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Consulting Case Interviews Tips and Case Interview Frameworks

Congratulations to Ioana on the very well deserved offer from McKinsey!

We are starting a new series “Advice from FC Insiders” where you will meet selected FC Insiders, learn from their experiences and what they found works and does not work to ensure they make the most of FC training. The advice will be helpful if you are preparing for consulting jobs, want to succeed as a management consultant or using FC training to succeed outside of consulting. And, it is worth mentioning, while many FC members prepare to interview for consulting jobs, the majority of our members use Firmsconsulting content outside of consulting and/or are not pursuing consulting interviews.

Given that the management consulting recruitment season is just around the corner we are initiating this series with feedback mainly for members who are interviewing for consulting jobs or preparing to interview for consulting jobs and/or are currently developing foundational business skills (using our foundational skills programs like The Consulting Offer).

In other words, this particular update from the “Advice from FC Insiders” series is mainly for recent FC members. But the advice you will find will be valuable for all FC members so do not skip it if you are not interviewing for consulting jobs and/or not developing foundational skills.

Many FC members write in about having poor learning techniques and struggling to apply what they learn. So having FC Insiders share their proven tips, tricks and approaches to make the most of FC training will help many members, especially newer members, make the most of Firmsconsulting’s programs. It’s not just about consulting jobs. Its about making an impact everywhere, beyond consulting.

So let’s begin this special series with Ioana’s inspiring story and wise advice.

***

Meet Ioana, an accomplished FC Insider, originally from Romania, who achieved much through hard work and dedication. If you are based in a developing country and feel there are few opportunities for you to succeed in life, or if you are in a developed country but don’t feel you have a good enough profile (in terms of educational background, academic or career record etc.) and/or the network/connections to succeed, read Ioana’s inspiring story and advice.

Ioana was kind enough to share with the Firmsconsulting community not only her story, but also her approach to making the most of Firmsconsulting’s training programs. She offers advice for those interviewing for consulting jobs, or those who are preparing to interview for consulting jobs. Despite being born in a country with fewer academic (or otherwise) advancement opportunities vs. what developed countries generally offer, she has done very well and she has a bright future.

consulting jobs prep

Humble Beginnings

My name is Ioana Moga. I was born and raised in Oradea, a city in the North-West of Romania. I always excelled in school, especially at math. I was good with numbers, I loved solving difficult math problems and I used to participate in Math Olympiads since 5thgrade. Even though I loved math a lot (I still do), I could never make it past the regional competition in Math Olympiads. It was frustrating, and I considered studying more to become better at it, but then in 7thgrade I discovered chemistry and math become my second favorite subject. We start learning chemistry in 7thgrade in Romania, and this subject seemed very logical to me from the beginning. I just got it, it made a lot of sense to me since day one.

I was also lucky to have a chemistry teacher who saw the fact that I was good at it and mentored and supported me until I graduated from middle school. She convinced me to participate in the
Chemistry Olympiads and she would stay with me after school to help me prepare.

In 7thgrade I finally achieved what I never could with math: I qualified to the National Chemistry Olympiad. I still remember how excited I was about that. I did well in the national contest, I finished in top 20%, but I wasn’t satisfied with the result because I knew I could have done so much better.

This experience taught me two things: that I’m good enough to compete with the brightest young minds in my country and that there’s room for improvement.

In 8thgrade things didn’t go as well for me. I failed miserably at the regional phase of the competition and I didn’t qualify to the national competition. It was a tough year for me and I suffered a lot. But I promised myself that I’ll do better next year. However, after my failure in 8thgrade my confidence dropped. I was lucky to have an incredibly supportive mother, who taught me to believe in myself again.

In 9thgrade I qualified again at the National Olympiad, and it’s not just that, I took 2ndplace. This was such a confidence boost. I was very happy, but I also set a goal for myself: next year I would win 1stplace and I would be one of the 20 students who would go to the capital city for a month to be mentored by the best Romanian chemistry professors and who would represent Romania in International Chemistry Olympiads.

And I achieved those goals.

