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Case interviews are at the heart of the selection process at top consulting firms like McKinsey, BCG, and Bain, as well as at other selective employers. In practice, they test whether candidates have the analytical horsepower to solve strategic problems.

Candidates often find case interviews to be challenging and intimidating. They require a high level of skill and preparation to structure, calculate, synthesize, and conclude.

To help support candidates in preparing for and succeeding in case interviews, we’ve compiled the best free resources available on what a case interview looks like, how to succeed in these types of interviews, and how to properly prepare.

Contents

Understanding the case interview

Case Study Interviews are normally delivered one-on-one, last around 30 minutes, and follow five steps. They are:

resume walk-through behavioral questions motivatoion

1. The interviewer gives the brief for the case. They explain the context the organization in the case is operating in and the challenges that they’re facing.

2. The candidate then has a chance to ask clarifying questions, perhaps to test or confirm an understanding of the context or of the problem itself.

3. The candidate takes around 30 seconds to reflect and lay out a structured approach to solving the case.

4. The interviewer and the candidate work through the case together, carrying out analyses and ultimately driving towards a recommendation. This is the part of the case where the candidate will be handling numerical questions, reviewing exhibits, and coming up with creative ideas. It comprises the majority of the time spent on the case.

5. The candidate synthesizes their findings and makes an overall recommendation.

Where and why case interviews are used

From the client’s brief, through the analyses, all the way to the recommendation, case interviews simulate the job itself. MBB firms (McKinsey, BCG, Bain) use the case interview as it’s a statistically-proven predictor of how well a candidate will do on the job.

Top consulting firms, however, did not invent the case interview. They only adapted it from the concept of the Case Study Teaching Method, which was invented at Harvard Law School in the late 19th century. When they were created, top management consultancies mirrored their organizations on law firms, creating many parallels between law and consulting.

Today, case interviews are used, as well, by employers outside of management consulting including spaces such as tech, financial services, or nonprofits, particularly for the recruitment of employees involved in shaping strategic initiatives. The following employers are known to use case interviewing:

This trend is expected to continue as the ranks of management consultant alumni grow and their methods spread to the industries they join.

What case study interviews assess

While the primary purpose is to assess candidates’ problem-solving skills, case study interviews also provide a read on whether candidates have the presence and communication abilities necessary to give a positive and professional impression.

Interviewers use scorecards that track key problem-solving dimensions to assess a candidate’s performance in these areas. They include:

structuring case leadership synthesis creativity judgement insights numeracy

Additionally, if a candidate is interviewing for a role focused on a specific industry or function, their expertise in that area might be assessed as part of the case.

The most common case study interview questions

Case study interview questions generally mirror the work of the employer.

If a candidate is interviewing for a role that is focused on a specific industry or function it’s necessary to have researched the typical projects that might be worked on and their respective solutions. These types of problems will likely come up during the case interview.

If a candidate is interviewing for a generalist role, they should get familiar with the most common business questions faced by CEOs, and their approaches to solving them. Consultants at MBBs are commonly involved in solving these questions and they often tend to come up in business case interviews. The questions include:

  • improving profit

    “A fast food restaurant has had declining profits over the last three years. What is the cause and how can the situation be turned around?”

  • growing busuness

    “The CEO of a cycle hire company based in Amsterdam is looking for growth opportunities. What are some ways they can go about doing this?” (Learn how to structure this type of case in this article.)

  • reducing costs

    “The Finance Director of a motorbike manufacturer has been asked to find 10% savings within the next two years. What approach do you suggest they take to find and realize savings of this size?”

  • entering new market

    “A mobile technology firm sees South America as their next growth opportunity but doesn’t know what geographies or products to focus on growing in this region. How would you advise them?

  • launching new product

    “A successful skincare brand based in the USA who serves women over 50 wants to launch a new range to men over 50 and is looking for guidance on how to launch the product successfully.”

  • pricing product

    “A biotech firm based in Washington has developed a cutting-edge formula to reduce the impact of city pollution on human skin. They are looking for support on deciding what price to place the new product at.”

  • acquiring new bussiness

    “A global insurance company has purchased a niche insurance firm in Thailand and wants to know how best to maximize the profit and operational synergies available from the acquisition.”

  • deciding on an investment

    “A pottery manufacturer in rural England is considering purchasing a new piece of machinery that will paint the pottery without the need of a human. Should they make the investment and no longer offer hand-painted pottery?”

