With case interviews being used more frequently for general consulting roles, it is essential to know how they work.
Unless you've interviewed for a management consultant or investment banking job, chances are you haven't experienced a case interview. However, this rather unique interview process is slowly becoming the norm for a wider variety of consulting roles.
That's why you should know what to expect and how to handle it professionally.
What is a case interview?
A case interview is defined as “a hypothetical business situation that is presented during the interview process to determine how a candidate thinks about a particular problem and how they would solve it.”
Usually, this specific business situation is one that a candidate would face if hired for the job in that specific company. For example, a candidate's prompt might be determining whether there's a market for home-use ultraviolet sterilizers. They could begin by asking about the target market, the cost of each unit, and how they'll be sold. As they get into it, they may offer ideas on how to create more markets, like making the units in different sizes or for specific items like phones.
The overall goal is to assess how the candidate as a consultant thinks about and arrives at particular solutions or answers for a specific scenario.
How is a case interview structure different from other interview formats?
As with a regular or competency-based interview format, the case interview seeks to assess a candidate's skills coupled with how they operate in a specific job situation. However, that is where most of the similarities end.
Rather than talking about how you handled something in a past or present job, a case interview presents a particular situation and asks you to work with it right there in the interview.
Answers for case interview questions can be verbal or written and often include the creation of charts, graphs, or illustrations to make your point. What's more, case interview questions may also feature brain teasers or other analytical tasks that are not related to the company or the job. Also, unlike a regular interview, it's acceptable and expected that the candidate interacts with and asks questions of the interviewer as part of the problem-solving process.
But, perhaps the biggest difference is that there's no one “right” answer to the questions or scenarios because there is often more than one acceptable way to handle the hypothetical situation. In fact, interviewers are looking for ingenuity and that “out-of-the-box” thinking strategy.
To sum up, it's just as much about the process as the solution.
Which businesses benefit from case interviews?
In general, this model works best for a consulting business, but any business can benefit from determining whether or not a candidate can effectively size up and handle real-life business situations. Not only does it demonstrate a person's problem-solving and analytical abilities, but it also shows their willingness to get more information by asking questions.
Essentially, interviewers are watching as candidates figure out what they're looking for, what analysis they want to use, and what insights and theories they develop as they move toward a data-driven, quantifiable solution. These interviewers are also looking for strong interpersonal abilities — consultants must deal with people as well as data after all.
Are there specific case interview formats?
There are a few basic formats used in case interviews.
In this situation, the candidate is required to lead the discussion and development of the case. You'll be evaluated on developing and evaluating your theory while simultaneously formulating and answering the relevant questions needed.
You don't have to work from beginning to end but are able to move among and focus on different aspects of the case as you solve it.
These interviews have a preset format where the interviewer directs the focus, tempo, and sequence of the problem-solving process, with candidates solving the case from beginning to end. Each problem has predetermined questions, and you may or may not be given data to work with.
The approach and evaluation parameters are the same as the candidate-led interview.
Here you work with a team of other candidates to analyze the case, collaborating to come up with solutions.
You have two hours by yourself to review data, create a premise, build an issue tree, and analyze your results. You then present this to the interviewer, who will question and challenge your data just like a client would to see how you defend your results.
Case interview sample questions
There really are no “typical” case interview questions; rather, you're presented with a situation and asked to handle it.
Here's an example.
“Our client is a five-million-dollar manufacturer of eye-glass frames whose sales have dropped markedly in the past 3 years. What should they do?”
If your interviewer utters the words “Our client…”, you know you're in a case interview.
How to prepare for a case interview
Case interview prep is the key to success. Luckily, there are only a few case interview “types” that are regularly used, and your job is to know and study them. They are:
New product development
Entering a new market space
Starting a new business
Improving profitability/increasing sales/reducing costs
Acquiring a company
Create your own situations around these case interview examples, practicing your answers alone or with a buddy. You can also look up actual examples of these cases, review the analysis, and come up with your own unique solutions.
Preparation and practice will make the actual case interview much less daunting and allow you to feel more confident. The more you can actually relax and have fun in a case interview, the more likely you are to enjoy the actual work — and get hired to do it.
Don't have a friend to practice with? Need more of a push? Our interview coaches can help.