After she earned her undergraduate degree, Cincinnati native Sarah Berhalter worked in the equestrian industry in Virginia, training horses and managing a stable. There she was surrounded by people “who were very passionate about what they did, but were at risk of failing simply because they didn’t know business,” she says.
Berhalter decided to pursue an MBA and focus on consulting so she could develop the tools to better help people do what they love.
“To me, ultimately, that’s what consulting is—working with clients and helping them face whatever challenge they’re presented with, or helping their business to grow,” she says.
Kristen Stieger’s journey followed a different path. After earning her bachelor’s degree in mechanical engineering, she worked two years in a project management role at an energy company in her native California. “But I also wanted to explore the different opportunities that existed with an MBA,” she says. “I got interested in consulting because it’s fast-paced, uses analytical skills to solve problems, and allows you to work with clients in a variety of industries.”
Both Berhalter and Stieger are now second-year students and officers in the Owen School’s Consulting Club, a student-run organization whose mission is to help students gain a better understanding of the work culture, required skills and career opportunities available in consulting-related fields. Though the club has existed for about 20 years, it’s currently seeing a record level of participation, with more than 100 members.
“Since the economic recovery in 2011, we’ve seen an increase
in the percentage of our graduating student body go into the
consulting area.”—Emily Anderson
“Since the economic recovery in 2011, we’ve seen an increase in the percentage of our graduating student body go into the consulting area,” says Emily Anderson, MBA’99, director of internal operations and coaching for the Career Management Center. “As companies have more money for discretionary spending, they hire more consultants to do things like work on special projects, change out software systems and help develop corporate strategy.
“Consulting is also a classic MBA function,” she explains, “because it incorporates everything students are learning in the program—whether it’s marketing or finance or operations—and how they all work together to strengthen a company or provide competitive advantage.”
Perfecting the case interview
As a result of this popularity, the Consulting Club is sponsoring more activities than ever before, from facilitating networking opportunities for its members to preparing them for careers in consulting through workshops and case practice sessions.
At the start of the academic year, the club invited eight alumni from the consulting industry to campus to share their experiences and meet one-on-one with students. The group regularly co-sponsors social events with consulting firms and hosts lunch-and-learn sessions featuring guest speakers as well as faculty.
The club teams with the CMC to organize a consulting trek to Atlanta each fall for students to visit consulting firms. It also produces weekly newsletters featuring information on upcoming events, job opportunities and deadlines.
“The Consulting Club serves as a resource where students can start to get information about consulting,” says Stieger, the club’s president. “It also provides us second-years who have been through the interview and internship experience with a platform to share our knowledge with first-years.”
At the heart of the club’s efforts is preparation and practice for the case interview, a hallmark of the consulting interview process.
“A case tests your ability to take a hypothetical problem with a limited amount of information, prioritize the key elements, and organize your thinking so that you not only find a solution but communicate it effectively to the interviewer,” explains Berhalter, the club’s vice president of communications. Berhalter, who is the recipient of the Ingram Scholar Award, Virginia Banks and Fred W. Lazenby Honor Scholarship and Beta Gamma Sigma scholarship, says that in addition to being a core business skill, the ability to solve a case knowledgeably and with confidence increases one’s stock as an internship or job candidate.
Since practice makes perfect, the Consulting Club gives students many opportunities to do so. A dedicated group of first-year members holds weekly walk-in practice sessions, and about 20 second-year members make themselves available for one-on-one case prep or to discuss careers in consulting. The club also has built a robust online resource of cases and frameworks that members can access to prepare on their own.
Experience under pressure
These resources are a boon not only to club members, but to a growing number of other students for whom solving cases has become a common element of the interview process.
“Companies come into schools like Vanderbilt assuming the candidates are smart, so it’s not as much about testing raw intelligence as it is about seeing how a candidate can apply it,” Anderson says. “When they conduct a case interview, they’re getting to see in real time how a candidate can think through a problem. It gives them insight into the way a candidate acts under pressure. And it allows them to view how students are putting together all the pieces they’re learning in the MBA.”
This year, the Consulting Club has partnered with the other professional student organizations at the school to offer individualized case practice.
“When [recruiters] conduct a case interview, they’re getting to see in real time how a candidate can think through a problem.”—Emily Anderson
“Being able to organize your thoughts is critically important, not just in interviews but in any type of presentation you may have,” says Matthew McCall, a second-year student from Austin, Texas, who is president of the Owen Operations Club and a Bruce D. Henderson scholarship recipient. “The case method—those techniques that the Consulting Club has been using for years—are extremely useful. I’ve found that the first-year students I’ve spoken with this year are much more comfortable with case-type questions and have performed better in interviews on the whole.”
Anderson says her data supports this observation. Internship offers are up 8 percent from the same time last year, and these opportunities often develop into full-time positions. Berhalter will join Boston Consulting Group in Atlanta after graduation, and Stieger will go to work at Chevron in a rotational leadership development program. “Across the board, the feedback we’re getting from companies is that students are performing well in their interviews,” Anderson says.
“I think the leadership of the Consulting Club has been exceptional this year in their organization and outreach across the Owen School,” she says. “I hope this translates, and the first-years who are benefiting from it will be inspired to continue it next year.”