A Guide to The Synthesis/Recommendation in Case Interviews
I can not understate how critical your synthesis is to acing the case.
This is your final impression, your last stand. The synthesis can make or break your case — a good one can save even a disastrous interview. But conversely, a disastrous synthesis can eliminate your chances of moving on to the next stage - or converting your super day into an offer - even if everything else was spotless.
Thankfully, the synthesis can be drilled down to a science. While other parts of the case - especially the framework/hypothesis stage, market sizing, and creative questions - can be a bit more of “art” than “science,” there are many concrete best practices at your disposal when you think about outlining, and ultimately communicating, your final recommendation.
Anatomy of a Synthesis / Recommendation
FIRST: Quickly play back the case question to the interviewer. Demonstrate that you know what the client’s main objective is. This should only take 1 sentence.
SECOND: Immediately provide a clear + concise recommendation OR finding (depending on what the primary objective is). Ideally, this only takes 1 sentence (re: less than 10 seconds), unless there are 2 key objectives (which is possible, especially for profitability cases). A good synthesis always starts with an answer, not analysis.
THIRD: List 3 supporting points that backup your conclusion. A standard case typically has 3-8 sub-questions, each corresponding to the findings and analysis you conducted throughout the case interview. If you have more than 3 possible arguments, pick the 3 that are strongest (re: most relevant). Your points should feel more like bullet points than paragraphs, and a good rule-of-thumb is to have your supporting arguments follow the wording of your initial framework (re: first, we identified that this is a good market because XYZ — second, we analyzed how we can succeed in this market — third, we determined how we should enter this market, vice versa).
FOURTH: Conclude with next steps, which can either be practical next steps to implement your recommendation(s), identification of risks, and/or additional research to clarify what’s missing or further validate your recommendation. This is the most slept-on part of the synthesis — people often think the synthesis is just a recommendation, but it’s not. In the span of 30 minutes there is no conceivable way you solved all the client’s problems — this is intentional, as your interviewers purposely designed a case that is not meant to be completed by the end of the interview.
In real consulting projects, your work is constantly punctuated by “next steps,” and you are constantly validating your hypotheses by collecting more and more data, iterating your findings, and strengthening your quantitative + qualitative analysis. Missing this note will likely lead to you getting dinged, even in the first round.
Often times, first round interviews tend to be more lenient. A common piece of advice given to interviewees is to refine their synthesis and include risks/next steps. If you glossed over this in your first round but were extended a final round invitation, you can not miss this step again. If you do, you will not land the offer.
Sample Syntheses / Final Recommendations
Let’s go back to some of the cases earlier in this newsletter. Remember Chris’ Clothes? We took a look at their revenues and expenses over the past 5 years in bar graph form. Let’s say we’re wrapping up the case — here’s a sample of how (Prompt: Chris' Clothes has been experiencing declining profits over the past 5 years, and wants to reverse their financial situation):
Chris' Clothes is unprofitable largely due to exponential decreases in costs, specifically in marketing and promotion. Based on our findings, we thus recommend cutting ineffective marketing strategies, such as traditional (and expensive), promotion tactics (re: tv and print advertising).
First, as you can see in Exhibit 1, costs have increased twice as fast as sales over the past 5 years. Second, we took a deeper dive into Chris Clothes’ costs, and have found that fixed costs - as compared to variable costs - have skyrocketed in the same time frame. Third and finally, upon drilling deeper into fixed costs, we can see that spending on marketing has drastically increased. ROM (return on marketing) has actually decreased, as increased spending on marketing has not resulted in a corresponding increase in sales.
With all this said, for next steps I suggest we immediately look into cost-effective marketing strategies. Some avenues for exploration include social media and how we can deliver targeted ads to target customers (instead of paying for generalized, expensive television ads that blanket the airwaves).
One risk to consider, however, is brand leakage due to our new social media presence (re: companies active on social media are more open to customer scrutiny and therefore more likely to suffer from customer fall-out, so we need a dedicated + experienced social media team). Another risk to consider is how our client will perceive this recommendation — while finance might be overjoyed to cut costs, the marketing team will be unhappy that it’s budget is being cut (and re-allocated to a different team, like social media).
Along with developing cost-effective marketing strategies, I believe we should also hold more meetings with Chris Clothes’ marketing team, evaluate if there’s an opportunity for social media marketing, and see if we can get everybody on board with our proposal before we fully commit to any one plan.
How does this sound?
This is one of the longer syntheses, and sometimes you need to be a bit more brief — for questions that have more than on key objective, it’s okay to have a longer conclusion.
However, if your case is a bit more clear-cut, then your synthesis should be ~ 30 seconds as opposed to 1 minute and 30 seconds. Here is an example of a more ‘tight’ synthesis:
XYZ [client] should acquire ABC. First, ABC operates in a fantastic market with little to no competitors, and has also been growing 15% for the past 5 years (*points to graph that communicates this finding). Second, ABC consistently launches new, popular products that generate excitement from Gen Z’ers, an increasingly critical customer segment. Third, the synergies outweigh the risks — soft synergies include a merging of best practices in R&D from ABC and sales and marketing from XYZ, as well as hard synergies such as reduced headcount and shared IT systems and facilities. Some risks to consider, however, is post-merger integration and potential loss of valuable talent. Some employees at ABC may not be happy with such rapid change — for next steps, I therefore suggest working with XYZ and ABC to craft a comprehensive memo that communicates the rationale for the acquisition and how the acquisition can benefit key ABC employees. How does this sound to you?
Just as your first impression is key, so is your last one.
Interviewers' perceptions of candidates are largely driven by two things: how the candidate initially introduced themselves, and how they concluded the interview. It's human nature to more easily remember the beginning and end of an event.
So remember this --- a strong synthesis is crucial to passing the case. And a weak one will sink it.