Case Study

The case study interview is a critical piece of the employee selection process for professional service firms. For consultancies, its specific purpose is to assess aptitude for partner-track roles.

Historically, the case study interview has been used to hire associate-level employees - those who are expected to work directly with business clients and produce a stream of billable services.

In recent years, case study interviews have expanded to analyst-level employees, in organisations that are usually the target clients of consultancies, especially in tech, healthcare, ecommerce and even NGOs. Such analyst-level employees provide internal support to senior management, researching and vetting strategic opportunities.

The case study interview typically consists of a single session, in which the candidate is presented with an authentic business scenario similar to one the firm regularly handles with its clients. The candidate is asked to study the problem, perform analysis and render advice on how to handle the scenario. Depending on the industry the consultancy serves, the candidate may be asked to demonstrate how that advice might be implemented, and show specialized technical proficiency.

The session most commonly takes place onsite, in-person, and one-to-one with the interviewer, but may be conducted remotely, or in a group setting.

No particular formal training is required to “ace the case.” Yet most candidates find they need substantial preparation to get into the consulting mindset, and sharpen the skills that interviewers are most looking for.

The World of Consultants, Their Clients, and Business Cases

Consultants are hired by senior managers of client organisations to advise on business strategy. An effective business strategy drives competitive advantage, which in turn creates economic efficiencies that sustain multiple periods of cash generation, ultimately boosting the business value of the client organisation.

A business strategy is often characterised by a range of possible decisions, each having a unique set of risks and rewards. Deciding which path to pursue is highly momentous. Everything the client does hence comes at the expense of some opportunity it does not pursue.

The primary job of senior managers is to craft business strategy, determine the best course of action, and direct its execution. It is extremely difficult work, requiring great focus, assimilation of tremendous amounts of information, intensive analysis, and serious reflection on all possible consequences.

The reality of senior managers’ jobs, however, is often much different. Their days are usually spent shuttling from one meeting to another, putting out fires, answering emails and phone calls, and in general, dealing with matters that are more urgent than important. Time and attention are their scarcest resources, and there is never enough of either to devote to all the important aspects of business strategy.

Senior managers are fond of saying something to the effect of: “If I had just two weeks when I didn’t have to do anything else, I could do it myself.” While that might be true, the fact is they aren’t ever likely to get even two hours, much less two weeks. Consultants provide that additional capacity senior managers so desperately need.

In some cases, that extra capacity comes in the form of expertise that the client firm doesn’t have readily available. In others, consultants provide independent validation of business strategies, thereby assuring governing boards and executive committees that they aren’t committing their company’s fortune to a cleverly articulated hunch.

In short, successful consultants are trusted advisors and partners of their client firms’ senior managers, doing much of the work they would do if not so time-constrained. Consultants perform research and analysis, evaluate business cases, and help manage the pipeline of business opportunities for their senior manager clients. Over time they learn to complement their clients’ business intuition and anticipate future consulting needs.

What a Case Study Interview is, and Why Consultancies Like to Use Them

A case study interview is a miniature simulation of a typical client engagement, centred on a business problem that a client has likely contended with.

The interview is usually conducted in a single session lasting 20-30 minutes, though sometimes it can be considerably longer. During this time, candidates are briefed on a strategic decision similar to one a client has faced, and will be asked to analyse the situation, interact with the interviewer, and devise a solution.

The case study interview may also include the candidate outlining a PowerPoint presentation that would be delivered to the client, and giving a verbal summary of each slide.

Most case study interviews are conducted in-person by the interviewer, with ample opportunity for interaction with the candidate. Some case study interviews are less structured, and in these cases it is up to the candidate to drive the interview. Some may be even conducted remotely using a video-conferencing app, with the interviewer absent most of the time, and the candidate left alone to work on the case.

Consultancies favour case study interviews for several reasons. First and foremost, case studies represent an authentic work sample of the often fiendishly difficult work of business strategy, and the attendant tasks consultants deal with every day.

That includes gathering and analysing information, prioritising findings and determining what’s missing, creating structures to make things understandable, putting results into a greater context, understanding tradeoffs, creating blueprints for implementation, and delivering presentations.

