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The Case Study Interview

Interviewing with management consulting firms has become one of the standard practices for HBS students. Most people seem to do it at least one-either because they actually want to work for a consulting company, or because they feel they should at least interview with one. While management consulting firms were the first companies to hold case interviews, all kinds of companies now employ the case method. In a case interview, the interviewer presents a company or industry issue and giving you only limited information, asks you to structure an analysis and make conclusions. To understand how to crack a case, consider why companies use the case method and how you might think about approaching a case.

Why Do They Do It?
While the goal of most interviews is to understand if there is a professional and personal fit between the company and the student, case studies are aimed to understand how you think. Interviewers determine this by evaluating a candidate’s 1) ability to frame and structure problems; 2) analytical skills; 3) creativity.
Ability to frame and structure problems

Given three pieces of sketchy information, can you identify the underlying issue and coherently structure the analysis that will get at the heart of the problem? All in 25 minutes or less?

Structuring a problem is difficult thing to do well, but improves with practice. Most people can easily impose a framework on an issue without giving the problem serious consideration. Critically thinking about the problem and developing a meaningful way to approach it is a key to cracking a case.

Analytical skills

Can you work with numbers in your head? Can you reasonably estimate market size? Do you know how to analyze the competitive dynamics in a shrinking market with high barriers to entry?

This is the toughest part of the interview to practice. If you can structure the problem well, the kinds of analytical skills that the problem requires should be axiomatic. The key to proving your analytical ability, even if you are not facile with numbers in your head or know nothing about market dynamics in China, is to talk through the analysis. The interviewer will hear your thought process, and if you ask for advice, often the interviewer will guide you. Even if you miscalculate, your logic will be clear.

Creativity

What would you do if you were asked to analyze the market potential for an undeveloped product in a Third World Country? Where no market data exists? And you cannot speak the language?

Creativity is highly valued in consulting organizations. Consultants have to be resourceful in data collection, idea generation, and implementation. The issue is not to let your creativity overwhelm your structure. Creative structure is good; lack of structure, as a result of overemphasis on creativity, is not.

What Kinds Of Cases Are There?

Logic Questions –
These questions are usually non-business related and focus on testing your analytical and creative side. The questions are reminiscent of extra-credit questions on a science test. Examples are:
How do you estimate the size of the Empire State building using no formal length measurement? How can you optimize the use of elevators in a elevator bank? How many airplanes are in the air right now?
Business cases –

The stereotypical question sounds like this: “A clothing retailer has 10 outlets in 10 different markets. 9 are profitable, the 10th is not. What would you tell the CEO to do about the 10th outlet?”
These questions test your business school knowledge; recruiters typically avoid questions that pertain to experience on your resum‚. They want to test your ability to handle new situations.

What Should You Do Before The Interview?
Learn about the company – not just the industry.
Just like for any other interview, know what you are getting into. Company facts and positions in the industry are the bare minimum.
Tailor a ‘story’ about yourself.

Your story should coherently weave the pieces of your background together and communicate 3-5 strengths about yourself. Think about what the company would be looking for in your background and focus your message for the company. There is nothing worse than mentally turning on the ‘play button’ in your head as you recite.

Think about frameworks and develop your own (but don’t get married to any of them).

While most people will warn you not to pick a HBS framework and force information into it, it is helpful to review frameworks and think about potential structures. Recognize which frameworks are good for marketing issues versus ones for general management. Understand the weak points of the different frameworks and change them if you want. But be careful to acknowledge you are using frameworks; most interviewers are MBAs themselves and know all about the Cs and Ps.
Get reading material.

HBS has some great resources for helping people think about structure and sample cases. One of the best is the Management Consulting Club’s Cracking the Case Study reference material.
Practice.

It takes some time to become comfortable talking through problems and explaining your thought process. Ask former consultants to practice cases with you. Not only will you become more comfortable with the style of the interview, but your peers should be able to give constructive, honest feedback about your performance.
Attend case study workshops.

If you want more structured help, check out the case study workshops that many of the management consulting firms hold on campus.

What You Should Do During The Case Interview
After the recruiter has given you the 4 lines toward which should direct your analysis for the next 15 minutes, you should think about how to best spend that time.

For example:
Make sure you understand the question
Do not be afraid to take notes in the introduction. Then, paraphrase the key facts and the central issue. It shows you have listened and prevents you from running down the wrong path.
Classify the issue

Start by discussing what kind of an issue you are facing. Is it a marketing problem or a strategic issue? If you do not know, form a hypothesis. Clearly describing your logic (talking through your logic aloud) helps the interviewer follow your thought pattern.
Describe your plan of attack

Telling the interviewer how you what you understand the problem to be gives them perspective. They know where you would go with the problem if you had all the time in the world, while allowing you to monitor yourself and keep track of your analysis.

Come to a conclusion
Even if you do run out of time, make a recommendation. Talk about downside possibilities, tradeoffs and affected constituencies. It’s all about taking a stance.

Look for confirmation and ask for guidance
This does not mean you are admitting defeat. It can be as subtle as saying, “Is it safe to assume that …? I think that x% is generous…is that fair?” Recruiters want to help you, but they cannot if you don’t ask for validation.

Read body language
Some recruiters will not be as receptive to offering assistance. Pay close attention to their responses You can often tell if you are going down the wrong path or boring them to death.
Make it interesting

Interviewers don’t like sitting around in a small room all day. Engage the interviewer in thoughtful, provocative questions. Everyone likes to talk about themselves.

Relax – the process is not as bad as you might think. HBS makes us consider cases every day in class, and the thought process you use to analyze cases in class and in interviews is the same. The upside of interviews is that they do not expect you to run the numbers in advance or spend 80 minutes on one topic!
2001 Resources :

As you approach the upcoming interviews make sure to tap into the variety of resources that ar
e out there to help you in your interview preparation.

 Talk to your classmates that were consultants and see if they can give you a “practice case”

 Contact second year students who did consulting for the summer and ask them to help you with your case interview preparation.

 Utilize the jobjuice reference cards that are available through the Management Consulting Club or at www.jobjuice.com

 Visit www.wetfeet.com and www.vault.com for a wide variety of information on the consulting industry as a whole and on specific firms

 Visit Mallory Stark in the Baker library. She is a great resource for researching different consulting firms.

 Join the Management Consulting Club and attend the various club meetings on case interview tips, hell week do’s and don’ts and perspective on several consulting companies.
The bottom line is that you will need to invest time and effort in order to land a consulting job. Start early and reach out to all the resources that are available to you.
Good Luck!

December 3, 2001
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