How to cope with case study anxiety

Erin Delaney
Team GradAustralia
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Case studies elicit an extreme reaction from most people: usually fear, curiosity or a mixture of the two. Commercial problems with limited information, these complex scenarios to solve can make an underprepared grad go to pieces in the time it takes to read the question.

When an employer asks you to complete a case study, they want to find out how your mind deconstructs a problem to find a workable solution. If you’ve been invited to solve a case study, you’ve given the employer enough reason to think you’re up to the task, so make sure to get in lots of practice beforehand so you know the mechanics of completing a case study, the best ways to approach one and how to view it more like a fun puzzle than something to fear. Then, watch their faces as you methodically unpack it, arrive at the correct answer and prove them right about you!

Case studies are a particularly popular method for assessing the fit for graduate jobs in banking, financial services, accountancy and management consulting, and can be completed individually or in a group on an assessment centre day or as part of an interview. They’re typically based on real-life clients, accounts and dilemmas. The thinking is that it gives grads real-world insights into the role while they’re vying for it. So, when you think about it, it’s really an opportunity to learn as you go! Not so scary when you think of it like that.

Knowing how to solve a case study can take a lot of the anxiety out of it, so let’s unpack the process:

Solving a case study

When you get started, you’ll be given a limited amount of information. As you begin to move through the problem, you might be drip-fed more information to further your understanding, a compressed version of a real-world problem where new information comes to light over time. Take the time you have available to carefully examine the information. You’re not supposed to know the answer right away, so this is not the time to come down hard on yourself! Relax into the process, let it unfold, and your brain will have a much easier time getting across the data at hand.

How to get started

Imagining the solving process as an Easter egg hunt should help you get started. When you begin, you have no idea where to look for critical information, so you must plan a path through the maze to avoid looking for clues in places that don’t hold any. As the the interview progresses and you unpack the problem, especially as new information comes to the fore, you’ll gain a clearer picture of the case and will be able to direct your line of questioning towards the crux of the problem. You’re ultimately looking to find the “aha” moment that puts the situation into sharp focus.

If the “aha” moment is a bit slow to come, keep methodically studying the clues. Panicking at this point will only eat up time, and time is an invaluable resource so don’t use it up on getting cross with yourself.

Case study coping strategies

  1. Your first task is to figure out the core of the problem, and precisely what you’re being asked to do. Figuring out the core of the problem is your first and only task.
  2. Read through any information pack provided, assess which parts are relevant and which bits are red herrings.
  3. Keep an eye on the time, and manage yours well. If you’re working in a group you could volunteer to be the timekeeper, but make sure someone takes on this role so you’re confident going about your task. Make sure to allow time to prepare for the final presentation so you’re not stressed putting it together.
  4. If you’re working in a small group, you could divide up the tasks between you. You could nominate someone to assess any new information passed to the group during the course of the exercise. You can also nominate a note-keeper, so you know you won’t lose track of those great bits of insight gleaned along the way.
  5. Articulate what you’re thinking so the assessors can see how you unpack problems, and always ask for more information if you’re unsure of something. There’s often a lot of clues that come from asking insightful questions, so don’t feel worried to dig a little deeper.
  6. Keep sight of your objectives. The aim is to give a final presentation that’s relevant, clear and concise, and includes a summary of your conclusions and recommendations. Don’t let yourself get caught up in group politics or giving yourself a hard time if you get stuck. Anything other than pulling together a good presentation is outside the scope of the project, so remind your brain of that any time it starts to wander!

Presenting your findings

While solving the case study correctly is very important, there are a lot of skills you can show off along the way that will bolster your time in the spotlight and make you look like a star candidate.

The bonus skills you can highlight are:

Analysis

How well you assimilate and evaluate large amounts of unfamiliar information.

Problem solving

There will probably be no one right answer, but you’ll need to show that you can respond to information in a logical and constructive way.

Flexibility

How you adjust to a constant drip-feed of new information.

Time management

Managing activities to complete the task in the allocated time.

Teamwork and leadership

How well you work with and and facilitate others. The role you take within the group.

Commercial awareness

Being up to speed with what is currently happening in the business world.

Presentation

Your ability to present concise findings in a confident, clear and appropriate order.

There are lots of ways to impress during a case study exercise, so keep your mind on the task at hand and you’re bound to do better than you think.