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Case interviews: what interviewers are looking for

Team GradAustralia

Consulting case interviews can be challenging – stand out from the crowd by showing these 5 traits that your interviewers are looking for.

Why case interviews matter for consulting grads

During an interview, the interviewer is trying to get an insight into who you really are – how you think, what you would be like to work with, how you perform under pressure and if they can imagine you being a part of their team.  

Consultants work extremely closely together – there’s no ‘I’ in consultant and it’s all about the team. Indeed, in many cases, you may see your fellow consultants more during the week than you would your family, friends or significant other. So, it pays to make sure the cultural fit is right – for both parties (yes, that includes you!).

That’s why interviewers across the board – not just in consulting – spend so much time on the behavioural interview. Questions about whether you’re a team player, a leader, a communicator, or a conflict solver are all about testing to see what kind of values you live by and what you might be able to bring to the team.

The case interview is a variation on this theme.

Once you’ve proven you’re a good cultural fit, the case interview is about testing whether you can bring the consulting goods to the table. You may be the most perfect cultural fit but if you can’t demonstrate an ability to think creatively or analytically, then you may find it tough going as a consultant.

Below, we’ve collated a list of what the interviewer is looking for.

Just a friendly reminder – the thing is, we’re pretty sure you’ve got the goods below. After all, you’re quite possibly reading this book because you’ve got a consulting interview already lined up or a pretty good chance of getting one.

Remember, the case interview is not about pretending to be someone you’re not. That kind of pretence gets awfully boring and very quickly obvious when you’re in a stressful situation. You already have a lot to offer, now it’s just time to brush up on making sure that shines through.

Traits your interviewer is looking for

Mental horsepower

If you’ve scored an interview with a consulting firm, we’re pretty sure you’ve got this in spades. Now is the time to show it off.

Essentially, mental horsepower means being able to demonstrate you can solve problems quickly with incomplete information and under pressure. It’s not about being able to apply the best framework you learnt on the Internet, no Porter Five Forces or Seven S’s or Triple 000s should be helping you here. Sure, those kind of frameworks are good to get some ideas into the kinds of things to think about when confronted with a problem but interviewers want to see you go above and beyond some already pre-defined framework. A good case study should be your opportunity to demonstrate how you approach a new, unfamiliar and ambiguous problem, not how you regurgitate a memorised framework.

We like to call this kind of thinking the First Principles approach. Interviewers aren’t expecting you to be an expert in whatever industry they throw your way, be it steel, solar batteries or soft drinks. You’re a university student after all! What they are looking to answer is – can this candidate think through this problem in a very logical way? First principles is like thinking from the very beginning. Well, what is the steel industry, how does it work, how does this company work, how might we help them make gains, for example.   

It’s also a good idea to practise mental arithmetic ahead of time so you don’t get tripped up doing some simple maths – whether that’s knowing how many zeros are in a billion, or how to quickly calculate percentages, it pays to practise the basics. There’s no denying that consulting can often require some heavy analytical lifting – you will be spending a considerable amount of time on excel after all – so it is worth demonstrating you have the analytical and mathematical prowess required.

Ownership and confidence during the case

Unlike other interviews, the case interview is your opportunity to take charge. You drive the case – you ask the questions, you ask for more information, you communicate the findings and you tidy it all up with a neat conclusion.

It’s important that you show you are always ‘owning’ the case. The case interview isn’t just purely hypothetical, interviewers use it to gauge what might happen if they stick you in front of a client. Are you going to be able to ask the right questions? Can you speak with authority and confidence even though your client may be many years, even decades your senior? Can you develop a hypothesis on the fly and go about seeking to prove or disprove it?  

What this means during the interview is being able to show you have a sense of direction, even if you’re not quite sure where it’s all going to land. Typically you will have to come up with – and check – your own assumptions for different facts in the case. Your interviewer is not going to be spoon feeding you the case  – so remember it’s all about owning it and exuding confidence that you know where you’re heading.

