Case Interviews

Management Consulting Case Interview, Consulting Case Interview, Interview Tips and Advice, Management Consulting Guide

Tips from the Other Side of the Table

How to Master the Case Interview: Advice from Professionals

Many leading consulting firms use case interviews to evaluate potential applicants. This type of interview is commonly a source of anxiety for undergraduates and other first-time interviewees. However, they don't have to be. 

Our founder, Jason Winmill, has over 20 years of experience in the management and strategy consulting industry, and has spoken on the topic of case interviewing at Harvard College and Harvard Business School. Since then, he has run thousands of case interviews with top candidates from schools including Harvard Business School, Wharton, and Yale.

Here are 10 tips on how to master the case interview gathered from Jason's years of experience on both sides of the table.

Jason Winmill holds a BA in Economics from Harvard College as well as an MBA from the Harvard Business School. Before Argopoint, Jason worked at Bain & Co and Goodmeasure Consulting. 

Jason Winmill holds a BA in Economics from Harvard College as well as an MBA from the Harvard Business School. Before Argopoint, Jason worked at Bain & Co and Goodmeasure Consulting. 

What is a case interview?

Case interviews are an interactive conversation in which you will be given a strategic or operational business challenge based on real client projects. Using only the provided facts and your own business acumen, you will need to make educated assumptions, structure your thinking into a framework, and form your own hypotheses about how to solve the specific problem at hand.

The case interview will assess your problem-solving skills, creative thinking, business sense, and intrinsic ability to think on your feet. It will also test your comfort with mental math, since you will need to quickly build defensible recommendations backed by quantitative analysis. Although there is no "right" answer to a case, you will need to communicate your thought process clearly and demonstrate highly-structured, analytical thinking. To get in the right mindset, read on for 10 specific tips on case interviewing.

The case interview will answer some questions for the interviewer: How do you approach complex, unstructured problems? Can you and how do you effectively evaluate data for your analysis? Are you able to communicate your thought process and analysis clearly? Are you creative, do you think ‘outside the box’?

1. Pay attention to the interviewer.

You might be talking to a senior or junior member of the company. They might be warm and talkative, or reserved and direct. Some interviewers enjoy the process, while others do not…and sometimes your interviewer might just be having a bad day. 

Suggestion: Get a read on your interviewer. Observe the interviewer's behavior and attitude, and modify your own behavior accordingly. Whether they want to chat for a bit or get right down to business, follow their lead. In addition, the information that an interviewer gives you is meant to help you, so pay attention and use their cues to your own benefit. 

"Keep in mind that you will be evaluated on a comprehensive basis, including critical thinking skills, analytical capabilities, and problem-solving aptitude." 

2. It’s about more than just the math.  

Too many first-time interviewees spend time worrying about doing the math correctly to the exclusion of other important factors. Keep in mind that you will be evaluated on a comprehensive basis, including critical thinking skills, analytical capabilities, and problem-solving aptitude.  While quantitative prowess is important for the consulting industry, this capability will not take you very far if you do not know how to apply it in a business setting.

Suggestion: Be sure to demonstrate to your interviewer that you can not only find solutions to mathematical problems, but also use your findings to quickly form opinions and guide decisions. Make sure to spend time demonstrating more than just your quantitative capabilities.  It's okay to make a mistake, but as Marc Constentino, an expert on case interviews, notes "don't make the same mistake twice.  If it's twice, it's a pattern and if it's a pattern it's a problem."

3. Demonstrate enthusiasm and a keen interest in the conversation.

In a case interview, you are presented with business problems similar to those that consultants face in real life. This is an opportunity to demonstrate that you can not only handle the challenges of a consulting job, but will also find the work interesting—a sign that you would be a good fit for the consulting industry.

Suggestion: Demonstrate enthusiasm and energy in your conversation with the interviewer. This will demonstrate your passion for the industry.  Approach the case interview as an enjoyable challenge.  Case interviews are designed by firms to mirror real-life consulting challenges.  Embrace the practice!

4. Focus on the bigger business problems.

You are not expected to be an expert on every industry. Don’t be concerned if you do not know the specifics of the industry that you are questioned about. The key criteria your interviewer will be looking for is your understanding of business and ability to solve practical business issues.