How candidates interact with the interviewer also provides insight into what sort of relationship they will have with senior managers who are paying hefty rates for the firm’s services. They are looking for evidence that candidates can communicate effectively with executives, and build durable, trusting business relationships with them.

Consultancies also like case study interviews because, as work samples, they are a valid predictor of future job performance. Additionally, the cases used in interviews are often standardised so that they can be used to compare multiple candidates according to the same criteria.

Finally, most applicants for consulting roles have high grades from top schools, a background of overachievement, and impressive work experience, and therefore cannot be differentiated on that basis. Case studies are an effective way to distinguish the best among a pool of the best.

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If you need to practice consulting case interviews, try out this preparation pack from JobTestPrep.

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At What Stage of the Application Process Can You Expect the Case Study?

The selection process for consultants always involves multiple stages, with the case study interview occurring later in the process, after you’ve successfully completed the so-called “fit interviews.”

During the fit interview stage, candidates need to demonstrate that they have the temperament of a successful consultant, which is established mostly through behavioral interviewing. They also need to demonstrate that they’ll fit in well with the culture of the firm and its clients. In short, if you’ve made it this far, you have the groundwork to do the job.

But can you really do it? The case study interview seeks to determine whether you can apply your background, skills and achievements to future consulting work, day after day, client after client. No two consulting engagements are the same, and the work is often gruelling.

Much of the time you will find yourself stretched to the limit of your abilities. Your world will be full of unsolved problems, with no easy way to get answers. You will come to rely on the ingenuity of your colleagues as much as your own.

What Skills Case Studies Are Looking to Test

At the case study interview stage, the major questions the consultancy will want to answer include:

  • Are you someone they would want on their team, and can depend on for insight, energy and contributions?
  • Are you inherently curious, a quick learner, and eager to learn about things even if they aren’t particularly interesting to you?
  • Can you think on your feet and adapt to a changing conversation?
  • Do you come across as presentable, poised and confident in front of clients, most of whom are senior managers?
  • Can you make presentations that are clear, relevant, logical and actionable?

Specific skills they are wanting to see are:

  • Analytical thinking. Especially in framing issues, breaking situations down into a range of discrete alternatives, structuring complex situations, and rendering findings into concrete business language.
  • Asking appropriate questions. Interviewers want to see that you respect where the limits of available information are, and can quickly determine remedies. More practically, they want assurance that you are always mindful that both you and your client are understanding one another.
  • Business intuition. That includes focusing on relevant areas, avoiding getting hung up on trivia, and anticipating challenges in the absence of hard data.
  • Communicating effectively. That includes building rapport with clients and their staff, active listening, giving clients the confidence they’ve been heard, and speaking in the language of the client.

What to Expect on the Day of the Case Study Interview

The case study interview session will likely begin like a standard interview, with introductions and a small talk to help put you at ease. The location will usually be an interviewing room or a vacant conference room.

The interviewer will introduce the business situation and provide exhibits, which often include an excerpt from a financial statement, and perhaps a bullet-point summary of the facts of the case. The interviewer will ask if you have any questions, and then you will be prompted to begin working on the case. 

Cases are usually self-contained, so it is unlikely you will need internet access to do research. However, you will likely have to perform calculations, and will either be provided with paper and pens, or allowed to use the calculator on your mobile phone or the whiteboard in the room.

During the case, the interviewer may stay in the room to address any questions you have. The interviewer may also offer prompts, guide you to the next step, or provide hints.

Many interviewers will offer verbal or tacit feedback along the way, and it is important to pay attention to it. You may occasionally find yourself getting stuck, and it is entirely appropriate to ask questions of the interviewer to help get back on track.

At the conclusion, you may be given feedback on your overall performance, or an opportunity to debrief with the interviewer.

