Case Interview: Complete Prep Guide

The case interview: it’s the ultimate test of strategy and executive communication for the management consulting industry. When I first checked out how to become a consultant, I quickly discovered that the consulting case interview is a beast unlike any other. 

To approach management consulting case interviews, you need 3 basic things:

  • You should be structured and use frameworks, but not overly structured.
  • You need to practice for the interviews in advance.
  • You must be comfortable with mental math.

True, true and true again. However, it’s essential to go beyond basics when preparing for case interviews. During consulting recruiting, your case interview performance drives around 80% of the first round pass/fail score and around 50% of the second round scoring, when a hiring decision is on the line. 

Case Interview, case interview Prep Guide,

Table of Contents:

In this article, we’ll cover the following critical points to put you in the best position possible to excel in management consulting interviews: (Click to jump to section.)

Case Interview 101

  1. What Is A Case Interview? – With a full understanding of the case interview process, you’ll avoid early prep mistakes.
  2. Case Interview Process – Know what you’re getting yourself into and what to expect.
  3. Case Interview Frameworks – The 3 major case interview frameworks, 3 bonus frameworks, and a word of caution on robotic case interview structures.
  4. Mental Math for Case Interviews – You were probably better at mental math in 7th grade than you are now. Brush up on your skills to ensure you can ace the interview.
  5. Case Interview Examples – See what real consulting applicants experienced during the case interview process.
  6. Case Interview Prep – Ordered steps to prepare for your management consulting interview.

Case Interview 102

  1. What are Firms Looking for in Interviews? – First step: practice for case interviews to proficiently break down problems. Second step: Identify your X-Factor.
  2. Case Interview Differences at the “Big 3” or “MBB” (McKinsey, Bain, BCG) – How do you stand out to be the best of the best?
  3. How to Crack the Case Like a Real Consultant – Bring it all together.
  4. Case Interview Tips: Execution – The day of the interview has arrived. You’re prepared – but what else can you do to optimize performance?
  5. Top Case Interview Videos – We have a bomb YouTube channel about case interviews. Here are our top picks.
  6. Virtual Case Interviews and MoreWhat do you do when you run across a virtual, chatbot, presentation, or group case interview? We have answers.

What Is A Case Interview?

Research a career in management consulting, and the case interview is THE issue. But if this is your first exposure to a case interview, you are probably wondering: what is it really like?

In short, the case interview is a critical piece of the hiring process. Applicants have to solve real-world problems live with an interviewer. The cases mimic the kinds of scenarios consultants work with daily – in fact, most are pulled directly from real-life client experiences. 

The case typically consists of a problem or situation faced by an organization (company, NGO, or government agency). Applicants are given the problem verbally, and in a set amount of time must analyze the case, determine what data is needed, ask for the data, compute potential scenarios, and deliver a presentation on that solution.

While there is also a behavioral portion to the consultant hiring process, the case interview is the most significant filter. It’s make or break, and at firms like McKinsey it’s mostly break – under 10% of interviewees get an offer. 

We’ve compiled a Complete Prep Guide to make sure you make it – no breaking here! Our in-depth preview of what to expect from the interview will help you know how to demonstrate you’re ready to be hired as a consultant.

Case Interview Process

Now you know what the case interview is, but that still doesn’t tell you what to expect in a case study interview. There are small variations between firms, but generally the case interview portion of the hiring process is quite consistent across the industry.

A typical new hire goes through 4-6 interviews in total, which are usually divided into two rounds occurring on separate days. (Superdays, with Round 1 in the morning and Round 2 in the afternoon of the same day, are possible but less common in consulting than in banking.) The interviews are each 30-60 minutes long. 

The first 5-15 minutes of each consulting interview are usually spent on a “Fit Interview.” In the fit interview, the firm’s screener/s—usually consultants themselves—ask you a variety of questions to better understand your sense of motivation, leadership, teamwork, and your general fit for the company.

After the fit interview, you’ll go straight into the case interview, which usually lasts 20-40 minutes. We’ll go into the 8 parts of a case interview in just a bit, but here is a kickstart:

  • Capture the problem (take notes and ensure you understand it)
  • Plan your attack and share your plan
  • Ask for data and compute answers based on what you get
  • Provide a recommendation

Sound easy? Read on.

