Case competitions for students: Benefits and preparation tips

Case competitions for students

Colin Powell once said that the healthiest competition occurs when average people win by putting in above-average effort. The truth of this statement becomes obvious at most case competitions. Student participants taste victory by dint of their preparation and focus, not by their brilliance or genius alone.

Case competitions provide students a high-profile arena to come up with a solution to a real-world business problem. The problem could be related to an issue faced by the management of a company or the question of launch of a new business or revamp of an existing one.

The chief executive of the company and board members are often part of the panel of judges evaluating the student teams’ recommendations at case competitions. The audience almost always consist of other business leaders and the contestants’ peers.

Case competitions go back to the 1980s and 1990s. Among the oldest case competitions are those held by the University of Texas’s McCombs Schools of Business and the University of Virginia’s McIntire School of Commerce, both in the 1980s. The University of Washington’s Foster School of Business began its case competitions in the late 1990s.

Several competitions award $10,000 or more to the winners. Among the well-known competitions are the Harvard Case Competition; the National Investment Banking Competition; the John Molson MBA Case Competition; the KPMG International Case Competition; Asia Investment Banking Competition; McGill Management International Case Competition; the CFI Financial Modeling Competition; and Modeloff, to name a few.
 

Benefits of case competitions to students

How exactly do students participating in case competitions benefit? There are many takeaways. The students get to apply what they learned at school and show their talent to the audience and the panel of judges, which may consist of recruiters.

Case competitions give students a rare opportunity to impress the top officials of world-renowned organizations and catch their eye. They can work on real-world business problems and get feedback from top business leaders. The participating executives also get a chance to explore new talent.

According to an article in Financial Times, participants get a chance to demonstrate their problem-solving abilities to solve complex issues; create personal impact by working with team members and managing conflict; show leadership to build consensus; prove their motivation to achieve results; and develop their presentation skills that help for future business scenarios.

Networking is another major benefit, as teams from various business schools and reputed universities, besides company representatives, attend the competition. Students see the different presentation styles used by their peers and assess their own positive and negative points. Case competitions also help them make career decisions: what about the events did they enjoy and what not? Would they like to do a similar line of work in the world of finance?

The more tangible results may include prize money for the team, which they could use as the seed capital to launch a new business venture; an internship with the company sponsoring the competition; and even a job interview with the sponsor. Students will also be able to speak about the experience of having participated in a case competition at job interviews later.

Even teams that don’t win from these high-pressure, high-stake situations benefit. The team members find out why they lost, prepare afresh, and are back, new and improved, the next year. The competitions cultivate a problem-solving brain for all students.
 

 
MBA Crystal Ball reached out to the Owen Graduate School of Management (Vanderbilt University) to find out what incentivizes students to participate in case competitions. Here’s what Todd Rothman (Director, Office of Academic & Student Affairs) shared with us.

Case competitions for students Case competitions can play an important role in career preparation. They often provide pre-internship experience that can narrow down the sort of internship that might ultimately be a good fit.

They can also provide valuable and relevant talking points for interviews, especially with questions centered on team-based problem-solving.

Finally, case competitions provide preparation for internships, as the competition itself generally involves working collaboratively with a diverse team to analyze an ambiguous problem and present a recommendation. This is good practice for many careers.

There is also a strong networking component to case competitions, as many are sponsored by leading companies (e.g. TCU PepsiCo Case Competition and Deloitte’s National Case Competition).

Participating in one of these competitions gives additional touchpoints with the sponsoring company, potentially giving a leg up for recruiting.

Case competitions, of course, also provide the networking opportunity to interact with students from other leading MBA programs.

The TCU competition, for example, pairs together students from different business schools; the winning team this year had students from TCU, Rice, SMU, and Vanderbilt.

Team-building is also a compelling incentive for participating in case competitions, as it is an exceedingly positive and productive way for MBA students to build solid relationships with their peers early on.

 

Rules and judging criteria for case competitions

Many rules govern case competitions, and a respondent on Quora simplifies the judging criteria as Logic (15 percent); Analyses (25 percent); Recommendation (20 percent); Q&A (15 percent); Presentation (15 percent); and Teamwork (10 percent).

About Logic, the team that separates the problem into logical parts and uses a structured problem-solving process gets the highest marks. As for Analyses, the team that uses the appropriate decision-making processes and frameworks, uses available data, takes into account developments in the particular sector, does strong research, and acknowledges the sensitivity of assumptions may be adjudged the best.

