Sandy Lerner, co-founder of Cisco Systems, once summed up consulting interviews perfectly when she said, “The first rule of any game is to know you’re in one.”
If you’re anything like us, when you play, you play to win. In the research you’ve been doing into the wild world of management consulting, you should have noticed how important the case interview is on your road to a job offer. One thing you may not realize, however, is that you’re being scored from the moment you open your mouth. That’s right: the game begins from the first syllable, so we figured it would be good for you to know how to get as many points as possible and win your interviewer over.
Now, before we get started here, it’s very important that we give this huge *DISCLAIMER* to explain where our information is coming from. The insights we’re giving are derived from our team’s exact experiences at Bain, McKinsey, BCG, and Deloitte but does not reflect an exact existing scoring system (we’re staying out of hot water here by keeping the exact firm secrets a secret). If you join any of the top firms and sit in the interviewer chair, however, this information will ring directionally true and will feel scarily familiar.
We’ve incorporated our experience at the firms into the MC-specific scoring guide and in the 500+ case studies in our Case Library – we’ve incorporated these scoring principles in the answer keys to all of them. We also have a dozen MBB coaches standing by to work with you on partner practice cases – again, our coaching process is based on our jobs working as management consultants. From the years of experience we have in consulting – both training for interviews ourselves and training now thousands of candidates – we have created this system as a means of helping you uniquely target areas for improvement.
Our scoring system is on a 5-point scale – 1 is painful and 5 is perfect. To help put you at ease, you should know that we have never had someone score 5s across the board on their first case with us…and we’ve done thousands of mock case interviews. If you’d like a detailed look at the grading criteria across each section, buy our course (The Case Interview Bootcamp), or even better, work with a coach for 1:1 feedback.
In this article, we’re giving you 5 key principles about top firm case interview scoring systems, along with some additional insights.
It is worth noting that this type of case scoring is most applied in first round interviews, where you’re most likely be interviewed by junior staff members (up to manager level). By the time you get to the second (or final) round of interviews, you’ll be talking with senior managers or partners, who will often score the applicants with a basic 1 or 0, “yes” or “no” – they can’t be bothered to fill out extensive scoring charts and these interview scoring principles have been deeply ingrained in them over time anyways. They know what good looks like when they see it.
Whether it’s your first or the second round of interviews, here are five insights on the case scoring system that will help you overcome what’s thrown in front of you.
Case Interview Scoring
You are Being Scored from the Moment You Open Your Mouth
We did mention this already, but it’s too important to gloss over. Before you take time to build your structure, the interviewer already has a strong impression on whether they think you’ll be a good fit for the firm. They start assessing you when your interaction begins.
Everything you do is important: the way you greet them and introduce yourself, the way you communicate through any upfront questions or discussion. Then when the case begins: the way you recap the case, the ask questions (and how many or how few you ask), and the way you ask for time to build your structure all contribute to the first impression. Each of these things is a determining factor in the mind of the assessor, and their overall impression of you is anchored in these first few minutes of interaction. Are you going to be a thumbs up or a thumbs down?
First, remember – smile. If you’re having fun and are passionate but relaxed in the process of solving the case, you convey a persuasive relevance that is essential to success – it communicates “I’m already a consultant.”
You cannot score a 5 on any section of the case without demonstrating confidence and enthusiasm in balance with good mechanics.
Structure, Structure, Structure
If you get feedback about needing to be more structured, it’s often not just about the “structure” part of the case. The thing about management consultants is that we don’t have a “work” mode and a “play” mode – we are who we are. To borrow from Gertrude Stein, “A management consultant is a management consultant, is a management consultant.” Whatever we’re doing, we do things in a structured way.
Your interviewer wants to see consistent evidence through this interview that you have a strong ability to create and communicate clear structure – and that structure starts from the beginning of your interactions and is scored throughout – in the opening sequence, certainly when you present your framework, but also in math, creative brainstorming, and even in your conclusion.
