Television shows, films, and the media often portray young consultants as fast-talking professionals jetting around the world on the company’s bill. Among college-age hopefuls, consulting is a field often shrouded in mystery.
So, what does it take to break into such a career path, and what does the job really entail? The Sun interviewed three Cornell graduates going into full-time consulting roles — Jessie Liu ’20, who interned at EY but will be joining Deloitte, Lucas Goldman ’20, who interned at McKinsey and will be returning full-time, and Carly Arfman ’20, who will be joining Deloitte full-time.
Below are excerpts from the interview, lightly edited for clarity.
What does an effective consulting recruiting strategy look like?
Liu: Casting a wide net is very important. My recruiting strategy was just going to every single information session as possible. The other important thing that helped me a lot was networking. I did a lot of cold emails through LinkedIn and an organic network of friends and classmates. For senior year recruitment, I was cold emailing people starting in August until I signed with Deloitte. It’s an iterative process: The more you talk to people, the better you feel out what the company is about. I started prepping for my case interviews in the middle of September: two weeks of case prep with a buddy before first-round interviews.
Goldman: Knowing what you want is definitely step one because before, you’re going to enter whatever rigorous recruitment process it is. It’s important that you have good motives and are able to speak genuinely to why you are interested in a certain role. Step number two is getting a good feel for the environment of the different options you could pursue. Some people have specialty interests like healthcare or tech, and may enjoy more niche firms over larger, generalist organizations. Three, you have to put yourself out there. The networking is not as central as it is in banking. It’s not like your interview is dependent on whether you’ve talked to 10 different people for 20 minutes each, but it’s important to get a sense for the firm. Number four, I would say is the boring part: case prep. Get in enough repetitions until you are comfortable with the process and are able to think creatively about the different prompts. At this stage, it is also important to know your story well. Have different anecdotes in the back of your mind to help communicate why you are a strong fit for the position. Five, this is when you have your interviews lined up. By this point you have put in all of the work, so you just have to go out there and be confident; show that you are someone who is really enthusiastic about the position.
Arfman: Really take advantage of your resources and don’t go through the recruiting process on your own. One thing that I used to do a lot was mock interviews with the [Engineering] Career Services office.
Which resources were most helpful to you during the recruiting process?
Liu: Joining a finance club would have been a good idea for me just to get my feet wet and understand a lot of the jargon, but I think experience is the best teacher. I also took a really great management consulting class [Graduate Management Business Admin 5690] that taught me a lot of the basics. All of the things that you’re being taught in the classroom, you’ll never learn as well as you can on the job, so the class was a great way to give me a base foundation in terms of what to expect. I would highly recommend anyone that wants to go into consulting to take that class.
Goldman: Number one would be the people that were a year or two older than me that were willing to pay it forward and sit down with me for 20 minutes, talk me through what the process was like and help me craft my story. Google is also a big friend. You have to get your repetitions in with case studies and Victor Cheng on YouTube has a bunch of case study videos so he’s a go-to.
Arfman: The Cornell Career Services site has something called CQ Interactive, where you can solve cases interactively. In addition, I watched a lot of YouTube videos to teach myself what cases are like. Before really diving into practicing them, I wanted to have a solid foundation of what a case interview is. I also read the book Case in Point by Marc Cosentino and Case Interview Secrets by Victor Cheng — he’s a great resource. Aside from that, I think the most important thing was practicing. I would just do cases over and over again with friends, as well as some mock interviews with Career Services.
What would you say is a common mistake students make during the recruitment process?
Liu: One of the biggest mistakes that I’ve seen is using the same generic questions for each person [when you’re on a cold call]. They’re most likely agreeing to many phone calls per week and are probably getting the same questions over and over again. So, really take the time to stalk them on LinkedIn, see what their background is, and ask questions that are more tailored toward them. Also, when sending emails, make sure it’s addressed to them!
Arfman: One mistake that people may make is not going through case interviews as if they were real. When I say that, I mean actually having someone practice with you that has looked at the case before, is familiar with it and can administer it well. [The interviewer] really wants to see how you deal with the case under pressure. So it’s really important to practice under real conditions. That’s why I did a lot of mock interviews with the Career Services and with friends that had looked at the case before.
How do you overcome the steep learning curve within the span of 10 weeks and start adding value as soon as possible in your summer internship?
Liu: Know your limits, especially as an intern. You’re not going to be inputting that much. Every little thing that I had to do I took on as a learning experience, even if it was something as trivial as number crunching. I always asked questions — they want to see that you have that thirst for knowledge. Even if you get put on a project that might not be an industry that you want to be in, it’s really important to learn as much as you can in the short time that you have.
Goldman: The internship program has a reputation for being a lot more cushiony than the full-time transition. They’re spending a lot of money to recruit you and competing with other major players to get the best talent. At that stage they’re trying to attract you to the firm and are less likely to scare you out of your job. There’s more hand-holding and the expectations are lower as an intern. From what I have heard from my friends at different companies, there’s a much sharper learning curve when you start full time. At this point, you’re a permanent member of the organization and so you are expected to contribute a certain amount of value to your team.
What surprised you about your internship and recruiting experience?
Liu: I really love traveling and I thought consulting was perfect, but what I didn’t realize is that traveling is more like commuting, like getting on that 5 a.m. flight on Monday morning. That wasn’t something that I had thoroughly thought through.
Goldman: Given I had never worked for a really large company, I had the image of these large firms as really well-oiled machines where everything was operating smoothly. It was reassuring and almost calming to see that there are mistakes along the way and no one’s perfect. If you can just be someone who pays attention and works hard, then I think you can really make it far at least in the early stages by being an attentive employee.
Arfman: One interview that I had was a group case that I had never done before. There was no way to really practice a group case, so that caught me a little bit off guard, but the important thing was just to be a team player.
What other advice do you have for students looking to get into consulting? What are tangible next steps for current sophomores, juniors, and freshmen?
Liu: Freshman year — focus on your coursework and make sure that you have the baseline minimum GPA that a lot of firms require. Also, see if you could get involved in some business clubs. Try to show that you have experience and interests because consultant firms are looking for a diverse potluck of people. I would say junior year and maybe sophomore year you can start to reach out to people. Doing your due diligence, researching the company and speaking to people at the firm — that’s something that you could do right now. Make sure your network is broad and expansive and make sure that consulting is really the right thing for you.
Goldman: Sophomores, I would say do your research — get on the phone with people that you might know from your personal network. Juniors, you are likely in the process at that point; sharpen up on your case studies and understand your story, make sure your resume is polished, and find a way to maintain a positive attitude throughout the process.
Arfman: Being a sophomore early on in the process, I think it’s important just to go to all the events for companies that you’re interested in. Network with as many people as you can and keep in touch with them when the recruiting season starts up. Lastly, it’s really important to take care of yourself during the recruiting process — it can definitely be really stressful.
A previous version of this article had the tag “Black Students.” This has since been corrected to “Money and Business.” We deeply apologize for the misunderstanding and hurt this may have caused given the current times.