Where I mix career information and career decision making in a test tube and see what happens

Friday, December 12, 2014

Two Very Hot Careers

At Ivy League colleges, the most popular on-campus interviews have been for two careers: consulting and finance. By consulting, I mean specifically work for management analysts hired by consulting companies such as Ernst & Young and Accenture. Finance covers a large and diverse industry, but the focus of the on-campus interviewing has been mainly on Wall Street jobs.

Why are these jobs so popular? Probably the main draw is that they pay very, very well. ManagementConsulted.com estimates that recent bachelor’s graduates average a base salary of $50,000 to $65,000 in their first year on the job, with signing bonuses of $5,000 to $10,000 and a similar level of extra compensation in the form of relocation reimbursements and year-end bonuses. As for finance, a 2012 survey by the National Association of Colleges and Employers found bachelor’s grads earning an average of $52,800 as their base salary; the middle 50 percent had salaries ranging from $40,800 to $62,000.

The outlook for both of these careers is good, although both are sensitive to ups and downs in the economy. Right now, the economy is on an upswing, so hiring is brisk.

However, competition for jobs is intense, partly because the pay is so good and partly because both jobs take on smart college graduates who don’t necessarily have a background in business coursework. They don’t hire just any smart graduate, however. They want people who have a high level of energy, who can think quickly in numbers, who can express a reasoned conclusion confidently, who are personable, and who fit into the corporate culture—which can vary greatly among employers.

I am particularly aware of these entry requirements because I recently finished updating two guides to interviewing for these careers: Vault Guide to Finance Interviews and Vault Guide to the Case Interview. I was not the original author of either of these books, but I revised them to reflect current hiring practices and the current state of the industries.

For both careers, the on-campus interviews serve as a first cut to eliminate candidates who obviously are a bad fit. With a few quick questions, interviewers can identify candidates who are not good at thinking in quantitative terms. Some behavioral questions, on topics such as summer jobs, can eliminate candidates who have never worked in a business setting. Still other candidates fall by the wayside by responding poorly to timeworn interview questions; for example, when asked “Tell me your greatest weakness,” they may make the mistake of saying they have no weaknesses.

The candidates who make it past these hurdles are the ones who are invited to corporate headquarters (or a large office), where they often experience a “superday” of back-to-back interviews, perhaps capped by dinner. Would-be consultants, in particular, are grilled in this way. Over the course of the day, the interviews typically progress from conversations with low-level workers, where the focus is on technical issues, to meetings with the higher-ups, where the emphasis is on how the job candidate fits in with the corporate culture. Candidates for finance jobs are less likely to get such a thorough vetting.

For both kinds of jobs, it’s common for job candidates to be asked to make “guesstimates.” For example, they may be asked to estimate how many ping pong balls would fit inside a 747 jetliner, how many diapers are sold each year in the United States, or how many windows there are in Manhattan. Questions of this nature help determine whether job candidates have a rough awareness of the business environment (such as the population of the United States), an aptitude for mental calculations, and the ability to think on their feet.

In addition, interviewees are often asked brain-teaser questions, such as “Why are manholes round?” (a question that originated at Microsoft) or “If you pulled in the anchor of rowboat floating on a lake, would the water level in the lake rise, lower, or stay the same?” These questions get at the jobseeker’s creativity and logical thinking.