Consulting case interviews: a comprehensive guide

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The consulting case interview is the biggest hurdle for candidates before their McKinsey careers, BCG careers, or Bain careers can take off. Top-tier consulting firms are consistently ranked as the toughest firms to get in for applicants and the case interview plays a big part in the evaluation process, besides the Personal Fit Interview.

As former McKinsey consultants and interview experts, we have specialized in helping our candidates to effectively tackle this part of the consulting recruiting journey. We found that a lot of the information on the web, specifically on the case interviews, is often wrong, outdated, or assumed to be the same across all consulting firms, and presented by ‘experts’, who have never conducted an interview at MBB or even seen an MBB office from the inside.

As a consequence, the advice given can be detrimental to your recruiting success with the top-tier consulting firms.

In this article we want to help you understand the intricacies of the case interview as a first step of your consulting case interview prep by answering the following questions:

  • What is a consulting case interview?
  • What skills are assessed in the case interview?
  • What is the format of the case interview?
  • What are the questions in a typical case interview?
  • Is the McKinsey Problem Solving Interview a typical case interview?
  • How should you prepare for a case interview?

This article is part of our consulting case interview series. For the other articles, please click below:

What is a consulting case interview?

The case interview is employed by most consulting firms to test the analytical capabilities and communication skills of applicants. It simulates a client situation, where you are tasked to solve a specific business problem that they are facing.

In a nutshell, you have to:

  • Understand a specific client situation
  • Create a framework you want to use to analyze the situation
  • Dig deep within your structure and elicit more information from your interviewer
  • Find root causes of the problem
  • Provide recommendations to improve the situation

Within the interview, which is a dialogue between you and the interviewer, you need to structure problems, propose concrete ideas, gather information, spot insights in data and charts, solve quantitative problems, and communicate in a professional and calm manner.

The case is the hardest part for most candidates since it involves a number of different skills that need to be demonstrated consistently across all questions and across multiple cases in succession. Depending on the office, applicants need to go through four to six case interviews before receiving an offer. They need to convince the interviewers in all cases. Not an easy feat!

Hence you need to develop your skills so that you are able to demonstrate all skills, all the time. Consistency is key!

Lets have a brief look at the different skills and at the format of the interview.

What skills are assessed in a case interview?

Broadly, there are six skills that are assessed in a case interview and that you need to demonstrate consistently.

  • Structure: Are you able to derive a MECE (mutually exclusive, collectively exhaustive) framework, breaking a problem down into smaller problems, accurately covering all aspects of the problem?
  • Creativity: Do you think about a problem holistically, offering broad, deep, and insightful perspectives. Are you able to come up with different angles to the problem (breadth) and draft rich descriptions that qualify why these areas are important to investigate (depth)?
  • Analytical rigor and logical thinking: Can you link the structure to creative thinking? Are you using a hypothesis-driven approach to your problem solving, i.e. have a clear picture of where you think the solution of the case is buried most likely? Do you qualify your thinking, follow your structure, tackle (likely) high-impact issues first, lead the interviewer, and ask the right questions?
  • Mental math and basic calculus: Are you able to structure quantitative problems and comfortably perform calculations? Can you derive the correct approach to calculate the desired outcome variable? Can you plug in the numbers and perform the calculations, relying on basic pen-and-paper math, shortcuts, and mental math?
  • Business sense and intuition: Are you able to quickly understand the business and the situation of the client? Can you swiftly interpret data, charts, exhibits, and statements made by the interview? Are you asking the right questions? Are you able to make sense of new information quickly and interpret it properly in the context of the case? Are you able to provide suitable, actionable, and relevant recommendations for the problem at hand?
  • Communication and maturity. Are you able to communicate like a consultant? Are you following a top-down communication approach similar to the Pyramid Principle taught by Minto? Do all of your statements add value and do you guide the interviewer through your thinking? Are you leading the conversation or are merely getting dragged along by the interviewer? Are you confident and mature? Are you comfortable with silence while taking time to structure your thinking?

Now, these skills are assessed in a very specific interviewing format, which is not natural for most applicants and needs significant practice to become second nature.

What is the format of a consulting case interview?

A typical consulting interview consists of a personal fit part, usually around 20 to 30 minutes long, and the case interview, which lasts between 25 to 40 minutes (depending on the firm, office, and interview stage). For BCG and Bain, the interviews are conducted in a candidate-led format, meaning that you have to move through the case autonomously, shaping the direction of your analysis and moving from insight to insight. McKinsey employs an interviewer-led format, meaning that the interviewer takes the lead and guides you through the case, asking a succession of three to six questions. Check out our article on the specifics of the McKinsey case interview format.

A specific format is the consulting written case interview, which is employed by BCG and Bain during second-round interviews. Read more about the BCG written case interview and the Bain written case interview.

Now that you know how the interview is conducted and what skills you need to display, let’s look at the typical questions in a case interview.

What are the questions in a case interview?

In a typical MBB case study interview you will have to answer four different questions types – broadly speaking:

  • Structuring / brainstorming
  • Exhibit Interpretation
  • Math
  • Recommendation (not applicable for McKinsey)

A consulting case interview structure is used to break the problem you are trying to solve for the client down into smaller problems or components. It is the roadmap you establish at the beginning of the interview that will guide your problem-solving approach throughout the case. Brainstorming questions test your creativity and have you come up with a structured list of different ideas and initiatives.

Read more about how to build case interview structures and frameworks here.