In 10thgrade I won first place in the National Olympiad and I represented my country at an International Olympiad for students under the age of 18 where I got a silver medal. In 11thgrade I won again 1stplace at the National Chemistry Olympiad and I represented my country at 2 International Olympiads, winning a silver and a gold medal. However, even though I competed in 2 International Chemistry Olympiads, I was the first student who didn’t qualify to the main International Chemistry Olympiad, the biggest competition for high school students.interviewing for consulting jobs

I was crushed.

That was something I really wanted, but instead I participated again in the Olympiad for students under 18 again, and this time I won first place and first gold medal. In that moment I realized that everything happens for a reason. I wouldn’t have achieved this amazing result if I didn’t fail to qualify to the main competition. Next year, in my last year of high school, I managed to participate in the main International Chemistry Olympiad and I won a bronze medal.

I loved these Olympiads! They made my high school experience so great! I got to travel the world and see places like Turkmenistan, Siberia and Japan. I got to meet incredibly smart peers, caring mentors and even Nobel laureates. These competitions also made me realize that I wanted to keep studying chemistry.

Unfortunately, in Romania the chemistry laboratories are not well equipped and there is very little funding for research. I wanted to learn from the best chemists in the world to further develop my skills, so I decided to apply to college in the United States. I had quite a lot of friends who participated in the International Olympiads and were studying in the United States, so I asked them about applications and about their experience in the US. All of them liked the US, so I decided to go for it as well. I applied to 5 top colleges in the US and I only got into Columbia University. They offered me a full scholarship, I accepted the offer and when I was 18 years old I came to the US.

Coming to Study in the US

interviewing for consulting jobsThe first few months were horrible. Everything was different, I didn’t know anybody, and I was forced to speak only English when my entire life I used to speak only Romanian. Sometimes I couldn’t understand what people said to me, so my strategy was to smile and nod when that happened. But things got better with time. My English became better, I made friends and I loved my classes. I pursued the most difficult track for a major in chemistry and, because I love challenges, I enrolled in a graduate level class my second semester of freshman year. I did very well in the class and I built a very strong relationship with the professor teaching it, Ron Breslow, who was one of the biggest names in the field and who supported me unconditionally throughout my entire time at Columbia.

I started doing research in organic chemistry the summer after my freshman year. I loved my laboratory! The people were amazing, the chemistry we were working on was very interesting and Scott, the professor I worked for was a true mentor. I even published a paper in the Journal of the American Chemical Society when I was a junior. I made the most out of the opportunity I was given to attend Columbia and I took all the graduate level courses that were related to organic chemistry. One of them was taught by one of the most prominent synthetic organic chemists, Sam Danishefsky. It was the last year he offered the class before he retired, and I am so happy I had the opportunity to learn from him. I built a strong relationship with him and he supported me and advised me on what to do after graduating in 2014. I decided, together with my mentors, that the best step for me was to apply to graduate school and get a PhD.

PhD, Harvard and Not Quitting

My undergraduate research was great, and it taught me all the necessary skills to thrive in graduate school, but it had no impact to the real world. We would just synthesize a complex molecule, publish a paper and store that molecule in the freezer. I really wanted my PhD research to have more of a real-world application. That’s why I decided to come to Harvard and join my current laboratory where we design and synthesize new antibiotics to commercialize them in order to help people battling hospital-acquired infections.

My PhD experience was difficult. In my first year and a half, my research was not going anywhere. I wasn’t making any progress and I seriously considered quitting my PhD. I was working hard in the laboratory – long nights, weekends – but I wasn’t getting any promising results. Besides dealing with research failures, I had to take 4 classes in the first year and a half of my PhD, and I had to teach undergraduate students for two semesters.

My first semester of teaching went pretty bad. It was difficult to go from being a student your entire life, to teaching organic chemistry to more than 30 people. I only learned after the mid-semester evaluations that my students wanted me to structure the section differently, so I can spend more time on solving problems with them, rather than explaining new concepts. I made sure to change the way I was teaching and tackle more problems with my students, but half of the semester was already gone by the time I did this.

