Interview: Sara Bell about her preparation towards becoming a consultant
Q) Can you introduce yourself for the readers please?
I graduated with a BS in Biochemistry from Tufts University and am now finishing my PhD in Cancer Genetics at UCSD.
Q) When and how did you decide on becoming a consultant?
Over the years, I found that while I enjoyed the rigor of science, I found bench work extremely isolating. I began to explore opportunities in business alongside my graduate work– classes at Rady, working as an analyst for Tech Coast Angels, and working on consulting projects through APDCC– and found the impact that I was generating very rewarding. I also realized that the combination of social intelligence coupled with analytical skills was an enormous asset not only for a career in consulting, but also for personal fulfillment in my work.
Q) How did you begin your preparation?
I began by reading Victor Cheng’s “Case Interview Secrets” and also bought the ever-classic Case in Point. By the point that I had my first interview (Connect to ClearView), I had read each book once and really had only a cursory understanding of the case interview process. I was surprised that I advanced to the second round of interviews!
For the uninitiated, the top consulting firms also conduct bootcamps or short immersion programs for selected candidates. This allows potential candidates to work closely with real consultants in real office environments and case situations. In addition to giving an up close and personal view of the consulting life, this also gives an insight into the different firms, their office culture, personal fit etc. To get into these immersion programs, applications begin in summer and it typically involves a 2-3 stage selection process including resume/phone interviews, aptitude tests and case interviews. Some of the most popular ones are “McKinsey Insight”, “Bridge to BCG”, “Connect to clearView” and “Advance into Consulting”.
With respect to the Immersion programs:
Q) What were the ‘connect’ programs that you applied to?
Connect to Clearview, Bridge to BCG, McKinsey Insight, and Bain Advance Into Consulting.
Q) How many and which all did you qualify for?
I made it to the second round interview for Connect to ClearView, but was not invited to attend the program.
Q) What was your experience at Connect to Clearview? (What was the professional experience and office culture?)
I enjoyed both of my interviews with newly hired consultants at ClearView. The interviewers were personable and genuine, and the cases were straightforward and within the life science space. They gave me very throughout feedback about my fit and case performance as well as my resume.
Q) How do you think the “connect” programs help you in your preparation?
The “connect” programs were very useful for my preparation because they made me realize how unprepared I was for the actual recruitment process. I realized I had many hours of work ahead of me and the initial rejections were a major source of motivation. I also spent more time perfecting my application materials (resume and cover letter).
Q) What would you recommend people to focus on if they want to get into the immersion programs? How much should the focus be on life-sciences, if any, and how should people prepare for that?
One of my ClearView interviewers told me that they probably would not have offered me an interview if I hadn’t worked as a Life Sciences analyst at Tech Coast Angels because I didn’t have any consulting experience on my resume. After that interview, I applied to the join next open consulting project through APDCC! The ClearView cases were incredibly life sciences specific, so I think for that program in particular it’s useful to focus your preparation on the life sciences space. However, it is immensely important to be highly structured in your cases, and so case preparation in other areas is very useful to practice structuring business problems.
With respect to the full time applications:
Q) What was your recruitment process like for the full-time role?
I applied to most of the generalized major firms (MBB) and an array of life science strategy firms ranging from some of the biggest (LEK) to tiny boutique firms with offices of 25-30 people.
Q) How did you practice for case interviews?
I read and re-read the case prep books, especially “Case Interview Secrets”. I eventually downloaded Victor Cheng’s audio program “Look Over My Shoulder” where he interviews candidates and provides real-time commentary on their performance. I also downloaded case books from several schools – Yale’s were particularly great for life science cases. Later in my preparation I spent more time reading cases and trying to expand my creativity in addressing life science problems beyond the simple business concepts. For example, when talking about market entry for a new drug- considering diagnosis rate, insurance issues, access to healthcare for the target population…
Q) How did you practice fit interview questions?
