When Tim Darling was preparing to interview for summer internships last summer, he was determined to apply his first year of MBA education to master the art of the case interview and subsequently impress the consulting firms where he hoped to work.
To support the initiative, he consulted a few guide books, but found strategies that were too formulaic for Darling’s expectations. Not interested in learning stock answers to typical problems, he instead relied upon the tools he was acquiring at the Tepper School to solve confront unexpected variables effectively and creatively.
A natural self-starter, he decided to write his own guidebook based on the skills that helped him land an internship at McKinsey — a firm which later made him a full-time offer. The result was Darling’s first book How to Get Into the Top Consulting Firms: A Surefire Case Interview Method, a paperback that is doing brisk business on Amazon.com.
Lesley Kromer, a former management consultant herself and the Tepper School’s Director of Career Education, says the school enjoys a strong reputation with consulting firms because of its focus on the application of quantitative tools to high-level business problems.
“The combination of skills that students acquire — to take an ambiguous or unstructured situation and bring structure to it, and use quantitative tools to deal with highly complex business problems, attracts consulting firms,” she says.
For example, approximately 23 percent of Tepper MBAs are placed into consulting jobs following graduation with a median starting salary of $120,000. Roughly 5 percent of the 2008 graduating class accepted full-time offers with McKinsey. Nearly 50 firms recruit at the Tepper School each year for consulting-specific positions.
”We continue to have new firms approaching Tepper and indicating their interest in establishing a relationship and recruiting students, both at the full-time and internship level,” Kromer says.
Ironically, Darling, who graduated in May, had originally intended only to share his guide with other Tepper students as a means of banking the knowledge capital he had collected. As he prepared for his interviews, he shared his notes with fellow members of the Consulting Club, adding information as he went along.
“I wrote the first draft myself, and it seemed like there were so many words of wisdom that I’d been taking out of conversations with other people,” says Darling. “I wanted to put them down on paper to organize the thoughts in my head.”
Other Consulting Club members mentioned how useful the guide had been when they prepared for case interviews, so Darling decided to take his manuscript one step further by publishing a book.
“I’m the sort of person who, if I get a free weekend, I’ll end up starting a company,” he says.
A former software engineer for his undergraduate alma mater, the University of Maryland, Darling likes to compare the case interview process with the mechanisms of solving engineering problems. An engineer uses foundation knowledge to adapt and solve new issues as they arise.
“Business problems are like that as well,” Darling notes. “There’s a fundamental mechanism that operates behind them. It’s typically a combination of a financial metric and people management skills.”
Kromer, who teaches case interviewing workshops to Tepper MBAs through the school’s Career Opportunities Center, agrees.
“The ability to develop flexible models that allow you to account for potential changes in parameters – the students here really do learn that quite well,” she says, adding that students also learn how to clearly communicate the insight gathered from model development, the business ramifications, and the strategies a client can use to move forward.
In the case interview process, the prospective employee is given a simplified business problem to solve. The candidate then collects necessary data from the interview, conducts multi-disciplinary analysis, and integrates insights into a strategic recommendation.
Though this method was initially designed by consulting firms, other prominent companies — Google, for example — also use it.
Darling uses the example of Ben & Jerry’s trying to decide whether it should introduce blueberry ice cream, and if so, how. The interviewee would lay out a framework for answering the question: How many customers would buy the new flavor? How much would they pay? Would suppliers be able to provide the ingredients, and how much would they charge?
“The case interview is a great device for checking three or four qualities of the applicants,” explains Darling. “The first will be basic problem-solving skills: Can they take a nebulous problem and break it down into three or four manageable components? … It’s really about [whether] you can take all the work you’ve done, roll it up into a solution, and present it as if you’re the expert on this problem.”
Darling credits his Tepper MBA education with helping him wrap his mind around the case interview process and eventually master it.
“It completely came out of my education at Tepper and my internship,” he says. “They really came together my second year, and I started to think more about the big things that I’d been learning. Tepper was great at helping me see through some of the fog of business and really focus on the data and the facts of the situation.”
The book’s publication date in May 2008 coincided not only with Darling’s graduation from Tepper, but also the birth of his first child, Lydia. In the midst of the busy months ahead, he is not yet certain if he will write another book. For now, he’s willing to wait and see how sales of his first guide are affected by the fall interview season.
“The approach that’s in the book worked for me, but it may not work for somebody else,” he adds as a final note of caution. “No guide has the right or wrong answers. It’s simply what resonates best with you. My hope is that I’ll be another voice out there.”