November 14, 2010

Message from Discouraged and Despaired

One of my favourite websites for case interview preparation is by Victor Chang. Here is a very interesting post Victor has recently added, which is a response to a person that struggles to get through consulting interviews. I thought that this could be an eye opening perspective for prospective and 1st year MBAs. The answer is given for both undergraduates and MBAs, but reflects very well the hurdles - emotional and intellectual of this process.

Question: For a very long time, I have thought that I am at the top tier of consulting candidates, however it seems that reality has proven me wrong. I applied for the big 3 and didn't get an interview for any of them.  Subsequently, I applied for various other smaller consulting firms and international ones such as L.E.K. and Oliver Wyman. I received 5 offers for interviews so far out of 13 that I have heard back (still waiting for many others).  However, I was not invited back for a second round for almost all of them. At the interviews, I always felt that I did a good job and had a very good conversation going on with the interviewers.  When I follow up to ask for feedback, the consultants either did not reply or told me I was fine. I don't know what is going wrong. What should I do?  Also, as it seems that I am not going to make it through the campus recruiting process, I am considering applying for off cycle recruiting later on in the year. How would I proceed on to doing that after I have gotten rejected from these firms now?  Thank you for your time and help!

Victor's answer:
This is a complicated one. So let me dissect your history one step at a time.

First, I do not know of your academic background or work experiences. But the fact that you did not get an interview from the top 3 is due to one of two reasons. Either you academic credentials or work experiences were not impressive enough (by their standards) OR your cover letter didn't stand out enough.
The cover letter is very, very, very important. Did I mention the cover letter is very important? It usually takes me 2 - 4 hours to write a good cover letter excluding research and networking time.

For a lot more info on how to write a good cover letter, read this blog post:

So GETTING the interview is a function of 1) your resume, 2) your cover letter. So to solve that problem, make sure the information on your resume is competitive and the cover letter is extremely strong. NEXT, lets talk about the situations where you DID get the 1st round interview, but did NOT get the 2nd round interview. In these cases, it means you did not do well on the case. It does not matter if you had a nice conversation if you did not do well on the case. There are some people I've interviewed, that I really enjoy talking to. I would love to hang out with them. And they were not qualified, so I dinged them. The fact that nobody will give you any feedback, is hard to interpret. Interviews don't like to have what they perceive as confrontational conversation. So unfortunately, you can't read too much into that reaction.

So my next question is did you properly prepare?
Did you go through all the video tutorials on my website and did you go through the Look Over My Shoulder program?

If you did not learn how to do cases and you did not practice the cases via Look Over My Shoulder or with a practice partner, then it is impossible to interpret this outcome.
If you did NOT prepare properly, it's entirely possible you HAVE the raw talent but you never developed that talent into a skill, and turn that skill into a consistent habit. This is the big problem with not preparing or not preparing early enough, if things don't go as planned, you keep wondering "what if?" Now, I don't know if you prepared or not, but lets say your prepared like crazy, you used the Look Over My Shoulder program to do some simulated practice sessions, and you did everything possible to get good at cases and you STILL got dinged. Then my conclusion, and you probably don't want to hear this, is that perhaps consulting is not a good fit for you. I did an entire video on this topic and wrote an entire blog post on it as well. I'll point you to those for additional information.

And to the extent that consulting isn't a good fit, I would encourage you not to feel too disappointed about it.
With some years of perspective behind me, I am firm believer one should manage their career to take advantage of 1) their strengths, 2) their passions/interests, or 3) both. There were 1 or 2 of my colleagues at McKinsey who basically quit after 6 months. They were good enough to get through the recruiting process, but they had to force themselves through it. It wasn't natural for them, it wasn't enjoyable for them, and they hated the work.

A simple test to determine if you will like the job is to see if you enjoy the interview process -- yes enjoy the interview process. So to the extend you've considered all the other possibilities, it may just be possible that consulting isn't the best fit for you.
I doubt you will feel this way in the moment, but in several years you may find it was the best thing to happen to you (I did say it may take a few years to feel this way!). Here's why. Assuming you did everything in your control, it suggests you ought find a field that plays to your strengths -- a career that you are 10 times more likely to excel in once you are in it. Consulting is not "everything".

