Stranger in a Strange Land
When I walked into the BCG Los Angeles office for my first round interview, I couldn’t help but stare. Floor to ceiling windows flooded the open office with sunlight, wrapping around to meet an outdoor garden perched five hundred feet above the city. Through the windows I could see a field of helicopter landing pads, each marked with a giant letter H, scattered on the skyscrapers below. Modern glass fixtures dangled from the high ceilings above the sleek marble counters and plush couches that dotted the lobby. It was a world apart from the squat, bunker-like seismology lab that I worked in as a research fellow the summer before my senior year at Caltech.
In a lot of ways, I was lucky to have landed my job at BCG. I was lucky that my interviewer laughed when I told him what I had done that morning (gotten up at 4am to watch a space probe crash into Saturn). I was lucky that I applied at all, given that I had my mind set on pursuing a Ph.D in electrical engineering. I was also wildly lucky that my older sister was a consultant with gracious friends. For the week leading up to my interview, I did a practice case interview with one of her consulting friends every day until I had the rhythm and flow of cases down to a science.
Without their generous help, I would have stumbled and politely been told I wasn’t a good fit after the first interview. I was fortunate not to open an email that began with “we regret to inform you”, and I want your recruiting process to also have a happy ending. My experience with the recruitment process, both as a student and later when I was on the BCG recruiting team, taught me valuable strategies for nailing a case interview. I’d like to share some of these tips with you, along with other resources to help you reach your management consulting career goals.
I regularly saw Mount Rainier, located south of Seattle, while flying to my client site.
Recipe for Recruitment
The case interview is one of the main components of recruitment at strategy and management consulting firms. Case interviews are often based on real projects that the firm, or even the interviewer, has worked on. Interviewers look at how well candidates play in the sandbox cases they’re presented with to judge if candidates will make good co-workers.
1. Understand the case
Before you leap into the case, make sure you understand it. Your interviewer will present you with details about the client and the goals for the case. Say it back to them. Replay what they said in your own words and make sure you understand what the goal of the case is. Are you maximizing revenue at a tuna cannery? Looking for a new market to sell beach towels in? Before you send your mind racing, make sure you understand the case. This may seem like an obvious step, but I’ve seen nervous candidates announce a bold three phase approach that solves the wrong problem in a case interview.
2. Think out loud
Imagine for a moment that your dreams of owning a pastry shop came true and you were hiring a new pastry chef. Would you hire someone who vanished into the kitchen and reappeared with a cake they had mysteriously conjured up? Of course not — you’d want to judge the way your aspiring chef washed their hands, selected ingredients, and applied frosting. In the same way, case interviews are as much about the process as they are about the final solution. Interviewers can’t read minds. Walk your interviewer through your thought process and show them every step.
3. Walk the perimeter
When you’re inevitably handed a graph during your interview, walk the perimeter. Read out the title, the axes, the labels, and the units. Talking through the information around the edges of the graph will clarify what the figure is about. It’s also a great way to buy time for you to figure out what the data in the graph actually means. Interviewers want to see how candidates analyze graphs, and walking the perimeter is an easy first step. It shows the interviewer how you process graphs, analyze data, and begin drawing conclusions.
4. Present to the CEO
Towards the end of the case, your interviewer will ask you to wrap up and summarize your findings. Ask for a few moments to gather your thoughts and stop. Think silently. Remind yourself what the goal of the case is, jot down your recommendation, and identify any risks. Imagine you’re presenting to the CEO — they don’t need to know what numbers you multiplied to get your market size estimate. Instead, focus on what needs to be done, why, and lay out potential challenges and future areas to explore.
View of downtown Seattle and South Lake Union, taken from the BCG Seattle office where I worked.
Back to the Future
It’s been more than two years since I applied to BCG. I spent the last minutes before my final interview with my face pressed against the office window, staring out at the streets and buildings of downtown Seattle 54 stories below. I didn’t know if I’d ever see that view again, and wanted to make the most of it. That view became very familiar to me after I started full time and worked on cases up and down the West Coast, typically returning to my home office on Fridays. On the weekends that I didn’t fly back to Seattle, I took advantage of my firm’s alternative travel policy and journeyed to Portland, Miami, New York City, Atlanta, and other cities across the country. During my time at BCG, I also spent countless hours on recruiting efforts including conducting mock cases, casing seminars, and info sessions across the country.
More recently I’ve traded my jet setting lifestyle for a more sedentary, apartment based routine as I work on my masters in electrical engineering at Stanford. I’m not proud of how much Selling Sunset and Parks and Rec I’ve watched on Netflix the past few months. But I am proud of a venture that my sister and I recently launched: Helium Consulting Coaches LLC. Helium is a service that offers mock case and fit interviews with former consultants. Each of our cases is written in-house and tailored to mimic what you’ll face in a real interview.
Landing a job at a top management or strategy consulting firm is a rewarding goal that can kickstart a career. However, even the process of getting an interview — much less making it to the finish line — can seem opaque or downright daunting. It’s important to remember that casing isn’t a talent that some people have and some people don’t. It’s a learnable skill. Just as Ratatouille espoused that anyone can be a chef, Helium was founded on the belief that anyone can become a consultant.
There isn’t a secret to cracking a consulting case — it just takes practice. But finding the right person with the right background and the right experience to practice with can be challenging and prohibitively expensive. Roommates, siblings, and highly gifted pets can all be decent interviewer stand-ins. However, the quality of feedback you’ll get from former consultants who have been through the process is leaps and bounds better than what the most dedicated roommate can offer. Some companies charge the cost of a pre-pandemic round trip flight from Seattle to San Jose for a 45 minute practice interview with a management consultant. But you shouldn’t have to break the bank before you even walk in for your first interview — if I didn’t have my sister’s friends to case with, I would have been out of luck. Helium Consulting Coaches offers top quality practice case and fit interviews at half the price you’ll normally find. We also offer free consultations where we help you craft a plan to meet your consulting goals. Reflecting back, it took several twists of fate and strokes of luck for an engineer working in a seismology lab to become a consultant at BCG. With the right practice, anyone can be a consultant.
Timothy Liu is the co-founder of Helium Consulting Coaches LLC. He graduated from Caltech with a B.S. in electrical engineering and worked at BCG’s Seattle office from 2018–2019.