simple and obvious to me – after the training. I never really thought about MECE hypotheses until the program and was previously encouraged to just throw out some ideas. Michael’s pounces on that like a cat and brings cold structure to things.

Can you recall any memorable moments?

In my first session, Michael wanted to demonstrate how effective structuring of a case can yield better insights. He asked me to pick either a deal I had worked upon or a client I knew well and had worked upon.

I picked a public company where I had 3 deals under my young belt!

Michael played the role of a candidate and wanted to develop their corporate strategy, while I played the role of an interviewer. He asked me a few questions about their business model, balance sheet, portfolio, types of deals done previously and their sizes. It was about 7 questions in all. He quickly zipped through a good objective function developed a structure around creating SV and developed some great hypotheses. The hypotheses were very close to those we have discussed internally – that was scarily impressive: Since the company was highly geared; it would need to sell non-cash-flow generating assets to maintain their debt covenants.

That was impressive to see how strategy and finance could be blended to work together. I was sold from that point on.

What would you like changed in the program?

The program was very good and the suggestions below relate to the fact that I was one of the first corporate finance clients FC had ever had. That was about 2 years ago so many of my suggestions may be redundant:

• It would have been nice to have had videos with the solutions to some tough corporate finance cases. This could serve as a good guide between the sessions.

• Hopefully in time FC will have more corporate finance clients and allow us to practice together. The rules around client confidentiality are great, but we should have a system to practice without disclosing any details.

• Michael has a tonne of useful advice and stories. He should consider creating a type of podcast station on iTunes to share these. I especially liked his detailed stories about his own engagements in consulting.

• I found the sessions so useful that I spent most of my time taking notes and not enough time listening. If the sessions could be recorded and made available to clients that would be very useful.

• I found our cases to be heavily focused on data and graphs and would have preferred less of these and more strategy cases. This is a personal preference and other clients may prefer FC’s heavy data focus in cases.

Do you believe your coach was effective?

Michael is very polished. He knows what he is doing and is able to consistently articulate that purpose through the sessions.

We did face some obstacles, since the corporate finance program at FC was being developed as we progressed, but Michael was able to keep me simultaneously focused on addressing my brainstorming skills, case skills and corporate finance skills. It is very hard to find good preparation services for corporate finance cases and Michael and the FC team are a standout here. More than once Michael would refer to a famous finance paper and give me the page number to review! He knows his stuff.

Although the values focus of FC did not seem important to me, it was nice to see someone take this so seriously and practice it every day. I was impressed with this and it validated my decision to join management consulting. The culture is truly different.

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

I would say yes. As an early corporate finance client Michael was transparent that no corporate finance program existed and it would be developed for me as my skills developed or did not develop.

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

I worked with FC two years ago so it is nice to see they have grown so far in such a short space of time. Given the quality of the program it was expected they would expand and I am impressed they have not chosen to grow too quickly by selecting analysts and consultants to do the training.

Personally, I think some analysts and consultants could do fine as coaches, but my experience with Michael was that his knowledge was much deeper as a partner. The senior partners will only deepen this difference so I think it is a good idea.

Is there anything else you would like to add?

No, I thought FC was a great investment and experience for me.

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.

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.

If you wish to read more on such in-depth career stories or follow our updates on consulting and strategy, please subscribe here.

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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