How did Charlie, a recent Harvard undergrad, navigate through the process of getting accepted to medical school and working for a biotech firm on the West Coast to finally finding his true passion in healthcare consulting (and landing an offer at Putnam)? Charlie’s was a non-traditional path for sure, but chock full of lessons for anyone who is looking to break in to consulting and find a position where skills and passion converge.
As you’ll see from Charlie’s firsthand experience, landing the right consulting job isn’t easy, even for a Harvard grad. If healthcare decision-making processes and drug development get you out of bed in the morning, or if you simply want to learn from someone who successfully navigated the consulting interview process just last year, be ready to pick up some great networking and interview tips for yourself. Enjoy!
PS: If you would like to have a 1:1 conversation with Jenny Rae or one of our other ex-MBB consultants about your consulting career prospects, be sure to schedule a Power Half Hour today!
Hi Charlie, it’s Jenny Rae. How are you?
Hi Jenny. I’m doing well. How are you?
I’m good. So tell me what’s happening and what’s happened?
I actually had an L.E.K. interview on Friday. I’m focusing on the life sciences, and so I’m applying to L.E.K., as well as other general management and boutique firms in Boston. On Wednesday, I have a Putnam final-round interview, and on Thursday I have a final-round interview with a firm called Artisan, and then the week after I have another one with a firm called Clarion – all boutique firms.
Okay, awesome. And what has the process been like for you? I’m interested to hear a little bit about it. I would love to hear a little bit about you and your background so we know where you’re coming from. It’s helpful for me if we can go firm by firm with your experience of what you found, and then we’ll conclude with questions. Plus, if you have specific questions about the process coming up, I’m happy to talk about that as well. Does that sound good?
That sounds perfect. So I’ll start off with background then. I just graduated from Harvard in 2015.
Okay, I’ve heard of those guys. That’s a pretty good school, isn’t it?
Yeah, so it’s a “liberal arts college in the Boston area.”
That’s what everybody always says: “I went to school in Boston.” You know they went to Harvard when they say that.
Interestingly enough, I was pre-med and I was planning on going to medical school, and I went all the way through the route of applying to medical schools, and I even got into a medical school. I had this feeling that I didn’t actually want to go into medicine – what I wanted to do was focus on drug development and biotech. So I ended up going out to San Diego for about six months, and I worked at a biotech company out there.
But what I really wanted to do was focus more on the decision-making processes and drug development, whether that be the purchasing of companies, the valuation of portfolios, or estimating the size of a number of people that a drug might even help. So, I switched gears a bit and was looking into consulting, specifically at the boutique firms. I was focusing on L.E.K., as they do life sciences as well as general, and then more of the boutique firms in the Boston area. Around the November time period, I started gathering my resume and doing some applications.
I originally applied to two firms: one is called CB Partners, which is a boutique firm in New York focused on market access. They only have a New York branch, and there are about 40 consultants. And then the other one is Boston Consulting Group. Interestingly enough, I applied for their Dallas office, which was more for a general consulting route, and less so focused on healthcare and the life sciences.
I ended up interviewing for both, and I got an offer at CB Partners. I went through two rounds at BCG, and in the final-round I ended up not getting an offer. I took that opportunity to look at myself and internalize a bit to see whether I wanted to be in New York at CB Partners, and also reflect on the opportunity with BCG, and try to incorporate some of the feedback I received to see how I could improve my application.
My personal end goal was to head from San Diego where I was at that biotech company and go back to the Boston area. The Boston area is known for biotech, and that’s also where my family was, so I wanted to be a little bit closer to home. At that point, I applied to a whole bunch of boutique firms: Putnam. Clarion, and Artisan, as well as L.E.K.
Great, fantastic. And all for the Boston practices?
All for the Boston practices, exactly.
Awesome. And you are in that process now?
So I am in the midst of that process. It started off with contacting – actually, I reached out to recruiters specifically and sent in my application, and they were mostly very quick to respond to me.
