It can be done. In fact, you’ll be more successful and happy if you stay genuine to yourself.
With full-time interview season about to start at Harvard, I’ve been getting emails from friends who are doing recruiting. I thought I’d compile my insights from interviews last year for people applying for jobs, both through on campus recruiting and otherwise. I end with some parting thoughts about keeping your eye on the big picture - exploring yourself - as you go through recruiting.
I’ll be joining a consulting firm this fall, but also successfully interviewed for product manager (PM) positions at tech firms among other positions I applied for. I haven’t yet been “on the other side” of recruiting to know whether my advice is accurate. Instead, all of these suggestions are from looking back at what did or did not go well through interviews. These tips are mainly for PM and consulting, but should helpful in other jobs as well in/out of on campus recruiting/interviews (OCI).
If you’ve got more questions or even just want to tell me this is helpful (it’s nice to know), feel free to email me at punitshah@post. I’m abroad, but happy to help as much as I can and pay forward for all the help others gave me.
Go to the semesterly workshop by the Case in Point author, Marc Cosentino, even if you’re doing PM interviews or anything else. I knew nothing about case interviews, went to the session in January, and knew pretty much what I had to do. He gives an outline of how to tackle a case, some important statistics to know (e.g. think of the US population as 320M with average life expectancy of 80 years, making there 4M people per age), and what mindset to take into the interview. If you’re feeling behind on prepping he’ll motivate you to catch up. If you’re feeling ready, he’ll motivate you to get excited. For those who read Case in Point, maybe it’s all a repeat, but I never did used those so I don’t know where the cross over is. For PM candidates, you will get some cases, so best to learn to prep for them. And for anyone interviewing for anything else, it is good background about how to think about interviews in general (plus you might get a case interview too; they’re really catching on).
Make the interviewer think you’re a [insert job title here] in their first week on the job. It is critical you break the barrier between you as an interview candidate and you as co-worker because the companies are asking if the interviewer could envision you as a coworker. Cosentino talks about writing something on a paper, turning it around on the table, and walking your interviewer through the diagram, forcing them to lean in and move beyond the supposed plane a that separates you and them. That works, but you’ll also find plenty of you-specific strategies. For product manager interviews for example, use the white board as much as you can and bring the interviewer into a collaborative thinking/brainstorming process. I did this all organically/by impulse during the interview process, but then then ended up doing it all on the first week as an APM Intern at Google tackling actual challenges very similar to those that I faced on the interview. But beyond trying to make the interviewer feel that you’re a coworker, it’s important too that you psych yourself out to think of them as coworkers. Your goal, then, is no longer impressing them and being scared you won’t get a job, but instead actually trying to solve the problem in front of you because it’s interesting and you want to.
Show humble confidence at all times, even when you’re admitting you messed up. As with above, attitude plays a huge role in their evaluation of you. If you’re confident, they could see you speaking up in a meeting and being listened to from your first week. And if they ask a question and you admit your analysis was wrong, remain confident, but concede where appropriate. No one is right all the time, and show you know that by admitting such, but still stay up beat and confident that for the large part, your analysis is solid. You should also show (and create) this confidence by taking your time to answer a question and asking yourself if it makes sense before you say anything. The pauses make it clear you’re thinking about what you’re saying.
Remember (or psych yourself out to believe) that you’re valuable and don’t act like you’re sold on the job or the firm (because you’re probably not, and companies don’t expect you to be). One of my favorite metaphors about the job search is that it’s like dating, and eventually you have to choose to enter a long term relationship with one of these companies. To (ab)use this metaphor, you have to play hard to get, but not too hard to get. It’s not anything you have to be conscious of, or at least it wasn’t for me. Just remember your own value: you’re awesome and really smart to be sitting in that interview chair in the first place! They see something in you already to invite you over. But also because even if you have the impulse to act like you’ll say yes if you get an offer, you probably have no clue if you will if are anything like me, so just be genuine. Your interviewer once went through the same process you did and knows what’s really going through your head. Yes, be humble and realize you’ve got plenty to learn on the job (you do), but don’t undersell yourself as so many of us do in the name of being overly-humble.
