Consulting Case Study Interview: Overview

of Consulting Case Study Training

Case Studies are the critical part of the consulting interview process—the “heart and soul,” if you will. However, they are very challenging. They can be so challenging, in fact, that they scare many people who might otherwise be interested in Management Consulting into simply not applying.  Therefore preparing for Case Studies—from becoming comfortable with the concept all the way up to being ready and confident for the Case, whatever it may be—is one of the most important things a prospective Consultant must do in the Consulting recruiting process.

First, let’s ponder an important question: why do Management Consulting firms focus so much on Case Studies as part of the interview process?  After all, the firm already knows your work experience, your grades and all your accomplishments, from your resume and other portions of the interview process. Why run the risk of scaring off so much good potential talent, or threatening their candidacy for the job with such a (seemingly) daunting interview component?

The key reason is very simple: that the case interviews are highly reflective of the daily work of a Consultant. Thinking on your feet, being structured and articulate in communication, synthesizing information, and demonstrating your ability to respond well under pressure are all central to being effective in the Consulting industry.  Case studies offer a method to evaluate who the firm believes will be the best Consultants among many qualified and talented candidates. In other words: it doesn’t matter how much “raw talent” you have—if you cannot succeed in the Case Studies portion of Consulting interviews, there is a good chance that Consulting may not be the right field for you.

Importantly, many corporations (e.g. Microsoft, Google, etc.) and financial industry firms (such as hedge funds and private equity firms) have followed the Consulting industry’s lead by developing Case Study interview methodologies of their own. In each case, the core concept of Case Study-oriented interviewing has been tweaked to fit the demands and specifics of the relevant firm or industry. For example, high-tech firms that have adopted this framework tend to ask about technology-oriented cases, while hedge funds and private equity firms use Case Studies that are more investments-oriented. We believe, therefore, that this training guide can be very effective for individuals applying for jobs in those areas as well.

We recommend that all Management Consulting job candidates, as well as individuals applying for jobs where Case Studies are an important part of the process, review all the concepts and methodologies laid out in this training guide and practice an enormous number of cases to successfully crack the cases.

Case Study Basics

Here are the basics. First, there are two predominant types of Case Study interview questions: Business Situation Case Studies and Guesstimate Case Studies. Business Situation Case Studies are typically more involved and often require specific frameworks (or a selection of possible frameworks) to address well. These cases require a high degree of structure in order to summarize the issues and drill down into them effectively. Guesstimate Case Studies tend to be smaller/shorter, and require a strong ability to determine the important factors in making an estimation, as well as to actually do the math behind the estimation. Each of these types of Case Study questions is addressed directly in a separate chapter later in this guide.

Another category of Case Study questions is the “Brainteaser” category. We also address this question type in a separate chapter at the end of this training guide. However please note that this category is less common than the others, and is becoming even less common. Part of the reason for this is that the issue being tested in “Brainteasers” is more “hit or miss.” A job candidate might get lucky in determining what the core issue is in a “Brainteaser” case, while another candidate, otherwise highly skilled, might simply draw a blank. There is a consensus among some Consultants, therefore, that “Brainteaser” questions are not as predictive as Business Situation Cases and Guesstimate Cases.

When you are given a Case Study question of any type, the following areas will be tracked and graded by the interviewing Consultant as you respond:

  • Ability to structure ideas in an effective way. Can the candidate quickly enumerate and prioritize the issues? Is the overall approach to the problems posed in the case systematic and organized? Is the approach appropriate given the type of information available?
  • Ability to communicate articulately and concisely. Can the candidate communicate the issues and priorities back to the interviewer in a lucid way? Can he or she ask appropriate questions and quickly and accurately dive deeper into puzzling issues?
  • Numerical/quantitative ability. How comfortable is the candidate with quickly performing numerical analysis in his or her head or on a piece of paper? Can he or she estimate accurately and efficiently? Is the overall quantitative approach systematic and accurate?
  • “Thinking on your feet” under pressure. Does the candidate demonstrate comfort and confidence as the analysis of the case proceeds? If a candidate gets stuck on an issue, does he or she convey the ability to maintain composure and recover effectively?
  • Ability to synthesize information. Can the candidate aggregate the information and analysis in a cohesive way to “see the big picture” and provide targeted, actionable, and accurate recommendations?

Responding to a Case Study

There is a general approach that applies to responding to Case Studies that you should take into account as you practice cases. Case studies vary in type and style, but these general points apply to all cases whether they are open-ended looking for a series of recommendations or seeking a specific numerical answer.

