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Defensive case study interview techniques – McKinsey, BCG, Bain, etc.

As our clients prepare for the case study interview I wanted to offer some perspective. 

It is not what the consultant wants to do

Let’s begin by acknowledging that conducting a case study interview is not a pleasant experience for an interviewer. It is not why people become strategy consultants. The greatest case interviewer does not necessarily become an EM, let alone a partner. When a consultant is being assessed every few months, their phenomenal case study interview skills will not save them from mediocre engagement feedback. 

Running a case study interview is not what the consultant wants to do. It is not why a consultant is primarily rewarded and promoted. The very best consultants are unlikely to be conducting interviews. They would be with clients.

Case study interviews take consultants away from engagement teams and away from clients. No client ever uttered the words, “I respect Amy as a consultant because she took 2 days away from my study to fly to Boston to conduct MBA interviews.” To a client, having their consultant engaged in case study interviews is a distraction and cost they do not want to bear. 

Want to create a case study interview based on what they know 

Consultants are tired. Consultants are behind schedule. Consultants are overworked. They are overwhelmed. Consultants do not have sufficient time to prepare. If a consultant could do it, they would spend all their time working on client work and never prepare for a case study interview. They would simply create a case study interview based on what they know. 

A failed case study interview may not be your fault 

Companies expect responses immediately. An interviewer is not supposed to read and respond to emails, but it is bound to happen. An interviewer should be able to multitask if they choose to read and respond to emails. But interviewers are tired and sleep deprived. They often may miss things or not hear something you say in an interview. 

Interviewers would rather fail you than admit they made a mistake. Can you think of any situation where a firm/interviewer admitted a case study interview mistake? 

Interviewers should take the time to help you. They should give you the benefit of the doubt. They should have no prejudices. They should not discriminate against gender, race, schools and other forms of pedigree. But interviewers are human. They do and will. 

I mention this because too many clients only focus on themselves in a case study interview and assume the interviewer is a perfect person who is totally focused on them, and with a razor sharp intellect. They are not. They are only human and even if the day they meet you is their best day, they will have quirks. 

Defensive case study interview techniques

Knowing all of the above, you need to practice defensive case study interview techniques. Like defensive driving, in this approach you expect the worse and run the case interview by taking charge to help the interviewer help you. 

If the interviewer is in a bad mood, take charge of the energy in the room and keep things pleasant, conversational and moving along. Listen to how Assel managed a tough McKinsey interivewer in the final session with Assel which we made available, at least temporarily, on our youtube channel to help you with your case study interview preparation. 

Knowing how busy and unprepared most interviewers are, take the time to speak clearly and offer your assumptions and inferences versus waiting for the interviewer to guide you. 

Do not be thrown off by an interviewer who is checking emails, typing emails or even eating lunch. They are human. They should not but it is far worse to have a consultant suffering from low blood sugar in an interview. 

Make it pleasant for the interviewer. Make sure they can read your exhibits or any diagrams you draw. Help them understand your thinking by offering succinct explanations and offering them options. 

Answer their questions. Don’t give them what a case book told you to give them if it does not answer their question. 

I can sum this up by saying treat interviewers as if they are human. Which they are. They are not perfectly programmed robots who do everything correctly. 

And the same advice applies to you. Every client tries to avoid a mistake. And should clients make a mistake they act like the case study interview is over and they have failed, and therefore there is no point in trying any further. 

Try this approach. Rather than practicing to avoid a mistake, practice what you will do when you will make a mistake. You should not apologize and offer to fall on a sword, since that means nothing at all and is not helpful, but rather focus on immediately and cheerily fixing it and moving on. 

Assume you will make a mistake. Accept this and have a plan. You will rarely be failed for a mistake unless the mistake is truly obvious, you did not spot it yourself and/or you failed to correct the mistake after it was pointed out to you. 

3 minutes spent apologizing is 3 wasted minutes to solve a case. 3 minutes berating yourself up simply lowers your standing in the eyes of the interviewer. Leaders don’t take the time to belittle themselves. They act. 

Don’t worry so much about math mistakes. While consutling firms usually point them out when offering feedback, far more clients fail due to lack of proper structures, critical thinking, judgement and fit. 