We started out with some phone call interviews, which I feel is more of a screening round. I went through most of your videos, and I thought they were very helpful and they provided a very vivid and true outline of the process. So I went through the screening phone interviews, which went well. I’m at the point in the process where I am doing final-round interviews for all of them in office now that I’m back in the Boston area.
That’s fantastic. Yeah, I call the screening calls the “are you an axe murderer” question. Right? “Are you a normal human, and do you seem like somebody that we would like to hang out with, or do you scare us a little bit?” So that’s great – are you in first rounds with all of them? Or do you have some second rounds coming up too?
So these are all final-round interviews. It seems that the off-cycle process is mostly phone interviews, and then they bring you in for a day of three interviews. Actually, they are all the same. L.E.K. is three interviews, Putnam is three interviews, I’m expecting three at Artisan, and they are all technical final rounds, the first time in the office.
So your business suits are getting a real workout, huh?
Yeah, definitely. I’ve been reading up on all types of prep material. I’ve been organizing my resume, and I’ve been doing a lot of practice cases. I actually just did one yesterday with a friend, and I’m still getting feedback that’s constructive, which is good. And I think that’s something to internalize.
Even though I’ve been studying since November, even though I’ve been to a BCG final-round interview, I still could get some constructive feedback. There’s always areas to tweak and to improve, whether they want me to hash out my story more in the behavioral portion, which is some feedback that I got from Putnam, or whether the improvement be more on the case end.
Can we go through a little bit of the general feedback that you received, because I think that might be helpful for people to hear about. And then we’ll talk a little bit about the specific firms’ processes. So on the general feedback, for behavioral, what have been some of the most useful things that you’ve heard throughout the process, either from peers that you’ve worked with, or from the actual firms themselves?
Right. For my part, for BCG I had a friend working in the Dallas office who was guiding me through the process, and I also have a friend at Putnam Associates in Boston who is guiding me through the process there. And I think for me it was important to contact the interviewers after I was interviewed to try to receive some feedback, but those two sources especially looked through my feedback and saw where I was weak and where I was strong.
For the behavioral portion, I think it was a bit of a personal issue where I was pre-med, and for some reason that seems to scare consultants a little bit. I know that you state that consultants are a bit risk averse, and I think they definitely are. And so going from a pre-med track towards now going to business, they might ask me well “why is it that you want to go into consulting if what you really want to do is drug development, or make business decisions in medicine? There are a lot of other routes that you can go down instead of consulting in order to achieve your goals.”
And so for me, it was trying to internalize that feedback and hash it into a story that was more than just “well, I really want to get something great out of consulting.” I really just want to learn all the business aspects. For me, I can apply that to all the business routes and all the business decisions that I want to make in the future when I want to be developing medicines, or evaluating companies.
It was important to really hash out my story and figure out what I bring to the table when I come to a consulting firm. I am a recent grad, but I do have a bit of marketing background and I have taken a couple of business courses, so I’m not an extreme novice in every area outside of biology and cancer research. I do have some business analytics experience, I have some marketing experience, I’ve been in the private sector even if it was just for six months.
So I think I do have some tools that I can bring to the table and that I won’t be hitting a brick wall when I’m supposed to be catching up to speed after joining a company. I’ll try to hit the ground running as best I can. I’ve really been trying to emphasize that part of the story.
It sounds like also they’ve been really looking for you just to demonstrate a genuine interest in the work of consulting as an end into itself, as opposed to just a means to an end, right? Because that is usually one of the reasons why truthfully you want to go into consulting – to get the skills so you can go do something else.
But obviously that’s not their interest in having you come on board. It’s a natural part of the process, but not necessarily something that they are intending on from the beginning. They don’t know who’s going to be the person that is going to stay for the long run, and who will be the people who will leave after the standard two or three years. If everybody comes in saying that they will leave, they don’t have a very good business model for seniority, and if nobody plans to leave, then they have some real problems when they are trying to get it all working. So they’re always trying to look for that kind of balance.
