Case Interview: all you need to know.
As a candidate, you have probably been through an endless list of tips, tricks and secret methods for case interview preparation. They probably lacked scope, structure and, more importantly, they focussed on frameworks, ready-made approaches crafted ad hoc for finding shortcuts to solve case interviews. Do you think McKinsey, BCG or Bain consultants use frameworks? You probably got it right, they don’t. So why should you?
MyConsultingCoach’s approach to case interviews replicates the process consultants follow when tackling actual engagements. Our team of McKinsey, BCG and Bain consultants synthesized years of coaching and field experience in our Problem Driven Approach. Continue reading to learn how to impress recruiters with original and creative solutions to case studies (and how 75%+ of our clients landed a job at their target firm).
What is a case interview?
A case interview is a job interview which focuses on assessing the applicant’s business skills by presenting them with a business problem – usually referred to as case – to solve.
A typical MBB interview will usually have 4 key sections. These are:
- Introduction – where you introduce yourself and go over your experience
- Business case – where you are expected to solve a case problem
- Fit interview – where are you asked challenging questions about your experience and background
- Q&A segment – where you can pose your questions about the firm or role or any others to the interviewer
The business case and the fit interview are the two most challenging sections!
Business cases are real business problems, not academic exercises, and they are usually based on the interviewer’s own experience. Both the topic and the problem’s requirements can vary significantly ranging from:
Estimate the number of tissues sold in Canada every year to
Should Uber acquire Grab, its main competitor in Thailand? to
The Moroccan Ministry of Education has asked for your help to bridge the gap in the education system.
Your goal here is not to find some single, correct solution. For one thing, there are usually multiple right answers, not just one. More importantly, though, the goal is to show the same kind of sound, logical approach as an experienced consultant.
Why is this? Well, you can get to the right solution even with the wrong approach, if it’s your lucky day or if you are particularly familiar with the topic being discussed. But, if hired, it is unlikely that you would be able to reproduce your performance in the field.
On the other hand, if your logical approach is correct, you will crack one case after the other, during interviews and in real life: that’s what firms are looking for!
The fit part is about yourself. Sounds easy? Don’t relax too much – interviewers usually know how to make things challenging.
There are two broad types of questions you should expect to be asked:
- Past experience
What did you do during a certain job?
How did you approach a certain challenge?
When did you demonstrate that you are a good leader?
Wherefore are you applying to consulting?
Why our company?
Why not investment banking?
- Past experience
The interviewers are making sure that you are clear about what you want in your future. A well-crafted resume will be an important asset for the fit interview; read our resume guide to make sure you will impress your recruiter.
The fit section of an interview is regarded as just as important as the case. So, why are these questions are so crucial?
Well, your past experiences can indicate a lot about your likely future performance. Again, the interviewer won’t be that much interested in what happened, but rather in how you approached the issues or problems.
Also, your motivation to work hard in such a fast-paced environment is key! Do you really want to be a consultant? Are you really ready to put in the hard work it requires?
This is why there is no ranking between case and fit: they are both equally important!
No company needs a smart, logical person that is not motivated, nor a very experienced and hardworking candidate that cannot solve problems.
We have now looked at the process for a standard MBB case interview; however, how does it vary across firms, geographies, and rounds? Are McKinsey case interviews different from Bain ones? What about interviewing in Dubai or Oslo (apart from the weather)? Let’s look at the three main case interview formats and how you should prepare for them.
Case interview formats
Broadly, cases will have one of two main focuses. These will be issue based cases and cases where you need to support strategic decisions.
The objective of an issue based case is to solve a specific issue. Some examples of these kinds of case problems include Declining profitability, Low productivity, and inefficient operations and so on. There are two possible ways to frame such cases.
- A Root cause-based approach, where we might ask “What can be the reasons for an increase in high school dropout rate?”.
- And a Solution based approach, where we might ask “How can we reduce high-school dropout?”.