Your job is not to pass the case study interview. Your job is not to solve the case. Many interviewees will achieve this goal and fail to get an offer. Your task is to make this such a pleasant experience for the interviewer that you will leave them no doubt you are fit to be in front of any client and they will want enjoy working with you.

You can only do this if you take the time to think about the interviewer as a person. It’s not about you. It’s about them. Most clients never think about the interviewer. You may not be able to solve a case. You may not even complete the case. Yet, you could still easily obtain an offer if you prove you have the skills to think critically. 

Communication, MECE, 80/20, hypotheses, prioritized branches are like ingredients. If you have the perfect ingredients but assemble them in the wrong way you will have a bad dish. So take the time to learn how to use them conversationally versus just ticking the boxes off as you use them. 

Always remember that many things lie outside your control. Firms and offices are driven by economics. If an office can only afford to hire 3 people and 6 people were exceptional, unless the firm found a way to defy the laws of economics, only 3 people will be hired. 

Overall hiring numbers are driven less by case performance and more by the general economic environment. There is a reason consulting firms hire more in strong economic environments, and hire less and fire more during weaker economic growth. 

So you can be phenomenal but there could have been someone better. These things happen. 

Everyone will learn at their own pace with their own level of commitment. Some clients do well with little preparation. This is because they already think in this critical reasoning format and generally speak well. Others need more time. And that is fine. 

Some clients are very good, but lack confidence and need the interviewer to constantly affirm they are going in the right direction. This is what hurts their chances. 

I know many McKinsey partners who did not get in on their first chance. I know many people who chose not to join the firm after obtaining an offer. And I know many whose lives did not materially change after they joined. 

Good, talented people will always excel. They may end up on a different path, but they will get there. 

Solving cases requires critical reasoning skills. The same way you only need to solve a few math problems to understand a concept, you don’t necessarily need to practice +100 cases. If you are doing that, you are probably memorizing frameworks. It’s far more efficient to learn how to build frameworks from first principles. 

If this were not true every great mathematician and scientists would be memorizing the answers to every type of question. They don’t, and neither should you. 

If you find this message useful as part of case study interview preparation, please share it with those who need it. 

Best. Kris 

The Anatomy of a McKinsey Networking Event

A client was particularly interested in the mechanics and anatomy of a McKinsey networking session, so today we’re going to discuss and focus on what to do when you network in a group setting as part of your consulting case interview recruitment process. We will primarily focus on McKinsey networking but the information is also applicable to other consulting firms’ networking events, like BCG, Bain, Deloitte, PwC, KPMG, etc.

The group type of McKinsey networking is one of the most uncomfortable situations during the case interview recruitment process. The general etiquette is not really well known or easily found on the Internet since McKinsey, as well as BCG and other top firms, host and invite only a small number of people.

McKinsey Networking management consulting

Four types of McKinsey networking events (consulting)

First, it’s important that you understand what kinds of McKinsey group networking or other consulting firm (e.g. BCG, Bain, Deloitte, etc.) networking sessions you may be attending as part of the case interview recruitment process.

There are 4 major types.

The first two are where you will not receive a personal invite.

Let’s assume that you belong to a major university like the University of Pennsylvania where McKinsey is usually going to be on-campus during the recruitment period. They’re going to have an information session where they bring across some of their partners, associates, engagement managers, principles, etc. This is generally an open invite and anyone from a certain degree program / MBA class is invited to attend. So, you do not have to get a personal invite.

The second type is where only people from a specific degree program are allowed to attend. For this type, you will not receive a personal invite either. It’s just your class group. For example, all MBAs will receive an invite.

The other two are more specific where you will receive a personal invite.

The first one is where you receive a personal invite when firms have viewed your resume in the resume book of your school. For example, a business school in the US (e.g. Harvard Business School) or Ivey business school in Canada has put together a resume book to potential recruiters, and Bain looks at that and decides to invite 20 people to their private cocktail event. You look interesting on paper and firms decide to invite you along.

The final one is where you have already submitted your application and just before the interview, one or two days before, you get invited to a cocktail event or another type of group event. Only in this last type of McKinsey networking event are you guaranteed an interview.

In the other types of McKinsey networking events are usually not guaranteed an interview.

If you would like to learn how to carry yourself during the last type of McKinsey networking event we recommend to work through the McKinsey closed-list dinner (accessible if you are a Premium or FC Insider member).