  1. Understand and Address the QuestionListen carefully when the interviewer outlines the case. Take brief notes if you need to, and don’t be afraid to proceed deliberately with this if you need to. Be certain you understand the case and what the interviewer is asking you to conclude (e.g. size of market, the reasons profit is falling, a specific number or a range of numbers, etc.).  You are allowed to, and it is expected that you will, ask questions to better understand the case and deliverables.  Asking questions and interacting with the interviewer shows an ability to be composed under pressure. As needed, clarify the case facts/questions to the interviewer and the outcome/conclusion that you will provide (For example: “The facts are x and y; and I will ultimately provide a series of recommendations about how to improve profitability… Am I understanding the situation correctly?”).  Always accept the facts and advice offered by the interviewer; this is not the time to attempt to show that you are smarter than the interviewer.  Do not be concerned about being repetitive—it is more important to be sure that you are answering the right question.  Many nervous applicants start to answer the question before they understand what they are being asked to do.
  1. Structure your Analysis: Before launching in to the analysis, clearly outline your initial ideas/thoughts/plan and share it with the interviewer.  A simple outline structure helps you to keep your analysis and answer structured, which is important.  It is better to be articulate, coherent and mostly correct than come across as disorganized and completely correct.  (Remember, the interviewer needs to be confident that he or she can put you in front of a client.) Also, at times the interviewer might help guide you in a different direction if you outline your plan for the analysis, which is actually a good sign.  Listen carefully to any guidance or revisions and be flexible. Address any insights/direction offered by the interviewer.  You are more than permitted to ask for extra time to prepare your structure/answer. In fact, if you need it, we insist upon it!
  1. Analyze: Work through your outline to ask questions, drill down on issues, perform back-of the envelope calculations, and ultimately arrive at an answer.  Think/analyze out loud in order to make this part of the process interactive with the interviewer.  Just like in a real-live case, the interviewer will likely engage in your thought process.  Continue to ask questions about the approach you are taking or for any missing information.  Keep in mind that solution-oriented questions are better than open-ended questions. For  example, “I will run the analysis this way; does that sound reasonable to you?” is superior to “How should I run the analysis?”. Listen carefully to any input/insights provided by the interviewer, and integrate them into your thought process. (One reliable sign that you are not on the right track is if the Consultant offers some specific guidance that you don’t use!) Carefully organize your sub-answers and assumptions (highlighting them), so that they can be easily accessed and altered at a later point if required.  Ultimately, you hope to arrive at the best answer possible in a short time frame, but don’t rush. Remember, in most cases there is no perfect answer, but there are good ones (thorough, thoughtful, and well-communicated) and there are not-so-good ones.
  1. Answer/Give Recommendations: Provide the answer/recommendation in an answer-first manner (this is Consultant-speak for “Give the answer first and then build up how you got to the answer). For example: “I recommend that the client in this case enter Market X. This recommendation is driven by the following three factors…”  Being articulate and structured in your answer is critical—remember, the interviewer wants to be confident that he or she can leave you to engage with clients.  In the event that you have not finished your analysis, and the interviewer interrupts and would like an immediate answer, request a moment to collect your thoughts. Then, provide your answer to date and what analysis you would do next if you had more time.  Finally: if asked what sources you would use to find additional information, some good examples to have on your fingertips include the following:
    • Company filings
    • Industry data (often available from trade organizations)
    • Company Investor Relations presentations
    • Interviews with Industry experts (through LinkedIn or an expert network)
    • Relevant media articles

In responding to Consulting Case Study questions, your thought process should always go back to this 4-step process. An effective way to remember this is to drill the following into your mind: “Understand, Structure, Analyze, and Answer.”

Additional Case Study Tips

  • Being structured and articulate is the most important component of your response. Always think structure, structure, structure.
  • Don’t be afraid to be original—creative approaches and ideas often gain traction from interviewers. But make sure the “creative” answer has a logical underpinning. In other words, make sure your approach will lead to an interesting, thought-provoking result.
  • Use the frameworks and concepts laid out in later chapters of this training guide, but do not try and fit each Case Study response into one specific framework. Case Studies are not that simple—often there will be no best framework to address a problem, which means you will need to do a lot of probing to determine the best course of action. Or, there may be multiple aspects to a case that need to be analyzed separately in different ways. Trying to “shoehorn” a Case into a specific framework will be obvious to the interviewer, and will generally result in a poor performance.
  • Develop an opinion on the Case as your analysis proceeds and more information becomes clear to you. You should remain flexible on this, because there might be a twist, but don’t be ambivalent. A note on this: don’t jump to conclusions, either. Wait until there seems to be sufficient information to indicate that one direction or result is far more likely to be correct than its alternatives.
  • Discuss the “So what?” aspect of an answer. If you figure out an answer, you are generally only half way there. Evaluating the “So what?” piece—the implications of your analysis and recommendations—will set you apart from other candidates. For example: “The market size in Turkey for widgets is approximately $x billion; so what does that imply?” A good response might be: “That market size is attractive, we should advise Company ABC to enter that market; furthermore, the widget market in Turkey appears to be growing more rapidly than in other countries in the region, which makes the opportunity even more attractive.”
  • Most Case Studies will require you to make some assumptions. When making assumptions, be sure to voice the logic behind the assumption; think it through first, if necessary.  For example, if you decide to assume that sales volume will be flat (no growth) on the U.S. West Coast, be sure to say why—for example, something like “the economic situation is challenging and there is unlikely to be any market growth unless this changes” would be helpful.
  • Always round up or down for numbers and percentages. Estimation of this type will be helpful in getting through the math quickly—remember, in most cases it is more important to come up with an approximate number quickly than an exact number very slowly. Practice your math speed, and get used to adding, dividing and multiplying large estimated numbers (division shortcuts, working with powers of ten, estimating compounded growth, etc.). We estimate that about 10 hours of practice with this can make you about 25% faster at “back-of-the-envelope” math of this type—this is a key skill that Consultants use on a regular basis.
  • Draw from personal examples and experiences, but keep the stories and anecdotes succinct and articulate. And remember that you don’t need to do this, so don’t dredge for examples that either don’t exist or don’t fit the case. They are helpful, but you can also do perfectly fine on a case without using examples from your experience.
  • Maintain reasonable eye contact with the interviewer, as though you were talking with a friend.
  • Importantly: no matter what happens, stay composed, energetic and confident. Be positive as you work through the issues and don’t get flustered. These cases are challenging, but they can also be extremely interesting and thought-provoking. Have fun and smile as you work through them!
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