Simple cursory research about the management consulting industry and how to become a consultant will quickly reveal that something called a “case interview” is an important part of the process. It is not hard to find reasonable – but basic – advice about how to approach management consulting case interviews.
- You should be structured and use frameworks, but not overly structured.
- You need to practice for case interviews in advance.
- You must be comfortable with mental math.
True, true and true again. However, it’s really important to go beyond the basics when preparing for case interviews, because the reality is that during consulting recruiting, case interview performance really drives the decision-making process around hiring. In fact, I have been involved in hiring decisions where some people had serious misgiving about the “fit” of the candidate, but because they just did so well on the case interview, the momentum swung toward giving the applicant an offer.
In this article, we’ll cover the following critical points to put you in the best position possible to excel in management consulting case interviews:
- What Is A Case Interview? A full understanding of the case interview process provides the foundation for excelling during it.
- Case Interview Presentation Structure Here, you’ll learn what to expect during the actual case interview process.
- How Does the Case Interview Process at the “Big 3” or “MBB” (McKinsey, Bain, BCG) Vary vs. at Other Consulting Firms? These are the premier consulting firms, so understanding the nuances and expectations of these firms is important.
- Case Interview Examples What have real consulting applicants experienced during the case interview process?
- Case Interview Frameworks What are some common ways to approach case interview questions?
- What are Firms Looking for in Interviews? If you practice for case interviews and become really good at breaking down problems and solving the case, that’s an excellent first step. But you need to also understand what in your demeanor and thought process top consulting firms are looking for in case interviews.
- How to Crack the Case Like a Real Consultant How do you bring it all together to deliver an excellent case interview performance?
- Case Interview Prep Be ready for your interview. Here you’ll learn how best to prepare for a management consulting case interview.
- Case Interview Tips: Execution So the day of the case interview has arrived. You’ve prepared well. What can you do to optimize your performance during the interview?
- Case Interview Prep Wrap Up What we have learned and what you should remember about management consulting case interviews!
What Is A Case Interview?
If you’ve already started doing research on a career in management consulting, you’ve probably heard about a supposedly daunting step in the interview process called the case interview. Many people talk about the case interview like it’s synonymous with the entire interview process. But if you haven’t already started prepping for the interview, you’re probably still wondering: what is a case interview?
In short, the case interview is one of several stages of the hiring process and it consists of applicants being assigned test cases. These cases are designed to mimic the kinds of scenarios consultants work with on a daily basis, and they are often pulled directly from real-life client experiences. The case typically consists of a single problem or situation faced by a company (or sometimes a government organization), with its own set of desired outcomes, opportunities, obstacles, and risks. Applicants are given a set of data and a certain amount of time to analyze the case, to design a solution, and to deliver a presentation on that solution.
While there are numerous other steps in the consultant hiring process, it’s true that the case interview is the most significant filtering mechanism. So we’ve compiled a Complete Prep Guide in which we offer an in-depth preview of what to expect from the case interview and how to demonstrate you’re ready to be hired as a consultant.
Case Interview Presentation Structure
Now you should have a basic sense of what the case interview is and what function it serves, but that still doesn’t tell you what to expect in a case study interview. There are some variations between firms, but generally speaking, the case interview portion of the hiring process is quite consistent across the industry.
A typical new hire goes through four to six case interviews in total, which are usually divided into two rounds occurring on separate days. The interviews usually proceed in roughly 60-minute cycles. The first 15-30 minutes of each case interview cycle will be spent on a “Fit Interview.” In this 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, the case interview itself takes place, usually lasting 30-40 minutes. Note: there is some variation between companies and at different stages of the hiring process. Some fit interviews are totally separate from case interviews, and are facilitated by different interviewers. Some case interviews situate applicants in teams instead of working independently. Some case interviews take several hours. Some involve ongoing communication and feedback with the interviewers while others don’t feature any such communication until the actual delivery of the presentation. After the case interview, there is usually a continuation of the fit interview, in which applicants have the chance to debrief the interviewers.
It’s worth noting that there are some 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. The material requires deeper analysis in the second round, 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 you potentially misleading information to make your task more difficult.
McKinsey Case Interview, BCG, Bain, vs Other Consulting Firms
When it comes to management consulting, MBB will always be the elephant in the room. If you’re new to this world, then take note: MBB stands for McKinsey, Bain, and Boston Consulting Group (BCG). MBB are the three top consulting firms in the world. Each has a truly global footprint, clientele that includes 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, and for the most part each MBB case interview is similar. They tend to have similar structures, case types, and degrees of difficulty. They also tend to test for the same traits & skills. Your case interview prep, therefore, does not necessarily need to be customized depending on where you’re interviewing. However, there are some differences between them that you’ll want to be aware of.
McKinsey Case Interview
McKinsey—the largest of the MBB firms—prides itself on being unique. They are known for putting their own spin on industry-standard practices. This includes the McKinsey case interview. Other case interviews tend to be interviewer-led, but the McKinsey case interview is described as “candidate-led,” allowing the candidate to control the pace with which problems and the relevant information/complications are considered.
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. You can think of this as a large case interview constructed of several miniature cases.
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%.
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 their speed, fluidity, and accuracy when it comes to confronting new challenges.
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.
Bain Case Interview
The most unique component of the Bain case interview process is the so-called “pressure test.” This subjects interviewers to pressure in the form of time deficits, strategic criticism, and other headwinds in order to test the ability to maintain integrity and stability in the face of adversity.