There are important differences between the first and the second round of case interviews. The first round tests you on a variety of general skills, including time management. In most interviews, you have only 20 minutes – and the firms usually reject 75% of applicants in this round because they can’t digest and solve a problem in a short time. 

In the second round, the material requires deeper analysis and applicants work with more senior interviewers. Further, interviewers in the second round sometimes play the role of “bad cop” or “devil’s advocate” along the way, asking you to rethink your methods and offering potentially misleading information to make your task more difficult and test conviction. If you want a more in depth understanding of this, check out our article: “Structure of Three Case Interview Rounds“.

While the case interview is consistently challenging, firms do add nuance and individuality to the overall consulting interview process. Here are some exceptions: 

  • Most fit interviews are part of the overall interviews, but some fit interviews can be totally separate from case interviews and facilitated by different interviewers. 
  • Most case interviews are completed 1:1 with an interviewer, but some case interviews situate applicants in teams instead of working independently.
  • Most case interviews are live and presented verbally, but for some you get a packet either overnight or for 1-3 hours prior to the interview and result in a presentation. 

The good news? Prepping for a traditional out-loud case interview will ensure you are ready for all exceptions to the rules.

Case Interview Frameworks

Case interview frameworks give you a helpful starting point to solving the case interview. These frameworks offer a systematic way to approach different kinds of business problems. 

Case frameworks, however, are wildly misunderstood. Your goal is not to memorize a million frameworks and then apply the “right” framework to a particular problem.

The goal is to memorize a handful of core frameworks to give yourself a mental repository of categories that you can pick and choose from to create your own custom framework for the problem you’re facing.

Some frameworks will take a look at in this next section:

  • The “market entry framework” to help you decide if a client should enter a new market
  • The Victor Cheng case interview framework – Cheng took the well-known 3 C’s framework (which stands for Company, Customers, and Competition) and added Products as a fourth category of consideration.

For an even deeper dive into frameworks, read our Ultimate Guide to Frameworks.

Market Entry Framework

Consultants often help clients decide whether to enter new markets. Therefore, you will see a scenario in your case interview where a market entry question is being proposed.

The market entry framework is the general framework for dealing with this kind of scenario. Relevant factors often include the situation of the market being entered, the state of the competition, and the process & strategy of first entering the market.


Market study framework

Profitability Framework

Maximizing profits is the essential purpose of any company or enterprise, and is an important consideration for non-profit and government organizations as well. 100% of consulting projects are bottom-line related, and thus many case interview questions involve considering ways to improve profitability. 

The profitability framework is a basic approach for analyzing profit problems. There are always a variety of drivers to examine, but the first step is to separate cost and revenue. A deeper look into the profitability framework will familiarize you with the nuances of applying the framework.

Here’s an example of a generic profitability framework in action:

profitability framework

You can also watch a profitability case interview here.

M&A Case Framework (Mergers & Acquisitions)

How do you advise a company when they are considering merging with, acquiring, or being acquired by another company? Many aspiring consultants overlook the possibility of being assigned a mergers & acquisitions case and then are surprised to be confronted with one during their interview. Avoid that mistake by getting comfortable executing an M&A case framework.

In this framework, the question is simple: should one company invest in or buy another?

The primary directive in the M&A case framework is to drill down on your understanding of the acquiring company’s position. The acquiring company is motivated by either short-term or long-term considerations – a financial buyer buys to increase short-term value and sell, while a strategic buyer acquires to hold the target for the long-term.

Your response in an M&A situation will be binary: either a merger/acquisition is advisable or it isn’t.


M&A framework

Other Frameworks

Pricing Framework

Deciding how to price products & services may seem like a relatively banal activity in comparison with mergers & acquisitions. But in reality, pricing decisions are some of the most influential decisions any company makes, exerting a great influence on profitability. It’s no surprise that consulting applicants often rely on the pricing framework model in their interviews.

3 Cs Framework

The 3 Cs framework gives a bird’s-eye view of a company’s overall situation. The 3 Cs themselves refer to the categories of Company, Customers, and Competition. Separating information and inquiries into these three categories helps give a comprehensive sense of a company’s operation in a given moment. 