The best marks under Recommendation go to the team that answers the case question/problem with a clear yes or no, and bases strategy on the availability of funds and time. The top Q&A marks go to the team that gives clear and well-considered answers to questions and defends their recommendations based on evidence.

The highest presentation marks are awarded to the team that uses a logical storyline, progresses at a steady pace, uses clear and informative slides, and ensures good coordination between the presenters to provide a professional presentation.
 

Types of case competitions

Among the types of case competitions are finance modeling, where contestants build an Excel framework to analyze and evaluate a business; consulting, where they use management strategies to resolve a problem; investment banking, where they resolve issues about mergers and acquisitions or pitch long and short investment ideas; research, where they study a topics from science to humanities in depth; and data analysis, where they analyze information they have found based on their research.
 

Case competitions for undergraduates

Among the top case competitions for undergraduates are the National Investment Banking Competition, the Global Case Competition at Harvard, the KPMG International Case Competition, the McGill Management International Case Competition, and the CFI Financial Modeling Case Competition.

The John Molson Undergraduate Case Competition is another contest that fosters strategic thinking, innovating problem-solving, and sound decision-making among its MBA undergraduates at its competitions.

The Kellogg Morgan Stanley Sustainable Investing Challenges provides a chance to students to apply core financial principles to resolve economic, social, and environmental challenges in the field of sustainable investing.

The CBS Case Competition Open is open to all students and aims at helping them push their own boundaries for their personality development. The topic is usually a live company case that the participating teams have to solve.

The Engineering and Commerce Case Competition, held in Montreal, Canada, are for students from Commerce/Engineering steams.
 

List of top case competitions for undergraduates*

Competition Country Organizer Teams Inaugural year
McIntire International US University of Virginia 6 1982
Marshall International US University of Southern California 20 1997
Global Business US University of Washington 15 1999
McGill Management International Canada McGill University 12 2001
CBS Denmark Copenhagen Business School 12 2002
Citi International Hong Kong HKUST 20 2003
Case IT MIS Canada Beedie School of Business 20 2004
Thammasat UG Business Challenge Thailand Thammasat University 16 2007
Asian Business Singapore Nanyang Technological University 12 2007
Champions Trophy New Zealand University of Auckland 12 2008
John Molson UG Canada John Molson School of Business 20 2009
NUS Singapore National University of Singapore 20 2009

Source: Wikipedia
 

Case competitions for MBA students

For MBA students, competitions may involve functional cases, where the case question may relate to any one domain, such as marketing, operations, finance, or HR.

Strategic case competitions challenge MBA students to look at organizational problems from the point of view of senior executives.

Descriptive or illustrative case competitions provide a problem that was faced by a company and the results that followed the steps taken by the top leadership.

The case competition participants are expected to present why those steps were taken and how the management may have implemented their decisions. In the case of a poor result from the steps, the students have to find out what alternative strategies could have been taken.

Exploratory case competitions are done on a smaller scale to find out the basic questions to explore the various aspects of a case that need further study.

Collective or multiple-case competitions make use of studies that have been done on many cases in an organization and the launch of a new study to find a solution to a basic organizational problem.

Critical-instance cases also use data from various cases done over time, but use the solutions already found to resolve one specific issue.

Among the top annual case competitions for MBA students are the Deloitte National Case Competition at Deloitte University, Texas; Kellogg Biotech and Healthcare Case Competition, Northwestern University Kellogg School of Management, Evanston, Illinois; National MBA Human Capital Case Competition, Vanderbilt University Owen School, Nashville, Tennessee; Biopharma MBA Case Competition, Rutgers University, New Jersey; BNY Mellon Katz Invitational Case Competition, Pittsburg Katz; and the CASE, MIT Center for Real Estate Alumni Association (all graduate students).
 

List of top case competitions for graduates / MBA students / mixed

Competition Country Organizer Teams
John Molson MBA International (since 1981) Canada John Molson School of Business 36
Japan MBA Japan Tokyo-based MBA programs 9
International Graduate Competition Canada HEC Montreal 8
Deloitte MBA National Case Competition US Deloitte University 16
RMA Credit Risk (graduate) Canada Sobey School of Business 8
WBS Case Challenge UK Warwick Business School 8, MBA, graduate
Global Case Competition at Harvard US Harvard University 200, mixed, UG/Graduate
KPMG International International KPMG 5,000, mixed, UG/G
Modeloff International US Professional *Services Champion League Mixed, UG/G
Oliver Wyman Iberia Spain Oliver Wyman 150, graduate
Pitt Health Innovation US University of Pittsburgh 12, graduate
Purdue Human Capital US Krannert School of Management 9, graduate
RSM Private Equity Competition Netherlands Rotterdam School of Management, Erasmus University 18, graduate
Schulich International Canada Schulich School of Business 9, graduate
National Investment Banking Competition Canada National Investment Banking Competition and Conference 48-64, mixed
CFI Financial Modeling Case Competition Corporate Finance Institute Mixed

Source: Wikipedia
 
 

How does it work?