The other factor that makes the Bain case interview slightly different from the 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.
Boutique Consulting Firms
Many aspiring consultants are not meant for one of the MBB firms. There are disadvantages to working for one of the big three, which include extremely long hours as well as a kind of anonymity within the larger apparatus of the company. There is often more flexibility and variety to be found working at boutique consulting firms, where every employee is a larger component of the overall operation.
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 a bit more heavily on the behavioral/fit component of the interview process. At the same time, case interviews for boutique consulting firms are certainly common, and following the advice and preparation you are reading about in this article for MBB will apply to boutique consulting firms.
Finally, boutique consulting firms also tend to specialize in one or a few industries. Being aware of the company’s client portfolio before your interview is much more important at a boutique consulting firm than at an MBB firm.
Case Interview Examples
Broadly speaking, the case interviews you’re likely to encounter at different firms will have a lot in common, and they will demand largely similar things from you as an applicant. For that reason, there’s really no benefit to tailoring your case interview prep to one firm more than the rest. Our curriculum is designed to prep you for any case interview, from the 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, we’re providing you with several case interview examples.
McKinsey Case Study Interview Examples
You can find many real McKinsey case study interview examples on the McKinsey website. Let’s take a look at one, which they’ve called GlobaPharm. There is a thorough description of a possible solution you can find if you navigate to the McKinsey site, but the basic case study is broken down into two components, the “Description of situation” and the “McKinsey study.”
Description of Situation
“GlobaPharm has a long, successful tradition in researching, developing, and selling “small molecule” drugs. This class of drugs represents the vast majority of drugs today, including aspirin and most blood-pressure or cholesterol medications. GlobaPharm is interested in entering a new, rapidly growing segment of drugs called “biologicals.” These are often proteins or other large, complex molecules that can treat conditions not addressable by traditional drugs.
“R&D for biologicals is vastly different from small-molecule R&D. To gain these capabilities, pharmacos have three options: they can build them from scratch, partner with existing start-ups, or acquire the start-ups. Since its competitors are already several years ahead of GlobaPharm, GlobaPharm wants to jumpstart its biologicals program by acquiring BioFuture, a leading biologicals start-up based in the San Francisco area. BioFuture was founded 12 years ago by several prominent scientists and now employs 200 people. It is publicly traded and at its current share price the company is worth about $1 billion in total.”
“GlobaPharm has engaged McKinsey to evaluate the BioFuture acquisition and to advise on its strategic fit with GlobaPharm’s biologicals strategy. Our overall question today, therefore, is “Should GlobaPharm acquire BioFuture?”
- What factors should be considered when evaluating the acquisition?
- The team wants to explore BioFuture’s current drug pipeline. The team decides to focus first on evaluating the value of BioFuture’s current drug portfolio. What issues should the team consider when evaluating the value of BioFuture’s existing drug pipeline?
- Question 3 is a math/probability/expected value exercise around a drug pipeline. You can check it out here.
BCG Case Interview Examples
Just like McKinsey, BCG also includes multiple real BCG case interview examples on their website, which contains an Interactive Case Library. Here’s the overview of the “Airline Case” included in that library.
“Today, we’ll discuss the case of our client, a low-cost carrier (LCC) airline that is among the largest in Asia. After initial losses when it was established, a few years ago, it has finally become profitable. The company’s profitability is now threatened, however, by a sharp increase in fuel prices, to the tune of more than 50 percent.
“The client is therefore questioning its business model and looking to develop an immediate response to the situation that will ensure a return to profitability. Your task is also to help develop a strategy to ensure that the company remains profitable for the years to come.”
Bain Case Interview Examples
As with its other MBB siblings, Bain includes a lot of helpful interviews as well as real Bain case interview examples on the company’s website. One of the included case interviews, “FashionCo,” is defined as follows:
“Our client is FashionCo, a player in the women’s fashion market. It’s been in the industry for a long time, but has experienced declining revenues each year for the past five years. FashionCo wants to understand: What might be causing this decline?
“FashionCo will have a management meeting at the end of the week, and the CEO wants a recommendation from Bain on how to proceed. “What can they do to drive revenue?”
Boutique Firms Case Interview
Compared to material from the megalithic MBB firms, boutique consulting firms’ case interview examples can be a little bit harder to come by. But if you’re willing to do a little googling, the internet will provide. And anyway, the basic concept of the case interview is not very different at a boutique firm. Though some boutique firms specialize in certain industries, and these are likelier to be represented in boutique firms’ case interviews.
Here’s an example called “Promotional Planning” from Kearney.
“Our client is a national grocery and drug store chain, which has been steadily losing market share to its competitors. Our client utilizes a high-low pricing strategy, in which regular prices are typically slightly higher than those of an everyday low-price retailer. However, periodically high-low retailers drop prices significantly. During the time period in which a product’s price is decreased, the product is also promoted through print and in-store advertising. Our client expects a significant lift in sales during the periods in which a product is promoted. However, benchmarks against industry averages indicate that our client does not experience as large of a lift in sales as its competitors do during promotions. What would be your approach to increase sales lift when an item is promoted?”
Case Interview Frameworks
One of the primary ways consulting applicants have prepared for the case interview has been to study a wide array of case interview frameworks. Many different case interview frameworks have been developed to offer systematic ways of understanding different kinds of cases, each with their own type of problem or scenario. For example, one general framework we will take a look at is the “market entry framework,” which deals with companies who are considering entry into new markets. Another example is 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.
