One of the strongest feelings I had when I started practicing case interviews was that I didn’t really get why I was doing the things I was doing.
Why are they asking me these specific questions and not others? Why do I have to be structured all the time? What does it even mean to be structured all the time? How do they evaluate me on soft aspects, such as communication and business sense?
These were questions that would often come up.
Sure I read books telling me how the dynamic of the cases was and what I was expected to do. I also understood that it had something to do with what consultants do on a day to day basis. But still, I felt I didn’t really get what it was all about. Sometimes it felt like I was playing a game and I couldn’t read the rulebook.
Now, don’t get me wrong. What I read in the books made sense, at least conceptually. But I had this weird feeling anyway… That case interviews are like a test, in the sense that there are objective factors, but that unlike a university test, there was no grading sheet or textbook telling you the right answer.
Some advice was contradictory. “You have to be exhaustive, but also concise and to the point”. How on earth am I to do both of those things? The answer would come in the form of cryptic advice: “be 80/20”.
Some people said there was no right answer. Others said you can miss the answer and still get an offer. And I’d heard legends of people who cracked the case but were rejected anyway. The fact that there was no way to be really sure that you’re doing well brought me a lot of anxiety during my preparation. And it felt like a piece of the puzzle was missing: if there’s no way to be sure you’re doing well, how are consulting firms so assertive when they make a decision on hiring you or not? Recruiting seems like a really important aspect of their business. Do they just accept randomness? I did not think so.
I think a lot of people get this feeling as well.
That’s why they focus on the parts of the process they understand (“Did I get the case right?”, “Did I mess up the numbers?”) and don’t work enough on aspects that are harder to understand, such as communication and business sense, even if they’re more important. Some people are rejected because they obsess over “cracking the case”, getting to the right answer, and ignore everything else. Others are obsessed with connecting personally with the interviewer and showing confidence, empty confidence if they don’t work on the required skillset to solve the cases well.
Both types will have to try again next time.
Not fully understanding the reasons why case interviews are the way they are leads to a lot of wasted effort during preparation, which leads to rejections, tears and sorrow.
It was during my first project at McKinsey that everything clicked to me – working in consulting feels like everyone is case interviewing all the time. On my first week on the job, I followed my manager into client meetings to gather information and their opinions on issues we had to solve. The manager would ask clients questions just like someone asks the interviewer as they’re solving a case – he’d structure his questions to that specific client based on hypotheses that would help solve the whole project. His notes looked like notes taken from a case interview.
There were other situations as well. A couple weeks in, the partner wanted to know what we had found so far. He put us in a room and started asking us questions. The way he asked us questions was very much like the way a good candidate asks questions to understand the client’s situation. It’s like he was leading a case interview to form his recommendation and we were the interviewers, who had all the data.
The way I was expected to work and to communicate my work was very much like solving a case interview. My hypotheses had to be explicit all the time and well structured to show clarity. I had to test them in order of priority and using as much data as possible. I was expected to have a crisp synthesis of what I had found out at all times, in case the partner or the client entered the room unexpectedly and asked me how things were going. (Yes, these things actually happen in real life.)
The way the project was organized felt like a case. There was a lot of structure to the way we worked and underlying hypotheses to these structures. We would review the hypotheses as we discovered more facts and try to connect the dots as much as possible to find implications and reach recommendations.
Even discussions at lunch were like cases. And I’m not the only one to have this feeling. We once coached a guy who got into McKinsey and later told us how surprised he was when he, on his first meal with the consultants from his office, found himself watching a very structured and logical discussion on how will Airbnb change the hotel industry. No one at the table had ever worked in the hotel industry. They were talking about it just for the fun of it.
After my time at McKinsey, I got together with Julio and we started helping people get in by teaching them how to interview with management consulting firms. Since then we’ve come to realize over and over again that the way a lot of people approach case interviews harms them. Their mindset is a barrier.
A lot of people who fail case interviews fail not because they’re not smart enough. Not because they haven’t invested enough time or energy in preparation.
