An Introduction To Case Interviews
WHAT ARE CASE INTERVIEWS
A la Wikipedia, a case interview is a type of “job interview in which the applicant is presented with a challenging business scenario that he/she must investigate and propose a solution. Case interviews are designed to test the candidate's analytical skills and ‘soft’ skills within a realistic business context. The case is often a business situation or a business case that the interviewer has worked on in real life.”
You are essentially tasked with helping a ‘simulated’ client solve a pressing business problem, whether it is helping reverse the company’s decline in profitability or evaluating whether or not it should enter a new market or product category.
There are two main types of case interviews to look out for:
INTERVIEWEE-LED: Used mostly by BCG, in this case format the interviewee is expected to drive most of the direction and structure of the case. You will then lead your interviewer through the structure you have created, asking questions and constantly generating new hypotheses; the interviewer will entertain these notions, and provide data when you begin asking the right questions/suggesting the right hypotheses. This format, in my opinion, is more difficult, as your initial structure and ability to ask insightful questions must be spot-on.
INTERVIEWER-LED: Used mostly by McKinsey, Deloitte, and most others, in this case format the interviewer sets up the entirety of the direction of the case. In this scenario, the interviewer has a specific set of questions that they want you to address. Thus, even if you start off strong with a superb framework + structure, the interviewer will disregard it if it doesn’t follow the pre-determined flow of the case. This doesn’t mean you did it wrong, though! Interviewers won’t expect you to be omniscient and accurately predict the precise direction of the case.
HYBRID MODEL: Some firms - like Accenture and Bain - employ a more hybridized approach to casing. In my personal experience, I’ve found McKinsey and BCG to stick to their interviewer/interviewee approaches (respectively) in both the first and final rounds of interviews. However, Accenture and Bain tend to mix it up; first round interviews tend to be more interviewer-led, and final round interviews generally showcase more interviewee-led cases. In other words, be prepared to study both styles if you intend to apply to all the consulting firms!
There are also “take-home” cases that are completed over a certain period of time (where you will be given a business memo, additional materials/data to examine, and a couple of days to build a PowerPoint and present your findings), as well as “group cases” where you solve a case with, well, a group of other candidates. These are becoming less and less common (especially “group cases”), though take-home cases are relatively common for roles in Middle Market Banking, Quantitative Analytics, etc.
Regardless of interview style, there are five core elements to acing the case:
Asking the right questions — at the start of the case, your mission is to ask insightful questions that will reveal relevant data, information, and context. These will help you understand the scope and direction of the case, and guide you towards the case’s (often times) pre-determined solution.
Setting up the framework / structure — you’ve obtained all the facts and clarifying details, now you need to tailor a framework that will initially outline the steps needed to take in order to crack the case. This structure will guide your analysis throughout the case interview, and evaluates your ability to distill complex issues into their smallest, simplest, most essential elements.
Developing your hypothesis — now that you have a framework, you should begin to have an idea of where the case is heading towards. Using your educated guess, you begin to theorize where the root of the problem lies, and you ask for data / information that will either validate or invalidate your hypotheses.
Testing your hypothesis — upon asking for additional data, if you hit the right notes the interviewer will oblige. You will be given verbal cues, graphs and data visualizations, budget reports, and other materials that will help guide your analysis further. And upon analyzing this information, you will begin to iterate your initial hypothesis and reach a rigorously tailored, data-driven solution.
Synthesizing your recommendation — at the very end of the case, you will need to synthesize - or combine - all relevant case findings into a neat, concise 30 seconds to 1 minute final recommendation. This is essentially your deliverable to your client — your analysis is your product and the company’s brand, so you need to be not only comprehensive and concise but also actionable and insightful.
While every case is different, these 5 elements are what your interviewer will be scoring you on. More specifically, below is a basic “anatomy” of a case.
While not every case follows this structure, loosely speaking this anatomy is a decent outline of what you can expect to tackle throughout the case interview process. There are 8 parts - with the beginning and end of the case being the most critical - but don't be worried if you're confused! In subsequent posts we will cover each section in-depth and provide you best practices, tips, and tricks for cracking the case at every corner.
The Background [Part Three] — Here, the interviewer will lay out the key context of the case. They will will provide key background information, such as the client, industry, strategic problem faced (re: declining profitability, entering a new market, etc.) and any other relevant market or contextual information. Your job is to take good notes and make sure you understand the client’s key problem.
The Recap [Part Three] — It's your turn to speak, and it’s imperative you make the first impression count. A recommended intro could sound something like, “Thanks for the background! My understanding of the fact so far are…” then proceed to quickly recap key issues (re: reframe question in ten seconds or less).
Case + Objective Clarification [Part Three] — after your recap, if you didn’t catch something you think was material in the background, now is the time to ask for it. For instance, if you don’t understand how the company makes money (e.g. manufacturer, distributor, or retailer), ask for clarification. If you don’t know how the industry works, you should also ask — they don’t expect college students to know all the nitty-gritty details. You can also ask if the client has any other objectives to look out for, but usually your interviewer will be upfront about the client’s goals.