Porter’s 5 Forces Framework

Sometimes a particular case or client scenario requires you to develop an understanding of a whole industry or sector, as well as how a particular company fits into that overall environment. This is what the Porter’s 5 Forces Framework is designed to help with. The 5 Forces to consider are: the threat of new entrants, competitive dynamics, supplier power, buyer power, and the threat of substitutes.

Case Frameworks Are Not a “Silver Bullet”

Remember – frameworks exist to help you figure out an approach to difficult problems. They are not a pre-written script to force-fit in response to a particular question you’re being asked. The framework serves the problem, not the other way around.

Think of a case interview more like a chess game, in which each framework represents one potential maneuver in a longer sequence of moves.

Also, remember that the case interview is not just a problem to be solved but an audition. You want to demonstrate to your interviewers that you have the ability to respond to a question fluidly, independently responding to new inputs and maintaining perspective as you think on your feet. It is not helpful to demonstrate a rote memorization of the frameworks.

Mental Math for Case Interviews

Solid fluency in mental math is essential to good case interview performance – and to the work of consulting in general. No calculators are allowed in case interviews, so if you’re rusty (and you probably are), it’s time to dust off the cobwebs. One thing we highly recommend is going off your calculator six months in advance of your case interview.

Honing your mental math skills is an essential part of case interview prep. Start with our free drills here

If you really want to sharpen your abilities, we’ve designed an entire course on mental math for consulting. Doing things like calculating tips, analyzing your budget, etc., can help you get comfortable working with numbers in the way you’ll have to during the interview process.

4 Steps for Case Math

When you’re working on a complex case, you can easily lose yourself in calculations. Thankfully, here’s a sneak peak of our simple four-step approach you can use to keep your math organized and on point. Get a more in-depth breakdown of case math.

  • Recap the Problem

These problems are delivered verbally. Some people are great at math but bad at listening, so the first step is to review the data and what you’re solving for. An out-loud recap gives you time to think and ensures you start with accurate information. The recap also gives the interviewer the confidence you will formulate a clear and coherent approach. And if you’ve misunderstood something about the problem, recapping it gives the interviewer the chance to intervene.

  • Structure Your Approach

After the recap, organize a systematic approach – out loud. Devise a step-by step algebraic approach to get an answer. Remember, you’re not just structuring the approach for your own sake—you’re also demonstrating to the interviewer that there is a logical methodology behind your work.

  • Run the Numbers

You have the right information and a process to solve for the answer. Now, perform the mathematical operations you laid out. Use your mental math and double-check to ensure your answer makes sense.

  • Develop and Deliver Insights

The first three steps produce an answer. This fourth and final step – sharing about what the answer means and what the organization should do next – separates top performers from amateurs, and is 100% required in second round interviews.

Case Interview Examples

We have prepared over 25,000 applicants for case interviews. So far, no one has come back and said “that was so much easier than I expected.”

That’s the bad news. 

But here’s some good news – the case interviews you’ll encounter at different firms have a lot in common, and they will demand largely similar things from you as an applicant. For that reason, the first 80% of your case interview prep should be general (i.e., not firm-specific).

Our curriculum will prepare you for any case interview, from MBB firms to boutique firms. Still, there are some things that make every firm unique. In order to help you get a sense of what you’ll encounter at some of the consulting firms to which you’ll be applying, here are several case interview examples.

McKinsey Case Study Interview Examples

You can find many McKinsey case study interview examples on the McKinsey website, and in our Case Library, which contains over 500 cases (with solutions and guidance so you can learn as you go). Get instant access here

BCG Case Interview Examples

Just like McKinsey, BCG also includes multiple BCG case interview examples on its website. Again, there are dozens of BCG case interview examples (including solutions) in our Case Library.

Bain Case Interview Examples

As with its competitors, Bain includes Bain case interview examples on its website. While practicing by yourself is fine if you’re a beginner, take the next step by working 1:1 with one of our MBB coaches. We’ll coach you through cases, assess your strengths and weaknesses, and build a plan for you to get interview-ready.

Boutique Firms Case Interview

The basic structure of a case interview is not very different at a boutique firm. Some boutiques specialize in certain industries or sectors, which will then be represented in the types of cases they give out.

Here’s an example called “Promotional Planning” from Kearney.

Compared to material from the MBB firms, boutique firms’ case interview examples are a little bit harder to come by, that is, if you look outside of our Case Library.

