By Katharine Hansen, Ph.D.
If you’re a business-school student — at the undergraduate or MBA level — chances are you already know something about how to handle a very specialized kind of job interview — the case interview. Many business-school courses revolve around case analysis, and many business students have become pros at picking business cases apart. Still, the thought of doing so within a tight time-frame (usually 15-20 minutes) in the already highly pressured situation of a job interview can be daunting — if not downright terrifying.
The case interview is employed primarily by management-consulting firms, as well as investment-banking companies, and is increasingly being used by other types of corporations as at least part of the job-interviewing process. Some firms use case interviews only for MBA-level job candidates, while others use them for undergraduates, as well.
Business students who are not totally comfortable with case analysis and liberal-arts students with little or no exposure to the case method can take comfort in knowing that a vast collection of resources is available, both on and off the Internet, to tell you everything you need to know to succeed in a case interview. We’d be foolish to try to reinvent any of that great resource material, so the purpose of this article is to give you a brief overview of the case-interview process. We then provide a sampling of excellent resources to help you delve further into this tricky interviewing mode. Perhaps most helpful are the resources provided by companies who actually conduct case interviews. There’s nothing like going to the source when you want to know what your interview will be like.
To invoke a definition of the case interview offered by MIT’s Careers Handbook, it’s an interview in which “you are introduced to a business dilemma facing a particular company. You are asked to analyze the situation, identify key business issues, and discuss how you would address the problems involved.”
Case interviews are designed to scrutinize the skills that are especially important in management consulting and related fields: quantitative skills, analytical skills, problem-solving ability, communications skills, creativity, flexibility, the ability to think quickly under pressure, listening skills, business acumen, keen insight, interpersonal skills, the ability to synthesize findings, professional demeanor, and powers of persuasion.
Above all, the firm will be looking for someone who can do the real work at hand. Management-consulting companies, for example, want to know that you are the kind of person who can make a good impression on clients. Describing a presentation on case interviewing given at Columbia University by representatives of McKinsey and Company, Jim Oh notes that consulting firms value case interviews because “there is no right background for consulting. Consulting requires working in unfamiliar territories, thinking on your feet, and performing in situations where you never have enough time.”
Experts agree on many of the fine points for approaching case interviews:
- Practice extensively before undergoing a case interview. Use books and Web sites in our resources section for practice cases. Some companies that use case interviews provide good information on their own Websites. Boston Consulting Group, for example, provides an interactive case you can work through for practice, as well as additional cases you can rehearse with friends. Vault.com suggests starting out by practicing explaining something like how to change a tire. Move on to assessing a situation for friends or family members, such as which bank they should choose for a checking account. In all cases, try to avoid “um’s” and other filler words. Practice summarizing in a minute or less, advises Vault.com.
Boston Consulting Group notes that Harvard Business School produces numerous case studies that can be used for practice; the studies are likely available in your business-school or career-services library or online in academic library databases. Other experts suggest talking to alumni from your school or others who’ve been through a case interview, as well as reading business magazines and periodicals such as the Wall Street Journal to get a sense of how companies deal with the kinds of issues likely to be asked about in case interviews. Some universities offer case-interview workshops.
- Listen carefully to the question. Paraphrase it back to the interviewer to ensure your understanding. As StudentAdvantage.com puts it in its article on case interviewing, “Listening is the most important skill a consultant has. The case isn’t about you or the consultant; it’s about the client.” You may also want to take notes; in most cases the interviewer will allow you to do so. Vault.com suggests bringing not only a pad of paper but a pad of graph paper in case you want to create a graph as part of your conclusion.
- Silence — but not too much of it — is golden. The interviewer expects you to take a minute or so to collect your thoughts, so don’t be afraid of silence. It’s a nice idea, however, to ask the interviewer if it’s OK to take a moment to ponder the case. And don’t take too much time. Experts agree that five minutes would be excessive.
- Remember that rarely is there one “right” answer for analyzing a case. Your process for reaching your conclusions is equally important to the interviewer as is the conclusion itself. In fact, the interviewer wants to observe as much of that process as possible, so it’s important — once you’ve taken the time to gather your thoughts — to “think out loud” as you’re working through the case. Although there is probably not one right answer, the McKinsey representative who spoke at Columbia warns against “wrong approaches, ” including “ignoring or forgetting important facts, defending impossible ideas, and force-fitting the wrong structure onto a problem.”