The Internet is filled with frameworks on how to approach a case study. But which one will help you ace your case and land an offer at a top consulting firm?
At My Consulting Offer, former Bain, BCG, and McKinsey consultants have developed a proven 4-step approach that will help you tackle any type of case study. We’v helped over 600 recruits land the consulting jobs of their dream.
Want to know the secret? Keep reading!
In this article, we’ll walk you through our 4-step approach and talk about what the interviewer expects at each step, including:
- How to approach a case study.
- Clarifying the client’s objectives.
- Framing a logical structure.
- Making sense of the provided information.
- Giving a strong recommendation.
Let’s get started!
Approaching a Case Study
A case interview always starts with a prompt. A prompt is the initial information about the case provided by the interviewer. It gives you a brief background of the client’s problem and the key objective.
Here’s an example:
“Your client today is an NYC-based violinist. She’s been saving up for her wedding, but she broke her leg and can’t leave her apartment. She’s got to find a new plan for coming up with her wedding savings now and needs help.”
In the above example, we get to know the background and the objective.
Background: Our client Maria is an NYC-based violinist and has been saving for her wedding.
Objective: Find ways for the client to increase her savings for her wedding without leaving her apartment.
After the prompt is given, you’re expected to drive the case forward. Our 4-step approach will help you do just that.
- Opening – Understand and reconfirm the objective and ask clarifying questions.
- Structure – Develop a problem-solving structure to answer the key questions.
- Analysis – Dive deeper into analyzing relevant issues and use data provided by your interviewer to make conclusions.
- Recommendation – Give a strong actionable recommendation by tying together the insights.
Let’s dive into each step of the 4-step guide so you can solve cases like a pro!
Case Interview Opening: Getting to Know the Key Objective
The first step to solving any problem is to know the key objective a.k.a. the “north star” which will help you guide the case in the right direction.
This seemingly simple, but it’s where many interviewees fail. They think the prompt has given them all the relevant information, so they rush to start solving the problem.
But, as you saw in the prompt, the objective is touched upon but isn’t clear or measurable. You got to know that the client is looking for ways to increase her wedding savings while staying in her apartment with a broken leg.
We still don’t know what the target is and how much of it is already saved. Additionally, as there were no clarifying questions asked, no other details were shared by the interviewer.
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What should the Case Opening Look Like?
It’s important to ask questions like:
- What does success look like for the client? Does she have a target in mind for her wedding?
- How was she making money before she broke her leg?
- What are her income streams?
- Is she willing to cut her expenses to increase savings or is she looking only for ways to increase her income?
These questions help us understand the following:
Tangible or Measurable Objective – What is the target in the client’s mind?
Additional Information – prior income sources, income source while stuck in her apartment, her focus on increasing income rather than reducing costs.
What does the interviewer expect from you in the case opening?
- Restate the prompt in your own words
- Confirm the key objective
- Ask a few key clarifying questions (3-5) to know more about the overarching context of the case – making sure you understand the client’s product, business model, or geographic focus
Now let’s learn how to create a comprehensive and customized problem-solving structure.
Framing a Customized Problem-solving Structure
The internet is filled with problem-solving approaches and frameworks, like:
- The BCG 2 x 2 Matrix
- The 4 P’s
- The 3 C’s
- The Profitability Formula
- McKinsey’s 7S Framework
- Porter’s 5 Forces
These frameworks help break business problems into smaller parts that can be analyzed to figure out a solution. But as these frameworks are generic, it might feel like they are being force-fitted to the problem in your case. No standard framework will ever fit all situations.
Creating a case-specific problem-solving structure isn’t difficult and with the right approach, you can create it with ease.
How to Create a Customized Structure
Start with the key objective, increasing Maria’s savings for her wedding. How can we break this problem down into sub-parts? If you were using a generic framework, you might use the 3C + P framework and break the problem into:
You could then think of questions in each bucket that would help Maria understand potential opportunities to expand her income.
But, with this approach, you wouldn’t be likely to stand out! Lots of candidates will approach this case with the same 4 buckets. This is why a customized approach is important.
While creating your structure, there are a few things that you should do to ensure that your structure touches on all relevant points and helps you to drive the case forward. Your structure should be:
- Logical – Each bucket in the structure should logically align with the key objective.
