Unstructured case interviews have become a more common occurrence in the process of getting hired at a top consulting firm. And while you may be familiar with the standard case interview, the unstructured case interview can surprise you if you’re not prepared for it. This short article discussion includes an explanation of the difference between a case interview and an unstructured case interview, and what you can do to prepare for any type of case interview that may be presented during the consulting interview process. Let’s dive in.
What’s the Difference Between Structured and Unstructured Case Interviews?
What exactly is an “unstructured case interview?” Picture this. You make it through the initial stages of the application process and the first round of interviews at your top choice consulting firm. Now you are in the final interview stage, preparing yourself for questions about your personality, professional experience, and typical case interview questions.
That is, until the interviewer throws you a giant curveball in the form of an unstructured case interview. Instead of a standard case interview, you are presented with an open-ended business problem. The question is very qualitative in nature, typically not even getting to a data/quant piece. The interviewer provides very little background information or data on the problem. What gives?
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There are 5 ways unstructured cases are different from traditional cases:
- They are usually conducted by a Principal or Partner
- They usually take place in final rounds
- Unstructured cases are often based on a project the interviewer has worked on
- They have little to no quant/math to work through
- They are an open conversation with little structure
Sample prompt: You’re starting a restaurant in NYC – how would you go about this?
From Bain to McKinsey, top ranked consulting firms follow a fairly standard, even predictable, case interview format that tests the interviewees’ problem-solving, analytical, and communication skills under pressure. Standard case interviews don’t necessarily offer the interviewee a specific structure for solving a case, but through extensive amounts of information and questions, it is usually clear what the problem to be solved is and the key issues are. But even in structured case interviews, the short amount of time to digest the information and offer suggestions makes the process challenging for most.
Unstructured case interviews rely on the interviewee – more than the interviewer – to drive the discussion forward. This is one of the primary ways that unstructured case interviews differ from standard cases. Instead of asking questions and offering a structure with a straightforward path towards an answer, the unstructured case interview is composed of open-ended questions designed for a fluid, back-and-forth conversation. Unstructured case interviews rely on the responses exchanged between the interviewee and interviewer, and the goal is to see how you think about business in a more holistic way.
In any case interview, the interviewer is not looking for a standardized response or the “right answer.” But the unstructured case interview takes this to another level. It gives space for you to share opinion and thoughts on the business problem at hand via a question-and-answer format. In an unstructured case interview, you will ask good questions to glean additional information to present your thoughts on the business problem at hand. But again, there is no wrong answer in an unstructured case interview. If you can showcase business acumen and have a mutually enjoyable conversation, you’ve probably “passed.”
Pro tip: if you’re targeting ZS Associates, it is highly likely that the firm will employ one or more unstructured case interviews in the process. However, you’d be smart to prepare for an unstructured case no matter the firm you are applying to!
How To Prepare For An Unstructured Case Interview
To prepare for the unstructured case interview, you should focus on your ability to engage with an interviewer in a more open-ended format. The unstructured case interview generates new questions and hypotheses at every turn, so it will be helpful to practice an unstructured case interview format with someone who has actually conducted one – work with one of our senior MBB interviewers to prepare.
The key to prep for an unstructured case interview is much the same as preparing for any other kind of case interview. Live and out-loud case practice with a partner helps hone your structure, problem solving and communication skills that will still be looked for in an unstructured interview.
Another prep idea: talk through a current business article with a peer… What did you think of this? What should the company do now? What would you want to look at next?
Overall, you’ll want to practice for unstructured case interviews much the same as for standard case interviews.
Due to its open-ended format, the unstructured case interview disrupts the standard consulting interview process. And while the unstructured case interview may feel like a curveball, you now have enough information to prepare you to hit it out of the park. Work with our team to prepare for your case interviews and prepare for any type of case you get.
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