Top candidates convey structure in every part of the problem and conversation – and without structure, you’ll demonstrate intuition but not preparedness, which will max out your score at 2s or 3s.
Define 2 Levels of Structure
Defining 2 levels of structure provides both high level and metric-based support for your answers
We wouldn’t be giving you the whole picture if we told you that just having a good structure would give you a 5 out of 5. The truth is a clear and concise layout by itself may only get you a 3 out of 5. Content is key.
If you want to get a top score, you must give the interviewer depth. It’s one thing to build a structure that can get you from A to B, but it’s another thing altogether to build a structure that can stand up strong in the face of conflicting data, conflicting client desires and intense scrutiny.
For example, you may think it’s adequate to ask the question, “What are competitors doing?” in your opening structure. While it’s a good question to ask, however, it won’t drive at the heart of the issue in the same way that using metrics-driven approach will. If you want to stand out, you should ask more detail-oriented questions like, “What segments are competitors targeting, what is their current pricing and how has it changed over the last ~3 years?”
Top scores (4s and 5s for us) are reserved for candidates who don’t simply touch on high-level issues but also take a data-driven approach to solving the real (and often complex) business problem at hand without losing focus.
Utilizing a hypothesis-driven approach distinguishes great candidates
Answering the overall case question is, of course, important in the case interview. But if you really want to set yourself apart, define and utilize a hypothesis-driven approach.
If you state your hypothesis upfront in the presentation of your structure and use it throughout your case, only good can come of it. If the hypothesis you provide on the first question ends up being the correct answer: congratulations, you’re officially a superhero. If the hypothesis you started with isn’t the final answer, but you use it to test your findings as you unpack the answer… congratulations, you’re also a superhero. One thing to remember about hypotheses is that consultants use them all the time in real life on the job, so mastering this skill is one that will serve you well beyond your interview.
You can first work to include a hypothesis overall for the case upfront in the case discussion. First, start creating your overall case hypothesis in your mind as you ask your 1-3 clarifying questions of the interviewer. Then make sure each element of your structure is going to help you prove or disprove that hypothesis.
One important note here about specificity – a risky hypothesis could sound like, “The answer is that input costs are rising.” This specificity is risky and sounds like you’re just throwing a dart at a dartboard. A better directional hypothesis might be, “My hypothesis is that costs may be to blame, so I’d first start to look there.”
Sometimes we can be more specific in our overall case hypothesis, however. For all case objectives that are yes and no (e.g., Should the client enter this market? Should the client buy this company?), specificity in your hypothesis is great – tell the interviewer if you hypothesize they should/shouldn’t. For other more open-ended case questions, however, move more toward explaining which areas you want to focus on first instead of what you expect to find there. It conveys a focus on priorities without the risk of being terribly, horribly wrong.
But a hypothesis-driven approach doesn’t end with the creation and presentation of your structure. It will also help propel you to…
Drive the Conversation
Drive the conversation forward and build the bridge between questions
Whether it’s an interviewee or interviewer-led case delivery, you’re in charge of keeping up the case momentum and being a thought leader in the conversation. To do this, summarize your findings at the end of each step and lay out actionable items that would be reasonable to investigate next. If you don’t, you’ll max out at a 3 at most for each section.
This is most important at the end of the case, because it shows you really understand the data you’ve reviewed in the context of the bigger picture. Getting to the end of your case and then suggesting more things that could be looked at is what any top tier consultant worth their paycheck would do (it’s how firms make more money over time, after all). The “next steps” that you lay out as a part of your recommendation/conclusion should help end your case interview strong by showing that you’ve identified the most important items to look at next.
Keep these five principles in mind as you practice working through case interview conversations out loud! Also check out our Case Interview Prep Guide for additional help.
Remember that with most consulting firms, one good case doesn’t guarantee you the job, but one bad answer also doesn’t eliminate you from the first round. If you have either a great performance or poor performance in any part of the case, remember that there is still a lot of the interview left to stand out.
For further help to get interview ready and reach the top of the scoring chart – book an Interview Prep session with an MBB coach.