Here we’ll give you an overview of some of the different case interview frameworks you’ll want to learn/review before your formal case interview. If you really want to drill down on the different frameworks, consult our Ultimate Guide to Frameworks.
Market Entry Framework
One of the most common things companies seek outside consulting on is growing their business. In order to do this, companies often need to enter new markets to open up new opportunities. These new opportunities inevitably emerge alongside new and unfamiliar challenges, hence the need for the consultant.
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 making the first entrance into the market. As you learn the market entry framework, you’ll also learn how to drill down on more specific frameworks as you identify the specifics of the problem.
Maximizing profits is often understood as the essential purpose of any company or enterprise. Therefore most consulting projects relate to profitability on some level, and many case interview questions involve considering ways to improve profitability. The profitability framework is a simple but powerful method for analyzing problems relating primarily to profit. There are always a variety of factors at play, but the primary way to drill down into profitability is by separating costs and revenues.
The first thing to do in a profitability case is to look at costs and revenues from a big picture level. (Note: some case interview questions relate only to costs or to revenues, though most involve both.) After considering the overall revenue situation, you can drill down by the main subcategories of price, quantity, and strategies to increase sales. Costs can be drilled down by the costs of producing each unit, quantity/rate of production, and strategies for decreasing the costs of production. A deeper look into the profitability framework will familiarize you with many ways of increasing profitability, such as the expansion into new markets, more/smarter advertisement, increased efficiency, as well as improvements in service and pricing.
You can also watch a profitability case interview in action:
M&A Case Framework (Mergers & Acquisitions)
One of the more infrequent situations most companies face is one in which they are merging with, acquiring, or being acquired by another company. This involves a lot of granular financial and management work. Many aspiring consultants overlook the possibility of being assigned a mergers & acquisitions case and then are surprised to be confronted with one during their case 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 increasing cash flow, of course, but they will have a specific timeline in which they want to see returns on their investment. For example, hedge funds will have a different time horizon for their investment than multinational corporations.
After acquainting yourself with the goals and circumstances of the acquiring company, the M&A case framework has you consider the market, the company up for sale, the post-acquisition strategy, and the overall risks & benefits, such as unproven but potentially valuable technology. M&A case frameworks are often used in miniature as part of a larger scenario, and they tend to produce binary responses: either a merger/acquisition is advisable or it isn’t.
It is also advisable to remember that when engaging in M&A, a company is literally buying another, and paying a price. Generally, the higher the price, the less advisable the acquisition is, because the increase in future performance must be that much greater to justify the price paid. Analysis of M&A situations can often be communicated in these terms. Learn more about the M&A consulting framework here.
Pricing Framework Model
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 volume and profitability. It’s no surprise that consulting applicants often rely on the pricing framework model in their case interviews.
Clients often hire consulting companies specifically for their expertise on this aspect of business. After some time working as a consultant, you’ll have developed a deep array of experience on the ways different companies have handled pricing in different industries. But without that experience under your belt, you’ll have to rely on the pricing framework model.
This framework asks you to break the situation down into three main categories of consideration.
The Product/Service Being Sold
Here you will consider a great deal of information about what goes into the product, how it is expected to perform, and what changes in the ways the product is offered will have an impact on the proper price point. Is it differentiated? Is there a patent? How big is the market for it?
Here you will try to understand what other products/services your client’s will interact with in the marketplace, and how the companies behind those other products/services are thinking about their pricing decisions. Are there many similar products available? What is being charged?
The final category is pricing strategy, which invites you to consider certain zoomed-out questions about what will determine the optimal price point for the product or service under consideration. Should you price based on the cost of the product plus a margin? Should you price at the market price plus or minus based on the value of your product? Do you know the max price a customer will pay or the value the product brings to them?
3 Cs Framework
Many times consulting firms are hired to help with an overall business problem or concern, and the client may not even know where the true locus of the problem is. Situations like these are where the 3 Cs framework can be very powerful, as it gives something of a bird’s-view of a company’s overall situation. Zooming out like this can help make certain opportunities as well as inefficiencies clearer.
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. One additional thing to note about the 3 Cs Framework is that it has some overlap with the Business Framework invented by Victor Cheng. This business framework is essentially a modification of the 3 Cs Framework, with the added category of Products.
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. Invented by Michael Porter, the 5 Forces break down the main categories of dynamic factors at play in any market. Drilling down on each of these will help give a better picture as to how a company working in or entering that market can be competitive and profitable. 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”
If you’ve already started familiarizing yourself with the different frameworks, we commend you—that’s an excellent component of a prep strategy for the consulting case interview. However, if you are devoting 100% of your prep resources to memorizing frameworks, then you might need to take a step back. Remember—frameworks exist to help you figure out an approach to difficult problems, not as a pre-written script for cramming difficult scenarios into. The framework serves the problem, not the other way around.
Some aspiring consultants look at frameworks as a “silver bullet,” as if they provide a cure-all to any client project or case interview. But in reality, case interviews are seldom solved with the simple execution of a framework. Much more often, you might be able to adapt a framework to help think through one part of a larger situation. You can 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 move fluidly between different frameworks as necessary, independently responding to new inputs and maintaining perspective as you think on your feet. It’s less important to demonstrate a rote memorization of the frameworks.
What Are Firms Looking For In Interviews?
As we mention above, simply demonstrating that you’ve memorized a few frameworks is not enough to impress at your case interview. Interviewers are looking for a wide range of problem-solving skills beyond just accumulated business knowledge, as well as the communications skills and character traits relevant to the job.