Anything else on the behavioral side?
I see the question “What do you see yourself doing in the future?”, and I like to answer that with my story and my personal passion for drug development. A lot of times I was asked “Where do you see yourself in five years?”, and I talked about seeing myself going to business school and really fortifying my business foundations. It’s almost a double-edge sword question, where one edge is that they want to see that you have aspirations and you’ve thought about where you’re going to be in five years, and the other edge of that sword is they don’t want you to be necessarily using consulting as a springboard to go to business school, and then get out of there and go into your own area of expertise.
Yeah, they don’t want you to be married to a different future, but they also don’t want you to be 100% committed to consulting in a way that feels a little creepy, like you’re going to become a part of the wallpaper.
I love Google’s “don’t be evil” motto, but I think when I start my next company, mine would be “don’t be creepy.” That would be my ultimate motto. It’s helpful in consulting.
As you are going through these final rounds, one of the things that a lot of people have difficulty with when they are interviewing with multiple firms is demonstrating love for each firm individually. So how have you been able to do that successfully?
Actually, I think that’s a very difficult question to answer when you are applying to boutique life sciences firms. For L.E.K., you can get most of their background online – they’ve been published since the 80s, so you can easily get the backstory on what type of casework they do, what kind of partners they have, what they focus on, etc. My attraction personally to L.E.K. is several-fold. The first is the firm being in Boston, which all of these firms have in common. Next, the firm has an in-house model, meaning no travel during the week, which all of these firms also have in common. What sets L.E.K. apart is the ability I would have to generalize myself. So whether I want to explore other industries like aviation, automotive, or finance, and really broaden myself and be able to focus on other industries, I can do that, as well as bringing my strength in the life sciences. So L.E.K. has its own set of strengths that’s different from a firm like BCG that might not focus as much on life sciences, and also different from a boutique firm which only focuses on life sciences.
However, when you get down to the boutique level, it’s almost like you need to have a little bit of insider information from some of the employees, whether that be a friend, or people that you’ve reached out to on LinkedIn, or people on your Facebook network. They are the people who are going to tell you, “Putnam is a life science boutique firm but they focus on commercialization” versus a firm like Decision Resources in Burlington that might focus more on market access, or medical devices. And Boston Biomedical will focus only on medical devices, or nearly only on medical devices, and they are going through a bit of a change now that they’ve been acquired or taken in by IMS Health.
So knowing that information is what will really show that you’ve done your research on the firm, and that will be able to help you differentiate on why you personally want to apply to Putnam Associates: because they focus on commercialization, they are independent, and they have growth. They have a Boston office that’s probably the largest boutique office in the city, and they also just launched a San Francisco office. So those are aspects that I’m drawn to Putnam for. And it seems that you need to have a bit of insider information to understand the very specifics of what a firm might focus on.
This is hard work, isn’t it?
It is a lot of work. It’s actually a lot of reaching out not just to recruiters and not just to friends, but even just doing what some of your videos talk about – a little bit of LinkedIn research finding out who your interviewers and recruiters are. Also just people on your network who’ve worked at that company, or do work at that company. And if you know them at a certain level, then you can reach out to them and have them connect you and set up a call for you with someone inside the firm, as well as just ask them about the company.
So one of the things that you’ve kind of been talking about is this very personalized process with each one of the firms. How do you balance if there is one firm that you really do want to desperately work for? Have you ever said “you are my favorite” to one of the firms?
I have not actually said that in the interview, and I was thinking – after my interviews, I always sit there and I look back and think about the interview – and see if I did okay on the case itself; there are always points to improve or maybe a math mistake. For the behavioral interview, I go in there very confident. But I always think about the actual aspects of what I say. And if I should’ve conveyed almost – not desperately, but a little excitedly – that this is my favorite firm and I want to work for your firm. So I haven’t done that, but I’ve thought about it.