In both the approaches, the objective is to one, identify the root cause of the issue and two to come up with a solution.
Strategic decision-based cases
The objective of strategic decision-based cases can be of two kinds. Thus, the goal might be to actually make a strategic decision – for example, a choice on market entry, product launch or M&A. Alternatively, the objective could be to provide support to strategic decisions – for example, by making estimates or valuations. When you need to make a strategic decision, a decision-based approach is ideal. For example, if the question is “Should we acquire competitor ABC” the objective, in this case, is to identify the best option for action. When the case objective is to provide support for strategic decisions, the framing is typically information-based. For example – How big is the US phone market? The objective, in this case, is to provide information to help make a strategic decision.
There are two types of interviewer stances – Candidate led and Interviewer led.
In candidate led cases:
- You will be presented with a problem
- You’ll then be expected to lead the interviewer throughout the case
- The interviewer will be your greatest asset since she has data and information
These cases are common in BCG or Bain interviews.
On the other hand, in an interviewer-led case:
- You will come across pre-structured cases which are in some sense “big” cases with lots of smaller “mini-cases” within them
- You will be presented with a problem
- The interviewer will ask you a set of pre-determined questions, regardless of what your initial structure is
These kind of cases are common in McKinsey interviews, especially in the first round.
There are often differences in the kind of cases that you are likely to come across in the first and second rounds.
- Different focus. The interviewers in the second round are senior, usually partners with 10+ years of experience. They will be more interested in your personality and ability to handle challenges independently
- Time pressure. The Final Round tests your ability to perform under pressure, with 3 interviews in a row and often only with very small breaks between them
- Additional Psychological pressure. While interviews in the first round are usually more focused on simply cracking the case, the second round interviewers will often use a “bad cop” strategy to test how candidates react when challenged
The key thing to note is that the skillset and approach being tested is very similar in all case interview types and interview stances. We often find that candidates worry too much about which firm they are interviewing for or which office they applied to. Instead, the priority should be focusing on problem-solving techniques and consulting thinking. Why? Because all firms look for the same traits, maybe in slightly different ways, but the consultant profile they look for is the same. Let us now look at the skills McKinsey, BCG and Bain’s consultants look for when interviewing.
Consultants don’t do their jobs by memorizing pre-made answers, or by anticipating all possible types of problems, so there’s not much point in demonstrating you can do that in your interview. There are several case interview books that focus solely on that. Instead, interviewers look for three things which make for successful consultants
- Intellectual competence
- Business intuition
These can be further broken down in more specific skills, as the figure shows. Both McKinsey, BCG, and Bain look for same traits so once you prepare for one firm, you prepare for all of them. This holds true for screening tests as well: both the McKinsey PST and the BCG potential test focus on these skills. Interviewers will look for your potential as a consultant: that’s why you should avoid case interview frameworks and focus on what really matters: consulting thinking.
How to crack any case interview like a McKinsey, BCG or Bain consultant would
The MyConsultingCoach team, a group of experienced MBB consultants with experience on both sides of the table, has developed a new, proprietary approach to case cracking which replicates how top consultants approach actual engagements.
The key is decoupling problem solving, business concepts and analysis tools to achieve the necessary modularity to apply the same method to solve any case. The synergic action of these three elements will allow you to tackle any problem. Let’s look at these in more details.
The problem-driven structure
MyConsultingCoach’s Problem Driven Approach is a universal problem-solving method that can be applied to any business problem irrespectively of its nature. It is a simplified version of the roadmap McKinsey consultants use when working on engagements. The canonical 7 steps are simplified to 4 as the analysis required for a 6 months engagement is clearly different from that of a 45 minutes case study. However, the underlying flow is the same. Let’s look at it.
Identify the problem
Sometimes, prompts are easy to digest. For example – “Our client, a supermarket, has seen a decline in profits. How can we bring them up?”
