Case Study Interview QuestionsCase study interviews are a favorite among management consulting and investment-banking firms looking for entry-level consultants and analysts. But these aren't the only companies using case study interviews these days. Case study interviews are increasing in popularity among companies everywhere that are seeking the best and brightest job candidates. Some firms use case interviews for evaluating MBA-level job candidates only, while others use case interviews for evaluating all job candidates.
What is a case interview?A case interview, also called a case study interview, is an interview in which the job candidate is provided a business dilemma or problem a particular company is facing. The job candidate must analyze the situation, identify the key business issues, and develop a logical response that addresses the dilemma or resolves the problem. The type of case interview questions asked are often influenced by the firm's specialty. For example, a company that works exclusively with financial firms will likely ask case study questions relating to finance, not healthcare.
Case interviews are designed to help the interviewer evaluate the quantitative, analytical, problem-solving, creativity, communication, listening, and interpersonal skills of the job candidate. They're also designed to evaluate a candidate's ability to think quickly under pressue, their business acumen and knowledge, powers of persuasion, flexibility and professional demeanor.
Most importantly, case interviews enable prospective employers determine whether a candidate has what it takes to complete their job responsibilities. Some firms (ie., Management Consulting) use case study interviews to evaluate what type of an impression a candidate will make when placed in front of a client.
Case Interview TipsWhile advice will vary, most experts agree on the following tips and suggestions when it comes to approaching case interviews:
- Practice, practice, practice. Extensive practice is required in order to perform well in case interviews. If you are interviewing with a management consulting company or investment bank, research the types of case interview questions they typically ask. This information can be found by peforming a search on Google, by visiting the company's website, or speaking with current or previous employees. Many company's, such as Boston Consulting Group, provide extensive case management examples and interactive practice cases candidates can work through prior to their interview.
Many universities, including Harvard Business School, offers numerous cases that can be used for practice. These practice cases can be accessed through the Harvard Business School website, career-services library, or via any number of online academy library databases.
If you're currently a student, investigate what interview resource are available through your school's career-services center. Through their business schools and/or career services departments some universities offer indepth case-interview workshops and mock interviews.
- Listen to the question carefully. Listen to carefully to the question and then verbally paraphrase it. Paraphrasing the question will help you to internalize the question and ensure you understood what the interviewer is asking. If you don't complete understand the question, it will be difficult for you to answer. Listening and then paraphrasing the question back to the interviewer, and even taking notes, shows the interviewer you know how to listen. If you're interviewing with a management consulting firm, demonstrating your ability to listen attentively is vital. Listening is the most important skill a good consultant has.
- A little bit of silence is okay. It's okay to be quite. In fact, the interviewer in a case study interview expects the candidate to take a moment to review the case information and gather their thoughts. A minute or two of silence is okay -- any more than that is considered excessive. It is however polite, and sometimes expected, for the interviewee to ask the interviewer if they can take a moment to collect their thoughts and review the case information before they're silent.
- How you arrive at your answer is as important as the answer itself. When it comes to analyzing a case, there usually isn't a "right" answer. Your process of analysis and the conclusions you arrive at are just as important as the answer or resolution you come up with. In fact, interviewers typically want to see as much of your analysis as possible and understand your thought process. Don't work the case out in your mind, hidden from view of the interviewer. Think out load as you work through the case, take notes, make diagrams and share your analysis with the interviewer.
While there aren't usually wrong answers to case studies, there are wrong approaches. Missing or overlooking important information, making baseless assumptions, ignoring facts, and defending faulty logic are all recipes for a poor performance. Practicing case interview questions and answers, attending case interview workshops and participating in mock interviews will help candidates avoid many common pitfalls.
- Ask questions. Questions in case interviews are not only acceptable, they're expected. The interviewer is expecting the case interview to be interactive. Often, information about a case is incomplete and the job candidate will need to get more information from the interviewer. However, make sure your questions are relevant and follow a logical progression. If the interviewer wants to know why you're asking a question, tell them. Don't get rattled. They're simply trying to understand your thought process.