In this section, we’ll take you through everything interviewers are looking for in your case interview performance.
Consulting, like all of business, depends on being able to understand and work with complex systems, with large quantities of information. Not everyone naturally operates this way, but for better or worse, it’s kind of a prerequisite skill for being a successful consultant. There are things you’ll want to be aware of as you show off your systems-thinking capabilities. Primarily, interviewers are on the lookout for your ability to conduct a strategically structured approach to any problem.
One of the frequent challenges consultants face is that business situations involve not just large quantities of data but a variety of kinds of data. Consider the Profitability Framework described above. First it separates profitability into revenues and costs, and the kinds of data proliferate from there into increasing levels of granularity.
One of the primary skills a consultant needs is the ability to segment data into different categories, some of which may need to be defined on the fly as you drill down on a particular issue. The importance of segment data becomes obvious when you imagine conducting a case interview without any ability to segment data at all. All of the vast number of figures a company deals with will be lumped together—print advertising costs and first quarter revenues and individual sales and TV advertising costs, etc, etc. If you can’t organize data, you’ll never be able to wrap your mind around a problem, let alone come up with a solution.
One of the most powerful frameworks you can apply to help organize data is the MECE framework. Usually pronounced ME-see, this acronym stands for Mutually Exclusive, Collectively Exhaustive and it describes the optimal conditions for any method of organizing information.
The first principle is Mutually Exclusive. This means that there should be no overlap between any of the categories you use. To take an 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 it’s not Mutually Exclusive, and doesn’t help us understand the data. It would be better to have the categories filter either by language or by region/continent.
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.
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. One thing interviewers love to see is a candidate drawing from practical experience. One of the reasons many consultants rise so fast is that firsthand knowledge is invaluable in this industry. Even if you’re applying right out of college, it’s still likely that you’ve had work and business experiences that can inform your analysis within the case interview. If the opportunity arises, it can be very powerful to demonstrate your ability to incorporate things you’ve learned firsthand.
As we’ve made clear, 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. This is somewhat related to segmenting data but goes beyond just information. Prioritization means creating a hierarchy of information, problems, opportunities, and responses.
To take a crude example, let’s say you are consulting for an energy company that is earnestly trying to transition to renewable energy production over the next five years. The part of the company that remains invested in fossil fuels is also dealing with an ongoing oil leak at an extraction site. Without sacrificing the five-year transition to renewables, you probably need to prioritize stopping oil leaks and attending to any harm to the environment, workers, and other stakeholders.
When working through a case interview, you can “score points” simply by engaging in some sort of prioritization during the interview. Your logic and criteria for the prioritization will probably not be challenged. The fact that you attempted to prioritize in the first place will be valued and noticed.
Ace the Math
It isn’t necessary to have a math degree to ace the case interview, but you’ll still want to devote a reasonable chunk of your prep time to shoring up any vulnerabilities in your math skills. It will feel extremely bad to have a math mistake corrected by an interviewer during your case interview. It feels even worse to have the interview not correct your mistake, and to have your entire analysis thrown off.
A lot of the math you’ll have to rely on during your case interview won’t take the form of complex formulas or pre-sorted spreadsheets. Instead, you’ll need to be able to process numerical information as it’s presented in normal speech and writing in order to understand a broader situation. Case interviews are in a sense like longer word problems, with a continuously flowing stream of verbal math. You’ll want to work on your ability to extract numerical information from verbally defined situations. You’ll also want to work on your ability to express numerical information in speech. Oftentimes, if you speak out loud and talk the interviewer through your calculations, you can make a mistake and still do an above average job. The interviewer can see you were on the right track and just slipped up in one of the steps.
Chart and Graph Math
Consultants need to have total fluency working with visual representations of data, since it’s integral to so much of what they do. The dossier you’re given and the presentation you’ll produce are both likely to include heavy use of charts & graphs to represent numerical data.
It may have been a while since you spent time working with numbers in this way, so make sure you practice working with problems that incorporate a lot of charts. Reading charts & graphs is its own kind of literacy and you’ll have to demonstrate you’ve mastered it as you go through the case interview. Be patient enough that you can be sure you’ve accurately understood the information—misreads can be fatal! And make sure you’re communicative about the way you’re processing the visual information. Even if it seems obvious simply to point out what the x and y axes of a chart represent, it’s important to show you know how to synthesize visual data into a deeper understanding.
Having a solid fluency in mental math is essential to a good case interview performance—and to the work of consulting in general. Ongoing mental math is required as you engage with the problem, for example as you move between different frameworks. At a zoomed-out level, there will be too many of these initial calculations to use a calculator on all of them. Though a calculator may become appropriate as you drill down on different parts of your analysis.
Honing up your mental math skills is an important part of your case interview prep. See our drills here. And if you really want to sharpen your abilities, we’ve designed an entire course on mental math for consulting. One thing we highly recommend is going off your calculator for six months in advance of your case interview. 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
Sometimes when you’re working on a complex case, you can almost lose yourself in the different considerations and calculations. Thankfully, there’s a relatively simple four-step approach you can fall back on in order to guide your response.
Recap the Problem
The first step in solving a problem is in articulating your understanding of just what the problem is. Even if you don’t have a clear approach in mind just yet, getting yourself to recap the problem out loud can help clarify an appropriate response. The recap also gives the interviewer a chance to see your effort to take 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
Once you’ve recapped the problem, the next step is to organize a systematic approach. Solving a case interview problem consists of many steps along the way, from drilling down on a deeper understanding of one factor at play to conducting miniature test cases in order to choose a strategy. It would be extremely chaotic and inefficient to consider every angle at once. Instead, you’ll want to devise a logically structured approach to help you arrive at an efficient and thorough response. But remember, you’re not just structuring the approach for your own sake—you’re also demonstrating to the interviewer that there is logic and methodology behind your work.