But more often they’re not and come from varied business areas and industries. For example, “How much would you pay for a banking license in Ghana?” or “What would be your key areas of concern when setting up an NGO?”
In order to successfully solve a case, you will need to identify the problem the client is facing and show the interviewer you can start off on the right foot.
In our video on Identifying the problem, we will learn how to apply a structured hypothesis-driven approach to quickly circumscribe the key issues the client is facing. We will cover all aspects of the initial part of the interview, from taking notes, to engaging the interviewer with the right questions to formulating an insightful hypothesis.
Frame a solution
Once you identify the problem you should move on to structure it by developing a custom-tailored structure, exactly like real consultants in real life. It will require deeper thought from you, but it will ensure you tackle the right problem, provide a relevant solution and come across as a pro at solving case or any other problems!
Structures are represented using issue trees, which allow you to visualize the dependencies between sub-problems. How do you build a problem driven structure? Let’s look at an example – airline revenues can be broken down as a number of customers multiplied by average ticket price. The number of customers can be further segmented into the number of flights times the number of seat times average occupancy rate. Similarly, the node of the average ticket price can be broken down further.
A good structure has several requirements like MECE-ness, level consistency, materiality, simplicity, and actionability. You could use several approaches to segment the problem – a mathematical vs. a standard approach; an hypothesis or an issue based approach. Beyond this, there are also several segmentation drivers also to choose.
In our case interview course, we will learn in detail the pre-requisites for devising good structures, as well as how to then deploy and test those structures.
Lead the analysis
Our lead the analysis process helps you move from the structure to the solution.
First, we navigate our structure to identify the key issues which need to be addressed (while further segmenting the end node, if needed). In our airline example, we could find the average ticket price to be a key issue. We would then look at its drivers and find that the problem is in the Economy Class ticket price. We could then further segment it. Once we’ve done this, we move on to generating solutions tailored to that end node, which in this case would be incentivizing crew for onboard sales, improving assortment in the plane or offering discounts for online purchases. Our “lead the analysis video”, which lasts well over an hour, will guide you through the process in detail.
Recommendations need to be communicated in a top-down way. You need to deliver a one minute, top-down, concise, structured, clear and fact-based summary of your findings.
Our video on ‘Consulting thinking’ will help you go over these concepts in a lot of detail.
When building your structure you’ll come across some familiar themes, again and again, recurring concepts which make businesses tick – profit, prices, valuation, market sizes, and more. These are what we call building blocks.
Building blocks, give you the tools to structure cases, applying business concepts to new problems
. Building blocks are not frameworks. Frameworks are plug-and-play solutions which tend to be force-fitted to cases.
Building blocks, on the other hand, let you have an analysis of recurring problems in your repertoire without expecting all cases to be identical. These can to be used to build custom structures more quickly and accurately.
Companies hire consultants for their problem solving and communication skills. These are the same skills which will get you hired by McKinsey, BCG or Bain! This is the reason why consulting thinking is a pillar of our method. Principles such as MECE or the 80/20 are ubiquitous in consulting: mastering them makes the difference between an average and a top. The distinctive characteristic of consultants is that they have a problem-solving mentality: they focus on generating solutions to problems by using a fact-based approach. This approach relies on 5 key elements:
- MECE structures
- Root cause analysis
- An Hypothesis-driven mentality
- Fact-based “so what’s”
- 80-20 rule
These elements are intrinsically linked; our course elaborates on each in detail.
Problem-driven structure vs frameworks
The framework approach is too fixed and does not allow much room at all for customization. With this method, you would typically start by identifying the case type along a number of dimensions such as the topic (profitability, M&A, market entry), interviewer stance, company and so on. Then, you would move on to selecting the appropriate framework, apply it, perform the calculations and give an answer. This is not what a consultant does when she gets to the client’s site at 9 am (more often than not at 7 am). Instead, she will break problems down and find solutions quickly, efficiently and, more importantly, creatively. Make sure you do the same in your case interview.
