On the Case – How to Ace the Consulting Case Interview
ConsultingIndustry SpecificInterview Types
Posted by Pamela Skillings
What Is a Case Interview?
In a case interview, the candidate is provided with a detailed situation, problem or challenge and asked to analyze it and come up with a solution.
A case interview question can be based on a creative business situation your interviewer has experienced in real life, or one manufactured to deduce your abilities. Questions can range from the basic (How do you know the light goes off when you close the refrigerator door?) to the sweat-inducing (Estimate the volume percentage of disposable diapers in the total US household garbage).
Acing the case interview is a key factor in getting hired in management consulting. After all, companies hire consultants to strategize solutions to business, organizational, or industry-specific problems.
Case interview questions help an interviewer understand how you think and how you would approach a client challenge if hired. Case interviews are also used in investment banking and other industries that require strategic business thinking.
Getting Down to Brass Tacks – Case Questions
You may be asked a few getting-to-know-you or warm-up questions first, but the interviewer will soon get down to the main event of the interview: the case question(s).
Each case question will outline a business problem. The problem may be general (“Determine the market for a drug that prevents baldness.”) or very specific and detailed (see example below).
“The global market for crystal giftware is growing at 3% a year, yet the client is experiencing steady declining sales and shrinking market share worldwide. Therefore, the CEO of Swarovski has retained your consulting firm to help him identify the cause for their declining sales and market share. He would like you to figure out two specific problems: Why is Swarovski’s market share declining? What can they do about it?” 
You, the candidate, are expected to resolve the problem within a limited amount of time while being observed. Many applicants fail in this challenge — especially without proper preparation.
How to Answer Case Interview Questions
Firms use case interviews to evaluate analytical ability and problem-solving skills. Your interviewer is more interested in your overall approach to the problem than the final outcome.
Your future employer is trying to see if you can analyze complex problems critically and break them down in a logical manner. Do you take all critical aspects into account? Do you avoid jumping to conclusions? Do you ask insightful questions? Do you have strong critical thinking skills?
If you arrive at the “right” answer or close to it, you get a gold star. However, it’s not always possible to get the “right” answer — either because there are multiple correct responses or critical information is not provided.
You can ace the case interview without getting the answer correct as long as you show that your thinking and problem solving processes are sound.
Your process will highlight your strengths in key competencies: numerical and verbal reasoning, communication and presentation, listening and observation, and understanding of business models and concepts.
Here are some high-level guidelines for answering case interview questions effectively (also see below for resources to help you dig deeper into your case interview preparation):
- Listen carefully. Pay attention to the question, including specific word choice, and make sure you understand what the interviewer is really asking for. Take notes so you’ll be able to refer back to provided data points.
- Ask clarifying questions. Make sure that you understand the purpose of the case. For example, in our giftware case question above, you’re dealing with a typical “increasing market share” problem. You should also ask for additional information and/or direction if needed. By asking smart questions, you show off your critical thinking skills and also engage your interviewer in the process.
- Outline your approach. After you’ve considered the case and asked any clarifying questions, explain to your interviewer how you plan to structure your response. This shows purpose and framework.
- Think out loud (but take your time). Tell the interviewer the factors you are considering and strategies you plan to use. If you decide to reject an option, explain a valid reason. However, don’t feel the need to express every thought that you have. Pause to consider before sharing a particular thought process with your interviewer. You don’t want to blurt out something that will make you look foolish.
- Stay focused. It can be very tempting to get bogged down in detail and possibilities. Keep the original question in mind and don’t allow yourself to wander too far from the main objective.
- Pay attention to feedback. Many interviewers will provide feedback — verbally or via body language or facial expression. Be observant and you’ll be able to see clues that you’re on track or way off base. If you get stuck, ask for input or validation of your understanding.
- Show off your quantitative skills. Take advantage of opportunities to calculate estimates or otherwise demonstrate your comfort with running numbers.
- Wrap up and summarize. When you’ve worked through the problem, take time to end crisply and confidently with a summary of your approach and key findings.