The Pause [Part Four] — At this point, you should have a strong understanding of the case and what is being asked of you. You can now take anywhere from 30 seconds to 2 minutes to prepare your initial structure and framework (re: your game plan). Ask “Do you mind if I take a moment to structure my thoughts," and don't specify how long you’re going to take. While you’re writing down your framework, you can also verbalize them aloud. This helps the interviewer understand your thought process, and they can correct you if you’re going off-course. That being said, here’s how I personally handle “the pause.” There are essentially 3-5 frameworks I always have in the back of my mind that I can apply to virtually any case, and by the time I hear the case I know which framework I’m going to use. From the get-go, I just walk my interviewer through my initial framework, and then as I drill two levels deeper into my structure I begin tailoring it for the case at hand. In other words, I don’t really use “the pause”; I just start. This takes a lot of practice, though, so I recommend using “the pause” until you’re comfortable adapting frameworks on the go. Speaking of frameworks…
The Game Plan [Part Four] — Often considered by interviewers to be the most important part of the case, your game plan is basically your “framework,” or approach to solving the case. Your response should start with “I’d like to look at X key areas,” which should include ~3 main points verbally delineated into 2 levels of analysis. Your game plan should conclude with an overall hypothesis that you will test throughout the case. This should take 1-2 minutes.
Quantitative Questions [Part Five] — Ah yes, the college student’s mortal enemy: basic math. In this section of the case, interviewers will be testing your ability to numerically reason. How many diapers are sold per year in the United States? How many Corona beer’s would have been sold in the United States had Coronavirus not happened? These are the kinds of questions that will be thrown your way — there is no way for a real-life consultant to solve a case without using data, and this part of the case interview essentially tests your aptitude for numbers and quantitive reasoning. You may also be asked to interpret data (re: graphs, charts, and tables) and communicate what they mean for the client and their ultimate objective(s).
Creative Questions [Part Six] — framed as questions like “What do you think are the key drivers of X,” “What do you think are likely reasons that customers would be purchasing less of Y,” or “What are a few options the company should pursue,” the interviewer is looking for you to respond with creative yet reasonable solutions. The key is to demonstrate an appropriate mix of creativity and structure. This is the area where candidates can most easily stand out — there is no formula for creativity.
Concluding the Case + Next Steps [Part Seven] — at this point, you may or may not have reached the natural conclusion of the case. Whether you’re out of time or because you’ve exhausted all possible issues, the interviewer - within 30-35 minutes - will prompt you to summarize the case. Very very rarely will they allow you time to prepare a response; for the most part, however, you will have to synthesize the case immediately. Typically, the way your interviewer will phrase this is: “The CEO of ABC has just walked into the room, and wants to know your findings. How do you respond?”
In this real-life scenario, you can’t just sheepishly grin and ask the CEO to wait for a couple of minutes while you take out your laptop and wait for ten minutes for PowerPoint to load up your +200 slides of fancy infographics and charts. You must be fully prepared to dive into the answer without reviewing your notes. The interviewer is thus assessing your ability to synthesize and reach a data-driven recommendation/solution.
They are also looking for you to propose next steps — the case by no means is comprehensive, and by the end of it you should be left with more questions than answers. Next steps can include an expansion of a certain analysis you did (re: we looked at this customer segment, but what about X, Y, or Z), or implementation (re: how do we actually implement our recommendation), or risk assessment and mitigation (re: what are the risks of our strategy, and what steps can we take to mitigate them).
Offering next steps is key, and most candidates - because they’re so excited to finally finish the case - tend to gloss this step over.
WHY ARE CASE INTERVIEWS A THING
Without a doubt, for most (sane) people the case interview is the most stressful part of the consulting recruiting process. So… why are consulting firms like this?
Having been on both ends of the casing process - being interviewed as well as being on the other side interviewing candidates - I can tell you two reasons why casing is a thing.
First, we have the ‘professional’ side of the story. Consulting firms use case interviews to evaluate how well candidates will perform on the job. Casing essentially follows the work flow of what a consultant does - come in, listen to the client, take notes, collect data, then come guns blazing solving the problem. Consistently acing cases signals to your interviewers that you can solve leverage your analytical skills, logical reasoning, business savvy, and creativity to ask insightful questions, identify key drivers and problem components, draw meaningful conclusions, and solve challenging problems.
Case interviews also demonstrate your communication skills. Consulting inherently values presentation - everything must be shiny and perfect, and that includes you and your interviewing delivery. Even first year analysts are expected to present in front of clients - many of whom are high-profile executives and industry leaders. The case therefore demonstrate your composure, confidence, and grace under pressure.
That being said, there are a number of reasons - that, suffice to say, you won’t find on most company’s websites and consulting preparation blogs - why casing is the de facto method of interviewing for consulting firms.
