A True Tale of a Case Interview Gone Bad

The following is the sad-but-true story of what can go wrong in a case interview. The narrator was a liberal-arts graduate in political science who worked for a short and unhappy time after graduation as a financial consultant and aspired to a position in management consulting. He interviewed at McKinsey and Company. The names in the story have been changed.

It was the third week in February on a gloomy gray morning, and I snuck out of the office under the guise of a personal-business appointment.

I raced to my car, trying perhaps to create a physical excuse for my rapid pulse. Carefully maneuvering around the droop in the ceiling, I shut myself in my dingy red ’85 Nissan 200. With a tentative glance at my leaking sunroof, I was off to interview at what felt like my only salvation from the life-sucking, money-ruled treadmill that had become my existence.

I scrambled in the mist from my parking lot to the third tallest building in Atlanta, and headed for the top floor. As I was greeted by the recruiter, I had condensation or perspiration — I’m not sure which — trickling down my temple. She led me back to an area with two sofas already accommodating three other interviewees. That caught me off guard slightly. For some reason I figured I’d be alone since it was the end of recruiting season. Seating myself, I realized I hadn’t really had a chance to contemplate what to expect during the interview.

All three of my companions looked like the antithesis of at-ease. Had I realized at the time that this was the job, I would have been nervous, too, perhaps. I was anxious all right, but it had little to do with the company. If I had been interviewing for a similar paying job at Bob’s Wholesale Hardware, I would have felt the same. The Truman scholar from California and the Yale graduate to my left — info I would soon pry out of them — each seemed to be focused on some mental mantra that they were repeating in their heads.

Both looked like they were trying to remind themselves that they were brilliant enough and also decide exactly which fine feat they should talk about as their greatest accomplishment, or use for some clever analogy in their interview. I, too, had considered these questions, but not knowing what to expect, I figured I would simply say what I believed. Probably my biggest mistake.

I was surprised at how tight-lipped everyone seemed to be during those few anxious minutes on the couches. I casually sparked up a little conversation and learned that each person was there for a final day-long round of interviews.

They kept looking at me with a strange tilt, as if they were sending me telepathic messages saying “What are you doing!? Don’t you know this is MCKINSEY??!!! They could hold this stuff against us!” One by one, they were led off, leaving me alone on the couch for a few uncertain minutes. Finally, I was greeted by a young woman in her late 20s and pregnant. I’ll call her Mandy for the sake of this anecdote. She was welcoming, and we chatted as she led me to a narrow little station where we could talk.

I found Mandy to be warm, personable, and helpful. She put me at ease in what I realized was a completely unknown environment. She asked me several “interview-type” questions, but her tone was always helpful and inquisitive.

I think I made three mistakes during this interview:

  1. I was always trying to give some nebulous right answer and falling short. I had difficulty being concise because my nerves were so shot, and I think my stammering didn’t help.
  2. When she asked a question about where I saw myself in 10 years, I gave a very honest and unusual answer about how people create stress for themselves trying to plan and not being able to be flexible. I instead gave goals but probably wasn’t as concrete as I should have been. I wondered if my honesty was appreciated less than a strong goal-oriented statement.
  3. Although I was vaguely familiar with case questions, I wasn’t well versed or practiced.

She asked me about how to figure out how many quarters were in a mall. I knew she wanted to hear how I structured my analysis, but I probably focused too much on that and also got myself caught in my own thoroughness. Had I been more practiced, I could have been more systematic in my approach and then stuck to my answer instead of feeling the need to add something I may have left out.

Walking out of the room back to the sofas, I felt that it had gone fairly well.

I had shown some strengths during the interview, found some connections with her (she was human).

I wasn’t sure whether I had done well or poorly on the case question, but couldn’t think of anything I left out. With hindsight, I could have been a little more efficient and structure.

Back on the couch we waited, and one by one, my “friends” were whisked away. Again, I was the last one on the couch and really beginning to believe that I was an afterthought, at best. Maybe, looking back, I should have been flattered, but at the time and under the circumstances, I tried hard to be amused, primarily to keep the doubt at bay. When my final inquisitor — I’ll call him Ken — finally arrived, I heard the hammer hit the nail.

Nothing Ken did or said put me at ease or made me feel like the interview was anything other than adversarial. I also knew that the moment I became confrontational, I would lose. He started out with a series of questions that were harmless enough, but sent me scrounging.

“What was your most rewarding leadership experience?” I told him about how I started at the age of 15 playing hockey, without knowing which way to hold my stick or how to skate backwards, and the next year was chosen captain, and the next again when I led our team to the playoffs. Ken’s enthusiastic response, “That’s nice, but how about something you did?”

Maybe I chose the wrong thing by giving a heartfelt answer as opposed to an ideal answer, or perhaps I just wasn’t clear in my point of leadership by example. Either way, his response seemed colder than the February air.

He then asked me a case question: “How much does a Boeing 757 weigh?”

Again, I knew he was less concerned about the number I came up with as opposed to my process, but he was no help. I asked him all sorts of questions, and he just shrugged his shoulders and sat tight-lipped until after the fifth attempt he finally said, “To answer your one question, you can assume that the seats are empty and the tank is full.”

He corrected me a few times, too. “Now I heard recently that the Concorde that they mounted atop a building near Times Square weighs 25,000 tons…”

“Tons or pounds?” asks Ken.

“I thought tons…right???” I asked as I felt the last bead of self-esteem trickle down the small of my back.

“I don’t know,” helped Ken smugly.

Well I figure the Concorde seats about 300 people, so the 757 probably somewhere around 350-375.

“Actually, its more like 500,” helped Ken again, “and you have two more minutes.”

I could barely stand up after our time was up; my legs were weak. Ken started down some stairs, and I mentioned, “I need to pick up my umbrella and briefcase from the waiting area,” and he said, “OK, meet me at the door afterwards.”

I didn’t know what to make of it all, but I was scared. I could hardly keep the tears back as I headed for the job I so desperately wanted out of. I had a bad feeling in my stomach.

Two weeks later I received a voice message from Ken, and over the next week and a half of phone tag, I could scarcely wonder whether I was nixed, or they wanted to take another look. When we finally connected, he seemed to be friendlier than I remembered. It hurt all the more when he said, “I’ve got some bad news…”

I asked why they felt they weren’t interested, and he said I took too long to answer some questions and seemed to be unsure with numbers. That hurt. All day long, I rapid-fire numbers and calculations on the spot as a financial consultant, always one of the first with an answer. And I have been told time and time again that my biggest strength is being able to communicate a point quickly. Yes, I stumbled in the interview, but it still seemed ironic.

I bombed out in this interview because of (a) innocent naivete about the big players in consulting and what that really meant; (b) unfamiliarity with their process and what is they look for in a first interview — I just had no clue; (c) emotional turmoil; (d) lack of confidence and certainty about what I was doing and why; and (e) some general bad luck.

If I am to glean some powerful lessons from this experience, they are: Although it sounds like I did not prepare for this interview, I did. I, however, did not prepare correctly or understand what I was getting myself into.

Those approaching consulting interviews need to know what is expected in interviews of various types of companies and positions.

I obviously was clueless. I was especially clueless about the rigidity and formality of these interviews.

Another valuable lesson I’ve learned from this experience is to practice those case studies and all your answers to those questions that I thought were too trite to be asked (like “what’s your greatest accomplishment?”).

And most importantly, leave nothing to chance. Prepare every unthinkable scenario. There is no replacement for hard work, especially when you get only one shot.

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