Case interview season begins

By | October 6, 2017

It’s case interview season. Seems like students just got to school.  Moving in, meeting a few people, and getting into an academic groove. Then, BBAM, time for case interviews. There is one huge upside. You may have a job offer before Thanksgiving.  Nothing like having a job lined up 6 months in advance.

I interviewed at several firms, and worked at a Big Four consulting firm for 5 years, then healthcare consulting for 6 years. I have interviewed dozens of MBA / undergraduate candidates, and of course, I have strong opinions, loosely held. So, here is one person’s take. Take what’s useful and forget the rest.

“Everybody is a genius. But if you judge a fish by its ability to climb a tree, it will live its whole life believing that it is stupid.” ― Albert Einstein

1.Know the basics. Do the basic research. Know what a “day in the life” of a consultant looks like. Read some white papers to get a sense of the work. Be able to differentiate between Accenture, Bain, and Deloitte in an interview.  Check out ManagementConsulted.com; they do good work. Check it out here. Tons of free resources to get up-to-speed quickly. You could spend 3+ hours on this site alone.

2. What do the firms say? Firms want you to succeed. The last thing they want is for their partners / directors to sit through a series of painful, bad case interviews. Listen to what the buyers are saying:

3. Watch videos: Videos are so much easier to watch than reading. Check out Bain case practice here; they give the same case to 3 consultants and compare approaches. Great side-by-side comparison.

4. Understand the format. Case interviews are different. The interviewer gives you some background and an ambiguous business question. It’s your job to politely, effectively, logically, tease out answers to questions which allow you to piece together a thoughtful, fun and realistic solution. Sometimes, the interviewer gives you handouts, graphs as you uncover key areas of inquiry. Sometimes they don’t. Either way, know the set up and be ready.

Management Consulted has a 45min case example here. See how the interviewee keeps the conversation going and uses the data given. It’s not a perfect performance – but that is the thing with cases, it does not have to be.

5. Practice (some). Read through some case practice examples, online for free, or buy a book. Case Interview Secrets, Victor Cheng (affiliate link) or Case in Point, Marc Consentino (affiliate link). Lots of free stuff too.

When practicing, get feedback from your partners. Also, don’t be afraid to just practice by yourself and record yourself on your phone. It takes practice. Note: some people at Quora recommend live practice sessions with 70-90 people. To me that sounds crazy, but 1 person’s opinion.

6. Get on the interview list. Sometimes this is the hardest part. Even if you are at a top B school, interview spots are still oversubscribed like an IPO. Go to the company presentation, reach out to your network for informational interviews, show interest. Be authentic. Develop 1 real relationship.

7. Win. Win. Win. It looks like this.1) clear, persuasive cover letter, 2) a well-organized resume, 3) great first interview, 4) great second case interview, 5) productive internship 6) full-time offer.

8. Demonstrate “mental horsepower”. You hear this phrase used A LOT by recruiting teams as they review resumes. What was his undergraduate degree? Double major in math? What was her GPA? If you come from social science, non-profits, or another function which has the reputation of being “soft” or non-quantitative, you will want to fortify that part of your resume and experience profile.

9. Build rapport. Firms are looking for consultants that the client will like. No surprise, being likable is a key asset/skill that consultants use every day.  To be even more direct, if the client does not like you, they will roll you off the project. I have seen it happen many times.

For me, this is the biggest gap during case interviews. Too often, people get 80% of the content right, but they are rigid, unfriendly, awkward, or no fun.

My only advice here is to be human. If you are uncomfortable and forced, so is the other person. Would you pass the airport test. Ask yourself: after spending 5 hours with me at an airport – would most people like me more or like me less?

10. Add value. Ultimately, the firm wants to know whether you are someone they can hire, train for 1 month, then send to the client site. They will bill your time at $125-300 an hour.  Assuming that the client needs to be 5-6x your bill rate in “value”, you need consistently have $10,000 value days.  Show that kind of value.

11. Treat the interviewer like a client. How would you interview a client if she had all the answers? What would that look like?  You would likely be respectful, attentive, thoughtful, logical, and positive. Build rapport, listen well, speak concisely and confidently.

12. Structure the problem. Yes, know some of the basic frameworks. Put the ideas in buckets. Show your wisdom, and business acumen. Don’t force-fit a solution. Listen. Be present, pick up on the clues and cues. Even if you are thinking about 4P, 3C, 2×2 matrix, Porter’s 5 forces, break-even formula, etc, you don’t have to brag and tell them that you are doing that. That’s kind of like telling your date, “I am going to hold you hand know.”  Awkward.

13. Be curious. Consultants like to solve puzzles. If you treat the case interview like a puzzle, you will find it a lot more enjoyable. Don’t treat it like a performance test, or trial. You and  are just collaborating to get to the answer in a quick and friendly way. Strong believer that intellectual curiosity is the key to long-term career success.

14. Look for numbers. Consultants love data. Show your comfort working with numbers. Love data.

15. Show your thinking. This is like math in high-school. You do get points for showing your work. With any of these cases, there are multiple potential answers. How you get to those conclusions, is as important as where you end up. Don’t wait for a big reveal at the end. Summarize your findings as you go – give the interviewer some confidence that you have a plan. It’s like applying the Minto Principle, even though you don’t have all the answers yet:

  • If it’s okay, would like to show what my initial thoughts are . . .
  • Well, sounds like the Southern region has a lot of margin issues. . .
  • To summarize, looks like we discovered two things . . .1)    2)

16. Transition between ideas. One reason the case interview feels so strange, is that the interviewee is asking all these questions – which at times seems confused, lost, or desperate (yes, I am been there). To mitigate this, have a structure upfront which casts a a wide net. Also, be calm when you move from one idea to another. If possible, transition between the ideas seamless:

  • Now that we have discussed revenues, both price and quantity, let’s move to the cost side
  • Well, it looks like there is not a lot of cost savings on the supplier side, can we move over to process?
  • Is there any information on competitive pricing?  If not, would like to perhaps talk a little about supply chain.

17. Pace yourself  Summarize your findings as you go, and give a strong conclusion with recommendations, risks, and implementation considerations at the end.

18. LeadWhile you are being respectful, you also need to show competence, confidence and control.  They aren’t going to hire people who cannot lead meetings, lead interviews, lead conversations, and lead work.

“Leadership is the art of getting someone else to do something you want done because he wants to do it.” – Dwight D Eisenhower

19. Be thankful. Write a thank you card to your interviewers, and also the people who supported you through the process. Yes, even your buddies who case interviewed with you. It is a super selective profession, and honestly, the selection process is not perfect. If they did not choose you – HELL – they don’t deserve you. That should be your attitude. Lots of opportunities for you.

20. Be. Do. Say. For me, I believe consulting is an attitude (curiosity to solve problems and help people), drive (to get things done), and relationships (nothing gets done without people). Whether you get the offer or not, you can be more of a consultant in everything you do.

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