Rocking an IBM interview from a non-target school: Ashley’s story


Ashley worked with us in the Fall of 2011 to break into consulting from a non-target school. We started with a resume/cover letter edit, and later completed interview preparation.

Ashley had a strong background – she had completed a number of name-brand co-op internships while in school – but breaking in from outside the target zone was her biggest hurdle. Read how she did it below!

1) For the benefit of readers, can you give us a summary of your background? Where you’re from, education, extracurriculars, previous internships/jobs, interests, etc.

I attended public school in Bridgewater, NJ and then moved on to Northeastern University in Boston, MA. I was Vice President and Treasurer of NUMA (Northeastern University’s Marketing Association). In addition, I was interviewed and selected for Northeastern’s traveling Management Consulting Team for Spring semester of my senior year (only 12 business students were chosen).

While at Northeastern I participated in their co-op 6-month internship program. I had 3 co-ops: recruiting intern at staffing agency (Mergis Group), Business Development co-op (Staples), and Consultant co-op (Booz Allen Hamilton). I also had an additional 6-month, 25 hour-a-week internship with Staples as an International Financial Analyst.

On top of all that, I studied abroad for 5 months in Rome, Italy and did a microfinance work study in South Africa for 2 months.

*See what we mean? Ashley killed it on the extracurriculars – leadership, study abroad, and work experience all told a consistent, compelling story – she was a top performer, she was passionate about business, and she was capable of thriving in competitive work environments – which made her an easier non-target gamble than most.*

2) What key steps did you take to get the interview invite – from nuances of your application to any networking you did?

I spent months making a list and applying to every consulting firm located in Boston and/or San Francisco with a strategy focus. This part of the process started in September 2011 and lasted until  December 2011. I started applying to larger firms (McKinsey, Bain, Accenture, IBM) first and then moved on to smaller firms (ZS Associates and Putnam Associates). I read Case In Point and practiced every single case in the book.

However, the most beneficial prep I had was working with Management Consulted. Jenny Rae, my coach, worked with me throughout the entire process, first with resume correcting, then with my cover letter and finally with numerous prep classes.  Although my resume was in good order, my cover letter was a disaster. It was very hard to articulate in a few short paragraphs why these firms, who had their choice of every Ivy League student, should pick me.

The best tools were the interview prep classes where Jenny Rae walked me through mock questions that were ambiguous such as  “tell me about yourself,” or specific like “tell me a time you disagreed with a team member,” but each difficult in their own right. She also walked me through the treacherous long and short cases. These cases ranged from sizing questions to longer multiple question cases. She taped our Skype sessions so I could go over the feedback and listen to my interviewing habits. I replayed these recordings over and over again to polish my case skills – they were so helpful and I even used them to correct my nervous interviewing habits as well as to write short scripts to familiarize myself with my responses.

*Notice that Ashley didn’t just rely on what we offered – she took everything to the next level. And as a disclaimer – we realize this could look like a planted post, but honestly, her review of our assistance was totally unsolicited.*

I had 6 interviews with McKinsey and Co.,  7 interviews with ZS Associates, 8 interviews with Putnam Associates, and 5 interviews with IBM’s Global Business Services. I could not believe these firms even saw my resume and called me because I am from a non-target school and I applied through their online websites with no contacts at these firms. I met with many alumni of my school who gave me recommendations at other firms; however, I did not have recommendations for any of the firms that I interviewed for.

*Interesting, right? She did all the right things – networking where she could – but ultimately her best opportunities came out of blind resume drops. Not statistically probable, but we’re glad she didn’t disqualify herself and went for it anyway – it worked in her case!*

3) IBM is often hard to understand because of its numerous divisions and core competences. Can you tell us the insider’s view of the interview process for Global Business Services? 

My first interview was a one hour phone screen by a college recruiter. It was a phone screen where she asked me a few questions about my resume and then told me about the CBD program. She then invited me to come to an afternoon interview in New York. While in IBM’s New York City office I interviewed with the director of the program, had one case interview and did a behavioral interview with another employee of Global Business Services. There were 12 other candidates that had made it to this interview session. My final interview was a 45-minute phone interview with a Partner from Global Business Services.

4) What were some of your other choices, and why did you decide to join IBM?

I interviewed with McKinsey, ZS Associates, Putnam Associates, and IBM. I will start on October 1 as a Consultant in IBM’s Global Business Services in the firm’s Consulting by Degrees (CBD) program.

I chose IBM because of their Consulting by Degrees (CBD) program, which is a 2-year rotational consulting program across numerous business sectors. I loved the idea that, for the first 6 months, I could be working within the pharmaceutical sector, and the next 6 months I could be working within the financial sector.

They also assign you a great support group.  I have already been in contact with my local mentor and will be assigned a career manager and an engagement manager when I start the position.

In addition, I get to travel Monday through Thursday to locations within the U.S. and gain valuable client site experience. The opportunity of on-site experience is not offered by most consulting firms within the first 1-2 years.

IBM as a whole is a company of longevity. They are great to their employees, and provide a great sense of work/life balance.

5) What are you most excited about as you prepare for your start in consulting?  What makes you the most nervous?

I am so excited to receive the formal and hands-on training that IBM provides through their CBD program. I feel that the support network they provide me with will be so valuable to answer all of my questions as a new consultant.

I am excited to start week 3 on a client site, traveling somewhere in the U.S. Most consulting firms do not assign their young analysts to a consulting site for the first year; however, I will get to learn on site as I go. I am elated to be working for a company that trusts me to do great work from the start.

I am also thrilled to meet my peers in the CBD program. We start in classes, so I will meet young professional consultants who share the same passion:  to solve complex business problems with teams. In all of the internships I have had, I find consultants to be the most curious people, who always want to learn and are forced to think outside the box. I cannot wait to start my career and learn from the best.

6) What advice can you give MC readers about breaking into consulting?

Practice makes perfect. If you want to make the cut during the many rounds of case interviews against 100s of other students nationally and internationally, you must become a great business athlete.

Take Management Consulted’s prep classes to learn how to navigate even the toughest case questions. Their courses will not only give you the know how, but also give you the confidence to walk into that interview room and explain to the interviewer how they can turnaround a craft beer business in Chicago or if they should acquire a biotech company from Boston.

A consulting career is extremely stimulating and rewarding; however, there are thousands of students graduating every year that want to be the next McKinsey Analyst. If you are serious about getting offers from these firms, practice until you’re perfect with case prep.

*Ashley is a great example of a candidate who did all the right things on her own – she had a great background, and took the advice we gave her to prepare until she was at the next level.  Her tip about studying further after each case prep and crafting her own fit question responses is invaluable – we can advise you to do that all you want, but only those that take our advice really differentiate themselves at the end of the day.*