When we think of the consulting recruiting process, we immediately think of case interviews. Everyone is well aware (and sometimes very scared) of the dynamic problem-solving conversation, and most candidates will spend endless hours training for cases. However, it is important to keep in mind that the case is only half of your interview time.
Most consulting firms, MBBs included, have each interview phase consist in two pieces: the case solving and the behavioral questions. The latter comes with many names (e.g., PEI, or Personal Experience Interview, for McKinsey), and it has become more and more relevant in later years as a way to differentiate yourself as a candidate.
While the case solving does take heavier preparation, being able to understand what companies are looking for with a behavioral assessment and being well prepared to stand out regardless of the question you are given can decisive to receiving an offer.
So, what are behavioral interview questions? In short, they are questions that ask for examples of a situation that a candidate has experienced, in which he or she had to use certain skills and was able to achieve successful results. Their main objective is to assess whether a candidate has proven to own certain abilities and competencies along their path, as well as if they would be a good fit for the company.
While you cannot know in advance which questions you will get, it is 100% possible to be very well prepared for any of them, by doing some homework on your own history. The first tool to be known for this preparation process is called the STAR method.
The STAR interview method is an acronym for Situation, Task, Action, and Result.It is a valuable framework for phrasing your answers to a behavioral question. For more detail on what the STAR framework is and how to apply it in your interview, read through this RocketBlocks post. In summary:
Okay, so now that you have a framework, it is time to start looking back on your experiences and preparing your STAR answers. This step consists of exhaustively listing your relevant past work experiences, especially the ones in which you stood out and was able to demonstrate leadership, problem solving, or any of the below listed categories of skills and competencies. Once you have a comprehensive list, you can prioritize them, and add 2-3 experiences under each category. It is perfectly fine to have the same story listed below many categories, as long as you never repeat them in the same interview. This part of the preparation will get clearer below with some examples.
Now that you have planned what to talk about, it is time to fill out the STAR framework for each of the situations plus category. Note that you might want to fill out the STAR framework twice for the same situation if it is under different categories, because the focus will probably change. It is also very personal whether to fill out each box with a speech you plan on rehearsing, or just bullet points – as long as you are able to consult it and train your responses, it works well.
As a final tip, it is essential to tailor any interview preparation to the company you are applying to, since behavioral questions are ultimately trying to identify if you are a good fit for that specific company. Do your research, network as much as possible, and try to get a sense of what type of people they are looking for. Focus on company values, mission, and vision as well. That way, when you revisit your key experiences, you should be able to emphasize the things they value the most in your responses in an explicit and objective way, which would definitely favor you in an offer decision.
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Here are a few sample questions for common categories in behavioral interviews. We will cover one of each in more detail in the following section.
Let's walkthrough an example question and answer for each of the consulting behavioral interview question categories.
Situation: During my first professional experience with a multinational life sciences manufacturer, my plant in Brazil was chosen as a pilot for a new management system, because we had historical high scores in Quality / ISO 9001 audits. The system would be developed by a U.S. team, but my coordinator did not speak English, and my manager had a strong environmental background and did not feel confident leading the project’s meetings.
Task: So, I was asked to Support the U.S. team in developing a successful management system, to be implemented globally.
Action: I took leadership of the project naturally, being a focal point to the U.S. team at the plant, carrying out the test phase, and transferring my knowledge of the system to all 300 employees at the plant before the go-live of the system. I took ownership in all stages of the project, analyzing implementation results and, for that, being given the opportunity to present the system and its results to other plants worldwide.
Result: After I personally presented our pilot results to plant managers in Colombia, South Africa, France, and finally Germany, which was company headquarters, the system implementation proceeded to be led by a multinational team. This tool is implemented globally to this day, being used to manage nonconformities under the highest standards of internal and external regulations at over 60 manufacturing locations, by over 20,000 employees.
I like the example above because it shows you don’t have to have experience leading a large team, or be attached to financial metrics, to deliver a great answer under leadership. Of course, if you have those, definitely use them, but if you are applying to entry or mid-levels and are unsure how to go about it, here is one way.
Situation: In one of my favorite projects, I was assigned to support the offshore team of a major oil and gas company in implementing performance management routines. The team had several complaints about the new processes that were defined and was very resistant to implement any of it. They did not see value in daily meetings to discuss small process KPIs and were adamant that they had no time to fit the additional work to their routines. We were running very behind on the implementation schedule.
Task: My main task was to interact with the offshore team to understand their challenges and ensure the routines were properly implemented before the project’s deadline.
Action: I quickly realized that I was not going to be able to help them from the onshore office, so I requested my leadership to go offshore and spend time with the team who was supposed to execute the routines, in order to actually understand their perspective. I was an external consultant and by contract, had no obligation to go, but I made that decision and worked offshore for several weeks, including weekends, to train the team on the job and adjust the routines based on their feedback.
Result: It was incredibly easy to proceed with implementation face to face. Not only I earned the team’s trust and was able to build great relationships with them, but also I had a faster and more complete understanding of their daily tasks, which allowed me to seamlessly adapt the initial processes to fit into their routines. With the new performance management in place, we were able to increase water injection efficiency in 2.4 p.p. (annual savings of 40 million dollars), and we received very positive feedback from the client at the end, and an extension of the project scope of work later on.
A few key takeaways for any conflict management answer: choose a story in which there was a real conflict; make sure it is clear how the conflict was addressed. For the latter, there is usually a trade-off, so it is important you demonstrate how you balanced both sides well.
Situation: In early 2020, several small businesses were struggling with sudden (but necessary) pandemic restrictions. My co-workers and I then decided to create volunteer consulting teams to offer free support to these local businesses in navigating the early months of lockdown.
Task: I was assigned to a vet clinic and pet store. Based on city guidelines, they were able to remain open, but business had of course dropped to historic low levels. My job was to help them find ways to recover revenues during such difficult times.
Action: I analyzed their financials and developed a robust emergency action plan to increase revenue, including the idea of keeping track of recurring medicines sold by the pet store, and calling clients to remind them of renewal time.
Result: Our client saw a revenue increase of 65% after implementing our recommendations.
All said and done, there are two key takeaways to have in mind as you start your preparation. First, as mentioned before, be mindful of who you are interviewing for, and always tailor your preparation to your targeted company. For example, when preparing for an Amazon interview, I used their 13 leadership principles as my behavioral categories (I did get an offer!). This will help you demonstrate to your interviewers in a detailed, direct level that you would be a good match for the company.
Second, keep in mind that the objective of this post is to provide you with tools and techniques to be strongly prepared for a behavioral interview. However, you can only excel at one by being yourself. Keep your stories genuine and make your personality shine as you deliver them, and you will surely rock any behavioral question sent your way.
Real interview drills. Sample answers from ex-McKinsey, BCG and Bain consultants. Plus technique overviews and premium 1-on-1 Expert coaching.