Mastering Note-Taking in Case Interviews: A Comprehensive Guide

the image shows a female case interview candidate taking notes

Last Updated on February 27, 2024

Case interviews form a critical stage in the consulting recruitment process. These interviews are a unique blend of problem-solving, analytical thinking, and effective communication. Amidst these crucial skills, an often underestimated yet central aspect is the art of taking notes effectively.

While the notes you take during a case interview are not evaluated by your interviewers, in more than 1,600 case interview sessions (at the time of updating this article), I have seen the impact that bad note-taking can have on the performance of a candidate. Bad notes can lead to confusion, unstructured thinking and communication, a slowdown as well as mistakes.

Conversely, strong note-taking skills can support your problem-solving process and analytics in a case interview, as well as facilitate communication.

The Significance of Note-Taking in Case Interviews

While some candidates might assume that note-taking is a straightforward component of the case interview, it actually requires a fair amount of finesse and practice to get right. Handling information optimally during an interview is crucial; it enables you to remember key details, organize your thoughts, and articulate your solutions proficiently.

So, how can we enhance this integral skill?

Designing Your Notes

The Importance of the First Page

An effective method for organizing your initial page of notes is to segment it into three segments:

  • Top: Name of the client and industry
  • Middle: Preliminary details of the client and the case
  • Bottom: Objectives of the case

You can keep this initial page in a horizontal format. Every page that follows should be in landscape format.

Subsequent Pages

For the pages that follow, you can organize your notes in this way:

  • Top: Question posed if the interview is interviewer-led or the objective you are working on currently for candidate-led cases
  • Below over the whole page: Corresponding answer structure (e.g., a chart interpretation)

Laying out your page in landscape format generally offers a more structured view and more space for your writing.

On the second page, lay out your initial problem-solving strategy and framework.

Best Practices for Enhancing Your Note-Taking Skills

Flip your pages by 90 degrees. Consultants think and work in the landscape format. To structure your inputs and outputs, flip your pages by 90 degrees. This format is more suitable for the creation of issue trees, chart interpretation notes, and calculations.

Keep your goal always visible. Write down the case goal(s) at the top of the sheet, underline or circle it to always remind yourself of what you’re trying to achieve.

Keep your notes brief by using abbreviations and symbols. Focus on essential and relevant details and shorten what you write. Instead of writing: “The client is wondering why their profits have decreased over the last five years”, write: “5yr P ↓?” Find symbols that work for you during case practice and stick to those.

Make your notes visually appealing and keep them organized. For instance, use boxes, arrows, and lines to visualize the relationships between ideas. Show hierarchies and different levels of information by placing ideas at different levels of the sheet, for instance, when creating an issue tree. When highlighting certain aspects, circle them rather than writing them out again. Avoid repetitive or redundant notes.

Use a new sheet for every math question. Whenever you start working on a new math problem, start with a new sheet. You never know how long the equations and calculations are going to be and how much room you need. I have seen countless interviewees fumble as they reach the end of a full page, continue on a new paper, and then miss important details from the previous page, leading to confusion and errors.

Do not forget the information on the other sheets. If you take a lot of notes, you might use two, three, or even four sheets of paper in one case. When starting on a fresh paper, number the new page and remind yourself of the important bits of information on the previous sheet(s).

Organize your sheets. You could separate the insights paper from the thinking paper(s). The insights sheet would only be used to write down the client name, case prompt, the objective on the left side, and everything you learn throughout the case on the right side (e.g., all important findings and additional information that help you answer the case question). Thinking papers are used for your analyses, e.g., the initial structure or case math. Separating the two keeps your notes organized and clean.

You do not need to present your notes to the interviewer. While it adds a nice touch to the interview, you do not need to present your writing to the interviewer. Some candidates spend too much time creating a visually appealing notepad rather than coming up with exhaustive and meaningful ideas. That is a bad use of your time with a low return on investment. It is much more important to guide the interviewer coherently through your ideas and thinking verbally. At the end of the day, note-taking should not be an additional task that stresses you out. Find a process that works for you and stick to it. Focus on the correct case interview communication and the Pyramid Principle.

This cheat sheet below emphasizes efficiency, clarity, and organization in note-taking to enhance your performance during cases.

Flip pages by 90 degreesUse landscape format for creating issue trees, chart interpretation notes, and calculations.
Keep your goal visibleWrite the case goal(s) at the top, underline or circle it to always remind yourself of the objective.
Use abbreviations and symbolsShorten notes by focusing on essential details and using abbreviations and symbols (e.g., “5yr P ↓?” for profit decrease over five years).
Make notes visually appealingOrganize notes with boxes, arrows, and lines to show relationships and hierarchies. Circle rather than rewrite highlights. Avoid repetition.
New sheet for each math questionStart with a new sheet for every math problem to ensure enough space and avoid confusion.
Remember information on other sheetsNumber pages and remind yourself of important information on previous sheets if using multiple sheets for one case.
Organize your sheetsSeparate insights and thinking papers. Insights sheets for client name, case prompt, objective, and findings. Thinking papers for analyses and case math.
Presentation not requiredFocus on conveying ideas verbally rather than making notes visually appealing for presentation to the interviewer. Guide the interviewer through your thinking process coherently.
Note-taking cheat sheet

Practice Note-Taking

  • Prepare a Template: Establish a standard format for note-taking before the interview process commences. It should be in the format I discuss above. You should already use the same format during your case practice to become familiar with it.
  • Ask for clarification: If you missed a point, request the interviewer to go over it again.
  • Paraphrase: Reiterate the information in your own words to better remember it. However, do ensure to retain any technical terms or acronyms as is.
  • Practice Under Timed Conditions: Engage in time-bound drills focusing on case openings with a study partner. Frequent practice can make the daunting task of note-taking under pressure more manageable.

Additionally, it’s essential to decide on the note-taking medium that suits you best. Whether you are a faster typer or find handwriting more comfortable, choose what works best for you. If you lean towards digital note-taking, select a tool that caters to your needs.

Remember, consistent practice is key to refining your note-taking skills in case interviews. Over time, the process will become second nature, allowing you to focus on the most important task – thinking about the problem and cracking the case.

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