Run the Numbers
The third step is actually performing the mathematical operations you laid out when you came up with your approach structure in step two. Think of this as executing all the different steps you laid out. This will involve gaining a better understanding of some specific factors as well as testing possible solutions.
Come Up with Insights
The first three steps amount to a process for producing data, somewhat similar to the scientific method. These are all part of a sequence designed to generate insights into what solutions will work best. Don’t get so mired in crunching numbers that you forget what the calculation was supposed to figure out in the first place!
Lead the Interview
A subtler thing that interviewers will be on the lookout for is your ability to “lead the interview.” This doesn’t mean dominating every moment. Rather, it means demonstrating a synthesis of the skills listed above—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, especially as they accumulate seniority. Showing that you have the analytical and leadership skills necessary to execute an operation you’ve been assigned to is a major component of the case interview process. You can’t just answer the questions and sit back. Use transition phrases and prioritization to proactively attack the case.
The prevalence of frameworks can obscure the fact that everyone’s problem-solving strategies are somewhat unique, just as every problem is unique. There is no one-size-fits-all formula for solving every problem. Instead, there are some more general problem-solving skills and tactics that you should work on as you prep for your case interview.
A lot of the consultant’s job relies on fluency with data. This is not just carrying out formal calculations, but understanding what figures mean within a specific business context. Consultants also have to be able to communicate a narrative about the meaning of certain numbers to different stakeholders.
Communication is a big part of the case interview as well. Make sure you don’t just carry out all your thinking silently—communicate with your interviewer to let them know what meaning you’re assigning to the different data you’re working with.
Realize Your Mistakes
Of course you will want to be careful to be as accurate as possible, but sometimes candidates do make mistakes in case interviews. Mistakes can come in the form of computation errors, or they can involve misinterpreting data or choosing an inappropriate framework.
It’s important to stay alert and self-critical, rethinking decisions and strategies as you go. Using notes to keep an organized track of your thinking can help. Interviewers may also point out a mistake, though you shouldn’t count on this as a failsafe. Whether it’s you who catches a mistake or an interviewer, it’s important to demonstrate flexibility and composure even as you go back to the drawing board.
Understand the “So What”
One way to keep your footing, as you proceed through the many different considerations required by a case interview, is to keep the “so what” question at front of mind. You can apply this to all the information you’re given in order to understand the problem. Ask about all of it: so what? What does this tell you, and how does it inform your analysis of the broader situation? Then as you proceed with possible solutions, keep asking, so what? With each calculation or consideration you make, ask what that tells you about the optimal solution.
Stay Hypothesis Driven
Most of the steps detailed above mimic the scientific method, shaped to fit a specific business-related scenario. The scientific method is the foundation of rational inquiry, which aspires to build evidence-driven understanding and even to make reasonable predictions. The scientific method is also built around forming and testing hypotheses.
Structuring your analysis in terms of hypotheses helps ensure the insights you derive are logically sound, and it also makes them action-oriented. For example, it doesn’t really get you anywhere to approach a case interview by saying, “what effect does price have on profitability?” or “how can we change the price to increase profitability?” Instead, frame this line of thinking in terms of a hypothesis, such as: “cutting prices by 10% will increase profitability.” You can even consider your choice of broader strategies to pursue or frameworks to implement as being essentially hypotheses that may be subject to revision.
If consulting were simply about mechanistically carrying out one framework from a limited assortment of frameworks, then the consultant industry would have a lot less use for human beings. Instead, much of the work is highly human-driven, depending on people skills and communication abilities. Even when solutions seem technically straightforward, they still need to be delivered persuasively to clients. So of course, demonstrating your ability to communicate will be a huge part of any successful case interview.
Provide Concise and Well-Spoken Answers
Efficiency is a core value in the consulting industry, and it shapes not only business analysis but also communication. Consultants are often inundated with a seemingly endless stream of challenges and obstacles, so the ability to communicate in an efficient manner is a necessity among new hires. In your case interview, make sure you speak directly and move on afterward, avoiding any redundancy.
Further, part of the job of a consultant is to convey trustworthiness in the information they present to clients. One of the ways to achieve this is to always be well spoken in your communications. Effective speaking relies not only on proper grammar but appropriate word choice, confident pronunciation, a positive tone, and even attentive listening. This is another part of your performance interviewers will be looking for, so use the months in advance of your case interview to brush up on your public speaking skills.
One helpful communications strategy is the pyramid principle. This principle supplies a kind of framework for answering questions and presenting arguments. Imagine a single thought at the top of a pyramid. Descending the pyramid from there, that thought is represented by two supporting thoughts or arguments, each of which is supported by its own arguments and evidence.
Work Through Difficulty with a Positive Attitude
A major component of your interview will be an assessment of your response to difficulty. Being a consultant is remarkably fast-paced and demanding—difficulty as a constant, and if you don’t have the skills to deal with it, you aren’t a good fit for the position.
Remember in your case interview that it is meant to be challenging. Avoid lapsing into anxiety, insecurity, or incoherence. If you make a mistake, instead of giving up hope or letting yourself be overly affected by it, try to isolate the source of the error, correct it, and move on.