Case Interview Prep: Be Ready for Your Interview

The case interview is the hurdle in an entire management consulting career. The single biggest regret we hear? Underpreparing.

Here are key tips to avoid common interview prep pitfalls:

Case Interview Prep Timeline

In a perfect world, your case interview prep timeline should start 6 months before your interview – time for 1-2 out loud interviews a week and plenty of math and structure drills in between. Look ahead to the time you’ll start the interview process and build your prep schedule backward from there.

Of course, many people find themselves with less than six months before their desired interview time. Heck, I had 2 weeks. That doesn’t disqualify you – it just means you must be strategic to prepare on an accelerated timeline. 

In our Black Belt program, one of our MBB coaches will build a personalized prep plan for you that is 1 week or 1 year long, and based on any background.

If you are in school, there are certain optimal times to apply. 

U.S. Undergrads:

Peak recruiting season for juniors and seniors begins in July. Start preparing for the case interview (and get your resume ready!) by March.

International Undergrads:

Application drop in October. Begin case interview prep by May.

Advanced Degree Candidates (ADCs):

We recommend applying for the competitive Bridge Programs in March, and full-time recruiting begins in July. For the best shot, begin preparing for the case interview in November or December of the prior year. 

MBAs:

First year MBAs will interview in January for internship roles. However, diversity recruiting begins at conferences as early as September so you should begin interview prep in May, after matriculation but before even coming to campus.

Second years re-recruiting for full-time roles should begin to refine their casing skills as soon as February (after internship interviews). For second years who decide after a summer internship that consulting is the right career path for you, start prep as soon as you figure out you want to pursue consulting. Your best option? Join our accelerated Black Belt program.

Experienced Hires:

If you’re not applying straight from an educational program, the firms offer rolling application deadlines. However, peak hiring season takes place from March-May and success is almost entirely dependent on networking referrals. 

See detailed, current application deadlines here.

Audio Review

The case interview is an in-person out-loud process, and your communication and people skills are just as important as your technical know-how. This is a verbal as well as a mental test – if you don’t simulate the interview environment in your prep process by practicing out-loud, you won’t succeed.

We differ from the norm here, but we help make sure you’re more successful so we’re okay with that.

Don’t read books. If you must read, do it after you’ve listened to or watched case interviews, and tried at least 10 out loud on your own with a partner.

Start to get a sense of what the case interview looks and sounds like by watching our walkthroughs on YouTube

Once you’ve gotten a sense of what a case sounds like, work with an expert coach to put it all together for yourself. Our coaches conduct mock case interviews and offer actionable feedback – this is the most effective way to get ready for the case interview.

Practice Out Loud

Left to their own devices, many aspiring consultants study as they would for any other test – by silently doing cases on their own. This presents a huge problem when you arrive on the day of the interview and discover that you have to talk, write, and think at the same time.

Even if you think you’re considering how to communicate the work you’re doing as you do practice cases, you’ll find that you sound much smarter in your head than you will out loud

The reason the case interview is a verbal process is so that the interviewer can follow your thought process in real time. Practice out loud to build your confidence and identify weak spots that otherwise won’t surface until it’s too late!

Structuring Process

Structure is everything. In fact, the most common feedback is “be more structured” and that starts the minute the case begins.

As you proceed through practice case studies, take 2 minutes to structure your approach and 2 minutes to read it out. Use a timer. End with your hypothesis.

Want info on structuring? Check out our Structure Video Walkthrough.

Want help with structuring? Dive in to structure drills and compare your answer to an MBB sample.

Do Your Homework

The average successful applicant does 30 to 50 practice cases – and yes, some people pass with 10 cases, and others need 100. How do you know what you need?

First – if you want to optimize your case prep, review every case you do right after you finish it and keep a log of your learnings. Repeat mistakes without fixing them is a recipe for disaster.

Practice with a Case Partner

Partner with other aspiring consultants who share your ambition to help keep you accountable. Get firsthand feedback on your performance is helpful – but in addition, providing feedback to other people helps improve self-awareness.

Use the practice for what it is – an opportunity to get over fear and build confidence. Be careful, though. If you decide NOT to hire an expert coach, don’t put too much weight on the feedback you get from amateur case partners. 