When asking questions, make sure they're not random. Random questions will be seen as an attempt to buy time, or even worse as sign that you're confused.
- Employ a logical framework. Again, case interviews are all about the process, not the final answer. For this reason, it's important that you employ a logical framework for analyzing the case, identifying critical issues and developing conclusions. The framework you use will be determined by the type of case your analyzing. Common business analysis frameworks include Value Chain Analysis, Porter's Five Forces, SWOT analysis, and the Four P's of marketing. Whichever framework you choose to employ, make sure your conclusions come as a result of your analysis. Make sure your analysis is sound, and be prepared to defend your conclusions.
- Focus on what's important. When analyzing a case with a lot of information, it's easy to get wrapped up in the thick of the thin. One of the first things you should do once you've gotten a handle on the the case is to prioritize the issues and objectives. This will help you identify and stay focused on what's important. Don't forget to ask questions and listenly carefully to the answers. You just might include clues and hints to get you back on track, if you're going in the wrong directon.
- Think outside the box. Even though interviewers want to see a logical framework for analyzing the case, thinking outside the box, coming up with a unique solution to the case may be just want the interviewer is looking for. Even though it has it's risks, thinking outside the box can set you apart from the competition.
- Don't forget the basics. All the basics of effective interviewing apply to case interviews. Maintain property eye contact, engage the interviewer, project confidence, don't get frustrated, and be enthusiastic.
Bain & Company Case Interview TipsThe following are case interview tips presented by Bain & Company, one of the most prestigious management consultant firms in the United States.
- Make the interview a discussion. The case study interview should be more of an insightful conversation, rather than a question-and-answer session. Your conversation should demonstrate your good business judgment and reasoning ability.
- Guide the interviewer to the answer. Make sure to focus on the question you're to answer. Getting the analysis correct is important, but it's also important to show the interviewer a logic process for arriving at an answer or recommendation.
- Be pragmatic. In essense, does your recommendation make sense in the real world. What are the risks in your recommendation? How can the be addressed or mitigated?
- Showcase your communication skills. The case interview provides an excellent opportunity to demonstrate your communication and people skills. Show the interviewer that you're confident, energetic and engages. Interviewers are going to gauge how you will react in front of future clients based on your performance during the interview.
- Make sure to listen. List to the interviewer during before and throughout the case interview. Don't write down every bit of information during the beginning of the interview, rather listen intently to what the interviewer is saying and sharing. Take high-level notes and focus on the process. Don't get caught up in the detail until you're sure you understand the problem and can form a hypotheses. Interviewers often provide clues that you won't pick up on if you aren't listenly carefully.
- Think out loud. Let the interviewer know what you're thinking as you analyze the case and informaton presented. Explaining to the interviewer what you're thinking, provides insight into your thought processes, analytical ability and business acumen. Also, explain your thought process as you ask questions. Don't just continue to ask a series of questions.
- Be prepared to do some math. It's important to show the interviewer that you're comfortable with numbers. Make sure you're ready to perform some analysis and do some computations.
Tips for Written Case InterviewsNot all case interview are conducted in a traditional face-to-face format. Some case interviews are written. Below are useful tips for performing well on written case interviews.
- There is no "right" answer. Trust your instincts and develop a persuasive recommendation based on sound analysis of the case information presented. You'r goal is to achieve results for your client.
- Focus on what's important. Don't get caught up analyzing information the is irrelevant, extemporaneous or just not as important as other information. Put aside any information that seems less important.
- Be concise. Being wrong and concise is better than being correct and vague -- but better to be correct and concise. Make sure your key messages and recommendations are clearly outlined in your written summary.
- Do the analysis and computations. Figure out what analysis is necessary to support your recommendation(s) and then organize the data from the case and perform the computations.
- Keep it real. Make sure that the recommendation you come up with is realistic and can actually be implemented in the real world.
- Be able to backup your recommendation. Make sure your recommendation is supported by strong rationale and that you're ready to defend it.