While answering fit questions was more intuitive overall, I did spend some time tweaking my stories and practiced answering with brevity. There were a few stories that I had been determined to make work for fit questions that I eventually had to let go because it was too difficult to illustrate my point in a few sentences. I culled these stories throughout the interview process. Choosing stories that allow you to access your sincerity and enthusiasm goes a long way!
Q) What were the best and worst parts of your entire preparation process?
Starting case practice was so overwhelming. I knew that the first step was learning to structure problems, but I didn’t even know where to begin. Listening to recordings and reading transcripts of other people’s case interviews began to give me an understanding of how to begin a case. The best parts were when I started to see how applicable these problem solving methods are to other situations and when I really began to understand how to apply business strategy to life science problems, even in hypothetical situations involving my own work. I find the strategy work very intellectually stimulating and satisfying.
Over all general questions:
Q) What was your experience with the different consulting firms? How many and which all firms did you apply to?
I applied to about 20 firms, but many were tiny boutique firms from which I never received a response. I applied to McKinsey, Bain, BCG, LEK, ClearView, ZS Associates, Clarion Healthcare, C1 Consulting, Deloitte, Deallus Consulting, Decibio, Enterey, GLG, Kantar Health, Navigant, Oliver Wyman, Promidian, Putnam Associates, RxC International, Simon-Kucher, and The Dedham Group.
Q) What were your observations about office culture in big firms vs. smaller, more boutique firms?
I was surprised that I actually preferred the culture at the smaller firms. A lot of people at the big firms seemed to play very specific roles with limited potential for lateral movement. At smaller firms, the leadership seemed more willing to let consultants be more exploratory. For example, one of my interviewers for a boutique firm skyped me from Tokyo for the interview because he was part of a pilot program with the company that allowed him to work remotely for a year from anywhere in the world.
Q) What was your experience with generalist firms vs. specialist firms?
I received far more interviews for Life Sciences-specific positions because of my obvious expertise and degree. Aside from McKinsey/Bain/BCG, the more general management consulting firms don’t seem to be as interested in recruiting and training Life Sciences PhDs.
Q) Based on all your experience, what would you recommendations be for future applicants? What are the do’s and the don’ts?
I think having a breadth of experience in consulting or other business-related volunteer projects forms a great basis for a consulting resume. I apply to almost every opportunity that I come across that piques my interest at all, because I’ve learned so much from these side projects (even if I know I’m not interested in the work as a career!) These types of experiences give you a lot to talk about for fit questions outside of the lab (talk about a time you worked with a team, led a project, resolved a conflict…) Listen to feedback from consultants about your case performance but also your resume. Some of the most useful advice that I received was from a resume critique by an LEK consultant. As far as don’ts, don’t underestimate the amount of time and work required to excel in the recruitment process. The learning curve is steep, and for a lot of APD applicants, there is a lot of work to be done at every step. I’ve had over 20 interviews and still don’t feel that my case performance is flawless, but I am getting better at understanding my weaknesses. Even if you don’t end up working in consulting, you will learn a tremendous amount about business strategy and the skills are very transferrable.
Q) What were your biggest challenges in the whole process? What were the things you did right and what (in your opinion) did you do wrong? If you were to this again in an alternate universe but could carry the knowledge – what would you do differently?
Beginning to understand how to approach a case was the toughest part of the process for me. I had so little understanding of what was expected and it was very frustrating. As I mentioned before, listening to case interviews helped me lay the groundwork for how to open and structure a case, which is the crux of this type of interview. If I had more time, I would spend more time practicing live cases and try to get more experience with written cases (which I came across in several final round interviews). I think I had very strong application materials and I was invited to a lot of interviews, so at a point it’s about hiring capacity and fit. Throughout the process I tried to show my personality and be myself, and I’m happy for that.
Q) Anything else that you would like to add?
Consulting recruitment is an intense, overwhelming, extremely difficult process. It’s normal to feel frustrated or inadequate if you get a rejection, but remember how much work you’ve put in and how much you’ve learned. It’s truly commendable- not a lot of APDs are courageous enough to venture so far out of their comfort zones.
Thanks a lot to Sara for taking the time out to answering our questions and sharing your experience with us…