Get Expert Help

We’ve said it already but it bears repeating: working with an expert coach will increase your odds of acing the case interview. Our coaches first succeeded as candidates, and then served as interviewers. 

An expert coach can also cut the number of necessary practice cases in half. We recommend the Black Belt Interviewer package, which offers 8 hours of 1:1 coaching. A staggering 60% of our Black Belts earn offers from top 10 firms nationwide. Not too shabby, when you compare that to the industry average acceptance rate of 3%.

Case Interview 102

What Are Firms Looking For In Interviews?

Interviewers look for a wide range of problem-solving skills – including but not limited to business acumen, communication skills, and analytical ability. Let’s break down the 14 skills that will help you stand out in your case interview.

  1. Structure

Consulting success depends on your ability to break down a problem into its component parts, and then prioritize the right component to find the key cause of a problem.

As a consultant, you possess influence without authority. Therefore, you must be able to develop a clear process that will gain buy-in from your peers, manager and potentially client.

Finally, you’ll be working with large quantities of data as a consultant. Being structured (or organized) in the interview conveys that you’ll be able to analyze large amounts of data on the job to arrive at insights that make a difference for your client.

  1. Segmenting Data

One of the frequent challenges consultants face is that business situations involve not just large quantities of data but a variety of data. Maintaining the integrity of the data is critical to solving problems. Consider the Profitability Framework. First it separates profitability into revenues and costs, and the kinds of data proliferate from there into increasing levels of granularity.

In a case interview, you’ll have lots of numbers thrown at you – digital advertising costs and first quarter revenues and profit margins. If you can’t organize data, you’ll never be able to wrap your mind around a problem, let alone develop a solution.

  1. MECE

MECE, which stands for Mutually Exclusive, Collectively Exhaustive, is core to a consulting mindset and is the optimal way to organize information.

Let’s start with the Mutually Exclusive part. This means that there should be no overlap in your data segments or framework categories. Here’s a simple example: let’s say Netflix is looking at subscriber data. If they have one category for North American subscribers and another category for English-language subscribers, a vast number of subscribers will be double-counted, once in each category. Therefore this categorization is not Mutually Exclusive, and thus isn’t “clean” data. 

The second principle is Collectively Exhaustive. This means that all of the relevant data should fall within at least one category, with nothing left out. So in the example used above, if Netflix decided to organize subscriber information by continent, but failed to include Europe, they would not have an accurate picture of their subscriber base because European subscribers won’t be included anywhere.

  1. Prioritization

Case interviews often involve not just one problem but a cluster of interrelated problems. One of the things you’ll have to demonstrate in your thinking is an aptitude for prioritizing the different issues in a coherent and logical fashion. Prioritization means creating a hierarchy of information, problems, opportunities, and responses, and recommending what to do next.

  1. Draw On Practical Experience

It’s important that you don’t simply sound like you’re reciting memorized passages from a textbook as you complete your case interview. Draw from your practical experience when interacting with an interviewer. This is context that you can bring to the table that your peers potentially cannot, and will communicate your confidence and executive presence in the interview process.

  1. Ace the Math

You don’t have access to a calculator in the case interview – your ability to do math and extract insights from the numbers will be tested extensively. There are 3 elements to pay attention to as you prepare for case interview math: your speed, your accuracy, and the business insights you communicate.

Focus on accuracy first, and then devote time to getting faster. Finally, make sure you always end your math by contextualizing the number for your interviewer.

Learn more about the different types of mental math for case interviews.

  1. Lead the Interview

Following the guidance we’ve already laid out will ensure that you can organize problems and information in such a way that you can guide yourself and your client to a solution. Consultants are expected to be self-guided and independent. Show that you have the analytical and leadership skills necessary to develop a process and lead yourself through it to a solution.

  1. Be Teachable

One major red flag for an interviewer? When you bristle at their direction and feedback. Be hypothesis-driven yet teachable. When (not if) your interviewer pushes back on one of your assumptions or statements, respond to the direction they want you to go. “That’s a good question, let me go back and reexamine that” is an example of the kind of tone you want to display inside of a case interview.

  1. Keep the “So What?” in Mind

One way to keep your footing as you proceed through the case interview is to keep the main question top of mind. As you progress through your initial structure, the math, and the brainstorming, make sure you tie each part of the case back to how what you’re doing will answer the initial question you were asked.