Types of Case Interview QuestionsThe following are the most common types of case interview questions employed in case interviews:
- Calculation/estimation/guesstimate/numerical/market sizing case - Data is provided and job candidates must work through a problem and provide an estimation
- Problem case
- Probing case
- Business operations case
- Business strategy case
- Resume case (case based on a company at which you worked)
- Brainteaser/logical puzzle/IQ question.
It is a good idea to familiarise yourself with simple business frameworks when you start preparing for case interviews. We have listed below the top 4 frameworks that you should familiarise yourself with in your preparation.
1. Profitability framework
The profitability framework is the most basic framework in business analysis. It simply breaks down profits into its basic revenue and cost components and is commonly used to identify the root cause of profitability issues.
- Revenue can simply be broken down in the Number of units sold by the business times the Price per unit.
- Costs can be broken down in Variable and Fixed costs. And Variable costs can then in turn be broken down in the Number of units produced and the Cost per unit.
2. The 4Ps framework
The 4Ps framework is widely used by company executives to design their marketing strategy. There are different variations of this framework that is also sometimes referred to as the “Marketing mix” framework but the 4Ps is the most common one. This framework is commonly used when launching a new product or when reviewing the positioning of an existing product.
- Product: What are the key characteristics of the product sold? Key elements of the product definition could include: customer need fulfilled by product, product usage (E.g.: who, where, how, etc.), good vs. service, product lifecycle (new vs. established), competing products and substitutes, etc.
- Price: At what price should the product be sold? Different considerations need to be taken into account here: the customer perceived value of the product, the price of competitive products, the customer price sensitivity, the cost of producing the product, etc.
- Promotion: Which promotion strategies should be used to sell the product? Key elements to consider include: promotion messages, media type (E.g.: TV, social media, radio, etc.), best time to promote, competitors’ strategies, etc.
- Place: Through which channels should the product be distributed? Key elements to consider include: possible channels to distribute the product (E.g.: in store, web, mail-to-order, etc.), customer expectations in terms of channel, requirement of a sales team or not, competitors’ strategies, etc.
3. Porter's 5 forces
Porter’s 5 forces is a framework commonly used by CEOs to explore the competitive dynamics of industries. Indeed not all industries are structured the same way. Some industries are really hard to get into (E.g.: banking) while others have got very low barriers to entry (E.g.: newspapers). Suppliers have got strong bargaining power in some industries (E.g.: high-end medical equipment) but little power in others (E.g.: small milk producer), etc. Understanding these dynamics is extremely important when considering to enter a new industry or when assessing the competitive dynamics of the industry a company is already in.
- Customers’ bargaining power: How much bargaining power do customers have? If there is only one buyer but multiple suppliers then that buyer will be at a strong advantage. Key elements to consider here include: customer concentration (percentage of industry revenues from Top 3 buyers), customer price sensitivity, customer information availability, etc.
- Suppliers’ bargaining power: How much bargaining power do suppliers have? Similarly to the previous point, if there is only one supplier but multiple buyers then that supplier will be at a strong advantage. Key elements to consider include: concentration of suppliers (percentage of industry revenues to Top 3 suppliers), difficulty of switching from one supplier to another, differentiation between suppliers, etc.
- Threat of substitutes: What are the substitutes for the product and are they increasingly popular? As a reminder, water is a substitute for Coke while Pepsi is a competitive product for Coke. Key elements to consider here include: potential new substitutes, ease of substitution, evolution of customer propensity to substitute, etc.
- Threat of new entrants: How difficult is it to enter the industry for potential new players? Key elements to consider here include: regulation authorisations, capital requirements, economies of scale, network effects, etc.
- Existing rivals: How competitive are existing rivals in the industry? Key elements to consider include: number of competitors and their market shares, similarity between their products and products of the firm analysed, financial health of competitors, etc.
4. 3Cs framework
Finally, the 3Cs framework is also commonly used to put together strategies for companies. As you will notice below, a lot of its components overlap with the Porter’s 5 forces.
- Customers: Who is the customer? Key elements to consider include: customer demographics (E.g.: age, sex, income, etc.), customer needs, customer segments size and growth rates, customer willingness to pay and price sensitivity, etc.
