Case interview 101 for ambitious graduates

Congratulations! You're one step closer to landing your dream graduate job in consulting! Next, find out what a case interview is and how to prepare.
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What exactly is the case interview?

So glad you asked.

By the time you waltz into a consultancy for your first interview, you can be sure you’ve ticked all the ‘right’ boxes – excellent grades, impressive extracurricular activities, a demonstrated ability to write well and perhaps just a little je ne sais quois that spoke to the heart of the consultant reviewing your CV.

Whoever you are, whatever you have done, it’s now time to buckle up and show that you are more than just an A4 piece of paper (or two).

The thing is, everyone else they’re interviewing has exactly the same kind of credentials as you, albeit with some slight variations.

The only way they can tell one brilliant mind from the next is to well, see that brilliant mind of yours in action.

Enter the case interview.

The case interview is all about demonstrating how you think – your ability to understand a problem, break it down into its requisite parts, analyse them and communicate a solution.

The case interview usually forms a part of the overall interview. Candidates will generally face two rounds of interviews at a consultancy, although it’s not uncommon for a third round too. In your first round, you can expect 1-2 half-hour interviews with a senior consultant. In your second or third round, you could potentially have up to four interviews including one with a partner.

Generally, you’ll find the further you go in the interview process, the more senior the interviewer.

During these interviews, you’ll usually find about 5-10 minutes dedicated to ‘getting to know you’ with some behavioural questions thrown in, then about 20-30 minutes on the case itself, before a final wrap-up. This varies, of course, depending on the firm and the interviewer.

If you’re interviewing with a partner, you might expect more of a tête-à-tête, where they may or may not give you a case depending on how you have performed in earlier rounds. Some partners do have their favourite ‘pet’ cases that they like to give, so it’s better to always assume a case in every interview. We know of one McKinsey partner who gives the same case every year to every candidate based on his very first McKinsey project!

What’s in a case, anyway?

When we say ‘case’ interview, we use the term pretty loosely.

Typically, this refers to a business case where you might be asked to solve a problem that the consultancy has faced in the past or is currently working on.

Remember, management consultants do exactly what it sounds like – they work or ‘consult’ to the managers of an organisation. As trusted advisers, they help managers with whatever problems come their way.

Maybe it’s trying to understand why profits are going down despite a steady growth in sales, maybe it’s about how to enter a new industry or geographic market, or maybe it’s deciding if they should acquire that business or not.

These problems are typically about the ‘bigger picture; and what’s most top of mind for an organisation’s management.  

At other times, the ‘case interview’ may be more like a brainteaser (the old ‘how many ping pong balls can you fit in an A380’ type question) or a guesstimate/market sizing question (such as ‘how many Coke cans are produced in Australia every year?’). Note, we’ll go into each of these different types of cases later in the book.

While these are all variations on a theme, the point is that the case interview is essentially a broad open-ended problem with typically very little information provided. It’s up to you then, the consultant-to-be, to prove your ability to extract what you need and come up with a viable solution. You will typically have about 20-30 minutes to discuss the solution with your interviewer.

While the thought of the case might scare the living beeswax out of you, the thing to remember – and you will hear this over and over again no matter who you speak to – is that the interviewer isn’t looking for the right answer per se. They’re looking to see if you can rationalise your response, justify your answers and stay cool under pressure.

Remember. You. Are. A. Cool. Cool. Cucumber. No. Matter. What.  

So, while you may come to an ‘incorrect’ number, if you can convince the interviewer of your logic, you’re in a good place.

So how does one prepare for the case?

Simple.

Do as many of them as you can ahead of time.

Of all the times in your career, this is one time when you shouldn’t wing it – no matter how good your mental arithmetic or your ability to solve the world’s most puzzling brainteasers.

The point is getting comfortable with the different styles of case interviews, being able to think on your feet and say those thoughts out loud and confidently, these skills will stand in you in good stead when it’s actually go-time.

After all, there’s never usually an overnight success story – a good actor doesn’t just give a stellar performance, it comes from the rehearsals behind the scenes.

The next step: find out what case interviewers are looking for.