Why do consultancies use case study interviews?
Case studies test you in all manner of ways so they are one of the best – and fairest – methods of seeing a candidate ‘in action’. They are designed to evaluate how you process information, solve problems and react to new and surprising situations, as well as showing how you work within a team. Individuals or a small group of candidates are presented with a business problem and then given time to evaluate the information and brainstorm a solution. Case studies can be on almost any topic. 'The topic itself doesn't matter. No one expects you to know the market size for diapers in Southeast Asia offhand, for example,’ says Roland Berger. ‘But what is your approach? Can you estimate it? Educating yourself in basic data, such as average population sizes, will help prepare you for market estimation cases. Can you demonstrate common sense and make educated guesses?’ Oliver Wyman advises: ‘Think of the case interviewer as your client. Your interviewer wants you to solve the problem, and can help. Work together.’
What to do in advance
Read the firm’s graduate recruitment literature and check its website to see if it has sample case studies (the vast majority of consultancies do). Have a look at recent press releases to get a feel for the type of work it’s involved with as well as what industries it works across. Read the business pages of newspapers and imagine one of the businesses to be your client. How would you advise them? What would you base your recommendations on? What factors would you and your client need to consider before proceeding to the next step? Also check with your careers service as many run workshops and presentations on how to prepare successfully for case studies and assessment centres.
‘I practised with friends beforehand, so by the time I started interviews I was more comfortable with what to expect,’ says Olivia, an associate at The Boston Consulting Group, echoing the views of the graduates TARGETjobs has interviewed. Consultants and interns offering advice via TARGETjobs Inside Buzz, agree. The message is: practise, practise, practise.
Advice from consulting firms
Through our research of top consulting firms the TARGETjobs team has come across some valuable nuggets of advice for succeeding at case study interviews, such as:
- 'Sketch out a structure: your path to the solutiuon. If you go astray, it will help you get back on track.' (Roland Berger)
- ‘Don’t panic if the answer is not apparent.’ (Boston Consulting Group)
- 'Pause periodically during the dscussion to give your interviewer a chance to course-correct.' (PwC)
- ‘If you need more data, ask for it. If you're stumped, take a creative leap.’ (Oliver Wyman).
Thinking out loud
The TARGETjobs team has been struck by a common thread – almost everyone we spoke to stressed that applicants should talk through their thought process with the interviewer. As L.E.K. Consulting puts it, ‘Formulate hypotheses – share your thought process as information is revealed.’ It’s a bit like making sure you show your calculations in a maths exam – it’s not enough just to come up with the answer. Given that case studies tend not to have ‘right’ or ‘wrong’ answers anyway, making your thinking process transparent is particularly important. ‘We do not expect candidates to actually solve the cases in interviews,’ says OC&C Strategy Consultants, Instead, the person interviewing you must be able to understand how you reach your conclusions – how you’ve broken the problem down, analyse information and structure conclusions.
If you're in a group...
If you’re working in a small group divide the tasks – you’ll get through them far quicker. There may be different personalities in your group and recruiters will be watching to see how you interact. They will also be looking for evidence of leadership and teamwork. Don’t dominate proceedings but do pitch in and contribute where appropriate. It’s important to be yourself rather than play to a type.
Expect the unexpected
Additional information may be sprung on you so be prepared. Interviewers will be looking to see how you deal with the unexpected as well as how flexible you are with processing last-minute information. Ask if you’re unsure about something. Asking clarifying questions such as ‘Does that make sense?’ to the interviewer, will ensure you’re on the right track and shows self-awareness.
Example case studies
We can’t tell you exactly which case study you’ll face, but we can give you a couple of examples of what it might be like:
Expanding a business
Your client is a global organisation that manufactures and distributes a wide range of chocolate products. They have two ideas to expand the business: either to introduce a new range through existing distribution channels or move into a completely new business, which will involve building a set of retail stores. To approach this, you will need to compare the returns of each of the different investments and decide which will be the better solution for the business. Make sure you can explain the reasoning behind your decision.
Increasing a supermarket's profitability
A supermarket chain has noticed a decline in its profitability. They have hired you to find out why this is and to recommend and implement a solution. You’ll need to work out why there is a decline in profitability – for example, is it specific sites or the entire chain’s performance that is suffering? Once you have identified the problems, work out a cost-effective solution that will allow the supermarket to address each in turn.
Case Interviews: the hardest part of the consulting recruiting process
What is a case interview and how should you prepare for it?
A case interview is a 30-minute simulation of a typical business project that consultants may have worked on. Cases provide a real example of an on-job experience and the assumption is that if a candidate is successfully able to tackle a case interview, they are more likely to be a successful management consultant. Unfortunately, several outstanding candidates with top grades and co-curriculars fail case interviews in the recruiting process.
Why is that? One reason is that several candidates memorize standard frameworks hoping to recall each framework during case interviews. Frameworks, though useful for a rudimentary layout of case problems, must be tweaked and customized for different cases. You can become proficient in case structuring but only with the necessary practice.
While good candidates use standard frameworks to systematically solve the problems in consulting case interviews, outstanding candidates also see the big picture and adapt the frameworks specific to the business case. To become an outstanding candidate:
- Learn different types of business cases
- Learn to differentiate the various case types
- Understand the process of breaking down complex cases into simpler components
- Learn to apply problem solving skills in appropriate frameworks (issue trees)
- Practice, practice, practice!
This BootCamp will provide you with the basic tools you need for an effective case solving process and familiarize you with most different types of cases (find an overview of different case types here). Once you’ve got the hang of it, solve as many cases as you can and remember:
- NOT to memorize the cases you solve during your preparation!
- NOT to blindly apply standard frameworks especially where they do not fit!
For a more detailed look at how to ‘crack’ cases please visit our best practice approach.
These case studies are the main and usually the longest part of consulting interviews. During the 20 to 40-minute case interview, you will be confronted with a business problem that is often drawn from one of the interviewer’s real-life engagements. Below is a schematic showing a typical process for a consulting interview after resume screening.
Many companies peer-review and standardize their consulting business cases prior to a real case interview to ensure that the case is neither too hard nor too easy. The companies also ensure to test a variety of skills during case interviews.
Unlike the case books you may know from your university or case reports in business journals, the initial information you will get is very limited. You won’t be able to solve the case using only this initial information, also known as the opening of the case. Typical openings are:
- “Company ABC is a watch manufacturer who is recently experiencing profit problems and a decline in market share, what should they do?”
- “Company XY is an automotive company who is thinking about entering the Chinese market in 2014, should they go east?”
- “Company Z is a private equity company who contemplates merging with company A. Does it make sense?”
After the opening of a case, you should take a couple of minutes to structure your thoughts and come up with a customized framework (more on this later).
Visit our employer profiles or homepages of the companies that you would like to work with for further information about consulting cases
Have a look at many prestigious employers in our career section. You will find priceless insights about their respective application process. If you are interested in applying to MBB consulting firms: below you can also find links to their respective descriptions of consulting case studies. Also remember to check out the career websites of other companies you want to apply to.
While acing case interviews is indispensable, the "personal fit interview" is equally important. Visit the personal fit part of the BootCamp for more information on this part of the recruiting process.