An interview with Alexander Richards, Bain London Consultant and NYU Stern Consulting Club VP
Last updated: Oct 10, 2016
Winston Churchill once said, "If you put two economists in a room, you'll get two opinions, unless one of them is Lord Keynes, in which case you'll get three."
When you're preparing for case interviews, the predicament is similar. If you ask one McKinsey, one BCG and one Bain friend for recommendations on how to prepare, you are guaranteed to get at least four opinions. "It's like drinking from a fire hose," Alexander Richards, a NYU Stern class of 2017 candidate observed, when recalling the amount of recommendations he got from friends when going through the process.
In this post, we sit down with Richards, a graduate of Colby College, former Chief of Staff for the CFO of UBS Wealth Management Americas, and most recently an intern in Bain & Co's London office over the summer of 2016. Given Richards just successfully went through the consulting recruiting process and landed a job at a premier firm, Bain & Co, we asked him for his top advice to the folks who are in the same shoes he was nine months ago: trying to land an offer. Over the course of the conversation, three key pieces of advice emerged:
Richards recalls when he first started seeking advice on the preparation process that it was a bit overwhelming:
"Everyone was saying so many different things that I started to think of all the different pieces of advice as items on a menu, from which I could craft a route for myself based on my own strengths and weaknesses. For example, I'd hear things like 'two cases per day for the last five weeks before the interviews start' but I realized that won't work for me. I'm a crammer. I need a Sunday where I do something like 15 cases in a row, and then the next day, I just watch Netflix." - Alexander Richards, Bain & Co. London Intern
That's great advice. There are a million different ways to prep for case interviews - it's fair to say that most of them won't be the best use of your time. Some students benefit by consistent, daily practice for weeks, while for others, like Richards, it's more effective to drill in bursts and then take breaks. The key is to figure out what practice style works best for you and hone in on what skills you really need to polish. One of the best ways to do this is to look back on your prior experience - be it academic, professional, or otherwise - and think about your learning style. If you'd pull all-nighters to polish-off essays in college, you might be a crammer. On the flip side, if you blocked out an hour each day to study for exams, then you may want to approach casing similarly.
Consultants often use the phrase "don't boil the ocean" to underscore the fact that in consulting work the timelines are so crunched, and the problems are so thorny, that you can't explore and analyze every single option. It couldn't be more true, both in actual consulting case work and when you're preparing for your own interviews. Instead of doing every type of prep, laser focus your efforts on what will be the highest ROI for you:
"I wish I'd spent less time trying to sign up for every last coffee chat. Don't get me wrong - these are important and can be extremely helpful. However, the firms call these informational and that is the key word: informational. If you don't need more information about that particular firm, job, etc, it's okay not to go, especially if you have already shown a demonstrated interest in the firm. You're not going to "win" an information session, or "win" a coffee chat. I think it is rare that people get hired because they had a great coffee chat, so if you don't need more info, dedicate your time elsewhere: working on cover letters, doing another case, and so on." - Alexander Richards, Bain & Co. London Intern
Again, Richards is right. It can be tempting to sign up and attend every informational session, mock interviews, coffee chat, office visit and event that comes up. But resist the urge to do so. Like Richards points out, you won't "win" a coffee chat so unless you have burning questions you need to ask, focus your limited energy on the tasks that will benefit you most. Whether that's practicing your quant skills, case starts, full mock interviews with friends or simply getting your cover letters and resumes in order, spend your time on the highest ROI activities. And if you're not sure what the highest ROI activities are, sit down and make a list of everything you could be doing to prep. Write down your best estimate for each, and then prep accordingly.
A last, very useful piece of advice is to keep in mind an athlete metaphor for your prep process. Specifically, think about how track stars practice their starts, golfers their swing, QBs their spirals: they all analyze key points of their game, dissect what they're currently doing and how it could be closer to the ideal. It's no different with cases:
"Afterward, I'd think to myself, 'How would I answer this if I had all the time in the world?' For a golfer, when they step up to the tee box, it's not the first swing they've taken, and they've likely practiced that swing thousands of times in slow motion, with coaches encouraging them to 'lift your arm up here, slow down here, etc.' The idea is that when it's time to take a full-speed swing, muscle memory takes over, allowing you to focus on finesse. It's no different with a case. Take an hour with a case you wish you had aced, and drill through it point-by-point on your own." - Alexander Richards, Bain & Co. London Intern
To sum it all up, make your plan, don't try to do everything and always search for a way to get better after every practice session. Just like the case interview itself, there is no single, one way to answer the question. So take the time to craft the perfect preparation plan for yourself - you won't regret it.