  1. Stay Hypothesis Driven

Consultants are hypothesis-driven; they always come to the table with a point of view. You should demonstrate this same skill in your case interviews. Structuring your questions in terms of hypotheses positions you as an advisor. For example, instead of asking a clarifying question like: “When you say North American market, which countries does this include?” you should ask, “I’m assuming that in this case, the North American market refers to the U.S. and Canada – is this accurate?”

  1. Communication

If consulting were simply about mechanistically applying frameworks, the industry would have a lot less use for human beings. Instead, the work is human-capital intensive and success is highly correlated to your communication abilities. Even when solutions seem technically straightforward, they still need to be delivered persuasively to clients. So, demonstrating your ability to communicate clearly and concisely is a huge part of success in the case interview.

  1. Confidence

Consultants don’t simply look for the right answer – they have to convince clients to believe that what they are proposing is the right answer. An effective consultant must demonstrate a sense of executive presence, gravitas, and confidence in the assertions they are making.

McKinsey Case Interview, BCG, Bain, vs Other Consulting Firms

The undisputed top consulting firms in the world are McKinsey, Bain, and Boston Consulting Group (BCG). Collectively, they are known as MBB. Each has a truly global footprint, clientele that include the world’s most powerful companies as well as government partners, and a reputation for consulting excellence. They are perpetually the most alluring employers for aspiring consultants.

All three of the MBB firms make rigorous use of the case interview as part of their hiring process. For the most part, each MBB interview is similar. They have similar structures, lengths, problem types, and degrees of difficulty. They also test for the same traits and skills. The first 80% of your case interview prep, therefore, does not need to be customized to one firm. 

However, there are some differences between the MBB firms that you’ll want to be aware of to help in the final 20% of your prep process.

McKinsey Case Interview

McKinsey — the largest of the MBB firms — prides itself on being unique. The firm is known for putting its own spin on industry-standard practices, and this includes the McKinsey case interview. The McKinsey cases follow an “interviewer-led” methodology, where the interviewer leads the candidate through the case.

The McKinsey case interview begins, as all case interviews do, with a broad problem or scenario. But the McKinsey case interview includes a sequence of smaller questions to be answered along the way to solving the overarching problem. It’s more like a sequential test than a “choose-your-own adventure.”

It’s hard to get lost in a McKinsey case, but McKinsey compensates for it with the hardest math problems of the MBB firms.

McKinsey is also known for drilling down more on other components of the interview process. The personal fit portion is called the Personal Experience Interview at McKinsey and usually takes longer & goes deeper than at Bain or BCG. Likewise, there is a slightly unique format to McKinsey’s Problem Solving Test, which evaluates applicants’ fundamental problem-solving skills and has a pass rate of just 33%.

See a McKinsey Case Interview Example here.

BCG Case Interview

The BCG case interview has a lot of similarities with its MBB cousins and other large consulting firms across the industry, but there are some features that make the BCG case interview unique. 

Notably, BCG interviewers are known for including “curveball questions,” which require the applicant to improvise and suddenly pivot to include new considerations. This tests an applicant’s flexibility and creativity, as well as speed, fluidity, and accuracy when confronting new challenges.

In addition, the BCG case interview is described as “candidate-led,” allowing the candidate to control the pace with which problems and the relevant information/complications are considered. Don’t be fooled, though – the responsibility of leading is a BIG DEAL. We consider BCG cases to be the hardest overall of the MBB case types.

Because case interviews are often adapted from real-world projects, the kinds of case interviews BCG conducts will reflect the company’s unique industry profile. All three of the MBB firms work with all kinds of companies, but BCG has a particular focus on strategic innovation, business growth, and corporate development.

See a BCG Case Interview Example here.

Bain Case Interview

Bain cases are a strong blend between BCG style (you begin with the illusion of full control and leadership), yet can shift quickly to McKinsey style if you lose your way.

The most unique component of the Bain case interview process is the so-called “pressure test.” The interviewer introduces time deficits, strategic criticism, and other headwinds to test the interviewee’s ability to maintain focus and clarity in the face of adversity.

The other factor that differentiates the Bain case interview from other MBB firms is Bain’s client portfolio. Bain works in virtually every industry and region, but they work with private equity funds and other principal investors more than other MBB firms do.