- Competition: What are the competitive dynamics? Key elements to consider include: competitors’ value proposition and brand, competitors’ market share and growth, competitors’ financial health, etc.
- Company: What defines the company? Key elements to consider include: product offering, profitability, core competencies, unique selling point, financial performance and resources, etc.
Do not reuse pre-existing frameworks for case interviews
Once you are familiar with frameworks, the question then becomes: how do you now use that knowledge in case interviews? There are a lot of opinions about how you should do this on the Internet. But the main two schools of thought seem to be: Marc Cosentino’s Case In Point and Victor Cheng’s LOMS.
In Case In Point, Marc Cosentino attempts to classify case interviews into 10+ categories and then suggests that candidates should learn a specific framework by heart for each of them. This is an interesting exercise as it exposes you to a range of business problems and helps you think about them in different ways. However, in our experience, learning 10+ frameworks is difficult and time consuming.
More importantly, in live case interviews, trying to recognise one of the 10+ case categories and the framework they are associated to is a real nightmare! Instead of focusing on solving the problem at hand, you end up trying to remember a framework that will not even perfectly fit the case you are solving. In our experience, the best candidates avoid this strategy.
In his LOMS programme, Victor Cheng advocates for a much simpler method than Case In Point and suggests you should only learn two frameworks: the profit framework for profitability cases, and a general framework for all other cases (Product, Consumer, Company, Competition). The benefit of this approach is its simplicity. It gives you a starting point that’s easy to remember when you are putting a framework together.
However, in our experience, this approach has got a fatal drawback. In practice, there aren’t that many profitability cases, and as a consequence you always end up using the general framework. Even if you adapt this general framework to the case you are given, it will not be perfectly tailored to the case you are trying to solve. More importantly perhaps, your interviewer will quickly realise that you are using a pre-cooked framework and that will reflect very negatively on you.
Both Case In Point and LOMS share the same flaw: they try to force pre-defined frameworks onto cases. In our experience, this is bound to produce average results because all cases are unique.
So here is the hard truth about case interview frameworks: the best candidates DO NOT learn frameworks by heart, instead they learn a consistent METHOD to craft bespoke frameworks for each case.
Learn to create your own unique frameworks
A good framework is a bit like a tailor made suit: it is adapted to the problem you are trying to solve, the company and the industry. If you use pre-defined frameworks, you run the risk of missing important elements of the specific problem you are trying to solve. This will therefore mean you perform less well than you could have if you had created a framework adapted to the specific problem from scratch.
In real life, consultants extremely rarely use pre-defined frameworks. They are familiar with them because they have studied them but they do not directly re-use them as-is on projects. Instead, they create a framework specific to the problem they are working on. To do so they rely on conversations with their client as well as past experiences.
This might sound intimidating but the good news is that creating bespoke frameworks is actually much simpler than you think. It requires a few things:
- Changing your approach from adapting frameworks to creating them from scratch
- Learning a step-by-step method to create bespoke frameworks
- Practicing this step-by-step method on multiple examples
In our McKinsey Case Interview Prep Programme and BCG & Bain Case Interview Prep Programme, we teach a simple step-by-step method to create bespoke frameworks for each case. Candidates who have worked with us so far have managed to quickly learn this method and to perform at a high level in their interviews. If you would like to get a taste of this approach, you can watch the video extracts below or download our Free Case Prep materials here.
In summary, we find that learning existing frameworks is useful to discover a range of ways to think about a company. But in our experience, when it comes to consulting case prep, it is best to forget these pre-defined frameworks and focus instead on learning a step-by-step method to craft bespoke frameworks for each case.
If you’ve got any thoughts on frameworks or on this article, leave them in the comment section, we look forward to reading you.
Candidates from the best universities around the world use our McKinsey Case Interview Coaching, McKinsey Case Interview Training Programme, McKinsey PST Training Programme and BCG Potential Test Training Programme. Some races are worth the extra effort - let's get started!
The IGotAnOffer team
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