How to prepare for case interviews

How to prepare for case interviews

Case interviews are an important part of the recruitment process for hiring management consultants. Management consultancies, including the Big 3 — McKinsey, BCG, and Bain (MBB in short) — conduct case interviews that challenge even candidates with impeccable academic records.

Investment banks and other industries use case interviews to select professionals with strategic business thinking skills. If you have been invited to attend a case interview, you can give your best through preparation and practice.
 

How to prepare for case interviews

 

What is assessed in a case interview?

At a case interview, the interviewer tries to evaluate your quantitative, qualitative, and analytical skills, critical thinking, creativity, communication skills, and understanding of business concepts. For these are the skills that you need for solving specific problems related to industry sectors, organizations, and businesses once you are hired.
 

Examples of case interview questions

The interview topics can be real cases handled by the firms or manufactured cases designed just for the interview. The interviewer is not looking for “the right answer,” though you may breeze your way into the next round of the hiring process if you manage to come up with it.

The interviewer is trying to find out how you approach the case, whether you ask the right questions, use structured ways of problem-solving, and can think out of the box. Do you use the data to quantify your recommendations and do you review your own solution realistically before suggesting it?

A case interview may last 30 minutes to an hour, and you may be put through half-a-dozen case interviews in a couple rounds or more, depending on the position applied for.

After an ice-breaking light banter, to find out whether you are a good fit for the organization, the interviewer will present the case question. You will be given time to study the case and can come up with questions to clarify it.

Here are some examples of case interview questions:

  • Motorola is your client. The year is 1980. The company has invented the mobile phone three years ago. They want you to find out whether there will be a demand for mobile phones and the market size over the next three decades.
  • Your friend runs a lemonade kiosk. Last Monday, he kept it open from 2 pm to 5 pm but sold only two cups. What should he do differently to improve business?
  • Your client is a $300-million copper mining company. This year it lost $50 million. How do you turn the company around?

 

 

Business school resources to help students prepare for case interviews

 
MBA Case Interview PrepMBA Crystal Ball caught up with Lawrence Verbiest, associate director, MBA Career Center at Georgetown’s McDonough School of Business. We asked him about the resources available for consulting aspirants in the MBA program. Here’s what he shared.

“At Georgetown McDonough, MBA students preparing for case interviews have numerous resources available to them. The MBA Career Center and the Georgetown Consulting Club (GCC) collaborate on the effort. GCC conducts an initial training session followed by weekly lunch and learn sessions to go over different types of cases. The club also assigns cases each week to members who sign up for the training to practice in pairs throughout the fall semester. The MBA Career Center brings in David Ohrvall, MBACASE.com, and Marc Cosentino, Case Questions.com, to conduct workshops about a month apart from each other. GCC helps share the cost of bringing in these outside experts.”

“Additionally, the MBA Career Center has several highly qualified career coaches and fifteen compensated 2nd year MBA student coaches who are available to practice cases and provide feedback to students through scheduled appointments. Several employers also get involved by scheduling company-specific case workshops for students. Lastly, MBA alumni get involved by practicing cases with students and also participating in two evaluated case interview Super Days that are designed to assess each students’ progress and level of preparation.”

“The most important thing for a first-year MBA student is to recognize that a lot of time is necessary to become very proficient with case interview questions. Some students think they are ready and try to wing it with only a limited amount of preparation. In those circumstances, they will rarely, if ever, do better on the interview than the majority of students who have spent a lot of time preparing and doing many practice cases of all different types over a period of weeks and months.”

 

Different types of case interviews

 
Case interviews can be broadly candidate-led or interviewer-led, while some may have a few features of both types. In a candidate-led interview, the candidate structures the problem, creates the framework, notes the findings, and proposes solutions. This is the most suitable interview type for candidates applying for senior positions, as the methodology is given prominence over the quality of the solution suggested.

When the interviewer leads the interview, he/she controls specific parts of the problem. The focus is not on finding answers to the bigger problem but in solving each sub-question. Business intuition is required to do well in this type of interviews.

