A major stressor for a bunch of my students at this time of year is case interviewing. Many of the top recruiters of both UG and MBA students use some form of problem solving interview to gauge candidates’ analytical skills as well as their grace under pressure. I’ll lay out a few of the major themes I review with people as they prepare to go through this process.
What are firms looking for?
- Analytical abilities – How clearly can you develop an analytical framework, dissect a problem, create clear alternatives and effectively communicate a recommendation?
- Poise – How well do you handle stress and intense questioning? Do you get lost in a sea of data or do you understand what’s important? Do you stand your ground when appropriate or cave under pressure? Do you hard headedly stick to ill conceived positions? How comfortable are you in your own skin?
- Fit – Are you one of us? Do you think like we do? Am I comfortable with you in front of my clients on day one?
Each of these is important and falling down on any one is a killer. Keep in mind that you can do really well on all and not get an offer based on how competitive the field is for these roles.
How do I handle the case?
1. Frame the problem
You are typically asked a question or presented and introductory slide or two with data. Make sure you understand the question and then take a few minutes to collect your thoughts and commit them to paper in a logic tree.
Success (failure is the inverse of these):
- You clearly repeat the question and understand any clarifications the interviewer offers
- You lay out a reasonable approach
- DO NOT assume too much. I see candidates try to be too clever and jump to conclusions. This is death in a case. You will waste time, spin wheels and not be demonstrating any of traits 1-3 above.
2. Dig for details
Once you’ve laid out a framework you start asking good questions. This is a narrowing process to eliminate potential problems of avenues that don’t apply. You are trying to show your breadth and depth of knowledge as well as your ability to synthesize in real time.
This is where you are showing your analytical skills. How well do you handle challenges? How well do you respond when what you thought might be the answer has no data and so (obviously) isn’t a useful path?
Also important is how curious and intuitive are you? Stated differently, do you demonstrate an aptitude for being a driving problem solver? Too many people are trying to be formulaic in digging. I call it “wielding frameworks.” Don’t tell me you’ll do a Porter’s 5 Forces. Do it. When I pose you an interesting conundrum, be curious and dig until you’re satisfied you’ve reached the bottom of the information well.
Also, think about what you’re saying here. Many people simply talk too much without good information. You can put waayyy too much out there for your interviewer (or inquisitor) to jump on. Share pertinent information or insights. You definitely want to share your thinking. Just be careful what and when you share it.
More business students than you might think have gotten great grades, but aren’t “savvy”. They can lose sight of what matters in unstructured problems. Solving an undefined case is much harder than getting to the crux of a pricing case when you’re in a pricing class and the case relates to this week’s reading. In that situation, you already have the problem domain narrowed way down. Here you have to figure out the problem
- Asking good questions that are on point
- Taking direction and guidance from interviewer. Most are trying to assist you. Don’t treat them as adversaries.
- Demonstrating curiosity
- Demonstrating good business acumen/intuition/savviness
- Not listening to guidance
- Talking too much in advance of intuition and/or data
- Failing to follow through on useful paths (this is where “curiosity” matters)
3. Develop the math/reach insight
There is typically a key insight in the case. It might be quantitative – I’ve given you numbers and you reach a financial conclusion (ex: Product line A isn’t profitable) It might be qualitative – based on asking good questions it turns out that you learn a new competitor has entered the market. Either way, you reach an insight that can then drive you to conclusions about sensible recommendations going forward.
It is critically important that you demonstrate comfort with number for those firms that care. Assume McKinsey, Bain, Boston Consulting and Deloitte all care a lot. Do you get what direction the numbers are moving and at what scale? Also – don’t make it harder than it has to be. My emphasis is on understanding. Don’t worry about the 3rd decimal point here. If someone says 190,000, do the math with 200,000. It’s easier and you’ll still get to the right conclusion. Keep it as simple as you can.
- Obviously, getting the “right” answer matters. But it’s not the only thing.
- Understanding the insight you’ve reached. Again this sounds obvious, but many candidates don’t understand what they’ve just learned.
- Demonstrating comfort with the scale and direction of numbers.
- Thinking you are done. You’re NOT! This is only partial credit. You have to move on to step 4.
- Blowing the math. People get wrapped up in the math and can fluster.
4. Make recommendations
Take time to think through what to say. It’s an opportunity to regroup and spend 60 seconds jotting down your ideas. You are trying to show the comprehensiveness of your thinking on solutions to the problem as well as the implications of the solutions.
As an example, I use a case that is about profitability. One of the potential recommendations a candidate could make amounts to “eliminate this customer segment because we lose money on them”. Perfectly good recommendation if qualified by some statement like “understanding that I’d want to know more about our fixed vs. variable costs (and then why)”. In essence, do you understand that the financial accounting for profit might be different than the managerial accounting of it? Unqualified you leave the impression you don’t understand the cost accounting implications of what you’ve said and I will proceed to dig until it hurts. On the other hand if you don’t even mention cutting this segment you are missing an obvious potential solution.
The idea is to frame all the available actions that could be promising, walk the interviewer through them and the implications of each.
- Getting the bulk of the potential recommendations
- Responding well to challenges of your logic
- Missing major potential solutions
- Not understanding the likely implications of your recommendations
- Thinking your done at “insight”
- Being shallow
- Practice. A lot.
Successful candidates have typically done 10+ practice cases and I have some students who’ve done 25+. Some people may be clever enough to just stand and deliver w/o this practice. I wouldn’t count on you being one of them. In many case it takes a 3.8 GPA and very high standardized test scores to be considered for a 1st round interview.
A Bain consultant recently told me (paraphrased) that “everyone we interview is super smart. It’s more about how they handle our process and culture. Then it’s how they stack up against other candidates what are all awesome as well.”
Practice can take many forms. Get in the habit of asking your self “why?” a lot. Read the WSJ with a clinical eye and try to understand what’s going on behind a particular story. Find a few friends and grill each other on mini cases etc.
- Relax and have fun – If you don’t find this at least a little fun, you are probably not well suited to the industry.
- This discipline is directly applicable to ANY problem solving situation. The same skills apply to work place, classroom and any other environment that requires organizing your thinking to solve a problem.
- Find contacts at the firm who’ll practice a case with you. They all have slightly different styles. Most alums want to help you. Let them.
- Resources: The best selling case prep book is Case in Point. It’s a great resource to start with. Don’t get too wrapped up in the frameworks and drilling on them independently. Practice matters far more past a basic understanding of the method.
Good luck. Let me know what I’ve missed.
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