For chart or data interpretation, you are tasked to find the key insights of 1-2 Powerpoint slides and relate them back to the case question and the client situation at hand.

Read more about how to interpret case exhibits, charts, and data tables here.

Case math questions have you analyze a problem mathematically before qualitatively investigating the particular reason for the numerical result or deriving specific recommendations from the outcome.

Read more on how to approach and ace case math here.

Now for structure and exhibit interpretation. Focus on answers that are

  • deep
  • broad
  • insightful
  • hypothesis-driven
  • follow a strong communication (MECE, top-down, signposted)

That being said, there is no 100% that you can reach or the one-and-only solution/ answer. It is important that your answers display the characteristics specified above and supported well with arguments.

As for math questions, usually, there are answers which are correct (not always 100% the same since some candidates simplify or round differently – which is ok), and others that are wrong, either due to the

  • calculation approach
  • calculation itself

The recommendation is usually a brief synthesis of your analysis, starting with one or several clear recommendations, followed by supporting arguments from you analysis and next steps.

Moving through the candidate-led case

The trick in candidate-led interviews is to move through the initial case framework or structure, investigating each area by asking the interviewer targeted questions based on your hypotheses. You will receive additional information as well as data in the form of charts that you need to interpret or math questions that you need to solve. As the case progresses, your hypotheses should become clearer and each piece of additional information should add to a converging line of evidence. Once you have gathered enough data in each part of your structure and the case, you should be able to provide one or more definite recommendations

Now, for the interviewer, the overall picture counts. Mistakes in one area need to be balanced by a strong performance in other areas. All consulting firms want to see spikes in performance in certain areas and a good enough performance in other areas.

The most common example we see almost every day: You can be strong in structure and exhibit, yet make a small mistake in the math section – overall as you might consider 80% – and still pass on to the next round.

For a list of up-to-date case interview examples from many top consulting firms, click here.

Is the McKinsey Problem Solving Interview a typical case interview?

While there are many similarities in McKinsey interviews and interviews with other firms, McKinsey interviews are interviewer-led, while other firms employ a candidate-led format.

McKinsey, BCG, and Bain cases have certain things in common:

  • The elements of the cases are the same. You will have to structure problems, interpret exhibits, and work through some calculations, come up with recommendations or implications, etc.
  • The skills that are assessed are the same. You need to exhibit strong problem-solving skills, creativity, ability to work under pressure, top-down communication, etc.

However, there is one key difference:

  • In interviewer-led cases, you take ownership of every question and go into greater detail here, while the interviewer guides you from question to question. In the interviewee-led case, you drive the whole case and have to move along, get the correct information to work with by asking the right questions, and analyze the problem to then deduct a recommendation

In a McKinsey case, the interviewer will guide you through a series of connected questions that you need to answer, synthesize, and develop recommendations from. There are clear directions and a flow of questions, which you need to answer with a hypothesis-driven mindset. These are arguably easier to prepare for and to go through since the flow and types of questions will always be the same.

In a candidate-led BCG case interview or Bain case interview, due to the nature of your role as an investigator, it is much easier to get lost, walk down a wrong branch of the issue tree, and waste a ton of time. While the interviewers will try to influence you to move in the right direction (pay attention to their hints), it is still up to you what elements of the problem you would like to analyze. Each answer should lead to a new question (hypothesis-driven) on your quest to find the root cause of the problem to come up with a recommendation on how to overcome it.

How to prepare for consulting case interviews?

Most candidates prepare for MBB cases using generic frameworks. Alternatively, they are looking for a management consulting case studies with solutions PDF or a case study interview questions and answers PDF with the hope that the cases will be the same across firms, interviewers, and interviews. There is no shortcut or a consulting case interview cheat sheet.

Do not learn case-specific case interview frameworks by heart, expecting them to work for every case you will encounter. There is no specific MBB case study framework or MBB case study book. It is much more important to learn the right approach that will help you tackle all types of cases. This is even more relevant for MBB interviews compared to tier-2 consultancies and boutique firms.

What you need to do is to study each individual question type and the associated skills in a case interview and learn how to approach it, regardless of the client situation, the context of the case, the industry, or function.

The era of the consulting case interview prep book is over. Be aware that case interview frameworks were applicable in the 2000 years, the era of Victor Cheng and Case in Point. McKinsey, BCG, and Bain have long caught up on this and the cases you will get during the interviews are tailored in a way to test your creativity and ability to generate insights on the spot, not remember specific frameworks.

In fact, it will hurt you when you try to use a framework on a case that calls for a completely different approach. Also, it gives a false sense of security that will translate to stress once you figure out how your approach won’t work during the real interview – We have seen this way too often…

Your goal should be to learn how to build issue trees, interpret charts, and perform math no matter the context, industry, or function of the case and follow our MBB case interview tips. Do not focus on consulting frameworks. A consulting case interviewer tutor can expedite your progress and significantly improve your performance for that matter.

How we can help you ace the MBB interviews

We have developed a system specifically for MBB cases that teaches you the correct approach for all questions of the McKinsey case interview, BCG case interview, and Bain case interview, as well as the personal fit interview. Following this system will make your case interview prep both more efficient and more effective.

If you want to learn in great detail how to ace the MBB interviews, check out our interview coaching program. 9 out of 10 candidates who go through our 1-on-1 interview coaching get the offer.

Since most candidates struggle with math, we offer the ultimate consulting case interview math practice and tutorials: MBB case interview math practice.

We are consistently ranked as the best McKinsey and MBB coaches on PrepLounge.

 

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