We have talked about how to get an interview and how to nail the case section. The last step in the “PhD’s Guide to Getting a Consulting Job” is discussing your personal experience in a way that is clear, compelling, and shows that you’ve got what it takes to be a consultant.

Experience questions break into two types; simple chit-chat questions and serious in-depth questions. These are both quite important, and I’ll talk about how to prepare for each:

Preparing for Chit-Chat Interview Questions

You should probably have 30-90 sec. answers to a variety of likely “chit-chat” questions in mind.

  • “So, why are you interested in consulting?”
  • “What is the lay-person version of what your thesis is about?”
  • “Why abandon your research when it seems so important?”
  • “I won’t ask if your interviewing with our competitors, but… why our firm?”
  • “How was your morning?”

Have your answers ready. These questions might get asked in the very beginning of the interview before you even know that it has started. This chit-chat can be very important, though. You’ll want to show that you have thought carefully about why you are interested in consulting and why the firm you’re interviewing with is a good fit.

Preparing great answers to these questions can also help you explain what you’re doing to your friends and family!

Example In-Depth Experience Questions

These questions should give you an idea of the kinds of things you’ll be asked. You can make up hundreds more questions by varying the themes in the samples below.

  • Give me an example of a time that you had to take a team in a new direction in order to save a project under a tight deadline.
  • Tell me about a time when you set a specific goal for yourself and accomplished it.
  • What was the biggest challenge within your PhD and why?
  • Give me an example of a time when you tried to change someone’s mind in an important situation. (Could be successful or unsuccessful) For this example, try to think of something where the person was very firm about their position?
  • Consider a time when you were forced to go against a group decision. How did you know that you had to do what you did, and what did you do afterwards?
  • Tell me about a time when you had to tell a superior or supervisor they were wrong.
  • Tell me about a time when you worked with someone that was very challenging. Try to think of a situation in which you had to directly confront this person.
  • Recall a time when you had to confront someone for poor work on a project.
  • Tell me about a time when you had to influence a large group of people (try to think of something that isn’t school/work related).
  • Give me an example of when you had to lead a team through a crisis?
  • Many times in consulting we have to work directly with CEOs and other executives. Tell me about an experience when you had to meet with someone very high up in an organization.

Preparing for In-Depth Experience Questions

In-depth questions like those above help the interviewer gauge how you think and how you have solved real problems in your past. They also will cause you to show a lot of your personality if you answer them well. Here are some things to remember.

Prepare at least 5 stories. Each story should be flexible and detailed enough to answer two or three of the sample questions depending on how you tell it. Having at least 5 stories in mind should give you plenty of variety to handle any question the interviewer throws at you.

Use a compelling title. If you have a story about how you had to convince your boss to re-write a chapter in a grant application (for example), Don’t just jump into the story. First, present the title: “This story is about a time when I influenced my supervisor to make a last-minute change that saved our group’s funding.” The short, exciting synopsis sets the tone for the rest of the question.

Have at least 10 minutes of talk for each story. Hopefully you’ll get some breaks, and you won’t have to talk the whole time. Fill your stories with hooks that deliberately bait the interviewer into asking further questions (which you also have answers to). Be interactive throughout the story. Ask the interviewer if they’re following and stop to answer any tangential questions the interviewer may have.

Don’t forget your structure. Prepare by remembering all the details, writing down key bits of information, and trying to impose a structure on the narrative. Come up with lots of 3-bullet-lists to use in the story. 3 Observations you had, 3 problems you faced, 3 things you tried, etc. These will lend structure to the story, help the interviewer know where you’re headed, and keep you focused.

Consider a layout like this:

  1. Start with a hook or “headline” (10 sec.)
  2. Set up by telling why its important and how it relates to the question (~30-60 sec.)
  3. Mention what the 3 major problems were. (10 sec.)
  4. Talk about the 1st problem and the solution (120 sec.)
  5. Talk about a 2nd problem and the solution (120 sec.)
  6. Talk about a 3rd problem and the solution (120 sec.)
  7. Give a nice conclusion and epilogue and say what you learned. (30-60 sec.)

Be very detailed about your thought process. Shoot to give details without being prompted, but realize that the interviewer might jump in and ask for clarifications here and there. A big difference between consulting interviews and normal interviews is that consultants want the details. Be sure to tell why you did things, how you reached your conclusions, and what specifically you did about them.

It’s like being at a party. You want to be engaging, suspenseful, and impressive. You should let people jump in to ask questions, but you should be able to roll with the story if no one does. This also means you should use real stories. Pull from research, class projects, past jobs, personal life, hobbies, etc., but don’t make stuff up.

Other ideas for practicing for experience interviews? Leave a comment.

Conclusion

Well, folks. That wraps it up. We’ve covered building your brand, honing your resume, prepping for case interviews, and now, talking about your experience. With these tools and some careful practice you should be able to go in and rock those interviews!

I wish you the best of luck in finding the consulting job of your dreams!

Disclaimer: I recently went through the application and interview process with a top firm, came out with an offer, and signed it! In this series, I share my experience and give some ideas for people on a similar path. However, at the time of writing (July 2009), I do not have any inside information on how any company conducts their hiring. These are just my thoughts!

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