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How to pass a recruiter’s “airport test” with flying colors

Melanee Swanson (MBA '17) - UNC Kenan-Flagler Business School

Melanee Swanson (MBA ’17)

Everyone interested in consulting has heard about the so-called “airport test.” During recruiting season, firms are constantly trying to figure out if you’re the right fit for them. One of the ways they evaluate whether you’re the right fit is by asking themselves how they would feel being stuck in an airport with you. But does that really happen? Yes, it does. And yes, it is a huge factor in the recruiting process.

At one point during my summer internship at Deloitte, I was stuck in the Newark airport for four hours with a consultant on my project. We had dinner together and talked about anything and everything – our client, Atlanta, his yoga practice, CrossFit, our families, our overall career aspirations and more. Those four hours flew by and on my plane ride home I smiled, realizing the importance of passing the real-life version of the Airport Test.

Your ability to connect and communicate with employers largely dictates whether you receive an offer. We all know that consulting firms will be testing our analytical and structured problem solving skills in the case portion of interviews, but soft skills are one of the biggest factors in moving from the closed list to the offer.

How can you stand apart from other candidates when you have so few interactions with firms? It all comes down to your ability to connect with them. The Wall Street Journal published the article “The ‘Soft Skills’ Employers Are Looking For,” which explains exactly this point. And according to a LinkedIn survey, nearly 58 percent of employees who exhibited stellar communication skills were hired over the course of a year.

In internal strategy or management consulting roles, your job is not only to help solve problems, but more importantly to communicate those solutions to a client – making the ability to communicate effectively a non-negotiable.

According to the WSJ article and LinkedIn survey, employers are searching for candidates who excel at communication, organization, teamwork, punctuality, critical thinking, social skills, creativity, interpersonal communication and adaptability, and who have a friendly personality. All of these soft skills are extremely important in management consulting and internal strategy roles. During my internship at Deloitte, I was expected to demonstrate each of these skills on a daily basis. I needed to be adaptable when my client changed the scope of the project in the middle of our meeting, but also to connect with them on a personal level at dinner and golf events. More importantly, I only had 10 weeks to become a trusted advisor for them – and the only one way to do that was to connect with them on both a professional and personal level.

So how do you know if you have soft skills – and how can you develop them? If you are looking for a quick and dirty fix, there isn’t one. Perfecting these skills takes time – and I guarantee none of us are experts on all 10 of the skills LinkedIn lists as most important to employers. But there are a few things that I’d suggest doing to put yourself in a better position for the recruiting process:

  • Target your resume to highlight these soft skills – especially if you have a very analytical or technical background.
  • Practice behavioral interviews with your classmates, the Business Communication Center staff and Career Management Center (CMC) Career Mentors.
  • Put yourself in situations where you can practice small-talk, such as social events with classmates and networking events with employers.
  • Show some personality during both case and behavioral interviews.
  • Be on time for events, phone calls and other interactions with firms and second-year MBAs.
  • Strive to demonstrate your soft skills in every interaction – whether via email, phone, online or in-person.

By Melanee Swanson (MBA ’17), who served as president of the UNC Kenan-Flagler MBA Consulting Club