- Personalized – As you are creating the buckets, personalize them to the case at hand.
- MECE – MECE stands for “Mutually exclusive, Collectively exhaustive.” This helps you ensure that there are no overlapping buckets and you cover all the key aspects of the problem.
- Depth – As you dig deeper into each bucket, ask yourself if you have covered all possible questions in the bucket. Create sub-buckets of the main buckets wherever necessary.
You can read more about structuring your analysis of business problems in our article on issue trees.
What does a Good vs. Great Structure Look Like?
Comparing the two structures above, we can see that Candidate B has created a better structure than Candidate A. Although Candidate A covered all important aspects, Candidate B has personalized their structure to Maria’s problem.
Communicating the structure in an easy-to-understand manner is as important as creating a robust structure. When communicating the structure:
- Ensure that the interviewer can follow your structure.
- Communicate one level at a time.
- Use a numbered list to walk through the structure.
After walking the interviewer through the structure, you should choose the bucket that should be explored first to answer the key question. You could say something like –
“Now that we have walked through the opportunities for increasing her revenue, I’d like to dive into the skills Maria has that she could leverage.”
Analyzing the Right Case Information
The interviewer could either agree or disagree with the first bucket that you want to dig deeper into. Some companies, like McKinsey, use interviewer-led case interviews and will lead you through the case following a specified path. Others, like Bain and BCG, will let you lead the case and just nudge you if you seem to be veering off-path. In either case, you’ll need to start by brainstorming and providing ideas on the first bucket or you’ll need to analyze data and derive conclusions.
There are 3 main types of analysis you may need to do to answer the key question:
- Market Sizing
- Exhibit Reading
Let’s see how each of these would help us drive the case forward and derive conclusions.
In a brainstorming exercise, a strong candidate will generate 8-10 ideas bucketed into categories. In the current case example, you could be asked for ideas on how Maria could make more money.
One set of categories you could use to generate ideas follows what we call the “X-not X” approach. Essentially, you start with a bucket like “playing music” and generate ideas in that bucket. Then switch to “not playing” and generate ideas for this bucket. This will help you in generating at least 2x ideas you otherwise would and will look more impressive to your interviewer because it is MECE and structured.
Let’s see how brainstorming plays out in our case example.
“Maria likes your approach and wants to start right away. Because she is currently not making any money, she would like some ideas. What are some ideas you have on how she could make money? She only wants to focus on leveraging her violin talents.”
The above example shows how you could use the “X-not X” approach to generate a lot of ideas – and how you could even further structure the ideas into “online” and “offline” categories to make it an exceptional brainstorming example.
You may also be expected to calculate the size of a market for your client’s product or service – after all, one of the most important things to know before pursuing an opportunity is the size of that opportunity. In the current example, you could be asked to calculate the income that Maria could earn by offering online violin classes.
There are 2 approaches to market sizing:
- Top-down: This is used when there are no constraints. In this approach, you start with the overall population that may be interested in the product or service and slice it down based on the segments of the market most likely to purchase. The top-down approach is best for national and global markets.
- Bottom-up: This approach is used when there are some constraints, like supply constraints, a limited number of hours, etc. In this approach, you start with the limiting factor and try to estimate the maximum that can be achieved based on the constraints.
Let’s see how we can use market sizing to help our client.
“Maria likes the ideas you came up with. She thought about being a violin teacher at one point since she had a great one when she started as a kid and is curious, how much could she make if she were to teach one-on-one Zoom classes for the next month? She wants to start small before she goes to group classes and, in the beginning, it will be just her teaching.”
Here’s an example of how you could work through this question:
The above shows how you could estimate the income which our client can expect to make in the first month.
Follow up your analysis by giving your answer the “sniff test.” Does it seem right at a high level? Here we see that $4,000 is the estimated first month’s income, but as this would be the first time Maria will be taking online classes, she won’t be working at full capacity from the start. Her earnings will probably be lower than $4,000.
But, in the long run, it’s a good idea to start offering lessons because at full capacity, Maria will be able to earn $8,000 per month.
