Case interview advice from Bain

By | September 10, 2016

It’s consulting interview season which means well-groomed MBAs are sitting across small tables with consulting firm partners and senior managers in something called a case interview. For those readers from consulting firms – you know this fire drill – and probably remember it fondly like Marines who remember “hell week”. Case interview advice.

For those in the throes of case interview for full-time consulting roles, there are TONS of resources out there. A previous post lists more than 1,000 pages of case practice and links to websites here. For those unfamiliar with case interviews or only mildly interested here is Bain’s 6 page brochure on “Ace the Case” here (153K pdf) which is a quick read.

Even better, watch this 25 min video here which compares the answers of 3 different candidates on the same series of questions.  Pro/cons of each answer is discussed by the interviewer. Wish I had watched this video 10+ years ago when I was first interviewing. . .

Full disclosure: I did not work at Bain, but uncovered all this great case interview advice from Bain. They want you to understand the rationale of case interviews. For those interviewing, well worth your time. Watch the Bain interview simulation here.


What is a case interview? For those not in consulting, a 2 minute primer might be in order. Case interviews are different from behavioral interviews (“tell me about yourself”, “what are your strengths?” “where do you want to be in 5 yrs”) because they are not focused on WHO you are, but instead, HOW you think. Like the subtitle of this blog, the case interviewer wants to see who you THINK THROUGH THE PROBLEM.

The set up. The interviewer provides a situation and ambiguous problem/question. The candidate then has 20-25 minutes to engage the interviewer in a thoughtful and logical conversation to uncover some of the data / insights which point to a potential solution or series of options.

Upfront planning. Definitely know what you are getting into. Yep, if you are not familiar with basic business concepts, financial statements, analytic frameworks, and the general interview method – it won’t be pretty. A case interview is typically 30min-45min, and honestly, the time goes fast. I interviewed at 5-6 of the big consulting firms, and for every 1 great interview and 2 good ones. . . . I completely BUSTED 1. It’s meant to be difficult; remember difficult things (e.g., getting into a top-tier consulting firm) have value. Press on.

Case interview = consulting work-ish. This is meant to mimic what consultants do every day – structure problems, ask good questions, apply good common business sense, build rapport with strangers, drive correlation between disparate facts, smile, and communicate effectively. Honestly, it is both fun and nerve-racking.

For fun, I added some hypothetical things I might say in red color.

Treat the interviewer like a client. How would you treat a client you met and were interviewing for the first time? That is how you should treat the interviewer. Demonstrate competence. Build rapport. Ask open-ended questions initially, guide the conversation. Dig into clues the interviewer gives you. Explain why you are moving the conversation along. Don’t slam them with random questions or fire them one-after-another. This is not a deposition. You are collaborating to crack the case together.  It sounds like the company has done well with it’s innovative products so far, but is it possible that the consumers just are not as interested in features anymore, and have shifted to more functionality/price?” 

Summarize as you go. The conversation will likely wander from one thread of thought to another. Mentally use buckets. For example, it might go from revenue to costs, from marketing to operations, from change management to competition. Without providing some structure to the conversation and summarizing like mental meeting minutes, it will seem like a James Joyce or Faulkner novel – stream of consciousness, and not good. Don’t be afraid to tell them what you are thinking, your hypotheses. “If I summarize a bit, it sounds like there has not been any new local competitors and technology has not been a source of differentiation.”

Think broadly first. Usually at the beginning of the interview, candidates are allowed 1-2 min to organize their thoughts and plan their line of questioning. Dude – use these 120 seconds to blast through (brainstorm like a madman) the list the different areas to pursue. Even though the problem is about a manufacturer it could easily be a M&A, marketing, or finance issue. You are a consultant – think like one.  “I have some experience with the semiconductor industry and know that it driven largely by economies of scale through Moore’s law, but I would like to ask a few broader questions about the market environment and product mix first, if that is okay”

Pick up on cues. Show that you have some emotional intelligence. If you are getting curt answers and closed-off body language. take a hint.  You are barking up the wrong tree. When the interviewer gives out some facts, data, or seems positive on a question you ask – drill down with more detailed questions or analyses which support your potential solution.  “That’s interesting, if margins have improved in spite of the volume decrease, does that mean that the product mix has changed or is there something on the cost side?”

Watch your time. Don’t get “yanked” at the end of the interview like the GONG SHOW because you ran out of time. Pace yourself. Make sure you cover the main 2-3 areas you want to cover. Leave enough time to start putting together the recommendations and next steps.

Think about implementation – One criticism of management consultants is that they only have pie-in-the-sky academic solutions.  It shows some maturity to consider implementation. Remember assessments were DESIGNED for consultants to then implement the work.  No consultant wants to end at phase 1 of a project.  So, you might offer. . . “From my experience, implementing a technology only works if it is reinforced with a significant amount of training, incentives, and internal marketing. So some next steps might include . . . “ 

For those who have done case interviews, what advice do you have? 

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