Structured vs. unstructured case interviews
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!
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. The more professional a consulting firm, such as McKinsey & Company, the Boston Consulting Group (BCG) and Bain & Company, is conducting their interviews 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. By structured I mean everything starting with 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).
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 they use 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.
You will experience very different levels of structure and professionalism when you interview with consulting firms of 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, in a third tier firm, I once had the opportunity to design my own case and solve it at the same time. While interesting and challenging at the same time, what can be a more unstructured and subjective means of evaluation than that?
Even though it might be harder to prepare for such unstructured case interviews, the firms that employ these formats usually set the bar to pass lower.
Use both interview formats to your advantage!
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 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. I have experienced myself and received feedback about some horrendous interviewer performances with some firms.