Some Case Interview Topics Include:

  • Market Sizing
  • Operations Strategies
  • M&A-Market Entry
  • Business Design, Innovation
  • Performance Improvement

Suggestion: Focus on the bigger problems that can be generalized across industries to all businesses. Examples include declining profitability, merger integration, increasing market share, etc. Begin with a summary of the case.  This will break the silence and allow you time to think through the process and develop an answer in your head.

5. Structure the problem but don't force-fit frameworks.

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Most firms and professionals recommend applying a pre-existing framework to the scenario at hand. This technique will help you structure the problem and make your thought process clear to both you and the interviewer. However, be wary of a strict compliance to these frameworks. Applying a framework that does not fit the situation is a costly mistake that you should try to avoid. It reveals a flawed approach toward addressing a problem and coming up with a solution, which implies a misunderstanding of business fundamentals.

Suggestion: Study or review various business frameworks such as Porter’s 5 Forces and the traditional microeconomic cost structure. In addition, read high-quality publications such as The Economist and The Wall Street Journal every day to familiarize yourself with real business problems and solutions, as well as various industry specifics.  

6. Don’t over-complicate things.

You do not need to focus on all the information presented to you. While it’s not a bad thing to see potential hours’ worth of issues, as it shows you can think deeply about a problem, focusing on all of them at once will waste your time without getting you any closer to an answer.  

Suggestion: Prioritize the key pieces of information, not all the information. As soon as you have a sense of the most important factors in a case, shift your attention to focus on those aspects. Ask questions about the core issues that you have identified, and do not worry about the other less-important issues.   Don’t jump to conclusions too quickly. Even if you are sure of an answer, remember, the process is more important than the answer.

7. Ask (smart) questions.

The interviewer will also be interested in observing how you act when faced with an ambiguous situation. Thus, asking too many questions indicates that you might not respond well to similar situations in a real business setting. This does not mean you shouldn't ask any—interviewers expect you to ask questions, but remember: these should be relevant and important to the issue at hand or your proposed solution. Useful questions will serve to further elucidate hidden problems- not serve as a crutch. Start will little knowledge and gather data as you go by asking the right questions. Think about it as a problem-solving dialogue. The right questions are usually specific, not open-ended. The more details you have, the more data to analyze effectively.

Suggestion: Demonstrate leadership ability and initiative by asking questions that will help you connect all the information, not just ones that will help you create a more complete picture of the problem. This approach will showcase your creativity and ability to problem-solve in an unstructured environment. 

8. Communicate your thought process clearly.

One of the main goals of the interviewer is to assess your problem-solving, analytical, and critical thinking ability. To demonstrate these qualities, make sure to communicate your thought process clearly to the interviewer and specify the steps you took to arrive at a solution.

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Suggestion: Be thorough when walking the interviewer through your complete thought process. Explain how you came to each of your assumptions, and how your questions for him/her are relevant to the scenario presented.  Remember, there is no right answer.  Your thought process is what matters most, and the case study gives you an opportunity to showcase your problem solving skills.  Take notes, draw graphs, and use them throughout the interview to keep you organized and on track.  It is perfectly okay to take time to think about the question and reflect on your answer. Talk through your thought process, but remember to always be structured!

9. Don’t be afraid to think outside the box.

If there were simple solutions to the problems that consultants face, then there would be no consulting industry, as businesses would be able to solve their own problems. When businesses approach consulting firms, they are looking for innovative and creative solutions.

Suggestion: Try to develop creative solutions and think from a new perspective; however, do not forget to use common sense and business acumen.  

10. Demonstrate a dedicated interest in the firm you are interviewing at.

Remember that the interview is not only where the firm learns about you—it is also a good setting for you to learn more about the interviewer, the firm, and the consulting industry. Use this opportunity wisely and keep the interview interactive. Have a conversation to learn more about your interviewer and gain insight into his/her thought processes and daily work. This will also help you stand out from the other interviewees.

Suggestion: Be yourself and display a sincere interest in the firm by making the interview as interactive as possible.  Use the case interview as a medium to gain a deeper understanding of past, current, and potential future projects within the firm.

Above all, relax and enjoy the experience. Your interviewers are looking for the skills and traits that will lead you to succeed in the position—they want you to succeed. The best applicants are genuinely excited by the challenges in the consulting field, so try to think of your case interview as an enjoyable challenge and an opportunity to learn more about the firm you’re interviewing with. Good luck!

Contributed by: Jason Winmill and Simmone Seymour