Ace the Case Interview

Ace the Case Interview

Management consulting companies have used case studies to assess talent for decades. Case interviews have started to edge into various industries and functions over the years, including research, marketing, consumer product management and investment banking.

"As consultants leave consulting and they go off and do other things, they take this form of interviewing with them," says Marc Cosentino, president of and author of Case in Point: Complete Case Interview Preparation.

What Is a Case Interview?

In a case interview, the interviewer presents information about a company, as well as a problem or dilemma the company is facing. The case can be presented orally or on paper. The company and the issues addressed can be real-world examples or imaginary. The interviewee comes up with answers or suggestions for the company.

Michael Steiner, who has conducted case interviews for a leading management consultant company for years, cites a variety of case-interview styles:

  • Open-Ended Cases: The interviewer gives you a sentence or two of information, and then expects you to run with only that information and your own assumptions.
  • More Structured Cases: The interviewer gives you information, and then proceeds to guide you through the problem-solving process.
  • Paper-Driven Cases: You're handed a "deck" of information, and the interviewer sometimes leaves the room while you pore over the text and graphs contained in the deck. You then prepare a brief analysis, presenting it when the interviewer returns.  

Why Employers Use Case Interviews

The case interview is purposely designed to increase the pressure most people feel during a traditional interview by a few notches.

Susan Lemke of Babson College's MBA Center for Career Development, explains that firms are trying to pick the best and the brightest. "Consultants often have to work with the senior execs of a corporation," she says. "And in order to be effective in that [situation], they really need to be able to think on their feet, analyze problems, bring up creative solutions, and they have to support whatever recommendations they're going to make." Case interviews are one way to determine which candidates are up to the task.

Cosentino says the case interview provides a glimpse into the way a job candidate thinks. "It gives [employers] a chance to see how your mind works, how your thought process and your logic work, how you structure a problem, how you quantify things, how well you can articulate your ideas under pressure," explains Cosentino, former associate director of career services at Harvard University's Kennedy School of Government.

How to Succeed at a Case Interview

While entire books have been written on case interviews, here are a few basic things to keep in mind:

  • Practice: You are almost assured of failure if you haven't gone through the paces of the case-study process before the interview. Hundreds of sample cases are available, many for free. Get a friend or career counselor -- ideally someone familiar with case interviews -- to act as the interviewer.
  • Ask Questions: The questions you ask can impress interviewers as much as your answers do. Don't hesitate to ask for additional information or for clarification on key points. The interviewer is there to help you, not trick you into going down the wrong path. But you need to draw that information out. Doing so will help demonstrate your communication abilities.
  • Organize Your Thoughts: It's OK to ask for a minute to collect your thoughts and scribble some notes after the interviewer explains the case to you. Steiner says it makes sense to try to break down your analysis into three parts -- market opportunity, competitive threats and operational challenges. Each of these themes has a subset of issues you can address. This approach will help you construct a cohesive message.