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5 questions (not!) to ask at recruiting events

I wrote this piece of advice while recruiting for McKinsey and it was one of the most popular posts on my blog during business school, so I wanted to make sure to share this with you.


Knowing that I was off to business school, I volunteered to take part in a recruiting event at McKinsey in May. Actually, we call these events “sourcing events”, where we “source” new candidates to apply for a job with us. This is distinct from actual recruiting events where you would conduct interviews. So there I was on a Saturday morning 9am after a very tough 80 hour working week, having come home from the airport the night before.

First, a principal from the Swiss office made a very interesting speech about the sports industry (basically, the big money behind FIFA, Olympics; Basketball etc. – I was amazed to find out that FIFA and Olympic computer games make more money than the actual events with sponsorships and ticket revenues ), and then there was a free brunch for all the candidates with about 5 consultants mingling with the candidates to answer their questions on consulting and McKinsey. What struck me was that some candidates gave me very bad vibes and some gave me very good vibes. Some made me feel bad, angry or shocked at their naivity, others made me feel at ease. Obviously, based on these observations I would make recommendations for the candidates or not. After the event, I thought about why I got a negative impression of some and a very positive one of others. I think this is helpful for anyone attending recruiting or networking events.

What not to ask at a recruiting event…

  • Do I have to have studied business studies to apply?
  • Isn’t it horrible to sleep in hotels 4 nights a week? I could never do that!
  • But do you really work so much? Isn’t it tiring?
  • But do you recruit natural scientists? (upon my affirmation) But I studied advanced robotics, can I do advanced robotics work in consulting? or another girl: “but do you have molecular biologists?” (upon my assertion that we have just about everyone you could imagine at McKinsey, she replied: “I don’t think so because my university was the first to launch a molecular biology degree 3 years ago”!
  • Do you like your job?

… and why not…
Regarding the last question, it is actually the most valid of the list and can give useful insight. However, since I didn’t like my job very much at the time, it made me feel bad. It made me feel bad that I had a job I didn’t like, and it made me feel bad because I was in a dilemma about what to say. Obviously I cannot say that I don’t. So I can say yes, you learn a lot, but that it is definitely a tough job. So the problem I have with the last question (do you like your job?) is that it can put the other person in a defensive and uncomfortable situation, and you should always try to make the “recruiter” feel at ease.

The first four questions are terrible, because rather than show interest in the job or the company, the candidate is looking for reasons NOT to like the job. I found that many students who had no idea about my job only wanted to hear about the negative aspects of the job or threw around prejudices they had heard. Some questions also stem from insecurity. Instead of saying that they have a background in computer science but they would love to learn more about business, they ask “but do you hire scientists? But can I do robotics?”. Some also showed a high degree of inflexibility. Some candidates had a background in biology or medicine and asked if they could apply their knowledge in consulting, and I started telling them about work for healthcare and pharmaceutical companies, but they would insist “but can I do molecular biology?”. First, it shows a lack of interest in a wider range of topics, and it also shows a high degree of ignorance about the business world.

So keep your doubts about the job to yourself and ask more diplomatic and positive questions instead. These will usually give you the information you wanted, but leave a much better impression.

… and what to ask

  • What do you actually do in consulting on a daily basis?
  • What would a typical week look like?
  • What are the people like in your company?
  • I studied political science and would love to try out consulting – how would you advise me to approach consultancies?
  • I would love to have a better idea of the kind of work you do. What kind of projects have you worked on so far?

If you are looking for commonalities in these questions, you will quickly notice that these questions show genuine interest and an open mind. These people respected that I probably can tell them more about the job than what they might have heard second hand, and asked with an open mind. They also conveyed a much more positive attitude by asking how to make it happen, rather than listing all the problems there might be. The questions were also very open, engaging me in conversation, rather than abrupt, such as “isn’t it horrible to sleep in hotels every week?”.

I think it is not about lying or asking only flattering questions. It is about coming in with an open mind and asking the person who probably knows best what the job is like what their job is like. This is very different from coming in thinking that consulting or investment banking is a horrible job and looking for confirmation of this opinion. If you think the job is horrible and you know all about it, why attend the event in the first place?

Week in the life of a McKinsey consultant
Management consulting career guide 

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{ 1 comment… add one }

  • Rita Friedman November 19, 2011, 1:42 AM

    Thanks for sharing! You’ve done a great job of identifying some of the **worst** questions people ask all the time, and an excellent job at explaining why they’re so bad!

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