See a Bain Case Interview Example here.

Boutique Consulting Firms

Many aspiring consultants are not meant for one of the MBB firms – the pressure, even in case interviews, is excruciating. There are also disadvantages to working for one of the big three, including extremely long hours and seemingly impossible standards. 

There is often more flexibility and variety when working at boutique consulting firms, where every employee is a larger component of the overall operation and your experience is more personalized.

Because of the smaller feel of a boutique firm, as well as the greater variety of tasks and communications to be done by each employee, boutique consulting firms rely more heavily on the behavioral/fit component of the interview process. 

At the same time, case interviews for boutique consulting firms reflect the firms’ focus either on a key practice area or 1-3 industries. Be aware of the company’s client portfolio before your interview to tailor the final days and weeks of your case preparation.

How To Crack The Case Like A Real Consultant

There are as many possible case interview problems as there are business scenarios. Let’s take a walk through a sample case to give you a taste for one possible case interview type.

Case Problem: You are contracted to help San Zembla—a fictional South American country—improve its educational outcomes. San Zembla has a new democratic government elected on a platform of public education reform, a strategy that promises to give a long-term boost to the economy. Your firm is being asked to diagnose existing problems and limitations facing San Zembla’s education system and to help outline new strategies for improvement.

Case Interview Opening: Example

To start the case, recap the Case Problem out loud. Ask up to 3 clarifying questions about the organization, the data, and the business problem the organization is facing. Each question should start with a mini-hypothesis, for example:

“Referencing other South American countries, I’d assume San Zembla has between 10-25 million people. Is that a fair ballpark for estimation purposes?”

or…

“These problems often take years to assess and implement. I would assume a 2-3 year timeline at a minimum would be sensible. Is that reasonable?”

Case Interview Structure: Example

After recapping the case, develop a plan to tackle this problem. 

The primary problem you might identify with the San Zembla case is that it’s actually quite difficult to assess educational outcomes in a vacuum and without any context or comparison. Therefore you might decide that coming up with a reliable metric for evaluating educational outcomes and comparing them to other contexts is necessary. 

If you’re having trouble identifying the problem/s you should be prioritizing, one of the most powerful and simple tools you can use is the issue tree. This is a simple way of organizing related problems into branches of causality.

 

Issue Tree, case interview

 

In the San Zembla case, you might notice that obvious quantitative measures such as school spending and class sizes don’t seem to be the cause of the problem. Therefore you might consider that the problem has something to do with certain qualitative factors relating to the educational system. To start, you might come up with an issue tree like this:


Issue Tree case interview example, case interview

As you drill down on your categories, you might notice one type of data would fit in multiple categories. Alternatively, you might notice one category in particular filling up with more data than the others. 

If you want to make sure you’ve properly accounted for all the relevant issues, conduct a MECE review to make sure your categories are Mutually Exclusive and Collectively Exhaustive (MECE). The above structure is ME, but needs some more information to be CE.

No sweat, but all of this structuring needs to take place in under 2 minutes – quietly, on paper.

Then, you have 2 minutes to explain it to your interviewer.

Case Interview Math: Example

After you’ve presented a solid, clear plan, you can ask for the information you’ll need to solve the problem.

Here, a chart offers additional information about some of San Zembla’s key education metrics in comparison to other countries in South America.

 

case interview example, case interview

 

Describe your observations out loud as you begin to make sense of the chart. Do you notice any meaningful trends? Remember, suggest calculations you’d like to perform before performing them. Remember you can ask the interviewer questions to help clarify the data if need be.

Your goal in comparing San Zembla in neighboring countries is to decide how to improve educational outcomes. It would make sense to assess whether any of the included categories of data correlate with/predict the average standardized test score.

Intuition might tell you that having a lower number of students per teacher, or else a greater amount of money spent per student, might correlate with average standardized test score. However, the data doesn’t support this. Developed economies have similar class sizes but better test scores. Likewise, variations in spending within regions don’t seem to dictate a particular effect in test cores.

Changing budgets and class sizes are two rather obvious strategies to improve educational outcomes, so it’s very helpful to know that those solutions may not make a difference in this context. But we still need to drill down further if we want to find out what kinds of changes would actually have an impact on outcomes (as measured by standardized test scores).

