A Comprehensive Guide to Case Interview Prep [updated 2020]
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What Are the Best Ways to Prepare for Interviews with Management Consulting Firms?
If you’re on this page, you’re probably considering a career in management consulting or are already in the middle of the interview process.
We’re here to help.
We’re a team of more than 20 former McKinsey, Bain, and BCG consultants and recruiters (our average time in consulting is 13 years each) and we put together this guide to help you prepare for getting your consulting offer.
After reading this, we hope “congratulations” is also what you’ll hear when you leave your final interviews.
Management Consulting Jobs Are in High Demand
Management consulting jobs are among the most sought-after positions in on-campus recruiting, whether you’re applying as an undergraduate or from a business school.
Consulting firm recruits also come from law schools, Ph.D. programs and people already working in other industries.
Consulting firms are filled with smart people working to solve hard business problems.
This work is a great launching pad for your career.
Top consultancies offer competitive salaries and also invest significantly in employee development. There’s a lot to like about a career in consulting!
Competition for Jobs with Top Consulting Firms Is Fierce
But attractive jobs are usually highly competitive, and that’s definitely the case in management consulting.
Top firms typically make offers to only about 1% of the people who apply. It’s not impossible to get a job with firms like McKinsey, Bain, and BCG (also known as the MBB firms), but it requires preparation.
In particular, successful candidates know that consulting firms use a particular type of interview question — the case study interview — and they know what recruiters are looking for in answers.
In this article, we’ll help you prepare for consulting interviews by answering the following questions:
- What is a case interview?
- How do I answer a case question?
- What is the best approach for case interview prep?
We’ll also provide tips and tricks that will help you to ace your case.
Whether you’re aiming for a job at one of the MBB firms, with other consultancies such as AT Kearney, L.E.K. or Oliver Wyman, or with the consulting arms of the large accounting firms such as Deloitte, Accenture, PwC, Ernst & Young, or KPMG, we can help you get there.
What Is a Consulting Case Study Interview (also known as the “Case Interview”)?
A Case Study Interview is a real-time problem-solving test used to screen candidates for their ability to succeed in consulting.
The case is presented as an open-ended question, often a problem that a specific type of business is facing, that an interviewer asks a candidate to solve.
Sample Case Interview Questions
Sales of drinks in Coffee Bean cafes are declining. What is causing the sales decline?
Turnover of store employees at Burgers R’ Us restaurants has increased over prior years. What would you advise the company to do?
Donations to Caring Hands have fallen, straining the non-profit’s ability to help the families it targets. What should the organization do to turn this around?
Why Do Top Consulting Firms Use Case Interview Questions?
Management consultancies are not the only types of firms that use case interview questions to evaluate candidates.
Investment banks, consumer marketing companies, and others use the case interview structure.
Because case interviews show how a candidate would problem solve in real time.
Solving complex, ambiguous problems is at the heart at what consultants do every day.
This type of interview question mimics the analytic process a consultant might go through in a 3-month project, but it does it in 30 minutes, the time allowed in a typical interview.
The interviewer can probe whether a candidate’s approach is well-structured, creative, and displays good business sense.
How Do Consulting Recruiters Evaluate Candidates?
The main thing that recruiters are looking for in case interviews is whether or not they’d feel comfortable putting a candidate in front of a client. To assess that, they want to know:
- Is this person able to do the job? Do they have the analytic skills to solve tough business problems?
- Is this person client-ready? Are they knowledgeable, professional, and confident enough to work effectively with client staff and leaders?
- Is this someone I’d want to work with? This question is sometimes referred to as the airport test. It comes down to, “Would I want to be stuck in an airport with this person if the weather was bad and our flight was delayed?” It assesses whether an individual is smart, fun and passionate about the projects they take on.
- Is this person coachable? No one expects a recruit to know the answer to every thorny business issue right out of undergrad, or even right out of business school, but they do want someone who is willing and able to take suggestions and improve their analysis. Show you are coachable by listening for feedback as you answer a case interview question and using suggestions to steer you toward the right solution.
Answering a Case Interview Question – The Right Approach To Use
You’re starting your case interview prep, it’s important to remember that the “right answer” is not simply a conclusion, but the methodical, the well-structured process used to reach the conclusion.