In a candidate-led interview, you need to define the problem clearly, identify possible root causes of the problem, hypothesize to identify the most probable root-cause using the data available, and suggest a solution.

In an interviewer-led interview, you need to tackle each question from the interviewer. The best approach is to take each question as a mini-case and categorize it under the following types:

Case Type Example
Math problem How many pizzas does a barely successful pizzeria have to sell to double its profit?
Market-sizing What is the market size in India for entry-level sedans?
Framework What factors would you consider for solving the client’s problem?
Solution-finding What steps do you think the loss-making company should take?
Insights What do you learn from the company’s profit charts?
Value proposition What do customers look for in sedans?
Business valuation What is the company worth today?
Hypothesis What could be some of the causes of the client’s problem?
Brainteasers How do you know the refrigerator light goes off when you close the door?

 
Business cases, estimating cases, and brainteasers require a knowledgeable approach and detailed analysis. Business cases deal with a company’s profitability and investment opportunities, estimation cases revolve around the potential profitability of a product or a market, and brainteasers require you to do some out-of-the-box thinking.
 

 

More on Candidate-led (Interviewee-led) vs Interviewer-led case interviews

 
Lawrence Verbiest from the McDonough School of Business explains the difference between candidate-led and interviewer-led case interviews, and shares some ideas to tackle them.

“A typical case interview question will have a prompt that provides a bit of information on the client followed by a short description of the client’s problem and what the client would like the consulting firm to help with. The case question is read aloud by the interviewer and the candidate will be expected to take notes and then summarize the case aloud in order to demonstrate a full understanding of the question. The candidate will also have an opportunity to ask a clarifying question or two in order to verify some of the information, as well as to gain a better understanding of the client’s intent. ”

“After summarizing the case prompt and asking any clarifying questions, the candidate will lay out a structure of relevant areas to explore and brief those areas back to the interviewer. If it is an interviewee-led case, the candidate will also be expected to state a hypothesis and drive the case by asking for relevant data needed to come up with an actionable recommendation.”

“For example, the candidate will need to ask a lot of probing questions based on the areas the candidate would like to explore. If the candidate does not ask for something relevant, then the interviewer will assume that the candidate did not think of it and the candidate would not have that data available as input for making a recommendation. This back and forth is how an interviewee-led case will shape up.”

“Some consulting firms prefer to have interviewer-led case questions. The main difference is that the interviewer will ask the candidate questions and move the candidate through the case. For both formats, the candidate will need to be able to demonstrate self-confidence, communications skills, logical thinking processes, and business acumen.”

“There will always be data to analyze and there will also usually be a quantitative portion where math calculations will be necessary. For all data discussed during the case, the candidate should be able to articulate some insight about the data and also synthesize new data with the data from earlier in the case.”

“After discussing all of the relevant areas, the candidate will be expected to deliver an actionable recommendation and back it up with the data from the case. The candidate should also mention the key risks and mitigating factors, as well as mention some immediate next steps that should be taken should the client accept the recommendation.”

“Lastly, the candidate should be ready to defend the recommendation if challenged by the interviewer. However, if the interviewer points out legitimate shortcomings with the recommendation, the candidate should demonstrate the flexibility to acknowledge those shortcomings and state that those areas should have been addressed in the recommendation.”

 

Tips to tackle the case interview

Whatever the style, you would need to keep a cool head and focus on the case. Take the case interview as a business discussion. Listen carefully, and make sure that you have understood the case by asking relevant, concise, and clear questions. Outline your approach, which would show that you are purposeful.

Watch out for feedback signs from the interviewer, such as facial expression or body language, which could tell you whether you are on the right track or not even close. Try to buy time by repeating the facts about the case, which could also suggest to the interviewer that you understand it well.

Form a hypothesis only when you are certain that you have adequate information. Ensure that your hypothesis is based on the facts given. Be pragmatic, and ask yourself whether your recommendations are realistic and can be implemented.