Win the airport test (great post I just found describing it). Smile! Interviews should be fun! Be personable: every interviewer I had for consulting and product management positions have been really nice, so just be genuine and nice yourself and they won’t bite. During small talk, do what you’d do during any polite conversation at a dinner party: ask genuinely interesting questions about your host, find areas of shared interest, and be fun to hang out with. Related to making them think you’re a coworker, do what you would as a coworker, like crack mild jokes as I tend to do at the most inopportune moments. One of my interviewers had lived in Dunster and he knew I lived in Mather, so I made a joke that an idea we were discussing was about as bad as Dunster. If offhanded humor isn’t your thing, find other things to lighten the mood. If the interview feels more like a conversation, you did a great job.
Read the business section of the NYT or WSJ regularly, ideally for the last few years. I never read Case in Point in part because a) I didn’t think I’d have time to read it, and b) because after years of reading the business section, I had my own repository of lists of how mergers can go wrong for interview brainstorming questions (along with real-world examples), I had some ideas for what issues may be facing a generic company struggling with declining revenues, etc. In short, if you’ve been reading newspapers for a while, I hypothesize that reading guidebooks may only end up making you less initially inclined to draw on your perfectly useful and legitimate intuitive business sense and experience (or at least I felt this would be the case for me). If business is something you’re coming to more recently, than Case in Point may be a valuable step in studying, but even a few weeks of business stories will make you talk the language and bring up salient examples of your ideas.
Stress-test the interview question occasionally, asking if it’s an important one to ask in the first place. Go beyond what they ask for at other times when you see something that would also be useful to contribute to an analysis (NPV ended up being something I often through would be useful in questions on future profits. You could ask whether to do this too for example, but know how to calculate it if you suggest it’s salient). This helps show you’ll be more than an Excel monkey.
Ask good questions that reflect what you’re looking for in a company and thus what you genuinely want to know about a company and what working there is like. I have a go-to question that both communicates what I value as well as yielding an interesting answer and nugget of life advice every time. The Q&A parts of interviews, along with some phone chats I did, were the biggest moments for self reflection and figuring out what I wanted out of the next two years of life from recruiting.
Generally, meet-and-great sessions and info sessions, and all the business card collecting/outreach, won’t get you a job for big firms, so don’t feel obligated to do all of it. I went to very few of these and still did fine, so don’t waste time getting friends to sign you in. They’re a good place to sense the culture of the firm and the personalities of the people that make up the company, and the information provide can be useful (though the info sessions I did attend felt pretty generic), but the whole “networking” part is rarely if ever going to get you much. I’ve seen more instances of consultants ask and seem to try to remember the name of people who are being really disingenuous by asking really canned questions while acting like they’re trying to butter up/impress the consultant, thereby flopping at the airport test, than moments where consultants wrote downs names of people for good reasons. But don’t let that stop you from asking genuine questions and having good conversations about why you would want to join a company and about what the job experience will be able to offer you - it’s useful for your own decision making process about your future if done right and can’t hurt you in the process if you’re truly genuine. I’m sure there are exceptions in other industries and especially for smaller firms - face time is still important.
Related, don’t be scared by the Crazy Recruiters, the students who seem super cutthroat personally and seem like they’re next to you every time you sit at the OCI facility before an interview. I didn’t remember seeing many of them with consulting or product manager job offers in the end because companies want team players.
Good advice I probably would have benefited from using but didn’t end up doing: practice cases a lot, especially with friends you trust. Never had time to do much of that do mainly just read a few cases on firm websites and practiced from those and went to two or three well run case workshops by OCS or individual firms. But I also used junior recruiting as practice for senior recruiting, and that was really, really helpful.
And finally, you always hear this, but you’ll be fine. Even when companies didn’t work out, I met great people who I’ve kept in touch with and got to think about my future and what I really valued (and got to have any cocktail I wanted paid for along the way to aid the thinking process!). Recruiting should be a process of intense self-reflection where you get to test out people and jobs through conversations and interviews. Rejections for me were the moments when I ended up casting a wider net and got to then explore more companies and industries, giving me greater perspective and certainty on what I actually wanted out of my job. Concentrate on asking what will make you happy and fulfilled for the next two years (and set you up to stay that way for the five years after that), and then get the best job for you, not the best recruiting/OCI offer based on supposed student demand. A surprisingly large subset of my friends who accepted consulting/finance offers from the supposedly most sought after firms are now reneging on them because they weren’t the best fit - I didn’t realize how common this is. If you are genuinely interested, your enthusiasm will show and you’ll do just fine. Really. Just be be yourself, work hard like you already do, and all else will follow.