The case interview
Why a case interview during the application process?
The case interview is a type of interview that is often used by consulting agencies. It gives you the opportunity to look beyond the information on a CV. A consulting firm wants to see how you analyze strategic problems in practice, whether you have a sense of business economic issues, and what your numerical skills are like. Case interviews with different consultants and partners give you an initial introduction to them, the work, and typical projects and problems that you might encounter in practice.
Applying to a consultancy usually means two or three rounds with interviews, case interviews, and analytical tests. The interview is about your CV and motivation, the assessment measures your IQ and competencies, and the case interview is a strategic issue in which skills such as your problem analysis, opinion formation, and abstract thought capacity are assessed.
How does a case interview work?
A good case interview is an interesting and lively conversation about a case from practice in which you arrive at certain recommendations together with an interviewer. The interviewer provides information about the case. We expect you to take matters into your own hands to gather the right information for your analysis. You can view it as role-play: you are the consultant and the interviewer is the client. The interview is not about finding the perfect academic answers or testing your knowledge about a particular industry. The point is that, with a clear structure, analytical ability, a dash of curiosity, and common sense, you can find a number of concrete recommendations for the client.
The interviewer starts with a brief explanation of the case information. The intention is to create an interaction between you and the interviewer in which you ask questions about the case in a structured way. They expect you to take the lead on your own.
The concept itself is simple: you are given a problem with the question of how you would solve it. The problem can vary from “how can company x double its growth?” to “how many tennis balls fit in an A380?”
Tips for a successful case interview
- Ask questions from the beginning. It starts with you being presented with important information about the case: you listen and take notes and, if the interviewer asks whether you have questions before they continue, you say “yes”. Summarize the situation and the problem and ask for clarification where necessary. This way you show that you have listened well and double check that you have understood everything correctly.
- Build a relationship with the interviewer from the start.
- Asking questions is an excellent way to do this. Do not view the case as a test but as a conversation in which you have to solve a problem.
- Ask the interviewer for more information if you need it, explain your assumptions, and detail your approach. These are all things that lead to a productive conversation.
- Be structured in your methods. A good structure is the secret to addressing a case properly. Show that you can handle a large quantity of information, organize it into a logical structure, process the information, and arrive at a good solution.
- Know the case archetypes. There are only a handful of types of cases, which include entry into a new market, development of new product, growth strategies, pricing strategies, setting up a new company, profit improvement, and acquisitions. Think ahead and think of a clear structure for each case type.
- Stay informed on the different business branches. You never know which one will be relevant to your case. The more targeted you can make your questions and solutions for the pertinent industry, the better.
- Practice. Read cases, work on cases with friends, try out cases on company websites. What really helps is to practice a case interview: ask a friend or colleague to work on a case interview together. Acting as the interviewer is also very educational. In particular, students with a background in the humanities (language and culture studies, history, etc.) should deepen their knowledge of basic business administration. For example, look at the annual reports of stock-listed companies and find the terms that you are not familiar with. Do you understand how to read the balance sheet? If you don’t, be sure to learn about it beforehand, because many cases also have a business-economic component.
- Listen carefully to the information you receive and the questions you are asked.
- Divide the problem into smaller, more manageable parts.
- Indicate the components you want to learn more about and why.
- Prepare a plan of action for yourself and explain it to the interviewer.
- Ask questions.
- Think out loud.
- Don’t be afraid to make assumptions, but communicate them clearly to the interviewer so that they can follow your train of thought.
- Check/verify your answer (Does it seem plausible? Can you confirm or calculate your answer in another way?)
- Collect information in a structured way.
- Provide a clear summary of the problem and your conclusions once you have gathered enough information.
- Do not try to solve it like a puzzle: view the case as a real business problem.
- Come with creative recommendations and explain how you would implement them.
- Remember that there is no such thing as a “best solution” for the case.
- A fresh perspective with a creative recommendation is what we are looking for.
- Try to have fun solving the case: this is an important part of working as a consultant!
- It is important to be well rested, fit, and sharp during the interview.
In preparation for the case interview
It is important that you prepare well for this. Fortunately, there are plenty of tips that can help you get ready! In addition to websites such as Caseinterview.com and Acethecase.com, most strategy consultants provide online advice on how to approach a case. Here are some useful tips:
- 1. Listen carefully and ask questions At the start of the conversation, you will receive important information about the case. Listen carefully and take notes. It is useful to briefly summarize the case to see if you have understood the question and the scenario and to ask questions if there are any uncertainties. Think about “the big picture”, too: there is often something that has not been explicitly stated by the consultant, but is probably relevant to the case. Let your discussion partner know why you think that this information is relevant.
- 2. Take a structured approach. Stop for a moment to collect your thoughts and formulate four sub-questions to analyze the case. There are actually only a few types of scenarios that come up during a job interview, such as developing a new product or acquiring a business. It is important to prepare an action plan for each type of scenario. Be flexible about changing your approach if necessary.
- 3. Don’t get nervous about math questions. In almost every case, your math skills will be tested. It’s a component that unfortunately not everyone is equally successful in. Luckily, “practice makes perfect” is sound advice that often proves true. Make sure you have a solid grasp of several simple formulas and practice making estimates. When you are given a math question, do not feel pressured to answer right away: take a moment to break down the question. Think about the formula you need to find the answer and write it out. This allows your conversation partner to observe and adjust if necessary.
- 4. Communicate and pay attention to instructions. Talk aloud if you are working on the problem. Communicate what your step-by-step plan is, what your assumptions are, what alternatives you see and why you’ve decided they don’t work, etc. Your discussion partner is not so much interested in your final answer as they are in the process. Involve them in it as well. They will occasionally try to help you along in the right direction with a (subtle) hint. Don’t view the critical questions and comments as an attack, but as a way to give you direction.
- 5. Take a step back from time to time. Work in an organized manner, keep an overview, and don’t get too caught up in the details. Summarize the sub-questions you have answered and what the consequences of the outcomes for the case are. By staying on track (the 80/20 principle applies here too: only 20 percent of the information is relevant to the outcome), you avoid losing sight of the big picture or ending up taking a wrong turn due to tunnel vision.
- 6. Use common sense. Clients are looking for ad-hoc solutions to complex problems. There is usually not one right solution and the best approach according to a model is not necessarily the best for this organization in this specific situation. Be pragmatic in your approach and see the case interview as a dialogue about possible solutions rather than as a question with a right or wrong answer.
- 7. Know your markets. The more you know about the market, the more easily you can tackle and solve a problem. Newspapers and magazines such as Het Financieele Dagblad and The Economist are good sources for staying informed of the latest developments. However, do not focus too much on market knowledge and do not panic if the case is about a market unknown to you. It is more about logic, common sense, and challenges that are relevant to all sectors.
- 8. Good preparation. Practice as many scenarios as you possibly can. You can find books and syllabi with sample questions in the library of your faculty or online, such as the sample cases of Bain & Company. Visit the website of the consultancy firm for client cases as well. They give you an impression of the markets and the types of assignments. It is good to practice with friends and fellow students, so that you learn from different ways of thinking. You can also watch YouTube for examples of case interviews.
- 9. Have fun. Last, but not least: have fun. Of course, solving four case interviews in one day can be tiring. However, it is important that you keep it fun for yourself. Your discussion partner wants to see that you are passionate and enthusiastic about solving complex problems. As a consultant, you will do this work every day. View your discussion partner as a teammate that you are brainstorming with to help a client.
Other suggestions for preparation