Well, you have to know which one is really your favorite first, and you also have to be at a place where you feel like it will matter to the person that you’re talking to. Because sometimes, for example, for a great recruiter, that might actually matter more to them than it would to a junior level person. It might matter the most to a partner, who is really trying to make the decision between you and three other people – knowing that one of you has the firm as their favorite and the three other people that only like it makes a difference.
But you can’t do it in a way that’s not genuine; you can’t say “I love you most” to more than one person. So it is a big challenge, but it’s something that I would encourage you to think about as you’re going into the final rounds if there is a firm that really does stand out for you and that would really be your first choice.
You could say, “If you give me an offer, this is where I’m going to come.” It’s worth putting that on the table, because it can ultimately help them make a decision for you when otherwise they might just not exactly know where you stand.
That’s great. I think that’s a powerful piece of leverage. I will definitely consider using that, possibly even this week.
Great. Let’s talk a little bit about the case. What case feedback have you’ve received as you’ve been going through the process of learning about cases, and then ramping up into these specific styles for each of the firms?
What are some of the keys that you’ve learned through the process that maybe you didn’t know at the beginning?
I think at the beginning I was a total novice, so I bought some case books. I was also sifting through the Internet to find practice cases – whether that be on Deloitte or BCG’s websites – as well as some videos. I was experimenting with all different types of formats to learn cases, including books, actual cases, talking to people, and videos. That was just to understand the outline of what a case is, what different types of case studies there are, case interviews, and different questions that could be asked.
As I work through the process, each firm seems to give its own different type of feedback on how I might improve on my case interviews. So when I first interviewed with CB Partners, it was almost as if I had never done a case before, and they told me that. I’d been studying for a long time, but they were pretty blunt in that I need a lot of work on my case interview.
And was it because you had read a lot but not practiced a lot? Was that something that was evident to them?
I think that might have been it. Even when I was practicing my cases, I would try to practice them out loud and time myself, which I think is a much better simulation than just doing a case in your head, or just writing it out of a book, or reading the answers.
However, that’s really not sufficient. Practicing with another person is definitely the next step up of preparation. And I think that’s what I needed to do. So by the time I went into my BCG interviews, I felt I was much better at cases, but come final-round what they were emphasizing more was the smaller nuance of the case, looking closer at case structure, etc.. So even though I knew what cases I had – I had a pricing and market access case – and I could dive through it, I would pause and ask questions, and I’d verify the objective, yet what they wanted from me was to form a larger structure.
So I began numbering (or bucketing) my responses. I thought I’d been doing that, and subconsciously I thought that I was pretty good at that, but at some point you have to incorporate someone else’s feedback, especially if they’re an interviewer. So you have to accept that feedback and say, okay, maybe I’ve been practicing not wrong, but not the best way I could have and creating some poor habits. So I really need to focus on numbering and bucketing my answers.
It seems like a very small thing, doesn’t it?
Yeah, it does. And that in itself seemed like a large part of a case interview, and I thought that I already had that mastered, but the fact that interviewers – two separate interviewers – had mentioned it to me, that was enough to say okay, I really need to incorporate this feedback and somehow improve that. Maybe I’ve been practicing with myself too much, and subconsciously thought I had structure mastered.
Sometimes it can also be the difference between the kinds of notes that you are taking, or the way that you are verbalizing it. So maybe you’ve noted it in numbers on your paper, but you’re not actually saying the numbers when you’re talking to them, and so depending on what they are looking at, if they’re looking at your paper, or listening to you, it’s different how they might view your structure.
For BCG, did they give you feedback on why ultimately they decided not to give you an offer? You seem like a BCG kind of guy to me. So that’s what I’m wondering.
So I think the fit interview went well, and I talked with my friend, who works at their Dallas office, and I think in the end it was mostly about the structuring of my cases, whether that be they wanted me to take more time and look more at consulting in particular, and really hash out my story and how I go about cases. But I didn’t get specific feedback on that.