Myths about McKinsey networking events

Second, it’s also important to understand some myths about networking events so you can set the right expectation for yourself and plan accordingly.

Myth 1: If you have a weak profile you still can go to a McKinsey networking event and, most likely, significantly change things

A lot of candidates believe that if they have a weak profile, weak resume, weak background, they could go to an event, dazzle and likely change things so as to secure them an interview. It rarely happens. It is very hard to change things because the group setting makes it very difficult for you to set yourself apart and look different from the pack around you.

So, if you haven’t invested enough time in building a proper resume, thinking through how you’re going to present your image and writing a very good cover letter, you are significantly lowering your chances to be invited for interviews. Resume and cover letter play a very big role.

You can learn how to edit your resume and cover letter by working through resume and cover letter related sessions within The Consulting Offer seasons (accessible to Premium members and FC Insiders).

Myth 2: Consulting firms are primarily holding these events to find out more about you

To some extent it’s true, but to be brutally honest, the real reason consulting firms hold these events is for firms’ own benefit. Consulting today is a lot more competitive than it was 20 years ago. Consulting firms are competing with hedge funds, private equity shops, investment banks, and even NGOs, etc. who are also trying to attract very talented people. So these events are for you to find more about firms and firms hope that those candidates who are on the fence about applying will actually apply.

Myth 3: Attending a McKinsey networking event is mandatory

Well, it’s usually not. If you don’t show up at an event, it doesn’t mean that you’re no longer getting your interview. We know plenty of candidates who we coached and advised not to attend a McKinsey networking event. In some cases we advised them not to because they’re writing an exam the next morning and they needed to be fresh for that. In other cases we advised not to because we wanted them to show firms that they are not necessarily available immediately because they are traveling for other interviews; a deliberate strategy to show firms that you’re definitely not pursuing just one firm. Consulting firms like candidates who have options.

So, attending a McKinsey networking event is not mandatory. If you don’t attend it, it doesn’t mean that you’re not getting your interview and vice versa. If you do attend that doesn’t mean you will be getting an interview, or passing the screening round and passing the cases.

If the interviewer is not enthusiastic, it doesn’t mean that they are not serious about recruiting

Firmsconsulting partners have attended/hosted consulting networking sessions many times and typically it goes the same way.

As a consulting partner, principal, engagement manager, senior associate, etc. generally we have a lot to do. For example, even if I’m at these consulting networking events, my mind is on other things like a client’s issue, a document I need to complete and send to client tomorrow, whether I will have enough time to work on my presentation tonight if I stay here until 9 o’clock, or whether I will have enough time to sleep and work on it tomorrow morning, etc.

Interviewers do have conflicting demands on their time and attention. They could have been on the road the whole week presenting to other schools. So if they’re distracted, it’s perfectly understandable. And when you have done these sessions for a few years and seen many candidates coming up to you and saying the same thing like, “I’m very interested in joining McKinsey, or Bain, or Deloitte, etc. Can you tell me more about what it is like to work for McKinsey?” You will reach a point where you’re not hearing candidates saying anything but more like a background noise. So, maybe interviewers are not enthusiastic, but that doesn’t necessarily mean that they’re not serious about recruiting.

A good partner will size you up very quickly

The moment you’re approaching the partner they generally are able to size you up very quickly. While you’re shaking hands they make a snap decision whether they’re interested a little bit in you based on immediate first impression you created.

They’ll decide if you’re worth talking to by looking at your confidence, posture, body language, eye contact, firmness of your handshake, the way you dress, what you’re saying, how you’re saying it, whether you’re simultaneously scanning the rest of the room to look for other more interesting people to speak to etc.

As partner, or even at a lower level all the way down to an associate, they usually can size you up very quickly. Of course, if you ask them questions they will generally respond with courtesy. But if they see that the kind of preparation you put together (e.g. via your level of questions) is average, they will move on.

However, it doesn’t mean that they are not interested in you at all because at the end of the day they are still going to screen you based on your resume. So, if you want to make an introduction, it’s fine. But keep in mind that it’s very difficult to stand out from the pack during a group McKinsey networking event. So introduce yourself, make it known that you’re interested and have something interesting to talk about.

