To score a job at a management consulting firm, investment banking company or many other businesses that require on-your-feet thinking, you'll likely need to sit for a case study interview. These interviews are a bit different than your standard job interview, and as you transition from school to work, they add another challenge to a long list of new experiences. We'll explore how employers use these interviews and offer some case interview prep tips as well as some examples to help you prepare.
What is a case interview?
The purpose of a case interview is to help the hiring manager understand how you will react to a real-world issue or question. During the meeting, the interviewer presents you with a specific scenario, challenge or problem, and an accompanying set of facts. Your assignment is to use your problem-solving skills and business sense to work through the challenge and offer possible solutions. Here are some important factors to remember about case interviews:
- The challenge is realistic. You'll be facing a real-world business case, often one that the firm you're interviewing with has dealt with in the past. Your goal is to show the interviewer that you can think critically, that you know how to adapt to changes and that your skills would be a good fit for the job and the company.
- Your experience will be helpful. Your coursework can help you with the terminology involved in a case interview. If you confront a term or phrase you haven't heard before, lean on your time in class and use contextual clues to understand what the interviewer is referring to.
- Relying on structure is key. "Understanding the point of the interview is useful," said one consultant from McKinsey. "If you can structure and work through a problem logically with a frameworked approach, then you are a strong candidate to help structure and framework problems for clients. Driving your module is a key part of the consultant's job, and that starts in the case interviews."
Guidelines for case interviews
Before you walk into the interview room, you'll need a solid understanding of how to approach a case interview to succeed. Here are a few tips to help you navigate the interview:
- Listen. The interviewer will start by laying out the case for you. Listen carefully and take notes, especially if there are statistics or measurables involved.
- Ask questions. Clarify the situation in your mind by asking relevant questions that will help you move toward a solution.
- Brainstorm. Start by writing down your approach to the case. Think out loud while you do this and let the interviewer hear your thought process as you work your way to the solution.
- Listen again. Once you explain your approach to the interviewer, they will give you feedback. Pay attention — that feedback may necessitate minor or major changes to your plan. For client-based work, you will need to show that you are willing to listen to feedback and incorporate that feedback into your project or processes going forward.
- Quantify. You'll want to show off your quantifiable skills to complete the interview successfully. One skill usually involves doing basic business math in your head or quickly on paper. Make sure you can quickly determine percentages and show your work.
- Summarize. When you finish working your way through the problem, provide a brief and confident summary of your approach and the rationale for your conclusions.
Case interview examples
Though each case interview prompt will be unique, they all aim to assess your critical thinking skills and understand how you approach problems. Here are a few sample case interview questions that might help you prepare for your own interview:
- Your client's profits have dropped 25 percent over the last three years. What will you do to understand what's causing this and turn this trend around?
- One client, a company with a long history in the market, is looking for a new product that will help them appeal to a younger generation of customers. How should they approach their search?
- A coffee manufacturer is debating whether to package their coffee in bags made from eco-friendly materials. This would increase packaging costs and require new equipment for filling and sealing the bags. Evaluate the costs of making this change vs. the potential benefits of going green.
Behavioral questions: fit is key
Be prepared for the interviewer to throw in some behavioral questions — these questions help determine if you are a good fit for their company. They are meant to determine how you will approach a situation based on previous situations. Your responses are meant to show the interviewer your skills, abilities and personality traits. Answers to behavioral questions should focus on short anecdotes that illustrate your strengths.
A few behavioral question examples:
- Give an example of a goal you didn't meet and how you handled it.
- Have you ever not met your goals? Why?
- Tell me about a time when you made a rash decision, and how it impacted your perspectives going forward.
Don't dismiss these questions as fluff. Your answers are critical, and you should prepare for them as much as you do the rest of the interview. Avoid using unnecessary business jargon, formulas and definitions just because you know them. Be yourself and let your personality shine through.
Case interview practice is essential
Preparing for your case interview is key. "For my first case interview, I didn't know anyone who had done one," said the McKinsey consultant. "It was critical for me to study and invest in the effort. I read books and watched videos, but most useful was practicing live case interviews. I did 110 live interviews."
The thought of a one-on-one case interview might be intimidating. But remember: these interviews are less about getting the "right" answer and more about showing off the critical thinking and analytical skills you've developed. With the right preparation, you'll have the confidence to nail it on your first try.
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