They fail because they don’t understand the rules of the game while preparing. They don’t understand the nuances of the evaluation process. You can be the best athlete in the world, but if you don’t understand the rules of the game you’re playing it’s going to take a lot of luck to win.
A case interview is a simulation
So, what are the rules of the game? Well, a case interview is a very good simulation of how consultants work.
Estimation cases, for example, simulate how you structure models in a consulting engagement. I remember a project in which I got great feedback on analytics simply because I drew a calculation tree in sheets of paper, just like I’d do in an estimation case, and discussed with my manager before even opening excel. It took me 3 hours to do that but it left him confident that I was heading towards the right direction for the whole week. He told me about how that didn’t happen in the last project he was managing and how the fact that he had no idea how the model would be like got him anxious. Estimation cases are similar to analytical situations in real projects.
Another example: a cost cutting project is very much like a cost cutting case. You find the big cost categories, benchmark them to see where most opportunity is likely to be and finally generate ideas of real actions you can take to cut the costs. You quantify savings along the way and compare it with the client’s goals.
In fact, every case interview resembles some aspect of the job. It can be a type of project, a discussion with the client, a problem-solving session with the team. The type of case and your interviewer’s attitude determine which part of the job it simulates better, but it’s always testing for your ability to actually do the work.
If you behave like the best young consultants your interviewer has seen, you’re in. If not, you’re out. It’s that simple.
As a way of testing candidates, using case interviews is like evaluating a pilot via a flight simulator. Imagine airlines had to test a pilot’s skills before hiring them (they don’t really have to, there are tons of certifications on the aviation space). If they use a flight simulator instead of a real aircraft, they get to test a pilot’s abilities without spending enormous amounts of money on fuel and equipment or wasting a lot of time doing flying across the ocean when it’s really boring and nothing happens.
By using case interviews, consulting firms get to test a variety of project situations without risking client relationships and spending a lot on training. And they get to do this without waiting for days while you collect data and clean databases until analyses can be done, as it happens in real projects.
Implications for candidates
Understanding that a case interview is a simulation helps you understand how you’re being evaluated. Here are three implications of case interviews being simulations of the real work:
- Solving the case is important, but how you solve it is more so
If a pilot crashes the airplane in a flight simulator he will not be hired, but would you hire a pilot that barely lands the airplane after 3 shaky attempts? Would you risk your airline’s reputation to a pilot that doesn’t perform well even in a controlled environment?
This is why, for consulting firms, how you solved the case is more important than if you’ve solved the case. Given the incredible number of great candidates applying, they want more than someone who can take off and land the aircraft, they want those who can do it safely and smoothly.
- Interviewers extrapolate what you do in the case to what you would do in real life.
Say you’re testing pilots using the simulator and you’re not testing the hours and hours they take to cross the ocean because it’s too time-consuming. Suppose there are a few instrument checks a pilot needs to do every hour or so in real situations. A pilot that does those checks in a flight simulator even if they didn’t necessarily have to (because the simulation lasts less than an hour) could be perceived as a safer hiring choice compared to peers.
The same happens in consulting interviews. Double checking what the data means, sanity checking your math asking great clarifying questions are some of the things you can do to show you will be extra careful with the things you tell clients – something that could be overlooked in a short 30-minute case but needs extra care in a real project.
In contrast, if you show a lack of energy during the interview, your interviewer might extrapolate that fact and assume you will show even less energy when burning the midnight oil.
- You can fail and still do well if the situation you are given is unrealistically hard.
One could simulate a flight situation in which a pilot has lost an engine. Or even worse, lost the landing gear while facing terrible weather conditions and having to land with no altimeter. If a pilot went through scenarios like that in a simulation, a perfect landing is not expected. Merely surviving would be a good outcome.
Same in consulting interviews. Sometimes interviewers will give you an unrealistically hard case, or make the case harder if you easily solve the easy bits. You may think you failed because you couldn’t “crack the case”, but if you’ve reasoned through the problem fairly well this may be enough for an offer. Weaker candidates won’t even get the tough scenarios and may think they did quite well in the same case. Partners are especially fond of making the case more complex for better candidates and push everyone to their limits.