And you don’t, usually. Usually you get the feedback when it went well, and they tell you what they want you to do better for the next round. But when it doesn’t go well they’re pretty careful about not necessarily giving very specific feedback in that situation.
Now, what have you done from the BCG interview until this point where you are preparing for more of the boutique focused opportunities that are in the Boston area?
Now, I’m reading more into business practices and rehashing my story, so I have been focusing a bit less on the case interview portion. I’ve been focusing more on hashing out my story, particularly for each of these firms individually.
When I got that feedback from BCG, I had to revamp my case interview process, and had to start doing practice cases again. I just had one yesterday – even though I’m in the midst of these interviews, I’m still doing the in-person practice cases with my friends.
Wildly, I still got feedback – even though I think that I walk interviewers through the numbers well, he just wanted me to articulate them more. I had the math written out properly, and I thought I was walking them through, but just needed to articulate the math a little bit more. I said, okay, I’ll articulate the math a little bit more. We’re down to minute details, but I’m still incorporating feedback.
What would you say are some of the nuances between the different cases that you’ve noticed as you’ve gone through the process?
BCG’s cases are much more general, and I think you had some great videos on interviewer-led vs. interviewee-led cases. BCG really epitomizes interviewee led, where I designed the structure and I designed the case. One of them had no quantification whatsoever, and I totally led it, and any idea I came up with, he said “oh, that’s a great idea, now keep brainstorming.” There was no information that I was going to be given, no numbers that I was looking for that I was going to find, it was just an idea that I touched upon, and then moved on to the next line, or went into that next bucket to try to hash out that bucket.
And then some of my other cases have been a little bit different. For both L.E.K. and for Putnam, I’ve gotten guesstimate (market sizing) questions. One of them was let’s estimate the number of waffles that are sold in hotel chains across the United States. Of course it’s a total guess, and I have no background on the number of hotel chains in the US, or how many waffles are sold, but they really just wanted to get your thinking process down and if you could logically get a number down. I think that was Putnam.
And then for L.E.K., they wanted me to estimate the number of fire hydrants that are replaced in a year, or the number of new fire hydrants that could be placed in the United States. So with another off-the-wall market sizing question, they really just want to hear your logic and how you might think.
Gotcha. So what are you expecting going into the final round will be different for each of these firms? What do you think the emphasis will be?
I’m thinking for these firms they might still do interviewer-led, and in fact at L.E.K. I had some interviewer-led cases, but I think they’re going to be focusing more on quantitative cases, and I think the reason behind that is they want to see if you understand more of the life sciences industry. So looking to see if you understand the difference between prescriptions and generics, how patents might fall into place, how the new competitive drugs are approved or not approved, and the difference of having an oral formulation versus an IV formulation of a drug.
I expect the firms are looking for smaller details – details that are very important for their industry. I had a practice case yesterday that was with a friend at Putnam, and he was walking me through estimating market size for a drug, but they won’t feed you information on how you might narrow it down to a population size for that.
In this case, you need to account for incidence versus prevalence, and how a disease might function in terms of a population size, and how oral formulation versus an IV might differentiate the number of people that will comply with that medicine. They will feed you the answers, but they want you to rationalize and find out what are those proportions that will produce the population that you are looking for.
In this particular situation I always like to remind people that, especially for boutique firms, they are essentially requiring you to pre-train yourself. They really want people to come on board that have a good sense of strategy, because even if they took a smart person who could get it, the more you can spend the 2-3 month period prior to your interviews preparing for this kind of information, being able to talk about it in an articulate way, the first week when you’re on the job they can give you “hey, here’s how we create a presentation, and here’s how we are looking for deliverables, and here’s how we write an email, and there you go.”
Boom – you’re assigned to a project. It really helps a firm limit the amount of upfront investment that they have to make in getting somebody up to speed when you do it on your own. I think that’s a large portion of what the case interview is.
Pick up any good tips from Jenny Rae and Charlie’s insights? Let us know in the comments, and stay tuned for Part 2 later this month!