Mastering The Case Interview

Candidates waiting for job interviews

Candidates waiting for job interviews

If you’re reading this, you’ve likely already surpassed the high bar of landing a seat in one of the top global MBA programs. Congrats! That’s great news and it means you’re a driven, ambitious individual who will likely take on increasingly tough challenges in the years ahead. In the immediate future, this is particularly true of the recruiting processes for top consulting firms like McKinsey, BCG and Bain.

The nature of the vaunted case interview and the high level of competition from fellow MBA candidates can be incredibly stressful. Faced with the proposition of this new challenge, you might be tempted to move into preparation overdrive and run through hundreds of mock interviews. A word to the wise: take a step back and take a page out of the Consultant’s Problem Solving Playbook: structure your thinking, decompose the problem, and lay out a course of action.

Identify the skills you need to demonstrate

What does this mean? Instead of getting stressed about an abstract and daunting question like, “How do I ace all of my upcoming case interviews?,” break the problem down into manageable, bite sized pieces. While every case interview is unique, there is an underlying let of skills that each case interviewer is evaluating:

  1. Structured thinking: Can you take a big, hairy problem and break it down into mutually exclusive, completely exhaustive buckets?

  2. Mental math: Can you quickly and accurately do mental math to gut check assumptions and make quick estimations?

  3. Charts and data analysis: Can you comfortably work with data and charts to extract key insights to share with clients and teammates?

  4. Thinking on your feet: Can you brainstorm on the fly and find multiple ways to approach a problem, especially if certain options are closed off?

  5. Communication: Can you effectively communicate your insights, findings and summaries in a cohesive and cogent way to your colleagues?

  6. Problem solving independence: Can you effectively propel yourself through the problem solving space, surpass roadblocks, and arrive at a compelling answer?

Now you have a nice, ordered list of skills to hone. You might be better or worse at some of them, but this is a much more manageable series of questions to tackle.

Assess where you stand

Ok, this is the hardest part. You have to honestly assess your own abilities in each of these categories. Regardless of whether you’re honest with yourself on a self assessment, you can be assured that your interviewers will be when they evaluate you.

How do you do this? Get yourself into a reflective mood, whether it’s going for a long run to get your endorphins up, meditating or having a glass of wine (or two). Start thinking back on all your academic, professional and extracurricular experiences to date. Where have you shined in the past? Where have you struggled? What types of feedback have you received in the past?

For example, let’s say you come from a computer science engineering background and worked as a software engineer at a large tech company like Google or Microsoft. You probably did well on the math portion of your GMAT and are comfortable churning through large sets of data. It’s likely that mental math and data analysis will be strengths of yours. In contrast, how are your communication skills? Your ability to structure big picture problems? It’s possible that your prior academic and professional experiences didn’t put a premium on those skillsets because your key activities were focused elsewhere.

On the other hand, let’s say that you worked in marketing before school at one of those same tech companies. You likely spent days honing copy and thinking about how to most effectively communicate the key messages of a product or service. Your communication skills and problem framing skills are likely excellent, but maybe the math portion of the GMAT felt like a miserable slog. That’s no problem, because any of these skills can be improved dramatically with smart practice. You just need to be honest about which ones need polishing.

Create a plan to improve on your biggest weaknesses

Once you’ve got your skills report card, you can move on to the fun part: honing your skills. Regardless of what your report card looks like, there are multiple ways to address any of the key skills you believe need to be improved.

For example, let’s you say you identify with the former marketer example above, and see yourself as a more of poet than a quant, and every time you see a complicated chart, you shudder a little bit. One way to start practicing is to run a mental drill on every single chart you see, whether it’s in a textbook, a case for one of your classes, or in the Wall Street Journal. For each chart, give yourself thirty seconds to study it, and then list out the key insights and takeaways the chart is communicating. You want to ask yourself: What are the key points this chart is communicating and what interesting explorations or additional questions does it prompt?

This approach can be applied to any of the skill discussed above. If communication is a weak spot, no problem. Take every opportunity to practice communication skills by yourself and with friends. For example, if you and your roommates are debating which show to watch on Netflix this evening, test out different strategies. If your natural inclination is to say “I vote for Stranger Things,” an alternative might be “I vote for Stranger Things for three reasons: first, we all love science fiction shows, second, the critics and all of our friends are raving about it (remember how many Elle outfits we saw at Halloween), and third, who doesn’t love Winona Ryder?” Your roommates can handle it for the short time you’re preparing for interviews.

Throughout the preparation process, remember to maintain a growth mindset. The key concept of a growth mindset is that each individual’s skills are *not* innate and fixed – they’re flexible and they can be augmented with targeted practice and preparation. After all, once you’re a big shot consultant, you’ll be helping your clients through the same process day in and day out. Structure the problem, break it down into manageable chunks and then focus on improving the areas, capabilities, issues that need the most work. It’s a good course of action.

kenton-kivestuKenton Kivestu began his career with stints at BCG and Google and is currently the CEO of RocketBlocks, an interactive, skills based prep platform that prepares students for case interviews. RocketBlocks has helped thousands of students land jobs at McKinsey, BCG and Bain over the last five years.

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