In hindsight, this could have been prevented if during my first section I had asked my students what they wanted to get out of it. Communication is extremely important no matter what your job is, and this experience taught me that you should talk and set expectations early on, so that nobody’s disappointed at the end.interviewing for consulting jobs

My second semester of teaching went much better because I told my students from day one how I want to structure my section and I asked them to share with me what they prefer, so they could get the most out of the session. The first year and a half of my PhD was one of the most difficult periods of my life. I had a lot on my plate and I was constantly stressed and worried. But I kept going, I kept moving on, and I didn’t quit my PhD.  I’m glad I stayed. Classes and teaching were over after a year and a half and I could focus solely on research after that.

My research started going well once I realized that I had to abandon what I was doing and start from scratch. Sometimes you have to take a step back, re-assess the situation and change the plan accordingly. I synthesized more than 150 new antibiotics that are more potent that what’s clinically available and I hope one day one of the compounds I made will become commercially available and cure patients.

Interviewing for consulting jobs? You and Ioana are in the same boat

I will get my PhD in less than a year and I am currently preparing for consulting job interviews. I am interested in consulting for 2 major reasons: during my PhD I realized that I want my work to have a quicker impact and I want to continue solving problems, but not at the bench. Research tends to be very slow – in order to get a drug on the market you need more than 10 years. I still want to make an impact in the pharmaceutical and healthcare space, but not from an R&D role. In consulting I can solve important problems in the pharmaceutical and healthcare sector and see the impact of my work in a few months rather than 10 years.

Getting involved with Firmsconsulting

Last year I attended a Business Development for Life Scientists workshop at Harvard and the guest speaker for that workshop was Jen Nwankwo. When I looked her up before the workshop to read about her background, one of the first links that popped up was that of TCO 3 with Jen. This was a time when I had already decided I wanted to transition into consulting and since I met Jen, who worked with FC and got an MBB offer, I decided to give TCO a try and see if it’s a good fit for me.

Cost-benefits trade-off

For me, quality is always more important than price. While there are a lot of free resources available, they were not a good fit for me because I never understood how they arrived at the structure used to solve cases and they lacked a progressive approach to teach cases.

I found a lot of frameworks online, but no real explanation behind them. I personally hate memorizing concepts, I need to truly understand them in order to be able to apply them, so memorizing frameworks didn’t work for me.

Having no business background, I needed guidance on where to start with my preparation for case interviews. I wanted to start with easy things, understand the basics and then move into solving full cases and that’s exactly what FC offered me.

Experience with FC

interviewing for consulting jobs When I started with FC, I subscribed to just TCO for 2 months to make sure the training offered is a good fit for me. I really liked the approach Michael uses to teach concepts, it makes a lot of sense to me and I got the explanations and progression I was looking for in a training program, so I switched to the Premium subscription to become an FC Insider and take advantage of so many other programs they offer.

Getting a job is just the first step, but I want to do great work, solve important problems and have an impact, so I want to learn as much as possible to be able to do all of that. One thing I like about FC is the fact that they teach you not only techniques to solve problems, but also techniques to improve your communication and soft skills. It’s crucial to know how to communicate effectively and be good at building relationships with people, regardless of the industry you work in and I’m grateful for the opportunity to learn about this from ex-partners.

Relationship with FC

I think the word that best describes my relationship with FC is mentorship because even though I’m just a subscriber and not their client, I feel like, through all the amazing programs they offer, they help me become a better person overall.

Changing career goals post-FC

It taught me to always dream big and not let society define my limits. Just because I was born in Eastern Europe and I am a woman doesn’t mean I can’t have a successful career or that I have to settle. I don’t want just a cozy job that pays decent money, I want to be able to help a lot of people and truly make a positive impact in the world through my work.

My advice to everyone is to always dream so big that your dreams scare you. That’s how you know you’re doing it right. One program that reminded me of this and made me believe in myself more is Partnership. Memoir. Michael is doing an amazing job of not just explaining the steps he took to become a interviewing for consulting jobspartner in a top consulting firm before he was 30, but also motivating people throughout the series. He’s always making sure to share the struggles he faced and how he overcame them while encouraging people that they can be successful too. I highly recommend this program to everyone.