  • responding competitive threat

    “The dawn of agile project management has put a traditional provider of project management training at threat and their revenue has been declining over the last five years. What can the firm do to revive its leading place in the market?”

  • optimizing process

    “A popular coffee shop chain is struggling to keep up with demand and queues out the door during the morning coffee run are commonplace. How can the chain improve its throughput of coffee sold at peak times?”

However, to avoid candidates gaming the system, the top-tier firms are moving away from the more common types of cases. London Business School MBA students reported that a third of the case study interview questions they saw when interviewing with top consulting firms did not fall within any of the above question types.

How are case study interviews delivered

A consulting case interview can feel like a role play, where the interviewer plays the role of a Manager or a Client and the candidate the role of the Analyst or Consultant hired to solve the problem. However, the interview should not feel like a performance, rather it should feel like a natural conversation between two people.

Although consulting case study interviews have a set format, they can be delivered in different ways. Some can be candidate-led and others can be interviewer-led:

Candidate-led

  • The candidate suggests different aspects of the problem to explore
  • The interviewer will not tell the candidate where to focus but will provide additional information when needed (such an exhibit or new facts)
  • The candidate analyzes this information and suggests the next steps to get to the answer
candidates-led case interviewer-led case

Interviewer-led

  • The candidate suggests different aspects of the problem to explore
  • The interviewer may interrupt and ask the candidate to focus on a specific question or aspect of the case
  • The candidate explores this aspect of the case and suggests the next steps to get to the answer
  • In a candidate-led case, the candidate is free to explore different aspects of the problem. The interviewer will not tell the candidate explicitly what to focus on, rather, they will provide additional information when needed, such an exhibit or a few new facts. It’s then expected that the candidate will analyze this information and suggest the next steps to get to the answer.
  • In an interviewer-led case, the candidate also suggests next steps, but the interviewer may interrupt and ask the candidate to focus on a specific question or aspect of the case. In an interviewer-led case, candidates are less likely to take the wrong path.

Regardless of how a case is led, the candidate is expected to suggest next steps after every analysis and to have a view about how to get to the answer.

Where to watch a free case interview video

In the video below, a former McKinsey interviewer interviews a former McKinsey consultant to demonstrate a real case interview using an investment case named FlashFash. It includes helpful feedback on how the candidate is doing during the case.

To get a PDF copy of the FlashFash case, sign up to CaseCoach’s mailing list here.

This case interview video provided by Bain & Company shows what a basic case interview at a top firm looks like.

In this video provided by Yale’s SOM Consulting Club , two students demonstrate a case study interview example in the airline industry. There is no commentating feedback provided but the candidate is very strong and it serves as an excellent example of a successful case interview.

What a good structure looks like

Structuring is among the most difficult parts of the consulting case interview. While there isn’t just one correct structure for a case interview question, there are many wrong ones.

A good structure needs to focus on the right question, break it down into an exhaustive set of independent drivers, provide an approach to solving the case, and supply helpful insights.

A common approach to ensuring a good structure is the AIM test (Answer-focused, Insightful, and MECE). To expand upon this:

answer-focused insightful mece
  • Answer-focused means two things in practice: the structure focuses on the right question and it provides an approach to answering that question.
  • Insightful means the structure is tailored to the specifics of the client or problem in the case and that it is not generic. If the structure can be applied to another case of a similar type, then it hasn’t passed the Insightful test.
  • Mutually Exclusive and Collectively Exhaustive, or MECE means that the drivers outlined in the structure are exactly as such. Mutually Exclusive means that the drivers in the structure are independent and don’t overlap; they can be handled separately, or in turn. Collectively Exhaustive means that when combined, the drivers in the structure are comprehensive enough to answer the case question.

The video below describes the AIM test in more detail.

Using frameworks to structure consulting cases

Thirty years ago, people started to use frameworks to structure cases, as was popularized by the book “Case in Point”. Another book, “Case Interview Secret”, went further by suggesting that most consulting cases could be solved using a single “one-size-fits-all” framework.

Unfortunately, candidates who depend on these books today are being led down the wrong path. Top consulting firms are increasingly using unusual case questions that do not simply fit neatly into a generic framework. A candidate needs to demonstrate to an interviewer that they are capable of strongly structuring a case, as opposed to just relying on a framework.

