The Consulting Case Interview

    One of the biggest obstacles to getting a consulting position is getting past the case Prepare for good meetingsinterview.  Few things bring fear and anxiety to the hearts of prospective consultants than the thought of a case interview with a top-tier consulting or professional services firm.  Today we will discuss the case interview, learn a little bit more about it and provide some strategies for dealing with these dreaded sleep killers.

    1.     What actually are case interviews? What do they consist of?

    • The case interview is the type of interview that a lot of consulting firms use to test you on a number of aspects.
    • They want to see if you can think under pressure so they’ll ask you questions that you couldn’t have possibly prepared for.
    • Secondly, they want to test your ability to think things through logically.  They’ll give you a question and try to see what kind of follow-up questions you ask to formulate the problem in your own head.  Then they want to watch the logical process you go through to get your answer.
    • There also may be some basic calculations to see how well you can calculate things in your head.
    • The primary objective of the firm is to determine if you can solve problems without getting flustered.

    2.     What types of questions do they ask in a case interview?

    • There are three main categories of questions.  The most common is the basic business scenario question.  That’s usually a question that presents a client and their business situation.  They’ll describe a challenge your fictional client is facing like new government regulations or an increase in their fixed costs and ask you how you would advise them.
    • It’s important to have an approach in mind to address these types of questions.  Porter’s 5-forces or a SWOT analysis is a good start.  As you solve the problem, they may judge you more on the questions you ask than any final answer you come up with.
    • And that’s a key point. The final answer is one of their least concerns.  They want to see how you frame the problem, how deeply you delve into the details and the process that you follow to get there.
    • You may never get to a final answer.  That’s not really the point.  They’re observing your problem solving abilities.
    • The second category of question they might ask is an estimating question.
    • My favorite example is “How many basketballs would it take to fill this room?”  With a question like this, they obviously aren’t looking for the true answer.
    • Again, they want to see your ability think when you’re on the spot, come up with an estimate and your approach to solving the problem.
    • For instance, you could immediately say something like:
    • Well, I’d estimate this room to be about 8’ x 8’ and about 10’ high.
    • Therefore, assuming a basketball is about a foot in diameter, it would take 64 basketballs for one layer, times that by ten and it would take 640 basketballs to fill this room.
    • That’s great, but there might be some assumptions you made and some details you didn’t think of.
    • For instance, are the basketballs inflated?  That would change the number significantly.
    • Also, is there furniture in the room that you need to account for?
    • You made some assumptions about the dimensions of the room which could maybe be argued, but some others that you didn’t ask about – namely that the balls will be inflated and that you would remove all of the furniture in the room.
    • Those are the details they will watch for.
    • Another question like that is, “How many fire hydrants are there in Kansas City?”
    • You might first of all, want to clarify: Kansas City, Kansas or Missouri.
    • They may have a white board or some paper that you can use.  I’d suggest that you start writing out some assumptions.
    • Unless you’re intimately familiar with the location they ask about – and they’ll probably ask about a place you’ve never lived – you won’t know how big of an area you’re talking about.
    • So you’ll want to begin with your assumptions.
    • You might start with the square miles in the city, how many blocks per square mile and then an assumption of how many hydrants are required per square block.
    • They want to know how you break a problem down.  You just created a formula with some assumptions.  Now you could do some research and plug some better numbers into that formula to get better numbers.
    • The third category of question is a logic question.  Here they might ask a question like, “How many times in a day do the hands of a clock overlap?”
    • You might assume that they cross once every hour and just throw out 24 as your answer.  But if you thing about it, at the end of the 11th hour and 23rd hour, it crosses at the end of the hour, which should be included in the next hour.  So the answer is really 22.
    • Here they also want to observe how you think about the details and consider all possibilities rather than how quickly you can come to an answer.

    3.     So how would you recommend someone prepare for a case interview:

    • Well preparation is difficult because you can’t prepare for every possible question.  But there are a number of things you can do.
    • First, before you start practicing too many questions, make yourself familiar with the different analysis models.  I mentioned earlier Porters 5 forces and SWAT analysis.  If you do a Google search on business strategy analysis models, you’ll find a lot of models that can help you become familiar with the various popular approaches.  You might use a different model depending on the nature of the question.
    • I would also go out on the internet and study questions and solutions for as many of each category of question that you can think of.
    • If you’re willing to pay a little money, there are specific books available that give great advice and a ton of sample questions to practice with.
    • The more questions you study, the more you’re going to get the hang of the types of details and assumptions you need to focus on.
    • After you’ve gone through a number of them yourself, I would recommend that you practice with a partner.  Make it real.  Dress in a suit like you’re in a real interview.  And try to find an office or a conference room to make it authentic as possible.
    • Each of you should have questions in each of the three categories to ask the other.  If you each purchase a different book on case studies, you can almost guarantee that you won’t overlap questions.
    • When you’re practicing with a friend, don’t break character.  The more realistic you can make these practice sessions the better.
    • Then, when you’re done with a full mock interview, critique each other on how each of you did.  Let each other know what you did well and what you can work on or just what you might have done differently.
    • It’s great to get positive feedback and hear how good you are, but it’s better to get good constructive criticism on what you can do better.
    • I would also recommend checking out the website of each firm you’ll be interviewing with.  They often have information on their case interviewing approach and may give you some advice on how to focus your preparation.