Here’s an example: In the CBS (Copenhagen Business School) Case Competition 2015, 12 teams of four members each were divided into three groups of A, B, and C. From Group A, McGill, Canada, were the winners, from Group B Thammasat University, Thailand, and from Group C Wharton, US. In all, 48 students of 11 nationalities participated in the competition.

The case problem was how to increase the passenger traffic in the DBS, the Danish railway system. The three group winners took the stage at the finale, and presented their key finding and recommendations. Each presentation was followed by a Q&A session, where team members took questions from the audience.

After the presentations, the vote for the best presenter was taken. The audience voted for and nominated one presenter from each of the three teams. From among the three nominees, one presenter, from Thammasat, was chosen for the Best Presenter Award. McGill was adjudged the winner of the case competition.
 

Examples of cases in competitions

 

Sample Question 1

A clothing retailer, who has 15 stores in shopping malls in cities and suburban areas, has been experiencing a slowdown in profitability over the past few years, particularly in the city areas. Total revenue from the stores in cities has declined despite back-end cost savings. You have been hired to increase the retailer’s profitability.

Key findings

The consumer behavior in cities is different from that in suburban areas. The city stores are not catering to the demographics of their surroundings. Unnecessary costs are being incurred through accumulation of inventory and lost shop-floor space.

Recommendations

Analyze customers in each store; choose a product mix and inventory according to customer demographics and income; consider closing down stores that cannot sustain business.
 

Sample Question 2

A travel agency, Travelbug, makes 10 percent commission in all its bookings. The current profit is $1 million compared with the average in the industry of $2 million to $3.5 million. What is wrong with Travelbug?

Key findings

Travelbug’s leisure travel business is draining its profitability: the cost per transaction is too high or the revenue from it too low.

Recommendations

Study the cost structure of other travel agencies. Negotiate a premium on leisure travel tickets with airlines. Reduce cost per transaction of leisure travel. Offer leisure travelers other products such as hotel bookings to increase revenue. In the long term, become a niche agency for business travel.
 

How to prepare for case competitions

Among the best books available are “Case in Point: Case Competition: Creating Winning Strategy Presentations for Case Competitions and Job Offers,” by Marc P. Cosentino, et al., published in October 2017. “Case Interview Secrets” by Victor Cheng also gives you tips. Among other resources are the “Case Study Handbook” by William Ellet and “How to Avoid Getting Lost in Numbers” by David A. Maister. Also see References Nos. 13, 14, and 15, below.

An HBR article provides tips on sharpening your presentations skills, which could come in handy for case competitions, too: https://hbr.org/2013/06/how-to-give-a-killer-presentation.

The website thecasecentre.org provides a list of various case competitions and their details.

In Case Competition 101, Purdue University’s video (link) tells you how to prepare for case competitions and explains the practical uses of SWOT, Porter’s 5, and PEST/PESTEL models in case competitions. BCG’s ‘Win with BCG’ (link) and CBS Competition Finale 2015 are useful overviews. Video footage of other top case competitions are also available, and easily searchable, on YouTube.
 

 

Tips to win case competitions

 
If you plan to participate in a case competition, here are a few tips:

  1. Practice hard; not only your presentation but also your research skills.
  2. Do online research of cases and study them. Go to YouTube and watch case competitions.
  3. Get hold of former participants of case competitions to know what went well and what didn’t for them.
  4. Pick a well-balanced team with each participant skilled in one domain such as HR, marketing, operations, or finance.
  5. Learn more about the company sponsoring the competition and the judges for the event and try to predict the questions for the competition. If you know the types of questions, you can assign the team members to work on the part of the case most suitable to them.
  6. Avoid contradicting or criticizing the sponsor management’s policies.
  7. Ensure a logical storyline with appropriate computer slides. Give the responsibility of handling the computer slides to only one person at a time to avoid confusion.
  8. Let the best speakers open your team’s presentation.

 
Also read:
How the case study method works in business schools
Case interview sample question and answer tips
How to prepare for case interviews
 
References: 1, 2, 3, 4, 5, 6, 7, 8, 9, 10, 11, 12, 13, 14, 15, 16, 17, 18


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