It’s also ok to make mistakes. If anything, this is another opportunity for you to ‘own’ it. Say you made an error in a calculation or you took a wrong turn and are now facing down a dead end. It’s better to own up and look for another way to solve the case. This type of honesty and integrity will impress your future employer.

Excellent communication

One way of showing you ‘own it’ is through your communication.

Again, remember that consulting is a professional services occupation. This means you have actual clients who need to understand what it is that you’re doing and why (and therefore justify the premiums that they pay for your services).

What this simply means in the interview is not only thinking on your feet but thinking out loud.

While some of us may more naturally mutter to ourselves when we’re thinking something through, this is a skill that requires some practise. The worst thing you can do in an interview is erect a wall of silence while you madly try to come up with the answer.

Consider that the interviewer is like your stakeholder. You want to engage them and bring them along the journey so they feel included. Tell them for example, that you’re thinking about whether or not that number you just came up with makes sense or that you’re trying to compare it against another benchmark. They’ll appreciate what you’re trying to do and won’t just assume you’re madly panicking on the inside (even if you are).

One way of practising thinking and communicating out loud is to use some of these verbal cues:

  • Describe your overall plan: ‘Ok, so I’m going to look at the cost drivers of this company and then we’ll move on to the revenue drivers. Once we do both these things, we can then evaluate the profit and see if this makes sense’  
  • Get buy-in: ‘Does this sound like a good plan to you?’ or ‘Are you ok with this approach?’
  • Outline your next step: ‘What I’m going to do now is X’ or ‘I think we should move onto doing Y’.
  • State what you’re thinking: ‘Now we have the cost number. That looks a little high to me. I think we may have overestimated variable X. Can I check the assumptions here?’.
  • If you have a hypothesis, be sure to state it along the way: ‘From the analysis we’ve done so far, it looks like a joint venture with company Z might be a better idea than buying it. To confirm this hypothesis, we will need to do ABC’

And finally, it’s really important that you directly answer the original question of the case to bring the case to a close. Remember, conclusion, conclusion, conclusion! Even if you don’t ‘nail’ the case or come to a final number, you should at least be able to articulate what the next steps should be.

In addition, be aware of how you are presenting yourself non-verbally. Interviewers want to see how you handle yourself, even when you are thinking on the spot. What’s your body language like? Do you hunch or slump over when you’re uncertain? Are you able to present your findings confidently and with an upright but relaxed posture? Interviewers aren’t expecting a flawless performance but they will be evaluating your presentation skills.

You should also be prepared for the fact that the case interview may be presented differently. In some instances, you may be simply sitting down 1:1 with an interviewer. Maybe you’ll be sitting across the table from each other, or perhaps they’ll suggest you jump up and use the whiteboard. They may present the case to you orally or with written material. In some instances, you may be asked to make a formal presentation of your findings to a panel of interviewers. It all depends.

Like we said before, it’s simply about practise. Feel physically awkward writing on a whiteboard? Get in front of one with your mates and get used to that feeling and where it feels best to put your arms and legs. Similarly, if making eye contact and having a 1:1 conversation isn’t your thing, you need to find situations to practise and get comfortable before Interview D-Day.

Flexibility and resilience

Can you roll with the punches? Interviewers can sometimes throw a nice curveball at you to test how you deal with a spanner in the works. After all, consultants have notoriously irregular schedules, long hours and intense travel. You need to be able to demonstrate you can handle changes at a short-notice and all with a nice big smile on your face…even if you haven’t slept and have been a powerpoint monkey all night.

Curiosity and intrigue

Case interviews don’t have to be all doom and gloom!

Remember, if you like doing the case interviews (in its essence, not necessarily in front of a scary interviewer), then you’ll probably like consulting. Consulting is about understanding what makes a company tick, trying to understand the ‘why’ and ‘so what’s’ and getting your head into a problem. This is your opportunity to play adviser to the CEO, so get into it!  

Interviewers are looking for an innate sense of curiosity and intrigue about the world around you. And so, while it may be easier said than done, have a little fun with the case interview. After all, it is interesting to analyse if that multinational company should enter a developing market or launch a new product line, right?