Last Updated on February 16, 2024
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 We found that a lot of the information on the web, specifically on the case interviews, is often wrong, outdated, or assumed to be the same across all consulting firms, and presented by ‘experts’, who have never conducted an interview at MBB or even seen an MBB office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 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:
- Overview of case interviews: what is a consulting case interview? (this article)
- How to create a case interview framework
- How to ace case interview exhibit and chart interpretation
- How to ace case interview math questions
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 the 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!
Why consulting firms use case interviews to select employees
Top-tier management consultancies employ multiple case interviews to evaluate their potential employees. In practice, you will have 3 to 6 interviews with different consultants of the firm who ask you to solve real-life business problems.
Beforehand, the company screens your vita to establish that you have the potential to be a good candidate.
In the interviews, they then want to test your aptitude and potential to develop into a world-class consultant. In the end, they have to put you in front of the client where you represent the heavy legacy of your firm from day one.
As a result, what the consulting interviewers end up testing is the same skillset that you need to become a successful consultant.
Let’s have a brief look at the different skills and the format of the interview.
What skills are assessed in a case interview?
Before you start preparing for case interviews, it is important to understand what dimensions the case interviewer will score your performance on. Knowing about what is important for the interviewer, you can tailor your preparation and pay special attention to the points outlined below.
We discuss 6 key areas that you need to focus on as well as provide examples of how a strong candidate would display mastery in each.
Case Interview Structuring and Problem-Solving
Problem-Solving. Throughout the case interview, the structure should be the anchor that keeps you focused and on track. Initially, you need to structure your issue tree with each branch representing a part of the problem you would like to investigate. Devise a MECE (mutually exclusive, collectively exhaustive) approach, covering all aspects of the problem. Stick to this structure throughout the case and refer insights back to it. Tackle one branch of the structure at a time and deep dive into the branch until you have concluded your analysis or investigation and received a key insight. Then, move on to the next branch. After concluding each branch, synthesize your findings and discuss how they relate to your status quo in the case. Using this approach, you will significantly increase your chances to understand the root cause of the problem and devise a sound recommendation in the end.
Creativity and Insightfulness
Creativity. One way to rise to the top of a bunch of case interview candidates is to demonstrate a spike in creativity. When thinking about the problem and drafting your issue tree, go as broad and as deep as possible. Try to come up with as many different angles to the problem as possible (breath) and draft rich descriptions that qualify why these areas are important to investigate (depth). Refrain from using frameworks like 90% of other applicants. Remember: creativity is nothing without structure. Keep your creative thoughts contained in a MECE structure.
Case Interview Analytics
Analytical rigor and logical thinking. The analytical rigor links the structure to creative thinking. Employ 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. This way, you will be able to qualify your thinking, follow your structure, tackle (likely) high-impact issues first, lead the interviewer, and ask the right questions.
Case Interview Math
Mental math and basic calculus. There are two parts to the problem when cracking math problems during a case interview. First, to solve a specific problem, you are often asked to derive the correct approach to calculate your desired outcome variable. You need to structure your approach before doing the actual calculations. Watch for different measurements, etc. Even the simple computations often include some twist. Second, you need to calculate by relying on basic pen-and-paper math. Incorporate some pen-and-paper and mental math exercises into your case interview preparation routine. The best way to solve math problems during the case interview is to first, ask the interviewer to structure your calculations, second, guide the interviewer through your planned approach, third, do the calculations swiftly in silence and sanity check them, and lastly, present your results top down to the interviewer PLUS qualify what these numbers mean in the context of the case. What is the ‘so-what’? We have written about case interview math in more detail here.
If you need to brush up on your math skills, we have created a program with detailed insider learning materials, 25 videos, and a guidebook as well as 2,000 practice drills that mimick the McKinsey, BCG, and Bain case interview math as well as the aptitude and analytics test math for you here: the Case Interview Math Mastery.
Pyramid Principle and Top-Down Communication
Communication and maturity. In front of the client, junior consultants need to appear mature as they will present to and even coach client leadership twice their age. Communication is very important since you need to be able to elicit the right information as well as convince the interviewer about your recommendation. First, always communicate top-down, e.g. when making a statement, start with a key fact, then provide supporting information for this fact. You’ll ensure that your statements are to the point and prevent endless rambling about a certain topic. Time is limited and you want to get your point across in a concise and structured manner. Second, over-communicate about what you are thinking to allow the interviewer to understand your thoughts and considerations. The interviewer needs to understand how you reached a certain conclusion, e.g. when discussing your drafted analysis, tell the interviewer what you would like to investigate and why. Third, are you leading the conversation or are merely getting dragged along by the interviewer? Remember to be in the driver’s seat and be confident to lead the talk.
Business sense and intuition. While you are certainly not expected to know details about a certain industry or specific context of the case, you need to be able to demonstrate business sense and intuition, which is very much related to common sense. You should be able to quickly understand the business – even just by asking targeted questions – about how a specific business works, what its business model is, what the main cost drivers are, and how the business makes money. When receiving new information or insights during the case, you should be able to make sense of it in the context of the case and relate it back to the information you already have as well as the problem at hand. Interviewers would like to see you quickly gravitate towards and identify the root cause of the case problem. Use your common sense or experiences/ knowledge with other industries or contexts to explain certain phenomena in the case, e.g. when coming up with assumptions.
Proactiveness and Leadership
Leadership. Consultancies aim to hire only people who have the potential to be future leaders in the business world. As such you need to demonstrate that you are able to work independently and can fix a problem on your own. In the interview, take charge of the situation and confidently and proactively guide the interviewer through your thinking and the solution. Treat her or him as a client.
Ability to work under pressure. Consultants repeatedly need to adapt to new teams, locations, clients, and problems and constantly work towards tight deadlines. They need to function in foreign environments, adhere to the highest professional standards, and get up to speed quickly. As a result, you need to demonstrate resilience and the ability to work under pressure. To demonstrate this skill, as described above, make solving the case seem easy. Breathe and focus! Additionally, be prepared to encounter some surprises the interviewer might through at you. A flexible mindset will help you with that challenge.
All these elements above will be tested in case interviews. While this might be terrifying, remember two things. First, think of case interviews as a chance to see if you actually like the typical work and working style in management consulting. Second, try to enjoy the process of solving complex problems. The best candidates are the ones that sincerely are having fun doing case interviews.
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.
Ace the case interview with our dedicated preparation packages.
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
- 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.
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.
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.
Now for structure and exhibit interpretation. Focus on answers that are
- 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 specialized in placing people from all walks of life with different backgrounds into top consulting firms both as generalist hires as well as specialized hires and experts. As former McKinsey consultants and interview experts, we help you by
- tailoring your resume and cover letter to meet consulting firms’ highest standards
- showing you how to pass the different online assessments and tests for McKinsey, BCG, and Bain
- showing you how to ace McKinsey interviews and the PEI with our video academy
- coaching you in our 1-on-1 sessions to become an excellent case solver and impress with your fit answers (90% success rate after 5 sessions)
- preparing your math to be bulletproof for every case interview
- helping you structure creative and complex case interviews
- teaching you how to interpret charts and exhibits like a consultant
- providing you with cheat sheets and overviews for 27 industries.
Reach out to us if you have any questions! We are happy to help and offer a tailored program to help you break into consulting.
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