Preparing for a Case Interview
Preparation is key when it comes to acing the case interview. The best way to get good is to practice. Your competitors for the job will be practicing and you should too.
You never know exactly what case questions you will get. However, you can hone your skills by reading as many business-case dilemmas as possible.
The more types of cases and case frameworks you are familiar with, the smaller the risk of encountering a problem that will stump you. Standard case frameworks help you structure your answer by giving you detailed guidelines on how to generate solutions. Examples of frameworks: segmentation of a market, analysis of a competitor’s initiative, product pricing, etc.
Practice, Practice, PracticeReading up is a good start, but you should also spend time on mock case interviews. You can practice with a friend or colleague. This will be most effective if your practice partner is briefed on the basics of case interviewing so that the role play is realistic.
You can also work with a professional coach if you want truly realistic practice and feedback. At Skillful Communications, we have helped many clients prepare for their case interviews and land jobs at top consulting firms.
More Case Interview Resources
Here are some additional resources to help you understand and prepare for the case interview:
1. Consulting Firm Web Sites — Most of the top consulting firms provide guidance on case interviews online.
2. Helpful Books
Connect with Pamela Skillings on Google+
Pamela Skillings is co-founder of Big Interview. As an interview coach, she has helped her clients land dream jobs at companies including Google, Microsoft, Goldman Sachs, and JP Morgan Chase. She also has more than 15 years of experience training and advising managers at organizations from American Express to the City of New York. She is an adjunct professor at New York University and an instructor at the American Management Association.
If you’ve got your sights set on a consulting gig, then you already know which one of the types of interviews to except: A case.
The case interview is a format in which you, the interviewee, are given a business problem (“How can BigCoal Co. double its growth?”) or a brain teaser (“How many tennis balls fit in a 747?”) to solve. Cases have gotten quite the reputation for being intense, quant-heavy, and just downright scary. But they don’t have to be—not the scary part, at least
We spoke with recruiters at top consulting firms to learn what really makes an interviewee “ace the case.” And while case interviews were once exclusively the domain of aspiring consultants, they’re now popping up everywhere from tech companies to NGOs. So, no matter where you interview, use these tips to sail on through.
1. Ask Questions—From the Start
In the beginning, you’ll typically be given important information about your case. Listen to it and take notes. And when the interviewer asks if you have any questions before proceeding—the answer is “yes”
First, summarize the situation and problem at hand, and ask clarifying questions if something was unclear (e.g., if there was a word you didn’t understand). This will not only highlight your listening skills, it’ll let you double-check that you understand the case that you’re about to start solving.
Then, do one better: Ask a “step back” question. A step back question is one the puts the case into context, and gets at the bigger picture beyond the information you were given upfront. For instance, if you’re given a case about a private equity firm that’s deciding whether or not to acquire a given company, a step back question could be: “Is this private equity firm also looking at other acquisitions in the industry and therefore evaluating this target versus others?” Most people don’t do this—so if you do, it’ll help you stand out as thoughtful and genuinely interested in the problem rather than just focused on getting through the interview
2. Engage Your Interviewer
Asking questions is also a great way to build a rapport with your interviewer from the start. Think of the case not as a test, but as a conversation through which you need to solve a problem. With this mindset, ask your interviewer for more information when you need it, explain your assumptions as you go, and talk him or her through your approach. All of these things will lead to a productive conversation, and you’ll likely find your interviewer quite helpful, especially if you get stuck.
Sometimes he or she may steer you in a different direction or suggest you think of things in a different way—and you should pay attention to such subtle cues and guidance. The more you bring your interviewer along in your thinking, the more he or she will enjoy working through the case with you, and the more opportunity you give him or her to help you solve the problem you’ve been presented with
3. Structure, Structure, Structure
A good structure is really the key to doing well with a case. It’s more important than your answer and it’s more important than the knowledge you bring in—it’s your chance to show “how you think.” The interviewer wants to know that you can take a bunch of information thrown at you and create a logical structure, process it, and get to a good answer (not “the” answer, mind you—with cases, there aren’t single right answers).