Confidence is one of the most important things interviewers look for. This can catch younger applicants off guard, as the college environment makes it easier to succeed based on the accuracy of your work as opposed to the confidence of your conclusions.
But consultants don’t simply look for the right answer—they have to convince clients to believe them about what the right answer is. An effective consultant isn’t just confident in they’re work, but in themselves. And that’s important—it’s harder to be confident in someone who isn’t confident in themselves. If performing confidence isn’t necessarily natural for you, you’ll want to focus on ways to project self-confidence as part of your case interview prep.
How To Crack The Case Like A Real Consultant
There are as many possible case interview problems as there are business scenarios. That is, the possibilities are practically infinite. However, as we have been explaining, there are certain strategies you can employ that will help you diagnose many possible scenarios and come up with new approaches to meet clients’ needs. Let’s take a walk through of a sample case and some ways you might tackle it.
Let’s imagine 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 using public education reform as a strategy to give a long-term boost to the economy. Your firm is being asked to diagnose existing problems & limitations facing San Zembla’s education system and to help outline new strategies for improvement.
The Problem Driven Structure
The problem driven structure is a kind of open-ended framework for approaching a problem that does not obviously fit into a predefined framework. To implement this structure, you should begin trying to isolate the most pressing problems or uncertainties and to arrange them in a hierarchy—then you should frame your solutions around these carefully articulated problems.
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. In this case, a chart offers additional information about some of San Zembla’s key education metrics in comparison to other countries in South America.
Describe your observations out loud as you begin to make sense of the chart. Do you notice any meaningful trends or lack thereof? Look closer and imagine different questions you might ask of the data. Remember you can ask the interviewer questions to help clarify the data if need be.
Remember that your goal in comparing San Zembla in neighboring countries is to decide how to improve educational outcomes. It would make sense to ask whether any of the included categories of data seem to 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).
The Issue Tree
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.
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. As you continue teasing out related issues, you might come up with an issue tree like this.
If you want to make sure you’ve properly accounted for all the relevant issues, you can conduct a MECE analysis to make sure your categories are Mutually Exclusive and Collectively Exhaustive. A MECE analysis of the different issues at play might look something like this…
As you drill down on each of these categories, you might notice one cluster of problems is implicated across multiple categories. Alternatively, you might notice one category in particular filling up with interrelated and significant issues than the others. As you conduct your analysis, remember to consider every relevant angle on the information you’ve been provided with. And don’t forget you can request more information from your interviewer.
Summarizing your recommendations is the final assembly of all the work you’ve done so far. Remember that how you present your recommendations is as important as what solutions you actually recommend. Also, make an effort to lead the analysis. This involves working both with confidence and direction. Even if you’re encountering uncertainty, then you should be purposefully drilling down on that uncertainty in order to better understand it. And as you start to derive insights from the data, assemble them into an overall argument in support of your recommendation.
It bears repeating that the simplest and most powerful way to structure an argument is by following the pyramid principle. You’ll remember that the pyramid principle organizes an overall message into a hierarchy of supporting arguments. Employing the pyramid principle to the San Zembla case might look something like this…
If you’re having difficulty getting your footing in a complex situation, it can help to remember the fundamental building blocks of the consultant’s trade. Remaining oriented to these building blocks will help you generate meaningful insights even in moments of uncertainty.
Consultants are frequently sought for their abilities to make strong predictions about hypothetical future outcomes. This is an extremely complicated thing to do, especially in highly volatile industries. It helps to remember that, at a core level, strong estimation is based as much in evidence and logical reasoning as possible. Read the data to see what trends you can observe over time. Of course, most estimation involves some kind of intuitive leap—this is where firsthand experience and familiarity really come into play. But you can build some of that familiarity even as you use your case interview prep to deepen your knowledge of the ways various business scenarios play out.
Profitability is always at front of mind for virtually all parties involved in commercial interactions. Even if the particularities of a given problem don’t obviously center around profitability—as in our example of San Zembla’s public education system—as a consultant you will always at least have to consider cost sustainability, the comparative margins of costs & revenues, etc.
Pricing & Valuation
Providing detailed analysis on issues of pricing and valuation is central to any consultant’s work. Our San Zembla case may not seem to include a conventional product or service sold for profit, but issues of pricing and valuation still come into play. For example, how much will it cost to update San Zembla’s curriculum? And is there any evidence from comparable situations that give a hint as to what the value of an updated curriculum will be? For example, have other countries seen increases in educational outcomes, employment figures, overall productivity, GDP?
Studying cases at a remove can obscure the fact that no company or entity operates in a vacuum. There are always market issues at work, which express the dynamics between competing and/or interdependent organizations. One consideration that might bring up in our current case is whether alternatives to San Zembla’s public education—such as private or charter schools—offer superior educational outcomes. Or even if they don’t, is there reason to think the competition itself will improve aggregate educational outcomes?
Case Interview Prep: Be Ready for Your Interview
The case interview is one of the most influential single events in an entire management consulting career. With that in mind, the last thing you want is to end up disappointed because you didn’t do enough preparation.
You can and should start thinking about your prep timeline up to a few years before you actually begin the interview process. Based on our experience, we recommend at least six months of prep. You’ll want to make sure you leave enough room in your life that you can really dive into studying and preparing. You should also be looking ahead to the time you’ll want to start the interview process and building your prep schedule backward from there.
Of course, many people find themselves with less than six months before their desired interview time. That doesn’t disqualify you—it just means you’ll have to do even more learning and prep in less time.