I also resonated with the program because, since Michael talks a lot about emerging markets and I grew up in one, I could connect more with Michael and FC. It feels good to use training done by people who understand your background.

Also, seeing so many examples of successful clients with unique backgrounds made me realize that anything is possible if you are willing to work for it and if you have the right mentors. Reading about Irina, the woman who had a vocational degree from Ukraine and made it to McKinsey, or listening to Assel, the woman who got a job at McKinsey after 5 years of maternity leave, motivated me a lot. If they could do this, so can I, and so can you.

Referral?

Yes, I would recommend FC. Anyone could benefit from their programs: people trying to get a job, people struggling with their careers, people trying to become better at their job. It doesn’t matter where you are on your professional journey, everyone can learn something from FC training.

Most memorable part

interviewing for consulting jobsMy mind was blown when I learned that the strategy, should, could, would, how framework can be used to structure so many different type of cases, and also some fit questions. A really nice and useful approach that I haven’t seen anywhere else. I was also surprised to learn that you should network with partners, and not junior people. I was under the impression that they wouldn’t want to talk to me, but it turns out that senior people are extremely nice and friendly.

One thing I noticed shortly after I started using FC training programs is that I became more aware of my surroundings and more interested in how everything works. For example, when I would walk home from the laboratory and see a certain brand of a luxury car, I would start estimating how many cars of the same brand are in Massachusetts. When I’m at the airport, I pay more attention to advertisements to see what destinations are offered by certain airlines. When I hear about a business I know nothing about I ask myself what their business model is.

Feedback from friends/family

My family and best friends know that I’m using FC. They are very supportive, and they all noticed how much I’m learning. At the same time, they benefit from it too because I like to share with them what I learn, especially tips on communication, soft skills and leadership.

For example, I mentioned to my best friend that during your interview you should always stay calm, try to not lean your upper body towards the interviewer as this might be perceived as aggressive, try to keep your back glued to the chair and use your hands a lot when you speak. All these cues will give the impression of confidence. My friend found them very helpful and used them when he interviewed for a job in the pharmaceutical industry.

Big benefits

I feel like I’ve learned so many things from FC, but the three main benefits would be that: 1) I learned the basics terms of finance and business. When I first started working with FC I had no idea what profit margin, ROI, CVP analysis etc. were. 2) I learned how consultants define leadership. I used to think that if you are the president of a club you are a leader. 3) I learned how to think and communicate in a more structured way. Still working on this one, but I’m getting better at it.

Advice to other FC members

TCO is the foundation of all other FC training programs. Even if you are not interviewing for consulting jobs, you can still learn how to structure problems and it will help you no matter the field you work in. What I typically do when I go through the TCO training programs is watch the videos and use them as learning materials. I try to understand how interviewing for consulting jobsMichael approaches a problem, how he drives the case forward, what he focuses on, how he communicates and how he closes the case.

If I need to watch the same episode twice or three times to grasp a concept, I do it. I also don’t like to take more than a week off between episodes because I forget what I previously learned, and I lose momentum. I like to watch both the training videos and the perfect answer videos because it exposes me to the same concepts twice and if I missed something when I was watching the training video, I can pick it up when I watch the perfect answer video.

I also like to watch more than one video for a certain type of case. I usually start with Felix’s videos and then I watch Sanjeev’s videos as well. Being exposed to the same concepts, but applied to slightly different cases helps me understand how to apply the concepts to cases I haven’t seen before. It’s also helpful to see how different the two candidates are and understand that you don’t have to fit into a mold to get a consulting job.

I never pause the videos and try to solve the case myself because I feel like I don’t have the foundation to do so yet. This is the learning phase. Once I finish a season and I feel like I grasped the material, I start doing cases. You can find a lot of case books online for free. I first practice by myself and I focus on one category of cases at a time. For example, I started by tackling profitability cases and I talked them out loud as if I was talking to an interviewer. I think it’s important to always try to mimic the actual interview. If you do cases silently and just write down calculations, you are not working on your communication skills and that’s what you ultimately get an offer for.