To answer a case interview question correctly, you must:
Understand the question you are being asked.
After your interviewer describes the client this case will involve and the problem they face, you should repeat this information back to them in your own words.
This can feel awkward when you practice your first case, but it’s critically important.
If you don’t have the client and their problem straight, you could spend a lot of time answering the wrong question. If that happens you will not be moving forward to second round interviews no matter how elegant your analysis is.
Example: Our client is a fast-food retailer that has seen declining sales over the past couple of years. They want your help in understanding what they can do to improve sales.
Take time to think through all the key aspects of the problem.
Ask for a moment to consider your approach to solving the client’s problem. During this time, write down what you want to learn about the client’s situation before you answer the question.
Your approach can lean on business frameworks you’re familiar with.
For instance, in the example of a fast-food chain with declining sales, you should break sales down into price and unit volume to understand whether the client is not selling enough units of their products or whether prices have fallen (or both!)
But you don’t need to use familiar frameworks. In fact, it’s best to develop your own approach to the problem as it shows you can solve a case without forcing a standard framework on the problem.
For more information on business frameworks, you might want to have in your back pocket as you answer consulting interview questions, see Business Frameworks.
Ask pertinent questions and use information from the interviewer to form hypotheses about the problem and explore potential options.
After you brainstorm key aspects of the problem and organize your approach to solving it, share your approach with your interviewer.
If the interviewer suggests a place to start your analysis, follow their lead.
Otherwise, suggest the best place to start digging into the issue.
Make sure the questions you ask the interviewer touch on all the key aspects of the problem you identified.
Summarize your conclusion in a persuasive manner.
Once you’re confident you have enough information to understand the problem the client is facing and what needs to be done to solve it, you’ll conclude the case with a logical summary outlining the problem, key conclusions you’ve reached, and providing a persuasive recommendation on how you’d help the client resolve it.
Below, we’ll go into more depth on how to address each of these 4 points in a case.
Questions You Should Ask Yourself Before Diving Deeper into Case Interview Prep
Right now, you may be thinking to yourself that consulting interviews sound impossibly difficult. Or you may think that they sound like interesting problems that you’d enjoy solving.
Perhaps you’re not sure.
If you think that answering case interviews is not something that would come naturally to you, don’t worry, you’re not alone!
Getting good at consulting interviews requires a lot of case interview prep work.
Before you commit to putting in the time, you should ask yourself if a career in consulting is right for you.
Key Questions to Ask Yourself Before Pursuing a Career in Consulting
- Do you enjoy solving the types of problems asked in case interviews?
- Do you have a background in business principles or are you willing to invest the time it will take to develop one?
- Are you passionate about pursuing consulting as a career?
Consulting jobs might pay well and provide the opportunity to pursue attractive careers, but if you don’t like solving business problems, you probably won’t like the work you’ll do as a consultant. If you don’t enjoy analyzing business cases, save yourself a lot of time and frustration.
Focus on career options that better meet your interests.
Or, perhaps solving problems with smart, experienced professionals sounds like it’s your dream job.
If so, move onto the deeper dive into Case Interview Prep below!
Case Interview Prep – Diving Deeper
If you’re here, we’re assuming you’re serious about investing time in pursuing a career in management consulting.
The best way to get smarter about answering case study questions is to master this four-part approach.
How to Answer a Consulting Case Interview – a 4 Part Approach
The 4 parts to answering a consulting case interview are:
- Opening – This is where you make sure you understand the client’s problem.
- Structure – This is where you brainstorm all factors relevant to the problem and organize them to ensure you address them in a complete and logical manner.
- Analysis – This is where you gather data to identify which of the factors related to the business issue are the most important. You’ll use this data to create a recommendation for your client.
- Conclusion – Here, you present your recommendation to “the client” (your interviewer), in a well-organized and persuasive way.
As we saw in the video above, the opening of a case question is a description of a client and the problem they’re facing. Rebecca repeated back to the interviewer the type of business the client was in and and their problem.
If you did not remember that the client was a top-three beverage producer and answered the question as if the client was a start-up, your answer would ignore the manufacturing and distribution infrastructure the company already had in place to launch its new product.