There are so many DIFFERENT ways to be successful in life and career it's ridiculous. Unfortunately, the on campus recruiting experience is so distorted. I remember feeling like there were only two jobs in the world available -- being a consultant or being an investment banker. That's ridiculously untrue (but it sure feels that way at the time because that's who comes to recruit on campus).
So depending on your specific situation, you might want to consider the various options that I suggested above.

And on a personal note, when I went through my recruiting process I really wanted to go into investment banking--not consulting.
When other kids in high school went to summer camp, I want to Investment Banker camp on Wall Street (I'm serious). All of my friends who got investment banking offers, were tutored on how investment banking works by me. I put lots of my friends in college into retirement accounts--explaining the tax advantages. Basically, I thought of myself as Mr. Investment Banking. BUT, despite this interest in investment banking, I could NOT get past round 1 at ANY investment bank. I got dinged by Goldman, Morgan Stanley, Lehman Brothers, Bear Sterns, and more. Not a single 2nd round. Originally, I was very disappointed because I had my heart set on banking. I started wondering what was wrong with me? Was I going to get a job? (Perhaps this sounds familiar) Basically, the bankers somehow all figured out that I was not meant to be a banker. To this day, I still don't know how they made this determination, but that's what they concluded. And a week or two later, the consulting interviews started. And within days, I was getting first rounds, second rounds, flying around the country for final rounds, and getting tons of offers. After I got offers from my top 2 firms, I started cancelling final rounds so that others would more offers available to those who were still interviewing.

The year I was hired at McKinsey, they hired 100 Business Analysts globally. 2 years later, they asked 90 of the 100 to go get an MBA or get some more experience elsewhere before coming back to the firm.
10 of the 100 people that remained were promoted to Associate and moved on to the partnership track. I was one of those 10 people -- in the top 10% of McKinsey for my start "class" globally. My point in sharing all this is, all of this started with me getting rejected by ALL the investment banks.

Turns out consulting was totally up my alley. In my work today with my CEO clients where I serve as their confidant and advisor, they are essentially giving me a case interview every day! I have over a dozen phone calls each week that start something along these lines: "Victor, Our sales got hammered in Q3, the sale pipeline in Q4 is eroding, our margins are down 2% this quarter, what should we do?" (Does this sound familiar?) For the charity, I'm very fond of I advise the founder on their marketing strategy, increasing product sales, re-segmenting their markets, and making changes to their product portfolio (sound familiar?)

In short, I LOVE this stuff. I do it for work. I do it for charity. I do it for fun. It's so "me".
Well, today it's obvious to me that consulting was a good fit for me. But at the time, I had NO idea this would be true. I thought I was supposed to be banker. And guess what? Although it was a HUGE blow to my ego that I got rejected by all the investment banks, I'm REALLY GLAD they did. Because it gave me great certainty that Investment Banking was NOT for me -- so I focused on my 2nd choice, consulting... and never looked back.

So IF you've truly given it your all towards getting into consulting (did your homework, practiced like crazy, followed all the advice and tips I've shared), and you STILL did not get in... maybe, just maybe you might want to take that as a sign to look elsewhere.
In the moment, I know it feels like crap. But taking the decade long view, it might be a brilliant strategic move for your career.

But if you didn't follow all my advice, and you didn't do the hard job of really preparing early and often, then you have a difficult choice to make. Do you start the process all over again, this time preparing thoroughly? (Keeping in mind that trying to recruit off-cycle after you did not do well during on-campus recruiting is quite literally about 10 times more time consuming). Or do you look towards your second choice career options, always wondering if maybe you really were good enough to get into consulting, but didn't prepare enough.

And my advice for those who are going through the recruiting process for the first time. Do everything in your control to prepare properly the FIRST time, as it is so much harder, and emotionally troubling to try and do it right the second time.
Thanks, -Victor Cheng