So, when asked to solve the problem at hand, first ask for a moment to think through it and collect your thoughts. Then, grab your pen and paper and get to work. Your goal, in the next 30 seconds or so, is to outline a logical structure that will help you work through the major issues of the case
A good structure breaks down the problem into components. For example, if you’re asked about profits, then you can split that into two components: “increasing revenue” or “decreasing costs.” Then, you can split each of those further—increasing revenue means “increasing your price” or “increasing the number of things you sell;” decreasing costs means “decreasing fixed costs” or “decreasing variable costs.” On the other hand, if you were asked about growth, you could break you answer into “selling more of what we have today” and “selling new products” or “selling in our existing markets” and “moving into new markets.”
Write down your structure, then explain it to your interviewer. And only then should you dive in to how, specifically, you would up the selling price, decrease manufacturing costs, or move into Asia. The bonus of this approach: If you go down one path and get stuck, you have an outline to fall back on.
4. Recognize Case Archetypes
Now, here’s a secret: There are really only a handful of case “types” that you will be given. They include entering a new market, developing a new product, growth strategies, pricing strategies, starting a new business, increasing profitability (or increasing sales or reducing costs), and acquiring a company. Turning around a company and coming up with a response to a competitor’s actions are also possibilities, but they’re asked much less frequently.
So, plan ahead and come up with clear structures in mind for each “type.” There is no right structure, and you should, of course, adapt your structure to be relevant to the case at hand. However, thinking through structures ahead of time will help you make sure you stay focused on the key issues during the case, even if unfamiliar jargon is thrown your way. Plus, structures give you a framework for organizing and talking through your information, and a safety net to fall back on if you get stuck.
As you practice cases, you should test out and refine your structures. See if they help you cover the important information and lead you down the path to solving the problem—and if not, revise them accordingly.
Good news: We work with experts who know what to expect
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5. Practice Your Numbers
Many people freeze up on the quant section. And the best advice here is: The more you practice, the easier it will get. Here are a few pointers:
- Write out your formulas and thought processes as you’re doing your math. This will help you see if you need to ask for additional information to answer the question. Also, if you hit a wall, the interviewer will be able to help get you back on track more easily if he or she is aware of what you’re trying to do.
- Play and practice with numbers. If you trip up on zeros, try dividing and multiplying in scientific notation. Practice taking 10%, 20%, 25% of a number (moving the decimal over for 10% and halving it for 5% usually works well). Have an idea of what 1/5, 1/6, 1/7, 1/8, 1/9, and 1/10 are in percentage terms.
- When given a quant question, again, ask for a moment to gather your thoughts and structure the approach. Never feel pressured to respond right away.
6. Keep Up With Industries
You never know what industry the case you’re given will focus on. However, the more relevant you can make your questions and answers to the industry, the better.
Two things can help here. First, as you practice, keep a running tab of specific attributes particular to an industry (e.g., for airlines: the market is competitive on pricing, economics of coach vs. business travel are very different, capacity utilization is important, unions and fuel can be big drivers of cost). Second, keep current with the news. Reading The Economist every week is a great way to keep abreast of major trends in different industries and countries.
7. Practice—and Grab a Buddy
Read through cases yourself, do cases with your friends, and try out the cases on a company’s website. Often, business schools will compile case books and circulate them as well. Case in Point by Marc P. Cosentino is a good place to start. The more you practice, the more variants you will see, and the more comfortable you will be on the day of your actual interview.
Also, there’s no substitute for talking through cases out loud. Reading cases on your own, or doing them online, can be great for helping you practice your structures and your math, but there’s nothing like having to articulate your thought process in real time. Do yourself a favor by simulating the interview environment beforehand—grab a friend and give each other cases. You’ll also be surprised by what you can learn from sitting on the other side of the table
And finally—have fun. Yes, doing your fourth practice case in a row can be a drag. However, you should also get a sense during your practice if you really like problem solving through a case. If you enjoy your consulting interview, chances are higher you will enjoy the actual consulting work as well.