    4.     So the case interviews focus on the three categories of business cases, estimation and logic.  Are there any other areas they may ask about?

    • You may also get experience questions.  Someone who has been out of college and in the business world for a while will definitely get this type of question, but college students are open to them too.
    • In this type of questioning, they want to know how you’ve dealt with adversity or learned something in a leadership role.
    • For instance, they may say, “Tell me about a time when you failed.”  They may give you specifics about what they’re looking for, but they may just leave it at that.
    • More than hearing about your failure, they’re looking for how you dealt with a setback.  What did you learn from it?  How would you do it differently if you had it to do all over again?
    • The key here in preparation is to organize a few personal stories about how you’ve overcome adversity, when you were in leadership roles and things you’ve learned from those experiences.
    • Then, depending on the question, provide the story that best fits what they’re looking for.
    • The big piece of advice that I have here is to be honest.  Don’t make up a story that actually happened to a friend of yours or didn’t happen at all.  Have your own stories and make them heartfelt.
    • This is important for a couple of reasons.  First of all, the interviewer could dig deeper for details and you may not be able to make things up as fast as they ask questions.  They’re skilled at this and can catch you in a lie if your story is suspect.
    • Also, they may be able to check to see if you were actually the president of your fraternity or chairperson of the homecoming float.  These companies do extensive background checks on their candidates, verifying every job you put on your resume.  It wouldn’t surprise me if they verified facts you gave them during an interview.

    5.     Once you’ve prepared and know everything there is to know about the experience and case questions, what advice to you have once the candidate gets in the interview room?

    • First, they should avoid being negative.  That goes for any type of interview, but if they ask you about fire hydrants in Kansas City, don’t go off about what a lousy weekend you spent once in Kansas City.  They may tell you that they grew up there or their dad is the mayor of the city.
    • Also, play to your strengths.  Consulting firms recruit all types of majors from college.  You may be a math or English major.  Infuse that knowledge base into your answers, but also show that you’re well rounded and have some business insight.
    • Make sure you understand the question.  Ask questions and verify assumptions.  Take your time and think the problem through.  It’s not a race and they usually aren’t going to give you a time limit.  They’re more interested in your thoroughness.
    • Finally, don’t let them fluster you.  These are difficult questions and they know it.  Take some time to think about it and just start asking questions.  Try to have fun with it.  If you’re going to be good at consulting, you need to enjoy solving problems and puzzles.  Think of these as brain teasers and make something of a game out of it.
    • If you show them that you’re enjoying it, it accomplishes two things.  First, they’ll think you like solving problems.  That’s one of the things they’re looking for.  Secondly, it will take pressure off of you.  The more pressure you put on yourself, the harder it’s going to be.  But if you loosen up, you’re going to ask better questions, think through more details and do a better job.

    6.     Any final thoughts on the case interview?

    • Consulting firms like to use case interviews because it gives them so many ways to evaluate a candidate.
    • First, they can observe your analysis skills.  Does the candidate do the appropriate due diligence to understand the problem, or do they try to rush to judgment to get the answer.  Like in the basketball example.  The final number is not the point; it’s the route you take to get there.
    • They also can see how well you work under pressure.  These interviews can be grueling and pressure packed.  If the pressure gets to you and you have to use paper and pencil to calculate 11 x 3, that’s a warning sign.
    • They can also observe your decision making process.  Do you get the main point of the problem or go off on a tangent and solve a different problem? Or did you stay focused on the problem the whole time?
    • And finally, they can get to know your personality.  Two of the big questions they’re asking are: Would I want to work with this person? And could I put this person in front of a client?
    • They want someone who is pleasant, smart and can stay cool under pressure.  If you do your homework and keep your cool, you can master these things.  It just takes a little preparation.

    Next topic: Face time for consultants

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    Consulting 101: 101 Tips for Success in Consulting




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    Consulting 101: 101 Tips for Success in Consulting

    Consulting 101: 101 Tips for Success in Consulting

    Consulting 101 provides you with 101 useful tips to optimize your professional performance and jump-start your consulting career with success.

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