During this portion of the interview, you can ask any clarifying questions you need to. If something is not clear—the client’s product or industry, or the problem they want to solve —ask!
Once Rebecca clarified the problem, she asked for a moment to consider her response. In the structure phase of the case, there’s silence in the interview for several moments.
As with clarifying the question, this can feel awkward.
But asking for this time will show the interviewer that you’re carefully developing your problem-solving approach.
It will also ensure that you are not quickly addressing a couple of aspects of the problem but ignoring others, potentially ones that are critical to solving the client’s problem.
Some quick brainstorming is useful here, but also take a step back to maker sure you consider all aspects of the client’s business, its customer demand, and competitors that may be relevant.
Organize your questions into a comprehensive approach to address all key aspects of the problem.
In the third part of the case interview, you’ll dig in and analyze the problem.
After Rebecca outlined her problem-solving approach, the interviewer told her that the client wanted to understand the beverage market and customer preferences to assess the potential success of the product launch.
The interviewer then provided a chart with helpful data.
This part of the interview is important because gives you the data that will help you close down aspects of the case that aren’t at the heart of the problem you need to solve and to better understand key drivers that will point to the solution.
You should also refer back to the problem-solving structure you laid-out earlier to make sure your analysis is comprehensive. You don’t want to get lost down one rabbit hole and ignore other important aspects of the problem.
During this portion of the interview, you’ll be assessed on whether you asked relevant questions, have well-reasoned insights into the client problem, and whether you could lead a case like this if you were hired by the firm.
Rebecca concluded the case with a direct answer to the case study interview question as it was initially asked.
This answer should be both persuasive and logical based on all the information gathered over the course of the interview. Your answer should also include the next steps your client should undertake.
During the conclusion, you’ll be assessed on whether you present a well thought-out solution based on the relevant facts of the case.
Now that you’re familiar with the 4-part approach to a case interview, the next thing to learn is the 4 different formats case interviews can take.
4 Formats for Case Interviews
There are four formats a consulting case interview can take:
- Candidate-led – This is the most typical case study interview format. A candidate is given an open-ended business problem to solve by an interviewer. The candidate will break down the question into key parts and decide which part to probe first. The interviewer is looking to see that you know how to drive the analysis of a problem. This case format is typically used at firms like Bain, BCG and Oliver Wyman.
- Interviewer-led – In this case format, a candidate will still be expected to identify the key elements of a thorny business issue and present them to the interviewer. But after they do, the interviewer will direct them to first address a particular aspect of the case. This interview format is typicallyused by McKinsey in their recruiting.
- Written interview – This is not a common interview format but can be common for particular companies and offices. You will be given a packet of PowerPoint slides and time to review them. During this time, you’ll create a presentation using the slides you choose from the ones provided as well as others you create, and you’ll then present it to a panel of interviewers. Written interviews are frequently used by boutique consulting firms and regional offices of larger firms such as Bain’s China offices. For more information, see this article on written cases.
- Group interview – Multiple candidates are brought in to discuss a case together and then present their solution to an interviewer. The group case is also not a frequently used interview format. For more information, see this article on group cases.
While the candidate-led consulting interview is the most frequently used format, you’ll probably see more of the interview-led interview format if you interview with McKinsey. You should also be aware of the written and group interview formats so that if you get one, you’re not caught by surprise.
You’ve made it to the end of our crash course on case interview prep. By reading this article, you now have a strong understanding of:
- What a consulting case interview is,
- How to answer case studies using the 4-part approach, and
- What the 4 different formats for case interviews are.
You are well on your way toward entering the exciting field of management
Still have questions?
If you still have questions on case interview prep, leave them in the comments below. We’ll ask our My Consulting Offer coaches and get back to you with answers.
Also, we have tons of other resources diving into the things you need to know to get an offer from a top consulting firm. Check out these topics:
Help with Case Interview Prep
Thanks for turning to My Consulting Offer for advice on case interview prep. My Consulting Offer has helped almost 90% of the people we’ve worked with get a job in management consulting. For example, here is how Brenda was able to get a BCG offer when she only had 1 week to prepare…
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If you want to learn more about how to ace your case interviews, schedule a free call with a member of our team. We’ll show you how you get an offer without spending hundreds of hours preparing.