Case Interview Creative: Example

Speaking of drilling down further, most case interviews involve some kind of brainstorming. Let’s imagine for a moment that the interviewer will push you on this, asking “What kind of changes can you think of that might have an impact on standardized test scores?” You’ll need to come up with a list of ideas – out loud, but writing them down at the same time so you can keep your thoughts organized.

Here are some ideas:

  • Teach concepts, not “to the test”
  • Teach problem-solving strategies to enable cognitive flexibility
  • Incorporate 1:1 mentoring / coaching into standard curriculum
  • Set a cap on number of students per class

Provide Recommendations

Summarizing your recommendations puts a bow on all the work you’ve done so far. Remember that how you present your recommendations is as important as the solutions you actually recommend. 

The simplest and most powerful way to structure an argument is using the Pyramid Principle. The Pyramid Principle organizes an overall message into a hierarchy of supporting arguments. Employing the pyramid principle to provide a recommendation to the San Zembla case might look something like this:

 

Case Interview Pyramid Principle example, case interview

 

Case Interview Preparation Tips: Execution

  1. Start Every Case Strong

Bring an energy and enthusiasm to the beginning of each case. Act like you enjoy the process and enjoy solving business problems. This is the “secret sauce” to the success of many candidates – if you can’t bring that joy to solving a simulated problem, you won’t be any fun to work with on an actual project.

  1. Ask Clarifying Questions

We often aren’t aware of this, but our natural problem-solving skills typically involve isolating areas of uncertainty and drilling down on them. You’ll do yourself a big favor if you force yourself to start articulating what those uncertainties are as you go along. This will help you communicate your thinking during the case interview.

  1. Stay Hypothesis-Driven Throughout the Case

Maintaining a consistently hypothesis-driven approach is one of the best general strategies you can implement. At the end of every case section, make an interim recommendation on what your client should do based on what you’ve examined so far, and what you’d want to examine next.

  1. Be Case-Specific

One of the easiest mistakes for an interviewer to spot is a candidate who is over-relying on pre-scripted frameworks. Frameworks are designed to give you a mental “pick list” of categories that you can use to create your own custom framework that specifically addresses the problem at hand.

  1. Ask About Trends

The interviewers working alongside you will have access to potentially relevant data that is not necessarily given to you at the beginning of a case. But, the interviewer will only give you the information you ask for. As long as you ask in a hypothesis-driven way, it’s okay to ask.

  1. Analyze Case Charts and Graphs

Recap what you see first. Then structure your math approach before you start calculating. Then do the actual calculations. Finally, drive to insights – what do the numbers mean for your client now and into the future?

  1. Think Out Loud 

The case interview is a test of your ability to communicate as you think. This allows the interviewer to see your problem-solving approach and communication skills at the same time.

  1. Finish with a Strong Recommendation

Remember that the consultant’s job, as far as the consulting firm is concerned, is not simply to calculate the “correct” solution to a problem. The consultant’s job is also to sell that solution to the client. You’d be surprised how many people do a reasonably good job on the case, but then stop before wrapping it up with a strong recommendation (including an assessment of next steps and risks). To provide a clear recommendation, follow the Pyramid Principle. In a nutshell, give the answer first, then the “why” or supporting data. 

Many cases don’t have single right answers. So if you fail to arrive at what seems like an open-and-shut conclusion, don’t let uncertainty infect your conclusion. You’ve arrived at one possible solution among many, and whatever that solution is, your job now is to convince the “client” (i.e., your interviewer) that you believe that solution adequately answers the question at hand.

Conclusion

Management consulting has been a hot industry for years, and shows no signs of slowing down (see the salaries if you don’t believe us). The consulting path offers intellectual stimulation as well as lucrative material rewards. 

But in order to enter the industry, you’re going to have to make it through the case interview. We trust this guide has given you a thorough overview of what it will take to prepare for this crucial step in your career. 

Remember, work 1-on-1 with an expert coach from our team. Learn more and schedule today.

Thanks for reading, and good luck with your prep process. We’re here for you!

Jenny Rae and the MC Team

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Filed Under: Accenture, Bain, Bain Case Interview, BCG, Booz Allen Hamilton, Case Interview, Consulting Case Interview, consulting interviews, deloitte consulting, KPMG, McKinsey Case Interview, McKinsey Consulting