I do as many profitability cases as I need to feel like I understand them. I know people who got an MBB offer and practiced hundreds of cases before interviews and I also know people who got an MBB offer and practiced 10 cases. The number doesn’t matter. What matters is that you understand how to tackle each type of case, are comfortable with the process and are able to use the core concepts in situations you haven’t seen before.

Once I feel like I can solve a category of cases, then I move on to the next category and I repeat the same process. Once I covered all major categories, I start practicing all types of cases, so the concepts are fresh in my memory for my interviews. I practice with a partner once a week and I make sure to listen to their feedback and incorporate it next time I practice. Of course, closer to the interview dates, I will practice with people more often. This is what works for me. What works for you could be very different. Find out what that is and stick to it.

The advice you would have given yourself

I would tell myself to buy an economics textbook and learn all the basic terms. It would have helped me to understand the vocabulary before diving into TCO. I should have also started practicing cases with people sooner, so I can apply the concepts I learned in TCO and find out what my weak areas are, so I know what I need to work on.f

Other advice

interviewing for consulting jobsThere will be times when you are going through the training and a concept doesn’t make sense. You might get frustrated, start doubting yourself and think that this is not for you. This definitely happened to me so far. While I’m good with numbers, formulas and graphs because of my background, when I first started practicing brainstorming questions, I was pretty bad at it. I found it very difficult to be structured and sometimes I struggled to come up with creative ideas.

What I did to fix this was to read the Wall Street Journal every day, pay a lot of attention to how Michael answers brainstorming questions, and ask myself brainstorming questions during the day. Reading the newspaper every day exposes me to how people or companies deal with certain issues and I can use these solutions when answering brainstorming questions as long as I’m structured.

Listening to Michael answer brainstorming questions helps me understand how an interviewer would want me to speak. Asking myself brainstorming questions helps me practice and improve.

Whenever I’m curious about something I notice when I walk on the street, or whenever I’m wondering how I could do something to improve a situation, I turn it into a brainstorming question and practice. It doesn’t have to be a formal practice session. Work to improve your weaknesses, but don’t give up. No matter how hard things are for you, always remember your goal and do everything you can to achieve it.

How we can improve

I think FC is offering high-quality training programs and I am grateful to have access to all of them. I also like that you are constantly uploading new content and offering new programs. One thing that FC should start doing is offer FC Insiders a platform to get to know each other and communicate with each other. FC Insiders are loyal subscribers and they are serious about our careers and becoming their best selves. It would be nice to have an easy way to get to know each other, find case partners, or just find people with a similar background to talk about careers. Having a list of business terms posted on the website would be extremely useful for me and other PhDs who have no business background and have never taken an economics class. I know we can google all these terms, but it would be helpful to have access to a glossary covering all the basic terms.

***

About “Advice from FC Insiders” series

Over the last 11 years, we have noticed a pattern of mistakes newer and sometimes long-term members make, which negatively impact their results and progress. Keep in mind that in addition to patterns we noticed based on members data and performance, we have had way over >1,000 coaching clients and keep detailed notes on every single interaction.

Some patterns:

1. Not allocating enough attention, time and effort to develop foundational skills

Not allocating enough attention, time and effort to develop foundational skills. For example, we often see members who are current consultants and who used TCO while they were preparing to interview for consulting jobs, to get an offer, but who did not develop sufficient foundational skills (eg they superficially covered TCO 1 with Felix and received an offer).

Such members, as soon as they get the offer, completely ignore TCO even though their foundational skills are weak.

They usually go for an extended vacation (vacation from developing themselves or a literal vacation). Then, shortly after they start in their new role (usually a few months in), once they realize the skills gap and limited training opportunities provided by their employer and that since they are competing with their co-workers due to up or out policy / for promotions internal training does not offer them an edge, jump into more advanced FC programs like The Bill Matassoni Show+Matassoni Insights, Corporate Strategy and Transformation study or Partnership. Memoir, without having a strong foundation to build upon and usually, by that time, already having to overcome a bad reputation/being viewed as “not a partner material.”