There are certain optimal times to apply depending on what level of experience you’ll be starting with:
US Undergrads: The peak recruiting season for juniors and seniors is in September of each year, so you should aim to start prepping by March.
International undergrad recruiting follows US recruiting and starts in October. Therefore, prep work should start by April.
Advanced Degree Candidates (ADCs):
Peak recruiting season begins in August, so interview prep should start in February.
We recommend MBAs start their case interview prep in June, before even coming to campus.
If you’re not applying out of school, peak hiring season happens either in March or in July. That would mean starting case interview prep in September or January.
Coming out of a conventional university education, you might be assuming your case interview prep will consist primarily of texts, problems, and numbers. However, an exclusively text-based interview prep would be insufficient. The interview, of course, is an in-person process, and your communication & people skills are just as important as your technical know-how.
One frequently overlooked resource is Youtube videos and podcasts. You can find a plethora of information featuring current and former employees of the biggest and most important consulting firms. You can also find in-depth videos with consultants and former consultants conducting mock interviews and giving feedback. This is an extremely valuable resource. Management Consulted, for instance, offers over 100 educational interviews on our own Youtube channel. An excellent place to start is the Case Structure Walkthrough video.
You can also hire expert coaching. Our coaches can watch or listen to you as you conduct a mock case interview and offer feedback—this is one of the most effective ways you can possibly ready yourself for the case interview.
Practice Out Loud
Left to their own devices, many aspiring consultants study as they would for any other test—that is, by silently doing problems. This presents a huge problem when they arrive on the day of their case interview and discover how meaningful the difference is between practicing cases silently and practicing out loud.
Even if you think you’re considering how to communicate the work you’re doing as you do practice cases, you’ll find that everything sounds very different said out loud. Practicing working out loud will help you communicate your thought process along the way—so interviewers can see your problem-solving skills. It will also help you develop more confidence and it will help you identify mistakes & weak spots you might not otherwise notice.
As we mention above, developing an appropriate structure for approaching each case interview will be something interviewers are looking to see. As you proceed through the various practice cases in your case prep, try to start developing more strategic and formalized procedures for solving each problem. As you approach a problem, take a minute to talk out your thinking—what you know, what you don’t know, what you want to find out in order to proceed, and the order in which you aim to figure that information out.
Taking on a more formal approach to the ways you structure your responses will help you see cases more clearly and will help make your analysis more accurate & effective. Plus you’ll develop a comfort with talking out your thought process, something you’ll want to do in the actual case interview.
Do Your Homework
We’ve made a point here to express that doing practice cases alone is not enough to help you prepare for the case interview. But that shouldn’t obscure the fact that you still do need to do a lot of practice cases as part of your interview prep.
Most successful applicants do 30 to 50 practice cases. However, completing a practice case doesn’t just mean arriving at a solution. It means developing a deep understanding of all the factors in play so you can apply those insights to cases down the road.
We have also found that working with expert coaching can help cut the necessary number practice cases in half, putting them in the 15-20 case range. For most applicants, 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. Compare that to the industry average acceptance rate of 3%.
Coming out of school, many people have only learned how to succeed in group settings and when they’re working with a guided syllabus. One adjustment you might have to make is learning to study alone.
Of course, this is an excellent reason to partner with an expert coach as you prep for your case interview. Our coaches offer real world skill as they help personalize your journey through our carefully designed curriculum. As mentioned above, people who complete our Black Belt program get hired at top 10 firms at over 20x the rate of the industry average.
Practice with a Case Partner
If you’re not in the right situation to work with an expert coach, or if you’re looking to supplement that work, you should really consider practicing with another aspiring consultant as you work your way through practice cases. Partnering up with someone who shares your ambition can help keep you accountable. It’s also an excellent way to get firsthand feedback on your performance. Not to mention the fact that providing feedback to other people on their practice cases will help sharpen your eye to your own vulnerabilities.
The only thing to be careful about here is that, if you decide NOT to hire an expert coach at any point, be careful not to put too much weight on the feedback you get from case partners, particularly ones who aren’t experts. For example, a friend might implore you to choose a framework and stick to it to provide structure. That’s kind of right, but kind of not right. Take feedback from unproven case partners in stride.
Get Expert Help
We’ve said it already but it bears repeating: working with expert coaching is one of the best things you can do to increase your chances of acing the case interview. Our coaches have been through the process themselves, and some have even administered interviews for major consulting firms. Numbers like our Black Belt program’s 60% hiring rate demonstrate that there’s no substitute for one-on-one coaching.
Case Interview Preparation Tips: Execution
Start Every Case Strong
One really powerful thing to practice as you go about your case interview prep is the principle of starting every case strong. If you’re able to do this, you’ll enter every scenario you see with a positive attitude and a flexible mind. If you don’t cultivate this attitude, then the actual day of your interview will feel like a grind. You’ll take your eye off the ball between interviews, and then next thing you know, you’ll find yourself sounding totally unenergetic and possibly making careless mistakes.
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 your actual case interview.
Further, you can use the strategy of asking clarifying questions if you’re ever unsure about how to proceed. That uncertainty must be coming from somewhere. What don’t you know that, if you did know, would tell you how to proceed?
Stay Hypothesis-Driven Throughout the Case
Maintaining a consistently hypothesis-driven approach to each case is one of the best general strategies you can implement. Case interviews are designed not to be perfectly straightforward. There is something of a maze-like quality to them, in that you can’t necessarily see the whole path right away, but have to continue making adjustments as you go.
