Second round case interview

the image is the cover for an article on second round case interviews with a partner

Once my clients pass their first round, they all have one question in mind. Instead of celebrating their success and performance, they are already worrying about the final round, the final boss that stands between them and their desired offer.

They want to know: What is different in a second-round case interview compared to the first round?

In this article, I want to dive deeper and dispel a couple of myths about partner-round case interviews.

Final round case interview

A partner-round case interview is a type of case interview that is conducted during the final round of a consulting firm’s recruitment process. It typically involves a business case study presented by a senior partner of the firm, who will then assess the candidate’s problem-solving skills, strategic thinking, and communication abilities.

The candidate will be expected to analyze the case and provide recommendations, which will then be discussed with the partner. This round is usually perceived as more challenging than earlier rounds and is designed to assess the candidate’s ability to handle high-level, complex business problems.

Are they really?

First and second-round interviews are very similar

Now, this might come as a surprise to many but 95% of partner rounds are just as standardized as the first round. The reason why you read about freestyle partner experiences is that they deviate from what people expect, hence they post about it more frequently online, hence giving others the impression it is much more common.

Most have greater respect for final-round interviews as they expect them to be much harder, which is not true. There are more similarities than differences between interview rounds. You will likely still go through both cases and fit interviews and have to demonstrate the same skills, which are evaluated with the same feedback sheet.

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What differs in the second-round case interview?

The differences are the seniority of interviewers, the focus areas, and the structure of the interview.

First-round interviews are usually conducted by more junior interviewers such as associates or project managers, and final-round interviews by more senior staff such as junior partners, partners, and sometimes even senior partners. The belief that this makes final round interviews more difficult can largely be debunked as it is mainly based on perception rather than reality.

The fact that a partner interviews you instead of an associate might play with your nerves and make the situation more stressful, even though the case is just as easy or hard as in the previous rounds. In that sense, your evaluation of the interview is purely based on your interpretation of the situation and not on the actual content. Another reason why you read a lot about more challenging partner interviews is that when the interviews deviate from what people expect, they are more likely to post about it online, hence giving others the impression that such situations are more common than they are.

The logic behind having owners of the firm interview you is to have an additional set of eyes at a senior level on promising applicants who have made it through all filters thus far. Final round interviewers are looking for confirmation of what they have been told about you or dispelling potential doubts raised by previous interviewers. In practice, that could either mean that they are focusing on your perceived strengths or worse, focusing on your perceived weaknesses from the first round, which might feel more difficult for you. For instance, if the feedback in round one was positive on all aspects but math (e.g., “I want to see more initiative and shortcuts in drafting the approach for the math questions”), they might tailor the case to include more quantitative elements in the final round. Consequently, between interview rounds, you need to work on the areas that have been identified as potential weaknesses.

You might have a feeling about your weaknesses or have received specific feedback after the first round from interviewers or HR in a follow-up call. In any case, you should always ask for feedback and improvement potential (including concrete examples) to understand your strengths and weaknesses from their perspective. The more detailed the feedback you receive, the more focused your adjusted preparation can be.

The last key difference that is noticeable across all firms is that final-round interviews are sometimes less structured and more chaotic than first-round interviews. Even though the interview guidelines (format, questions, length, evaluation criteria, conduct, etc.) might be the same, senior interviewers sometimes deviate and run the show based on their own perception and preferences. This could mean that they might:

  • focus on one specific aspect of the interview, the case or the fit (to confirm previous interviewers’ perception of your strengths or drill into weaknesses)
  • focus on specific elements or question types such as structuring and brainstorming, if you are going through a case
  • have you answer a series of unrelated case questions
  • not allow you to take time to think, even if you ask for it
  • make the interview more conversational
  • do two short cases in quick succession
  • makeup cases on the spot
  • challenge your answers to see how you would defend your point of view
  • focus on general fit and motivational questions rather than full story questions such as the McKinsey Personal Experience Interview
  • want to have a normal conversation to get to know you since they are already convinced about your problem-solving skills and fit.

Partner rounds are not more challenging

On top of the points discussed above, there are also other reasons why the second round is not more challenging:

  1. Familiarity with the format: After completing the first round of case interviews, the candidate may have a better understanding of what to expect, making the second round less intimidating.
  2. Clear expectations: Second-round interviews typically have clear expectations, which can help the candidate feel more confident and prepared. This only applies if you are honest about your first-round performance, strengths, and weaknesses.
  3. More time for preparation: Candidates may have more time to prepare for second-round interviews, allowing them to work on their perceived or communicated weaknesses and build on their strengths.
  4. Fewer interviewers: Second-round interviews often involve only one or two interviews, whereas initial rounds are often structured with three interviews and a recruitment test.
  5. A better understanding of the company: Candidates will have a better understanding of the company and its culture after the first round, making it easier to connect with the interviewers in the second round.
  6. More focused on fit: Second-round interviews are often more focused on assessing the candidate’s fit with the company, rather than their problem-solving skills, which can make the interview actually less challenging.

How should you adjust your preparation for the second round?

Everything is possible and you should be aware of that.

Whatever the interview may be about and whatever the style of the interviewer, do not panic and stick to the rules and habits that lead to success. Being forced to change gears quickly, adjusting to less structured interviews, and going through more stressful situations are just other ways to evaluate your fit with the company and the role. I remember the story of one of my clients who had to go through eight structuring and brainstorming questions in one final-round interview with the interviewing partner constantly challenging his answers. One of my recent clients had the opposite experience, where one of the final-round interviewers, the managing partner of the office, only showed interest in what she did outside of work. While she was eager to demonstrate her case skills and discuss strong fit stories that we prepared, the conversation never got past her musical interests and skills. Both of my clients ended up getting the offer, puzzled about their experience.

Still, keep in mind that at McKinsey, ninety-five percent of final-round interviews are fully standardized. For other firms, that number is a bit lower and correlates more broadly with the relatively less structured nature of their interviews.

On average, final-round cases should not be more difficult than first-round cases, hence, continue to prepare and approach this round as you have done for the first.

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