Why do consultancies use case study interviews?
Case studies test you in all manner of ways so they are one of the best – and fairest – methods of seeing a candidate ‘in action’. They are designed to evaluate how you process information, solve problems and react to new and surprising situations, as well as showing how you work within a team. Individuals or a small group of candidates are presented with a business problem and then given time to evaluate the information and brainstorm a solution. Case studies can be on almost any topic. 'The topic itself doesn't matter. No one expects you to know the market size for diapers in Southeast Asia offhand, for example,’ says Roland Berger. ‘But what is your approach? Can you estimate it? Educating yourself in basic data, such as average population sizes, will help prepare you for market estimation cases. Can you demonstrate common sense and make educated guesses?’ Oliver Wyman advises: ‘Think of the case interviewer as your client. Your interviewer wants you to solve the problem, and can help. Work together.’
What to do in advance
Read the firm’s graduate recruitment literature and check its website to see if it has sample case studies (the vast majority of consultancies do). Have a look at recent press releases to get a feel for the type of work it’s involved with as well as what industries it works across. Read the business pages of newspapers and imagine one of the businesses to be your client. How would you advise them? What would you base your recommendations on? What factors would you and your client need to consider before proceeding to the next step? Also check with your careers service as many run workshops and presentations on how to prepare successfully for case studies and assessment centres.
‘I practised with friends beforehand, so by the time I started interviews I was more comfortable with what to expect,’ says Olivia, an associate at The Boston Consulting Group, echoing the views of the graduates TARGETjobs has interviewed. Consultants and interns offering advice via TARGETjobs Inside Buzz, agree. The message is: practise, practise, practise.
Advice from consulting firms
Through our research of top consulting firms the TARGETjobs team has come across some valuable nuggets of advice for succeeding at case study interviews, such as:
- 'Sketch out a structure: your path to the solutiuon. If you go astray, it will help you get back on track.' (Roland Berger)
- ‘Don’t panic if the answer is not apparent.’ (Boston Consulting Group)
- 'Pause periodically during the dscussion to give your interviewer a chance to course-correct.' (PwC)
- ‘If you need more data, ask for it. If you're stumped, take a creative leap.’ (Oliver Wyman).
Thinking out loud
The TARGETjobs team has been struck by a common thread – almost everyone we spoke to stressed that applicants should talk through their thought process with the interviewer. As L.E.K. Consulting puts it, ‘Formulate hypotheses – share your thought process as information is revealed.’ It’s a bit like making sure you show your calculations in a maths exam – it’s not enough just to come up with the answer. Given that case studies tend not to have ‘right’ or ‘wrong’ answers anyway, making your thinking process transparent is particularly important. ‘We do not expect candidates to actually solve the cases in interviews,’ says OC&C Strategy Consultants, Instead, the person interviewing you must be able to understand how you reach your conclusions – how you’ve broken the problem down, analyse information and structure conclusions.
If you're in a group...
If you’re working in a small group divide the tasks – you’ll get through them far quicker. There may be different personalities in your group and recruiters will be watching to see how you interact. They will also be looking for evidence of leadership and teamwork. Don’t dominate proceedings but do pitch in and contribute where appropriate. It’s important to be yourself rather than play to a type.
Expect the unexpected
Additional information may be sprung on you so be prepared. Interviewers will be looking to see how you deal with the unexpected as well as how flexible you are with processing last-minute information. Ask if you’re unsure about something. Asking clarifying questions such as ‘Does that make sense?’ to the interviewer, will ensure you’re on the right track and shows self-awareness.
Example case studies
We can’t tell you exactly which case study you’ll face, but we can give you a couple of examples of what it might be like:
Expanding a business
Your client is a global organisation that manufactures and distributes a wide range of chocolate products. They have two ideas to expand the business: either to introduce a new range through existing distribution channels or move into a completely new business, which will involve building a set of retail stores. To approach this, you will need to compare the returns of each of the different investments and decide which will be the better solution for the business. Make sure you can explain the reasoning behind your decision.
Increasing a supermarket's profitability
A supermarket chain has noticed a decline in its profitability. They have hired you to find out why this is and to recommend and implement a solution. You’ll need to work out why there is a decline in profitability – for example, is it specific sites or the entire chain’s performance that is suffering? Once you have identified the problems, work out a cost-effective solution that will allow the supermarket to address each in turn.
Expect the unexpected. The focus of an interview may vary and you’ll need to be prepared to participate in whatever discussion the interviewer has in mind. For most interviews, the interview is a two-part process; during the first part, you chat about your general qualifications, and during the second, you focus on the case study. However, during my first interview, the interviewer opened with, “OK, I think I got to know you well enough, so let’s just dive into the case,” and the entire interview was devoted to the case itself. I had expected some time to continue to build upon the rapport I established in previous conversations, but did not have that chance. During another series of interviews, my second interview was completely focused on my previous role, and how I handled certain scenarios. Bottom line, be flexible, and ready discuss the work you do and how you do it.
Don’t be afraid to ask questions. The interviewer is your biggest asset in the room. He or she has all of the information you need to “solve” the case study successfully. There is no reason not to ask your interviewer to define an acronym, or repeat or confirm details. If the interviewer asks “How do we achieve success?” you need to ask “What does ‘success’ mean to you? Is it turning a profit? Raising the company’s profile?” When you get staffed on a project, you need to be able to ask questions to figure out what the problems might be, and that applies here, too.
Start where you have the most information. Inventory the information you have then dig into the area of the problem where you think can have the most impact.
Follow the interviewer’s cues. If the interviewer says something, it probably means something; don’t dismiss seemingly extraneous details out of hand. This is an example I use when prepping candidates: “The case is about a retailer who wants to increase the value of a company it purchased, and I say the owner loved the brand when growing up. The purpose of that detail is to indicate that turning around and selling the asset is not an option for making it profitable because the owner is attached to it.”
Don’t get frazzled. Take time to talk through a problem and, if you can’t make sense of it, tell the interviewer that you want to put it on hold and return to it. Doing so will buy you time to process what you’ve been missing. Don’t let your stress agitate your interviewer, and don’t let yourself get bogged down--you don’t want to appear directionless. If you get stuck, get creative. Once, when an interviewer began to overwhelm me with jargon, I asked him, “How do you explain to your daughters what you do?” and his answer helped me understand so that I was able to move on with the case.
Case study interviews (or “casing”) should be fun. Think of the interview as an opportunity to learn and challenge yourself.
Call on your own life experience. Your experience has helped you progress in your career and education; keep using that experience to help you succeed in your case interview. For example, in a business case study, you could bring your own experience as a traveler to a case about a different hypothetical airline. Your individuality is important. At Accenture, we value the unique insights each one of us brings to bear; your individuality can serve you well when you’re interviewing.
Show your process. Stand up and use a white board if that helps you get your ideas across... Don’t be self-conscious--what matters is demonstrating that you can solve problems.
Remember, the interviewer wants you to succeed. People want you to do well because they want to hire you—they want to fill the role, so the goal of the interviewer is to set you up for success. Work with them, don’t be afraid of them.