Case Interview in Point

I went into Hell Week last week somewhat relaxed (I thought). I had only applied to a couple jobs on-campus and consequently only had two consulting interviews to get through. Having never even considered being a consultant until the day before cover letters were due, the whole process was much more of a learning experience than a battle for a position.

After deciding not to cancel my interviews, I attended a couple of our section “practice case interview sessions.” I struggled valiantly to hold back the tears during my first case, convinced I would completely embarrass myself during the actual interviews and somehow get expelled from HBS for complete ineptitude.

To further prepare, I went home, dug into my back closet and lugged out my strategy notes from last semester, reviewed the marketing frameworks, memorized many compelling reasons for being a consultant, came up with a couple questions to ask (all brilliant and original, of course), got a manicure, made sure I still fit into my suits (dusty from lack of use) and crossed my fingers. Ready, aim, fire.

You know what, interviewing wasn’t so bad! The lobby of the Doubletree Hotel before my first company interview was a veritable party. Everyone I knew seemed to be mingling in the “hospitality room” before the torture began. I used the occasion as an opportunity to catch up with friends I hadn’t seen in a while, meet new people and hear about random consultants’ experiences while pretending to be utterly fascinated.

And I couldn’t believe how systematic and organized the process was! I was given a nice folder with my name on it when I arrived, complete with a recruiting schedule and background information on my two interviewers. I was horrified to see that one of them had a PhD in Biology, given that’s the only class I’ve ever gotten a C on in my entire life (freshman year of high school). Wouldn’t you know it. The meetings went like clockwork and I was out just two minutes after my scheduled time of departure. Unbelievable.

The interviews themselves went just fine. I got through without making a complete fool of myself (I mean, I didn’t cry or ask to leave early), I cobbled together strategic recommendations and generally tried to figure out what I’d do in the situations I was presented with. Because of course, I’ll be running by own mid-market watch manufacturer someday and hey, won’t this be useful background. Aside from forgetting to ask about costs until two minutes before the end of one case, no big mishaps occurred.

My interviews at the second company the next morning were slightly less structured, but not much. After waiting (alone) in the lobby having arrived half an hour early first thing Friday morning and flipping through all the frameworks yet again (hair up, hair down?), I arrived bright and early upstairs and was escorted almost immediately into an interview chamber. I only had a couple minutes to get to know the other HBS guy waiting, disappointing since that’s usually the most enjoyable part!

Miraculously, the case question I was asked was the exact same question verbatim that I had practiced with a sectionmate two nights before. Is there just one book of these questions or what? Are all baby bells considering entering the home security market? I rattled off all I could remember and then, when asked to fill up the remaining fifteen minutes asking him questions, came up with what must have been a bizarre line of interrogation, scrambling to think up more and more questions until then time finally ran up. I didn’t even get to perform my fine-tuned speech on why I wanted to be a consultant!

After sharing a cab back to campus with another new HBS person, I hung up my suit and called it quits. Now I know what case interviews are like.

I know how consultants think (not like me, that’s for sure) and I am aware of all the ingredients that go into making a tasty business recommendation. And I’m sure that’ll come in handy. Plus, now that Porter’s Five Forces are permanently branded in my brain (helpful pneumonic: SERBS), I’ll surely have something to talk to all consultants about for the rest of my life, aside from HBS.

Needless to say, I was not called back to continue the auditions. Of course I knew that would be the case and yes, I didn’t really want to be a consultant, but still, I wanted them to want me! As my oldest friend told me when she heard I had two consulting interviews approaching, “Zibby, you don’t have to prove to anyone that you can get a consulting job. We know you’re great and we’ll love you whatever you do.”

Hmm. Was this just another exercise in striving for success as I’ve been conditioned to do from day one? Is that why I was inexplicably disappointed that I wouldn’t be able to work long, arduous hours and travel four nights a week working on projects I wouldn’t be interested in for years to come? I wonder.

So now, my flirtation with the consulting life has ended. I’ve been picked up out of the herd and thrown back into the wide world of non-traditional options where I belong. I’m still not 100% sure what I want to do (and am completely stressed out about it), but at least I’ve experienced the case interview process, I tried my hand at on-campus recruiting and I’ve gotten some use out of my suits.

Plus, even though I didn’t come close to getting any offers, I did finish up Hell Week with five days in Puerto Rico, basking in the sun and relaxing with friends (including two former consultants, I might add). After all, it is only November and I have a full ten months before I want to work again. And I’m planning on taking advantage of every minute of free time I have until then.