Consulting case interviews differ in their structure across companies. While top-tier firms usually employ very objective and structured case interviews, lower-tier or smaller firms apply less stringent standards to ensure objectivity.
Let’s dive into the matter!
Two types of case interview structures
There are two dimensions of case interview structure.
First, structure relates to the format and evaluation standards of the case. How can firms ensure that the format of the case and the evaluation metrics are standardized across cases and contexts. Even though, each will be different, the types of questions, the evaluation metrics, the difficulty, etc. should be the same to allow for a fair evaluation and comparison across candidates.
Second, we can differentiate between interviewee-led cases and interviewer-led cases. In the former, you as a candidate have to drive the case forward with a series of continuous questions to the interviewer. In the latter, the interviewer will structure the case for you with a series of questions to you.
Objective vs. subjective case interviews
Consulting case interviews are by their very nature a very structured proceeding. You will be asked to solve a real-life business problem in the course of 30 minutes to an hour. You as the interviewee usually know beforehand what to expect and, consequently, can prepare accordingly.
Nuances in the various companies’ interviews can be found out via their website or in a call with the recruiter beforehand.
When interviewing with different firms you will likely encounter varying interview types and styles depending either on the company, the individual interviewer .or the particular office.
In general, the more professional a consulting firm, such as McKinsey, BCG, and Bain, the less variance there will be in the individual interviewers’ or offices’ style. As a general rule, the larger/higher tier the firm, the more structured and objective the whole experience will be.
This structure includes the exact sequence of events during the interview day, the flow of each interview, and even the content of each interview sub-section. In the firms described above, you will get clear information about the process and format of the interview day and interviews well ahead of time. Additionally, you will receive access to training resources beforehand (and sometimes even a case interview coaching call) such the McKinsey coaching call with a consultant as well as the Webex session.
On the big case interview day, initially, you will receive profile information about your interviewers. Each of them has prepared in advance a tested case in line with the company interview policy. With the calibrated case the interviewer is able to ‘grade’ you on certain pre-defined rating criteria, all in a highly objective manner. The cases usually include some charts, tables, and quantitative question(s).
Make sure to find out early how the process and style will be for your interviews in order to practice the necessary skills and tailor your approach accordingly.
In general, having this kind of information makes it at least somewhat easier for you to prepare for what is coming your way. When you know exactly what is expected from you absent of surprises, the whole interview experience will feel more natural and you will be able to use your full mental resources to crack the case. Personality and personal liking still play a role of course. After all, it’s human interaction. Due to the guaranteed objectivity and structured approach the top firms employ when interviewing, each candidate should have the same chances to pass the set bar.
Now to the other side of the coin…
You will experience very different levels of structure and professionalism when interviewing with consulting firms in different tiers. In lower-tier or smaller firms, you will not get as much advance information and/or access to training resources.
Additionally, interviewers usually have much more leeway in how they conduct the interview and rate your performance. Such firms spend much less on recruiting, and the whole process is simply not as standardized or professional. For example, we have heard of a third-tier firm, where candidates have the opportunity to design their own case and solve it afterward. While interesting and challenging at the same time, what can be a more unstructured and subjective evaluation than that?
Even though it might be harder to prepare for such unstructured case interviews, firms that employ such formats are easier to get in to.
A word of caution: Be aware of the odd unprepared interviewers that appear in lower-tier firms from time to time (e.g., because they had to fill in for a colleague at last minute,…). They are not only unprofessional but a danger to your success, especially if they come up with a case or a numerical question on the spot without having gone through the calculations beforehand.
We have received feedback about some horrendous interviewer performances with some firms.
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Interviewer vs. interviewee-led case interviews
There are two types of case interviews, the interviewer-led and the interviewee-led consulting cases. Most firms employ interviewee-led case interviews, with the notable exception of McKinsey. Both types 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 with a recommendation, 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 end, you come up with a recommendation based on the synthesis of each of your answers; 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
Interviewer-led cases (McKinsey cases)
The interviewer will guide you through a series of connected questions (for McKinsey: structure, exhibit, and math, then summary) 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 in the interview situation.
For interviewer-led case interview examples, check the McKinsey cases here.
Common questions we receive:
Is Bain interviewer-led? Is BCG interviewer-led? No, they are both interviewee-led!
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.
For interviewee-led case examples, check all cases here.
Use both interview formats to your advantage!
How to prepare for both types of interviews
We are coming from the interviewer-led McKinsey style cases and can definitely tell you that it makes a difference for the candidates how they study and how they approach cases.
A one size fits all approach does not work, especially when we are talking about the level of competitiveness and the low offer rate in MBB. You want to be well prepared for each type of case and use the different logistics at play to your advantage.
That being said, the same principles of problem-solving prowess apply in both types of interviews. However, interviewer-led cases are very formulaic in nature and there is a certain checklist of habits (what do and when) you should employ to go through in order to maximize your performance (more on that below). And this checklist is quite different from an interviewee-led case.
While in an interviewee-led case, the main goal is to reach a sound recommendation after going through your issue, analyzing data, etc., the main goal in a McKinsey case is to provide sound and self-standing answers to each individual question (structure, math, exhibit). Think of the latter as a series of mini-cases. More often than not, there will not even be a synthesis/summary in the end (unless your structuring part was weak).
Hence, you should tackle each individual question in a specific way. When you know what actions you should do for each type of question, it is easier for you to focus, be creative, and be structured throughout each question. We think they are much easier to solve as you have to worry only about one problem at a time.
As a result, in a McK case it is also much less about the correct result or solution (except for the numerical part), but much more about how you approach, how you solve, and how you communicate. It is very difficult to actually go off a tangent and not reach an outcome in the end, whereas in an interviewee-led you always run the risk to investigate some completely irrelevant parts of the issue tree, lose time, then come up with a faulty conclusion.
For these reasons, we believe that you should prepare a set of common skills (structuring, math, exhibit interpretation, communication), which are relevant for both types of cases, however, study and internalize a different game plan and approach for each type of interview.
Then, practice, practice, practice each type of case individually and make it clear at the beginning of each session what the case should be like.
Also, we can recommend you to switch to the interviewer role in some cases. This will give you new and interesting insights into the differences between both approaches.
Further resources and how we can help you
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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