Learn more about our method and why case interview frameworks don’t work in this video
Let’s take a break from all this theory and look at what to do to prepare efficiently and effectively for your case interview.
4 steps for an effective case interview preparation
Too many candidates try to steam ahead into their prep without having made any kind of plan to guide their efforts. As a result, they will spend their time inefficiently and end up with a patchy preparation.
To plan effectively, you first need to know what you are preparing for; consulting interviews have two sections: Fit and Case. Both are equally important, and to get hired you must be successful in both.
1. Learn the theory
The MCC Academy is a comprehensive, all-in-one package, teaching you everything you need to know about the case interview. We designed the course around a sensible suggested structure for a candidate with a little business background. While following that structure is the simplest course of action, a more experienced candidate can easily adapt it to their specific needs. Your case interview preparation approach depends on
- Background: whether you are new or not to case interview will affect the amount of background reading you need to do. Anyways, you will need to learn about our problem driven structure approach.
- Timeframe: clearly time will affect your preparation. We usually advise our clients to prepare for around 60 hours, obviously the more practice you get the better it is. It is similar to an S-curve.
For solitary preparation, perhaps one of the best uses of your time is to work on your mental mathematics. This skill is neglected by many applicants much to their immediate regret in the case interview. Find our mental math tool here or in our course and practice at least 10 minutes a day from day one to the day before the interview. Once you covered our Building Blocks (week 2), then you should start working through the cases in My Consulting Coach’s case bank alongside your work on the course. To build your confidence, start out on easier cases, work through with the solutions and don’t worry about time. As you get better, though, you can move on to more difficult cases and try to get through them more quickly. You should practice around 8 cases on your own to build your confidence.
3. Practice with a case partner
Regardless of your background, you will need to put in significant time practicing cases. As such, finding good case partners is perhaps the single most important aspect of your preparation. My Consulting Coach offers an intuitive, user-friendly and – importantly – FREE meeting board where you can get in touch with fellow consulting applicants from across the globe with whom to practice case studies. Candidates are listed along with their background and case experience and the board has easy-to-use tools for both direct invitations and scheduling open meetings. We recommend you to practice 1-3 cases per day with peers depending on your time. You can start doing so once you covered our Building Blocks (week 2), to then double down on your effort when you are done with the course and have more time (week 4 onwards according to our schedule). My Consulting Coach provides 45+ interactive cases for you to crack with your partners, so you will have plenty to keep you busy!
4. Expert help
This step is optional but very useful. The most effective way to prep for a consulting interview will always be to get help from someone who has worked as a consultant for a top firm. Nobody else will be able to spot your weaknesses as quickly or offer better advice to deal with them. Of course, you will never be able to secure the time of these individuals for free. However, it is worth considering the difference in your pay over even a just few years between getting into a top-tier firm versus a second tier one. In the light of thousands in increased earnings, getting expert help is one of the best investments you can make for your own future. Should you decide to make this step, My Consulting Coach can help, offering a premium service to match you with coaches – each of whom is selected to have years of experience as a working consultant with a top firm. If you are a busy student or professional who wants to walk out of the interview room without regrets, check out our Mentoring Programs.
Most candidates spend their time preparing only for case interviews and neglecting fit interviews. This is a major problem, as both these components of the selection process are accorded equal importance by recruiters and good performance in one will not make up for a poor showing in the other. The bottom line is that consultancy firms simply will not employ someone who they doubt will be a good fit with the company, regardless of how many cases they can crack.
The fit interview will be especially important if you are coming into consulting via a less standard route. You will need to be able to provide a compelling narrative to explain why, even though you are coming from elsewhere, consulting is the right move for you at this point in your career, as well as how your previous experiences have furnished you with the relevant skills for consulting.
Ready to prepare for your case interview?
Jumpstart your preparation visiting our Case Academy or joining one of our coaching programmes ADD BUTTON OR SOME SHIT