So, a case interview is a simulation of situations consultants find themselves in that compresses the parts of the job firms want to test. Using this method firms are also able to skip the parts of the job that take a lot of time to test and can be easily taught on the job, such as cleaning up data, preparing great powerpoint slides and using excel effectively.
Are case interviews tougher than the job itself?
Because case interviews compress these parts of the job, some people argue that case interviews are harder than the job itself. Is this true? And if so, what are the consequences to candidates going through preparation?
There’s no one right answer, but from my experience, case interviews are both more difficult as well as easier than the job.
They’re more difficult because there is more thinking density than on the job. You have to be able to use a lot more logic and work through a lot more concepts in 30 minutes than you need on the job, and you don’t get useful resources such as team members and the firm’s knowledge helping you.
They also leave you much less room for error than the real job. Especially early in your career in consulting, people are constantly reviewing your work and making sure your mistakes are not getting to the client. You get feedback and then have days or weeks before you’re expected to show significant improvement. The interview format allows for less time to correct mistakes, which adds pressure.
However, some factors make case interviews easier than the job.
Case interviews are controlled environments. You don’t have to think after 14 hours on a Thursday night during a week that didn’t give you with a lot of sleep. You don’t have to deal with an angry client. You don’t have to prioritize your workload between requests from 3 different senior partners.
Also, some people find the parts of the job that aren’t tested in case interviews pretty hard. Being productive for long time stretches is one of them. Another is making your written communication crisp enough for executive presentations. Or finding the perfect way to present data visually. These are tough things that are barely tested in cases and that are hard to do on the job.
There are two implications of these differences between the cases and the real job to the way candidates prepare.
First, candidates should prepare with a risk-reduction mindset. Case interviews are more intellectually challenging than the job and leave less room for mistakes. If you don’t bulletproof your performance and leave things to chance it’s likely that you’ll fail in at least one interview with each firm – enough to be dinged. Being good “in most cases” is a recipe for rejection.
Second, be aware of the things that are important for the job and are not being explicitly tested. If you can show these skills on top of the ones being tested directly, giving you the offer is a no-brainer to any interviewer. Showing important things not being tested is what will get interviewers to think “this person should be working with me already”.
To wrap up this message in three points:
- It’s normal to feel like you kind of understand what a case interview is but that there’s something more than what all the books are saying. It’s also important to go beyond that feeling and have a deep understanding of what it really is, or you’ll make all sorts of mistakes in your preparation. You need to understand the rules of the game so you know what really matters to win and prepare accordingly.
- And what are the rules of the game? Well, you need to show you can think and communicate like a consultant would in a variety of simulated situations. These simulated situations are called cases and though it helps to know what the simulation is like, gaming the system is unlikely to work because interviewers know it’s a simulation and will adjust the cases and extrapolate your performance to infer how would you behave in a realistic situation. Using pre-made frameworks to start cases is one of the many strategies candidates use to try gaming the system. Needless to say, it doesn’t work.
- Knowing what the simulation is like helps you guide your preparation. Certain things are always tested, be well prepared for those. Other things are important but rarely tested – show those skills if you can as well, but only after showing the major things. Sanity checking is one of many skills you can easily show your interviewer and will seldom be tested directly.
If you will take away one thing to your preparation, take the following: always face any question an interviewer asks you as a real problem needing a real solution. Treat the simulation as the real thing.
When practicing, after doing a case ask yourself if your structure actually had the questions needed to solve your client’s problems. Ask yourself if you would, in real life, do what you recommended in the case if the business was yours, or if you would do more analyses. If so, which? Know you’re in a simulator, but act as if you had real passengers that depend on your actions to survive. This attitude will make you a better candidate and later, a better consultant.
Now I want to hear from you. Did this article change how you see case interviews? Are there things you’d like to understand better about this issue that weren’t covered in this article? Leave a comment to us and let us know!