Common Types of Case Study Questions

Case study questions are most likely to cover general business strategy topics. Candidates can expect any of the following during their case interview:

  • Build a business case for developing a major new product, service, technology solution, or customer experience
  • Build a business case for a developing new line of business, spinning off an existing one, or creating a subsidiary business
  • Recommend whether to pursue a purchase, divestiture, acquisition, merger, joint venture, strategic alliance, or major partnership
  • Recommend whether to enter a new market, and if so, by what competitive strategy (e.g., cost, service, quality)
  • Determine how best to improve company or business unit growth, and how it might affect critical areas of the company’s financial statements, especially revenue, gross margin, EBITDA, or profitability
  • Determine how best to price or segment a new product or service offering Determine whether to rehabilitate a brand
  • Determine how to respond to a major competitive threat (e.g., “Google / Amazon / Microsoft just entered our space”)

How to Prepare and Practice Effectively

When preparing for the case study interview, it is important to keep things in perspective. You are not being assessed on your mastery of business strategy. Rather, the interviewers are looking at whether you take a critical approach to complex business problems, and can break them down into components logically, thoroughly and clearly.

They want to see whether you apply a structure to those components, one that highlights meaningful differences in choices a client may face. And they are especially interested in whether you ask insightful questions that increase everyone’s knowledge, and drive the conversation toward a solid conclusion.

In light of that, here are some practical ways you can prepare for the case interview. 

  • Gain a working understanding of the standard frameworks used in the consulting industry. There are numerous online resources to help familiarise you or refresh your understanding. Keep in mind these frameworks are not hacks, and must be applied appropriately if you decide to use them during your case study interview.
  • Get comfortable with fundamental analysis techniques. One of the most common is MECE (mutually exclusive and collectively exhaustive), but there are several others. But the goal is the same -- lay out a range of feasible solutions with no gaps in between.
  • Sharpen your ability to make back-of-the-envelope calculations, especially financial ratios, so that you can make comparisons or decisions quickly.
  • Develop a concise style for putting business situations and solutions into narrative form. Harvard Business Review or MIT Sloan Management Review articles contain particularly good examples of consulting solutions told as compelling stories.
  • Practice several actual cases. Most of the top consulting firms offer online guidance, worked examples, and actual cases. Another good resource is your university’s careers services department. Many have extensive case interview preparation materials, and staff who can conduct a practice case study interview with you.
  • Practice active listening. Listening is a highly cultivated skill among senior managers. You will come across as very junior if you cut them off or act too eagerly when it’s your turn to speak. Note that if you are answering a question in your head while the interviewer is still talking, you are not listening!

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To develop your consulting case interview technique, consider practising further using online resources such as this preparation pack from JobTestPrep.

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Tips on How to Perform Well During the Case Study Interview

  • Actively engage with the interviewer. Ask questions to make sure you are both understanding matters, and being understood.
  • Demonstrate that you are enjoying the challenge. Consulting is gruelling work. Show that you can bring energy to a consulting engagement, and that you’re the kind of person clients would want to work with, especially when the going gets tough.
  • Treat the interviewer as you would one of the firm’s most valued clients. Communicate using the language of the client where appropriate.
  • Keep the conversation moving forward. At every step make sure that you are bringing structure to the business problem, and keeping all the issues in proper context.

Summary

You can’t cram for a case study interview. But you can prepare in such a way that your analytical acumen, communication skills, and business intuition are all razor sharp on the day of the interview. Furthermore, you can show that you are one of the few who can take on the consultant mindset, and appear natural doing so.

In summary, here are the steps you can take that will show you grasp the fundamentals of consulting, and have the aptitude to master them over your career:

  1. Get familiar with the most common business case scenarios, and the important differences between them.
  2. Develop a working method for breaking down business cases into components, and for structuring these components.
  3. Get knowledgeable about analysis frameworks, how they can be used as problem-solving tools, and where it is appropriate to use them.
  4. Cultivate a narrative style that gets people interested and excited about your work.
  5. Use a conversational style that begins with asking good questions, and is driven by wanting to be the best listener in the room – not the best talker.

Further Reading

You may also want to check out these other articles:

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This article was written in partnership with LiveCareer. Since 2005, LiveCareer has been developing tools that have helped over 10 million users build stronger resumes and CVs, write persuasive cover letters, and develop better interview skills. These tools include their free resume builder and CV builder.