Cracking The Case Interview

What really makes an interviewee “ace the case”?  We spoke with recruiters at top consulting firms to find out.

Though these tips are most helpful for aspiring consultants, similar case interviews are sometimes used for business development positions, global health NGOs and various nonprofits.

Without further ado, how to ace the case:

1. Be thoughtful from the start.
In the beginning, you will typically be given important information regarding your case. Listen to it and take notes. When the interviewer asks if you have any questions before proceeding: 1) summarize the situation and problem at hand 2) ask clarifying questions if something was unclear (e.g., a word you didn’t understand) and 3) ask a “step back” question.

Doing 1) and 2) will highlight your listening skills and ensure you understand the case and are solving for the right problem. Doing 3), which most people do not, will make you stand out as thoughtful and genuinely interested in the problem rather than just focused on getting through the interview.

A step back question helps you further understand the overall context or objective of the case beyond the information that has been given upfront. For instance, if the case is about helping a private equity firm decide whether or not to acquire a given company, a step back question may be: “Is the private equity firm also looking at other acquisitions in the industry and therefore evaluating this target versus others?”

2. Structure, structure, structure.

Case Structure

Pretty Young Professional

The interviewer wants to know that you can take a bunch of information thrown at you and logically structure an approach to work through it. When asked how you would approach the problem at hand: 1) ask for a moment to think through it/”collect your thoughts” and 2) draw out a logical and relevant structure to work through the major issues of the case.

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/reducing costs), and acquiring a company. Turning around a company and competitive response are also possible, but much less frequently asked.

You should have clear structures in mind for each “type.” There is no right structure, and you should adapt your structure to be relevant to the case at hand. However, thinking through structures ahead of time will 1) ensure you cover major issues of a case “type” 2) have a framework for organising and talking through your information and 3) make sure you focus on key issues and not get derailed by an unfamiliar industry and jargon.

Here is a partial structure for approaching the question “Should Company X acquire Company Y?” While you will not need to write out or explain your structure beyond the first few levels, you should think through them in full when creating them.

You should also test and refine your structures. When you go through a practice case, test whether your structures would have covered the important information or have been able to lead you down the path to the solution

3. Practice your numbers.
Many people freeze up on the quant section. The more you practice the better. A few tips:

a) Write out your formulas and thought processes as you are solving for a quant question. This will allow you to 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/she is aware of your approach.

b) 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….1/10 are in percentage terms.

c) 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.

Click here for more tips on cracking the quant.

4. Keep up with industries.
You never know what industry you will be given. However, the more relevant you can make your questions and answers to the industry, the better.

Two things can help here: 1) 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, etc.) and 2) keep current with the news. The Economist is a great way to keep abreast of major trends in different industries and countries.

5. Engage the interviewer.
Have a dialogue with the interviewer as you work through the case. State your assumptions and walk the interviewer through your thought process. Sometimes they may steer you in a different path or suggest you think of things in a different way. The more you bring them along in your thinking, the more they will enjoy working through the case with you.

6. Do as many cases as you can.
Read through cases yourself, do cases with your friends, and try out the cases on a company’s website. Often business schools will each 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.

7. Have fun.
Yes, doing your 4th practice case in a row can be a drag. However, overall you should see if you like problem-solving through a case. If you enjoy it, chances are higher you will enjoy the actual consulting work as well. If you don’t, consulting might not be your best fit.


For more on consulting prep from PYP, click here.


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