Although frameworks should not be memorized and applied as is, knowing them can be a good starting point and source of inspiration when crafting bespoke consulting case study structures.

How to prepare for a case interview

Case study interviews are no easy ride, but candidates can give themselves the best chance of success by dedicating time to prepare for case interviews.

It is generally accepted that it takes 60+ hours of preparation to truly master consulting case interviews. Here’s how successful candidates spend this time:

1. They practice cases

While it might be cliched, ‘practice makes perfect’ is true concerning consulting case interviews.

It takes at least 25 live case interview practices, as both the interviewer and candidate to reach a good level of case proficiency. Playing both roles of the interview is useful in learning best practices from others.

To make the most of case study interview prep time, candidates should use:

  • An interview scorecard, like one used by each MBB, that assesses all the dimensions of the case study interview
  • High-quality case interview examples that closely resemble the ones in real interviews, test the right skills, and where top-mark answers are provided
  • Good case partners who can deliver a case well and provide useful feedback

2. They learn the theory

Practicing case interviews is essential, as is understanding the theory behind them and learning the best techniques to solve cases effectively.

Once a candidate has done at least a few live case interview practices, they should begin to learn the theory behind what it takes to complete a great case interview.

At this stage, it’s important to use high-quality resources. Most of the case preparation material available online are too surface level and do not accurately reflect what is tested at top consulting firms.

We also recommend watching videos of interviews where feedback is given on how well the interviewee does, so it’s clear what a great case interview looks like in practice.

3. They develop key skills

It is unlikely that someone will get a job in a top consulting firm just by having exceptional numeracy skills, but it is likely someone won’t get the position if they don’t have them.

Unless candidates are using math in life day-to-day, it is always helpful to brush up on mental math skills and to do a number of drills every day to ensure that these skills are in the best shape possible when going into a consulting interview.

Structuring and drawing insights from exhibits are two other key skills that must be mastered to avoid receiving a rejection. Similar to numeracy, these skills can be practiced in isolation outside of a case interview.

For candidates who don’t have a business or economics background, keeping an eye on the latest business news is also helpful in improving business acumen. Asking “How did the CEO make that decision?” each time a business update is released is a helpful way of building the ability to structure consulting cases.

4. They get good feedback

Too many candidates waste time practicing cases and receiving feedback from people who don’t know what great looks like for case interviews.

The speed and ability to improve case solving skills are directly correlated with the quality of feedback received. It is important to practice with and to receive feedback from people who know what to look for.

It’s possible to do this by practicing cases with current and former consultants, doing interviews at Tier 2 firms or other consultancies less preferable to the candidate, or working with a coach to receive detailed feedback and coaching.

Implementing the four strategies outlined here – practice, learning the theory, developing the skills, and soliciting high-quality feedback – will put any candidate well on their way to succeeding in their consulting interviews.

Where to download case interview practice material

We have sourced some of the most widely used case interview preparation material and have listed the most relevant sources below.

The following case interview examples are provided by McKinsey:

This interactive case library is provided by BCG. It includes several case study interview examples.

The following list contains consulting case study PDF books provided by MBA Consulting Clubs. Note that this material is developed by students and that it doesn’t always reflect the quality and difficulty of cases used by top firms. They are:

How CaseCoach can help

CaseCoach is the market leader in case interview prep. It was founded by a former Interviewer with McKinsey and headhunter who has placed more than 100 experienced candidates at the top-3 management consulting firms.

Through its Interview Prep Course and Coaching services, CaseCoach.com helps candidates succeed in their interviews.

The Interview Prep Course provides all the resources candidates need to prepare. It covers both the fit and case aspects of these interviews and includes detailed training on how to succeed as well as interview videos with real candidates. The course also contains 45+ brand new cases with top-mark answers and an extensive set of practice drills.

The Resume and Cover Letter courses for Students and Experienced Hires provide the inside scoop on what it takes to get through the first round of the recruitment process at top consulting firms to be one of the top 10% invited to interview. They include templates and examples of successful resumes and cover letters.

CaseCoach’s team of case coaches are former consultants, handpicked from among the alumni of top firms such as McKinsey, BCG, and Bain. They are available to deliver mock interviews in a realistic setting to put candidates’ preparation to the test, providing the personal feedback and practical advice needed to get on top of the game.

For free consulting interview resources, sign up to the CaseCoach mailing list below or on CaseCoach.com.

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