Getting the job is just a first step, as Ioana wisely mentioned. The hardest work begins once you are in your new role.

2. Ignoring FC foundational programs

Completely ignoring FC foundational programs like TCO if a member is not interviewing for consulting jobs or preparing to interview for consulting jobs.

On the surface TCO, EMBA Case Interview Preparation Program, McKinsey After Maternity Leave are programs for members who are preparing to interview for consulting jobs. In reality, those are very powerful programs to develop foundational skills which will serve any individual for the rest of their lives.

All our other advanced programs assume a member understands the foundational skills covered in foundational programs like TCO. For example, when we brainstorm the revenue generating opportunities or structure the business model in “Building an Electric Car” we assume members can follow the thinking. “The Digital & IT Strategy Study” requires a very advanced understanding of structuring problems that are all taught in TCO.

3. Learning but not applying

We often see members not applying what they learned, which obviously will negatively impact a member’s development and progress. Listening or watching is not sufficient to improve, make an impact and advance. You would need to turn off the App or close down your laptop, sit down with a blank sheet of paper and figure out how to apply the concepts. You also need to constantly search for ways to apply what you learned in your day to day activities and interactions.

For example, many FC Insiders who have followed and applied the lessons from Andrew’s ongoing journey to partner in 3 years reached out to us to share the significant results they achieved (promotions, being positioned as a star performer, opportunities to work for key clients). Yet, they had to act on the lessons to achieve those results.

4. Focus on what vs. why/how/why not

Pressed for time, members sometimes do not want to learn how to arrive at an answer. They just want the answer/framework. In the long-term, this makes members dependent on external help since they never learn to develop the answer themselves. Our lessons are different since we do provide answers but the answer is only about 1/20th of our programs. The rest is where we teach you how to think to develop effective solutions for your unique situations.

5. Coaching clients ignoring online training

We often see coaching clients who are interviewing for consulting jobs or using executive coaching to get promoted not taking advantage of FC online programs despite our advice that coaching is a cherry on top and we just cannot cover what needs to be covered in 12-15 hours of personal training. In fact, we had to introduce a policy where only FC Insiders are eligible to apply for coaching because of this pattern we noticed. This ensures clients now have the foundational skills before joining the programs.

Sanda, our most famous client, received an offer after just 4 lessons. This is because she used the online materials so well. And she was in the program when we had far less content (she was a scholarship client as well and had very limited resources, and still found a way to work through the content).

The EMBA program and How Assel Joined McKinsey After 5 Years Out of the Workforce programs are key. They cover everything quickly and succinctly. TCO 1, 2 and 3, and 4, as well as more advanced programs, are also very powerful ways for coaching clients to prepare to interview for consulting jobs.

6. Short-term focus

A very short-term focus is another common mistake we observed. Many members interviewing for consulting jobs focus on grasping just enough tips and tricks to get the offer (or get the promotion if a member is trying to advance within a current organization) vs. focusing on systematically developing a formidable skill-set.

We find many of these clients struggle as they mature in their careers. Many members are managed out or get stuck in their careers outside of consulting. It is common for members to stop using FC programs as soon as they receive an offer and such members usually reach out to us a few months after they start in their new role when they realize that internal training does not give them an edge. They usually ask us to make an exception and give them access to FC Insider immediately. Since FC Insider is a loyalty program obviously it does not work like this. Getting in is hard, but much easier than becoming a successful partner and/or successful executive.

These and many other common issues are something we try to help members avoid. However, we believe it will be helpful for such advice to come from other FC Insiders as well. So this is one of the reasons we are introducing this series – to help newer members or members with poor learning/application techniques to avoid common mistakes.

Another reason we are introducing this series is we hope that every FC member will be able to find an FC Insider showcased in this series who they can particularly relate to and learn from. For many members, it is difficult to emulate a partner because the gap in development (and age difference) is so high. Meeting real FC Insiders who are closer to most members’ age group and career development stage will hopefully help each member to find some practical advice, guidance, and inspiration that will make a material difference.

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