Consulting Case Anatomy – A Simple Breakdown

As a prospective consultant, one of the things that can seem the most mysterious in the case study interview prep process, is wondering what the interviewer is going to ask you next. We have good news for you!

Many of you have heard about interviewer-led and interviewee-led case interviews and are wondering how to approach each one appropriately. The good news is, as far as anatomy goes, they’re actually very similar. The difference between the two just comes down to who leads, the interviewer or the interviewee.

Below, we are going to go into the 8 different elements of case anatomy below. If you follow these tips, you’re going to be in a very advantageous position when it comes to impressing your interviewer because you’ll know where you are in the case and what to do next – no surprises.

We put a heavy emphasis on the beginning part of the case because it’s very likely that the interviewer will give you a broad yes or no within the first 3-5 minutes of your case, and will also indicate who is leading (you or him/her). If you nail the beginning, you’re well on your way to case success.

Interviewer-led case study interviews

Often used by larger firms who are interviewing a lot of people across a number of different campuses and offices, interviewer-led interviews employ a scoring system, and cases are often created by a central group within the firm. The advantage of the methodology and scoring system is that it lets the firm standardize their results across the company, so they can make sure they’re getting the best candidates even with a distributed interviewing model.

In an interviewer-led interview, the interviewer will tell you where they want to go and you should not wander off from where they are taking you. McKinsey is the best-known interviewer-led firm. Accenture and ATKearney cases are also highly structured, although not quite to the same extent.

Interviewee-led case study interviews

The larger firms who use this method do so because they really want to test your understanding of the key concepts they need you to know. It may test an industry or practice area focus, like technology, operations, or finance. In addition, firms really test creativity and collaboration with the interviewee-led style.

The important thing in interviewee-led interviews is that you really build your up-front structure, because the structure is your game plan for solving the case.  In fact, the start is critical to both, but for interviewee-led interviews, it’s do-it-well-or-die.

The best known interviewee-led firm is BCG. Bain and Monitor-Deloitte use a blend of the 2 styles, and many other firms trend toward interviewee-led – it’s easier to implement.

So, without further ado, let’s review the 8 key elements of consulting case anatomy.

The 8 Elements of Consulting Case Anatomy

1 – The Background

The interviewer is going to give you the context for the case you’re going to be working on. You can expect to be told the company name, the industry, the strategic problem they are facing and any other information that’s relevant to the case.

At this point, you should make sure you focus, take shorthand notes and make sure you understand the client’s key problems.

2 – The Recap

Here, you open your mouth and speak. Make sure your first impression is a good one. Stick to the key issues, in an abbreviated form. At this point, give statements about what you’ve been told already, so don’t ask questions.

There is a time for clarifying questions, but this is not it. Do not try and recap everything, only the most important facts. Lastly, make sure you finish the recap with the key questions you’re exploring in the case.

3 – Case and Objective Clarification

AFTER you’ve given an amazing recap, you can ask clarifying questions. If you didn’t get some information that is material to the case, ask, but don’t ask for new data or launch into questions that should more appropriately be handled inside the case.

There are differing schools of thought on asking questions. We believe that asking a lot of questions can leave you open to unfortunate blunders, which is why we do not place a strong emphasis on it. If you really do have a question to ask, then ask away, but if you don’t, don’t. Keeping your mouth shut may even be the better course.

4 – The Grand Pause

This is where you devise your game plan. One question we get asked a lot is about the grand pause – how long can you take? 2.5-3 minutes is a good amount of time, but make sure you let the interviewer know you’re about to shut up shop and head into your brain cave.

Remember, even when you are quiet, you are building confidence in the interviewer – so project how assured and calm you are as you lay out your structure. And as a bonus – keep your notes organized!

5 – The Game Plan

Perhaps the most important response you give in the case study interview is this one. You should start this section by saying something like, “I’m going to look at X key areas”. Have 3-4 main points verbally placed in two levels, high level buckets and metrics you will use to identify key findings.

In total, you want to take 1-2 minutes to deliver your response. The key is to get to the point and give all the necessary information, without lacking the appropriate depth (some, but not too deep). This takes practice.

Things to avoid in the game plan are:

  1. Sounding over regimented and formulaic
  2. Having only a one tiered structure to your response
  3. Failing to give the key points in an easy to follow, 1-2-3 format.

This is where you’re most likely to find out if your interview is interviewer- or interviewee-led. We suggest you pause for a second and wait for the interviewer to direct you to the next question. If they don’t, you can assume this is an interviewee lead interview. If it does happen to be an interviewee lead interview, we suggest you take a look at point one from your game plan and lead off from there.

Whether it’s interviewee or interviewer-led, you’re going to go through additional steps (in no particular order) to unpack the different issues and get to the end of the case. Keep an eye out for the following types of questions:

6 – Creative questions

A typical creative question might be, “Why do you think this company’s sales are decreasing?”

The interviewer wants you to give 3 or 4 solutions that are reasonable. At this point, you want the interviewer to see you have the right blend of creativity and structure.

Don’t forget to take written notes while creatively brainstorming. If you do, you won’t be able to accurately and confidently provide a recap and drive to next steps. It also helps you to slow down.

7 – Quantitative questions

These are scary, no doubt – but there are particular ways to win.

  1. Make sure you have all the pertinent information they laid out for you at the beginning.
  2. Clarify the end goal. Is it profit or is it revenue? Is it per store or is it across a system? Are we working within month long time frame, or a year long time frame?
  3. Use your algebra basics to make a plan before you jump in. Identify how you’re going to solve the problem, including details you may need, but don’t have. Ask for this up front, but be ready to make an estimate if they don’t give it to you.
  4. Put the complete set of info and an algebraic plan together and calculate the answer.
  5. As if that wasn’t already hard enough, spend the remainder of the time interpreting the answers and providing next steps.

Mental math! Your best friend, right? To face these questions with the best brainpower, ditch Excel and ditch the calculator for at least 2 weeks before the case study interview. You won’t be able to use them anyhow!

Plus, go ahead and get up to speed with all that middle school math we’re sure you used to love – review fractions, percentages and compounding interest.

8 – Case Summary and Next Steps

The conclusion of the case comes at one of 2 points – you’ve done all you can to solve the case, or you’ve run out of time. At this point, the interviewer asks you to summarize the case.

For extra brownie points, you can offer 2-3 next steps. This shows the interviewer you’re already thinking like a consultant and selling follow-on work. Next steps may look like expanding on some of the analysis you did – if you only looked at one segment, what about the others? Or it may look like assessing the risks of the strategy you just recommended.

Our recommendation is that you be prepared to give an answer right off the bat, without looking at you notes again. Show the interviewer you know how to create and support a conclusion with the facts you have, and that you can think on your feet. McKinsey cases are the exception – if you ask for time, you can collect and compose an answer (unless the interviewer tells you to jump right in).

In summary, each case – interviewer-led and interviewee-led alike – aligns with a predictable format. Your method of approach, therefore, can be similar for each case you are presented with, regardless of the firm, interview round, or level.

If you’re just getting start with case study interview prep and are interviewing for multiple firms, make sure you start with interviewee-led cases. You will have to do more work, and if you mess up, you have to get back on track – but it’s better case training overall.

Even though this may have seemed pretty exhaustive, it’s actually only the tip of the iceberg in terms of what we have on offer. If you would like to better prepare yourself for consulting study interviews, we highly recommend buying our hugely popular book, The Consulting Interview Bible.

Filed Under: Case Interview