Don’t make wild guesses, and don’t be flustered when presented with some new information. Take structured notes that are clear and coherent, so that you can refer to them and you don’t lose sight of the case information. But be wary of concentrating too much on writing things down lest you miss some of what the interviewer is saying. Polishing your mental math skills by learning a few shortcuts before going for an interview will enable you to solve some problems quickly.

Show that you are interested in the field and the firm by asking good questions. Ask about the interviewer and his/her professional background, experience with the firm, and the work that consultants do.

Wikihow gives tips on how to do well at case interviews. It says you need to realize that the interviewer would be impressed more by your knowledge of consultancy-related topics, such as economics, rather than your math skills. Try to understand the problem thoroughly and boldly ask for any clarifications that you might want.

See how the business has responded to its problem, and identify which of its responses were effective and which were not. Suggest alternative solutions, using data and calculations, to support your ideas. Speak about the changes that you would make, for example, in strategy and management, to implement the solutions that you have suggested.

It makes sense to use a simple problem-solving structure. Communicate your answers effectively. As the interviewer is not looking for the right answer as much as your approach to the problem and thinking process, keep communicating with him/her. Summarize, so that you can go over your key points and also are able to limit them to three to avoid confusing the interviewer about your main conclusions. Conclude by emphasizing your findings and solutions to show your understanding of the case.

Take the case interview as an actual problem-solving task at your workplace with the interviewer as your colleague; relax, and make your interview a fun experience.

Apart from your problem-solving skills, interviewers also try to assess your character and knowledge. They may try to pull your leg to see whether you lose your cool easily. They may try to behave rudely to see how you tackle stress. Hold your ground and respond with equanimity.
 

Practice makes a winner

Doing well at a case interview is no mean feat. There should be a lot of practice — some experts suggest spending 50 hours over six weeks. Devote some time to reading business sections of newspapers to know about the markets. Also go through business publications, especially those from Bain and Co., BCG, and McKinsey, to improve your business intuition.

Master your problem-solving skills before practicing case interviews or trying out mock interviews. Watch sample case-interviews available on YouTube, uploaded by consultancy firms, interview prep companies, vloggers, and b-schools (see our post Case study method: Why and how the best b-schools use it.).

Companies also have case-interview resources online: for example, BCG and Deloitte have interactive case libraries on their websites. The more you are familiar with the various types of business situations and case frameworks, the better you will be able to assess the interview question and provide a solution.

What if you only have four or five days to prepare? Cancel everything and focus on your preparation. This means you will be preparing ten hours a day. But get enough sleep, particularly on the night before the big day. Get a friend who can give you a case interview question and play the role of the interviewer.

It helps to research the firm that is interviewing you. Find out who its clients are and gather information about the clients’ businesses. Look back at your own experience for an example to narrate, and practice telling the story. Management consultancies put up information about their interview process online, including typical case interview questions. Familiarity with their procedures improves preparation and confidence. Pick up some acronyms and terms widely used in consultancy.

Management consultants meet top executives from a number of client companies, many of whom prefer formal, traditional attire. Turning up for an interview in informal clothes may not be a good idea. A dark, plain suit is often the best choice.

Here’s McKinsey’s advice to tackle its case interviews: “Practice case studies. Prepare with a friend. Then take a nice long run, meditate, or do anything that helps you feel calm, confident, and collected. If you feel nervous, remember that [by inviting you for a case interview] we [already] think you have what it takes to join McKinsey.”

Also read:
Management consulting vs Investment banking vs
How to become a management consultant at McKinsey, BCG, Bain
How I got into BCG and what I did in my consulting job
From an Ivy League MBA School to McKinsey
 
References: 1, 2, 3, 4, 5, 6, 7, 8, 9, 10, 11, 12, 13, 14


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Sameer Kamat //
Sameer Kamat
Founder of MBA Crystal Ball. Author of Beyond The MBA Hype & Business Doctors. Here's more about me. Connect with me on Google+ | Twitter | Facebook | Linkedin

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