For starters, the case interview is - at best - a very generous, high level abstraction of what consultants do. You see, for the most part, as a junior analyst you will NOT be driving the strategy and/or analysis for a project. And you personally won’t be suggesting to Google that they enter XYZ market or launch ABC product. Chances are, the strategy and solution have already been determined by the time you roll on to the project.
Your role, therefore, is to collect and analyze data in order to prove your team’s initial hypothesis. Oh, and decking. Lots and lots of decking (to prove and now - oh boy - sell your team’s initial hypothesis).
More importantly, the case interview demonstrates how candidates perform under incredible pressure and stress. At the end of the day, consultants and partners will only select candidates who they connect with, who they like. This is an incredibly underrated aspect of recruiting that is often poorly understood by students.
It’s not about being the smartest in the room. It’s about being the most liked.
Remember the “Airport Rule.” If your interviewer wouldn’t mind being stuck in an airport with you for a couple of hours while y’all wait for your delayed flight (no, seriously, be prepared for this if you enter consulting), then you’ve seriously made it. Believe it or not, but case interviews are supposed to be a fun experience. You’re supposed to have fun, and so is your interviewer; if you and your interviewer are mutually miserable by the end of your case interview, then how would they enjoy working alongside you on the real deal?
Case interviews are also quick and easy to implement. They don’t fully test your professional fit in most dimensions of the consulting role, but they rapidly allow interviewers to evaluate your ability to perform under pressure, communicate under duress, and highlight your ability to remember profit is revenues minus expenses (and other silly frameworks a monkey can be trained to write down).
If all this doesn’t make sense to you yet — DON’T WORRY (yet)!
We’re just getting started, and in the next section I’ll run you through the kinds of questions you can expect in a case interview.
How The Case Works
You’re sitting across your interviewer, beads of sweat rolling down your face. They smile at you (re: internally cackling in excitement to see you spectacularly screw up).
He/she gives you a few sheets of paper and a pencil/pen, and asks if you’re ready. You say yes. You both take a deep breath, and then they begin the case:
Our client is Cupid, a successful subscription-based online dating agency. They currently operate exclusively in the US market, where they are the market leader. Cupid is considering entering the online dating market in Asia. What are the main factors that they should consider?
“Holy $hit,” you may be thinking to yourself. “Where do I even start???”
Before you know it, they begin rapid-fire asking you more and more questions:
How would you estimate the size of the APAC (re: Asian-Pacific) online dating market? What does this tell us so far about the attractiveness of the market for Cupid? What else do we need to think about?
* Shows graph* What comes to mind when you look at this data?
What country/region in APAC should Cupid enter first?
How would you advise Cupid to go about launching their go-to-market strategy?
What recommendations would you make to Cupid’s management team?
In 30-35 minutes, you’ve finished the case and have proceeded to unceremoniously dissolve into an indiscernible puddle of sweat and tears.
Casing is hard, yo.
So before you get lost in the case sauce, here are a few quick tips and tricks.
Further -- if you're new to casing and consulting in general, read the books in our consulting prep resources Google Drive and read all of our posts on casing and consulting interviews!
When taking notes, take notes in short-hand. Don’t write the entire prompt down, or memorize what the interviewer is saying. Collect just the key facts — client name, industry, numbers/metrics, problems, and objectives/goals.
When clarifying the facts of the case, it may be useful to ask for: more numbers (re: current company size/revenues/costs, past company size/revenues/cost, data on competitors, data on the market, etc.), more industry details (re: how does the industry work, business model, competitor business models, consumer behaviors and how they’ve changed/stayed the same, etc.).
When given data, it’s critical to look at trends and how performance has changed over time. You can ask for projections – not only focusing on where the numbers were, but also on where they are going (re: future growth, etc.).
When given data, it’s also critical to keep things relative. How does our client’s performance shape up compared to its competitors’, or industry averages? This will help you understand if the problem is client-specific or industry-wide.
Segmentation is critical. You will never reach the answer by examining average “customers”; examine specific customer segments, examine revenue declines by product/service segments, etc. You can not assume all customer or product segments have been impacted in the same way.
Ask for time when you need it – don’t take longer than two minutes, time is key.
Always take the interviewer’s advice – they know the answer, and if they are telling you you’re wrong (re: they hit you with the “are you sure about that,” “what else should we consider,” “I think we should double-check on that,” etc.)… then you’re off-course and they’re throwing you a life line.
Mistakes are okay! There is no way for you to be 100% perfect in 100% of the cases you go through. That being said, not learning from your mistakes is the gravest sin of all. If your interviewer corrects you or makes a suggestion — take it, and learn from it! Your ability to deal with pressure - to not be defensive and rather be humble and respectful - is what is being evaluated, not just being “perfect” and effortlessly cracking the case.
I hope you enjoyed this post, and if you want to learn more check out our content on developing frameworks, answering market sizing questions, forming a bullet-proof synthesis, and much, much more!