This post focuses on one of the tricker challenges in an interview: explaining the relevance of your past work experiences.
Here's what Amar Shibli, a former Senior Engagement Manager with McKinsey & Co, said when we asked him what interviewers ultimately care about when they ask these questions:
"McKinsey wants to know that you've pursued the individual steps of your career with purpose. That you've not only worked in challenging roles before, but that you've gleaned important lessons from them, and have a sense of how to apply those lessons at McKinsey to make yourself uniquely valuable."
What does this tell us? It means that the seemingly innocuous "past experiences" question is really a structured thinking exercise and that the best answers will be clearly and logically articulated. Break down what Amar said, and here is what you get:
Questions about your past experience come in many flavors. "Tell me about your summer internship..." "What did you learn from your time at [company X on your resume]?" Your response will benefit from a logical structure. Let's walk through an illustrative example.
The goal here is to establish your sense of purpose. You might think that if you haven't worked at a big, prestigious, household name firm that you're starting at a disadvantage, but that isn't the case. Yes, consulting companies love the Fortune 500 firms because they can "draft" off their brand names when they introduce you to a client (eg "Stephanie learned marketing at P&G..."). More importantly however, they love hiring people with a strong sense of purpose, and a question about your background is a clear opportunity to demonstrate that.
Here's a real life example from my own recruiting process with McKinsey and BCG: I got more mileage out of a job I had selling knives for a summer during college than I did from describing my prior experience at Google. Why? I had a very crisp, clear rationale for why I sold knives that summer: I knew it would be a great crash course in direct sales, and that even though I didn't intend to pursue sales in my career, I believed the experience would pay dividends because, ultimately, every job has a sales aspect to it.
Again, a seemingly simple question that has a ton of depth masquerading behind it. Why? It's tempting to rattle off lessons learned - the more, the better, right? Usually not. Here, it's helpful to focus on one or two key lessons, and use a structure to articulate them.
To make a strong impression, an interviewer needs to understand:
Returning to my knife salesman example, I'd start by explaining the context: "I worked for a company called Cutco, based in NY, that relies 100% on direct sales for revenue, so my job was to canvass my neighborhood, set up appointments with prospective buyers and do free product demos for them with the goal of a sale."
Then, I'd transition to explaining a key challenge: "It was challenging because I often presented to people that I'd never met before, and I had literally no idea if they even cared about cutlery!"
And finally, what I learned: "Because I didn't know if they cared about the product, I needed to gain clues from the environment to make a successful pitch. For example, if I noticed the customer already had a fancy butcher block of Wustof knives in the kitchen, I'd ask: 'How do you like them? Answers varied but were consistently invaluable. Sometimes it was, 'Those are from ages ago, a wedding gift!' or, 'My husband bought that set because he loves to grill… I never even touch them.' These environment-driven insights clued me in on how to make my pitch more effective."
A story I shared to back up that example was about how I once successfully sold a $1,000 extended cutlery set to a woman who never cooked, because I was found out that her husband loved to grill. I ditched my standard pitch and focused instead on the carving knives and tongs that made grilling and carving meats fun, and she decided to buy him an early anniversary gift.
Finally, never forget to answer the 'so what' for the interviewer. The top consulting firms want to know how they'll specifically benefit from the prior experiences and lessons you've accumulated. Take time to think about what skills you've picked up in your past jobs, and how you can leverage them for the firm. Every prior job - no matter how boring or rote you may think it is - has a lesson you can re-apply.
For the knife salesman example, I'd bring it home by saying:
"While I know I won't be selling any knives as a consultant, I think the sales skills I picked up - specifically around reading the environment and dynamically changing the frame of the conversation - will help me sell my ideas and insights to our clients. And down the line, as I progress, I believe those same skills will help me ultimately bring in new business for the firm."
Oftentimes, you may think an answer sounds great in your head, but answering these questions out loud a few times really helps to work out the language kinks. It's quick and easy to find a few friends to practice your responses to these questions with someone, or at the very least, practice speaking into a mirror so you can hear how it sounds in real time. It will take a few runs to figure out the ideal way to articulate your points while maintaining your authentic voice, but it's well worth the investment.
Real interview drills. Sample answers from ex-McKinsey, BCG and Bain consultants. Plus technique overviews and premium 1-on-1 Expert coaching.