In case interviews, you’ll be expected to derive conclusions based on tables or charts provided by your interviewer. In the current example, you could be asked to help the client prioritize which type of client should she target for her violin classes.
Let’s see what data is available and how we can conclude which segment to go after.
“Maria is happy to know that you think providing 1:1 violin lessons over Zoom is a viable idea.
She knows that a lot of people are interested in violin lessons, but to make sure she can tailor her marketing and lessons, she is interested in only going after one or two segments.
Which one should she go after?”
The first step to deriving insights from an exhibit is to read it thoroughly and ideally interpret it aloud as you go for your interviewer. This chart has data about willingness to pay and competitiveness across various segments. It gives an idea about the level of competition from other violin instructors. The market size of each segment is portrayed using the size of the circle. At first glance, it might seem that the client should go ahead with the segment which has the lowest competition and highest willingness to pay, which is the “Adult-Advanced” segment. But, that segment has a really small market size and Maria would need extensive teaching experience to cater to advanced students.
This is the first time Maria is getting into this market, but she also wants to have a high earning potential. The optimum segment would be one with a good market size and a reasonable trade-off between willingness to pay and competitiveness.
Based on this, Maria should go with the “college-intermediate” and “adult-intermediate” segments. She would be able to cater to both these segments with ease. Additionally, the combined market size is considerable and the relative trade-off of competitiveness and willingness to pay is suitable as well.
What does the interviewer expect when you are doing analysis and deriving insights?
- Pause to think about the structure for marking sizing or ideas for brainstorming. If you’re asked to read an exhibit, take a moment to understand it and lay out what it says to your interviewer before interpreting the data it provides.
- Offer insights into your client’s problem as the data presents them and draw conclusions.
- Drive the case forward based on the insights. What does this data mean for solving your client’s problem?
Concluding Your Case with a Strong Recommendation
Maria came to you with a problem in hand and won’t be thrilled to just get the insights in bits or pieces. Pull your problem-solving together for her with a persuasive recommendation.
Think of the case interview as baking an amazing cake. While the structure and derived insights form the main ingredients for baking the cake, the recommendation is like the cherry on top. It helps in creating a lasting positive impression.
Similar to the opening of the case, the recommendation can seem relatively straightforward, but it is definitely nuanced. MCO’s 5R framework could help you deliver great recommendations for every case.
How should you present your recommendations?
MCO’s 5R Framework:
- Recap: As consultants, you deal with CXO (e.g., CEO, CFO) level clients who are busy with many projects, so recapping the problem you’re solving is essential to set the tone of the meeting.
- Recommendation: State your recommendations clearly without any additional detail to showcase clarity.
- Reasons: Follow this with logical reasons for your recommendations to provide context and show the credibility of the recommendations.
- Risks: Every decision has risks associated with it. Just lay them out so the client knows what to watch out for during implementation.
- Retain: End the recommendations with key next steps to pursue the opportunity, ensuring continuous engagement with the client.
Let’s see how to give a strong recommendation for our case example.
“Your client calls you and wants to know what you recommend.”
What does the interviewer expect when closing the case?
- Keep the recommendation clear and succinct keeping the audience in mind.
- Explain everything with a reason and point out risks associated with the recommendation.
- Be presentable and communicate the recommendations with confidence.
- Ensure that the next steps are clearly laid out.
A final note: Not all cases have a “Right” and “Wrong” answer. In some, the math is very cut and dry but in others, there is a mix of evidence and it is a judgment call on what to recommend. Remember that a well-defended recommendation is more important than the “exact right answer.”
– – – – –
In this article, we’ve provided frameworks and tips to ace the different sections of a case interview. You are now equipped with the knowledge to:
- Approach a case study.
- Clarify client objectives.
- Frame a structure for effective problem-solving.
- Analyze the right information.
- Give a recommendation.
Apply these tips by practicing sample cases with case partners as much as possible so you’ll be ready to ace your next consulting case interview.
Still have questions?
If you have more questions about how to approach a case interview, leave them in the comments below. One of My Consulting Offer’s case coaches will answer them.
Other people preparing for consulting case interviews the following pages helpful:
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Nail the case & fit interview with strategies from former MBB Interviewers that have helped 89.6% of our clients pass the case interview.