Open vs. Defined Case Interview Hypotheses
That said, there are different kinds of hypotheses. One major way to categorize the kind of hypothesis you’re working with is as either open or defined. A defined hypothesis typically answers a question whose answers are narrowly defined, such as a yes or no question. A defined hypothesis might sound like: “Our client wants to know whether they should enter a particular new market. Our hypothesis is that they should.” Then you would begin testing that hypothesis to see what the effects would be.
An open hypothesis, by contrast, pertains to a more open-ended problem whose solutions are not expressed as simple binaries. An example of an open hypothesis related to the defined one above might be: “Our client wants to know what they can do to increase profitability. We believe that entering a new market will increase profitability.
Testing Your Hypothesis
You should always have an understanding of your working hypothesis as you proceed through a problem. By design, you will encounter new bits of data that will tell you your hypothesis is wrong or right. You should be consistently referring back to your hypothesis to see whether it’s supported by whatever new data emerges. As the data conflicts with the hypothesis, you’ll want to revise the hypothesis to fit the new data and to test with whatever data emerges next.
One of the easiest mistakes for an interviewer to spot is a candidate who is over-relying on pre-scripted frameworks. The frameworks are designed to give you basic patterns to help you make sense of the unique scenarios you encounter. But each of these scenarios will require its own custom-tailored approach, shaped by the specifics of the problem as it’s defined. Interviewers will be paying attention to make sure you are carefully considering the nuances that make each case unique and customizing your tactics appropriately.
Ask About Trends
The interviewers working alongside you will have access to hosts of potentially relevant data that is not necessarily given to you at the beginning of a case. This could pertain to costs and revenues with some degree of history and granularity. But the interviewers will only give you the information you ask for. Be sure to ask for data covering a wide enough time frame that you can really develop a deeper sense of the situation and the various trends at work. For instance, if you’re provided with six months of advertising costs and associated revenue gains, see whether your interviewer has that same data going back even further, which might tell a different story.
Analyze Case Charts and Graphs
We’ve already given some time to stressing the importance of accurately reading charts and graphs associated with your case interview. One of the primary sources of mistakes in this realm is not an inability to read charts but mistakes made by reading them too quickly. You will probably have more time available than you realize, including five minutes allotted for every quantitative problem. Be sure to double-check your understanding of a chart and to talk your way through it as you go.
Round Your Case Math Numbers Whenever Possible
Being able to think on your feet and quickly develop & adapt different strategies is a huge part of the consultant’s toolkit. A major component of this is being able to accurately do mental math without needing to stop for a calculator. One significant shortcut you can take is to get good at rounding figures to workable “wholes”.
Data is often given with a greater degree of specificity than is really required to work through the problem. If the figures in the thousands or millions are spelled out down to two decimal places, then there is probably room for you to round.
Think Out Loud As Much As You Can
For all the technicality of the various frameworks, one of the things aspiring consultants have the most trouble with is learning to think out loud. Most consultants were good students, but thinking out loud isn’t really a skill you build in school.
Even though the kind of work a consultant does resembles schoolwork on the level of content, the performance is very different. Consultants have to deal with clients directly, and as they do so consultants have to convey a nuanced understanding of the client’s perspective as well as a confident plan for responding to the situation at hand. The case interview is, in part, a test of your ability to communicate in this way. So as you go about your case interview prepping, try to get in the habit of thinking out loud.
Follow the Data, Not the Case Framework
Another frequent mistake applicants make is getting so attached to the first framework to occur to them that they try to force the data to fit into it. But no case is ever perfectly solved with a plug-and-play framework. Each case has its own idiosyncrasies. It should be the unique features of the data that drive your analysis—not any effort to force the data to conform to the framework you’ve decided to try.
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, and to help the client implement it. You’d be surprised how many people do a reasonably good job on their cases, in that they apply a framework flexibly, and do all the mental math and analysis correctly. When they finish, the have evaluated the qualitative benefits of the decision in the case, and the math on profitability that they completed clearly shows that the business decision makes sense. But then the applicant stops and acts as if the case is over. You need to summarize what you have learned and said and bring the case over the goal line with a recommendation.
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 in that solution completely.
Maintain a Positive Attitude and Confident Persona
Confidence and positivity tend to be valued across the entire consulting industry. This makes sense for a variety of reasons. On some level, consultants are both salespeople and therapists for their clients. Not to mention, consultants tend to be self-motivated, competitive people whose success goes hand in hand with a confident demeanor. But also, insofar as consultants at the same firm make up a team, they are constantly being bombarded with new challenges and demands. Remaining confident and positive is an important part of a firm’s overall morale. Therefore demonstrating your own positive attitude and confident persona helps make the argument that you’re a good fit for the firm you’re applying to.
Management consulting has for decades been one of the hottest career paths for ambitious young professionals. The consultant path offers constant stimulation and novelty, 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. The keys to successfully navigating the case interview process are many, but they include fully understanding what firms are looking for, understanding – but not relying – on frameworks, doing a lot of practice cases and potentially getting excerpt help, learning to talk and do math out loud, and staying confident.
Hopefully this guide has given you a thorough overview of just what it’ll take to fully prepare for this crucial step in your career. Don’t forget, one of the most powerful things you can do to boost your consulting interview prep is to work 1-on-1 with an expert coach. Management Consulted’s crack team of coaches will help you develop the necessary skills, and they’ll also give you unparalleled expertise in just what interviewers are looking for.
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