Coffee Chat Questions – What to Expect in an Informal Case Interview

Coffee chats have grown to be the norm in most geographies, as consulting firms are making a bigger effort to groom their candidates and separate themselves from the competition. While most firms go for a simple, short meeting – an actual coffee chat – others go as far as scheduling dinners between prospective candidates and partners. Regardless of the context, coffee chats are a great opportunity for candidates. This article from our expert Cristian covers what you can expect from attending one and how to get more out of them than a free coffee.

Consulting firms are willing to use their most precious resource – the time of their consultants – to meet with prospective candidates for two core reasons:

To increase the number of applications. Management consulting firms tend to have high standards and look for a specific skill set. The reality is that there are not that many candidates out there who are the right fit, so coffee chats are an attempt to find these select few. Firms not only want to inform candidates about their existence but also about what makes them different and why they should be the candidate’s first choice. The assumption here is that if you increase the number of people who enter the application pipeline, and the conversions from one round of recruitment to the other stay the same, you’re going to end up with more people hired, or at least the best possible people from each batch of applicants.

To increase the share of successful candidates who take their offer. The reality is that candidates who are successful with one firm tend to be successful with other firms as well. In short, they have multiple offers to choose from. Most candidates decide on the offer not only based on compensation, career prospects, or even the prestige of the respective company but also on the ‘vibe’ that they got from the people who they interacted with during the recruitment process. It is then in the interest of each consulting firm to leave a very good impression on each candidate.

Below you will find a list of ten common interview questions. It’s worth going over them and briefly thinking about what you would answer to each of them, however, don’t overprepare these. The coffee chat is meant to be a casual interaction and by sounding rehearsed you are only likely to make yourself appear less genuine and slightly awkward.

Here they are:

  1. Tell me about yourself.
  2. Why consulting?
  3. Why are you interested in joining our firm?
  4. Are there other firms that you are applying to?
  5. What’s your background in (education, professional)?
  6. How come you are making this career switch / leaving your current employer?
  7. What attracts you the most about being a consultant?
  8. Do you have any questions about the recruitment process?
  9. What are most concerned about in terms of the recruitment process?
  10. Is there any way in which I could help you?

Leaving a good impression. Coffee chats are not meant to be interviews, but in essence, they are. To a certain extent, every sort of interaction you have with another human is an interview, since they decide what to think about you and how to deal with you as a consequence of this first interaction. So, make sure that you leave a good impression. Dress in a professional way, be amenable, polite, curious, and genuinely interested in who they are and what they do. You want the other person to think fondly of you long after this coffee chat.

Forging a connection. In earnest, your casing skills are less important than your communication skills at this point. They probably know sufficiently about your skills to have accepted to meet with you. What they care about is who you are as a person and how easy it is to connect with you. Could they see you as part of their team? Could they see you interacting well, bonding, and managing their clients? Are you the sort of person who easily navigates social situations? Are you open, or curious? If yes, then you’re somebody they would want to keep in touch with and who they will help throughout the recruitment process.

Approach this with excitement and curiosity instead of anxiety. Instead, see this chat as an opportunity to meet somebody who has more experience than you in the career that you’re targeting and who can give you advice on what it takes to get there. Don’t see them as gate-keeper because then you’ll either be intimidated by them or you’ll try to please them, neither of which is going to make for an enjoyable conversation.

Be genuinely curious about the other person. Ask questions. People love to talk about themselves and nothing makes them feel better than seeing that somebody cares about them and what they do. So ask them questions about their work, their preferences, and what they’ve learned. Try to be casual and genuine about it. There’s no need to prepare loads of questions before or to ask them challenging questions such as ‘what was the most difficult moment of your career if they’re just trying to have a fun, relaxed conversation.

Show your character. If you’re funny, then be funny. If you’re serious, then be serious. The important thing is to be natural because if you try to be anything else than who you are (unless you are a trained secret service agent) it will show, and in a rather awkward way. It’s ok to be nervous. Just tell them that you are nervous and turn this sort of vulnerability into a strength by owning up to it.

Once you’ve had a coffee chat or two, you have a good understanding of the recruitment process, you received some advice on how to approach it best, and it’s time to move on. At this point, there are almost no consequential benefits of spending more time networking, and your time is best spent actually improving your interviewing skills. As a last note, make sure that you remain in touch with the consultant you met with, communicate to them the timeline that you have in mind for the application, and assure them that you will reach out if you have any questions.


There are two things that you could ask for additionally:

  1. A referral. Unless you have one already, the coffee chat can be a great opportunity to ask for one. Don’t hesitate to ask directly at the end of the conversation, especially after thanking the consultant for taking the time to discuss with you. Almost all firms offer bonuses for referrals, so consultants have a strong incentive to recommend prospective candidates in the recruitment process.
  2. A practice case. If you feel that you’ve developed a sufficiently strong relationship with the consultant you met with, you can also ask them to do a practice case with you. It’s a rather big ask because consultants tend to get these requests often and the job already requires long hours serving clients. Spending an additional hour giving a case to a candidate is no small thing. But doing a case with them can be a great advantage, not only because it will give you a good indication of the probability of passing the interview, but could also come with advice in terms of what is the gap that you need to close to be interview ready and what does it take to do there. In short, what a coach would do.

As the last point, not all firms, geographies, and offices practice coffee chats. In these situations, don’t hesitate to just ask for it. Approach the recruiter at your target firm, and say that you are interested in applying for a role with them and that you would like to learn more about the firm. Then ask whether they offer anything like a coffee chat or the opportunity to interact directly with some of the consultants. It’s likely that they will put you in touch with someone from the office you are targeting. Either way, you have nothing to lose and everything to gain, so it’s worth a shot.

To summarize, coffee chats are a great opportunity to learn more about the job and the recruitment process. Approach them with curiosity, relax and show your true character and just remember that all that you should be aiming to do is to connect with the person sitting across from you. Everything else is just going to follow through from there.

About the Author

Profile Picture CristianCristian
#1 rated and most recommended McKinsey Coach | 97% success rate

  • Professional Experience: McKinsey & Company, Writer & Entrepreneur
  • Languages: English
  • Location: Germany

After graduating from Oxford, Cristian gained several years of experience at McKinsey. Until today he was working in eight different countries and nine different industries and founded his own consultancy, Writer & Entrepreneur.
With his 5-star rating, the expert has the highest recommendation rate of the coaches. None of his candidates failed their case interview after 4 coaching sessions with Cristian.

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