It shocks us to see how many candidates arrive at a session and really have nothing to talk about. They just know the basics and couldn’t talk about anything more than asking about the office or about projects the consultants had done.

An anatomy of a McKinsey networking session

Now, let’s talk about the anatomy of a session. You arrive wanting to talk to a partner but it’s very rare that you can talk with the partner only by yourself. Under normal circumstances, you will find yourself among four or five other people also talking with that one partner and everyone gets a more or less equal chance to speak and the partner will try to answer all questions. So it’s very difficult for you to get something in, much less to bring out something unique about you.

Do your homework. Don’t just say you are interested in joining McKinsey. Show it

When you show up at a McKinsey networking event it’s obvious that you’re interested in joining consulting firms. Otherwise, you’d not be showing up in the first place. So, never go up to a partner or anyone and say you really want to join the firm. You could instead have spent time showing the partner why you really want to join the firm. Maybe showing an in depth knowledge of some of their work done in a certain office, or you have spoken to many people and developed some very insightful questions based on what those people have said, or you have read a few reports and have some interesting point of view about them. Or you just wanted to talk about how your profile would be a good fit in terms of culture, etc.

An analogy we could use is cool people never say that they’re cool. They show it in the way they act, rest, think, speak, where they hang out, what they do, etc. It’s the same with showing your interest in consulting firms. Never say you’re really interested. When partners hear you saying that, it automatically indicates that you haven’t done your homework and just trying to convey your interest by merely saying so.

Don’t get over-excited. Be calm and confident

Do not confuse showing interest with being over-excited. We have seen in every single consulting networking event bouncing male or female bunnies who have the glimmer in their eyes and are so excited to work for McKinsey, BCG, Bain, Deloitte, PwC, etc. because for them it’s the pinnacle of their careers. Consulting firms do not want those people.

Firms want ambitious people who see McKinsey as a stepping stone to greater things, who see McKinsey or Bain or BCG or Deloitte as a finishing/business school for their consulting careers to partners of that firm, or corporate leaders leading some major corporation later on. So do not join a consulting firm just to be an associate and if you believe that being an associate is the pinnacle of your career, and you show it, then many consulting firms will not want you.

More than that, consulting firms want people who are on par with their current associates. They’re not going to hire you as an associate or analyst if you’re below the level you’re applying for. And if they see your excitement to be a distraction to clients and other associates, they’re not going to hire you either. So do not overdo the excitement. You have got to be a professional who is quiet, calm and confident.

Manage your downside and look for an opportunity for a small upside

Let’s talk about your upside and downside in a group setting. Imagine you’re in a group with your five Harvard (or Ivey, or place your school name here) buddies talking to senior partners from BCG Boston office. You don’t have to manage your upside, but you’ve got to manage your downside aggressively. Don’t talk about something that’s political, racist, religious, bias or discriminatory in any way.

With regards to your upside, look for an opportunity to find a small upside.

On the other side, we generally recommend not to reveal a big advantage in a group setting. If you have certain attributes and certain knowledge of the firm that you know sets you apart from other candidates, it is generally in your interest not to bring it up in a group setting because if you do, your colleagues who are largely under-prepared will know that this is the angle you’re taking and will build it into their stories. So we generally advise our candidates who we prepped really well not to bring out their advantages in the group setting or they lose whatever advantage they had.

Do not go for big upside because chances are very slim that you can do something to make you stand out in the group setting in the eyes of a senior partner. For example, don’t go out there saying to a senior partner at McKinsey that you have read his report and disagree with him on 5 of the 8 points he had raised. We have seen people doing that. No matter how smart they think they are they had very little knowledge and understanding of the context, so they didn’t really know the objective of the analysis, or worse they didn’t really know how the analysis was done. And even if you are right, bringing up an error of a partners’ work in a group setting will most likely not help you be liked by that partner.

Know your spike and build it into your introduction

When you get an opportunity to introduce yourself to a partner, know what you want to convey to the partner. For example, “Hi, My name is Alina and I’m a Russian student. I used to be a grandmaster pianist of the Russian Federation and before I started my Harvard MBA program I used to run my own publishing company.” In 15 seconds, the partner knew her spike. What differentiates Alina from other candidates is her artistic background, she’s an entrepreneur and she’s going to Harvard. So she drives it home very quickly in the introduction.

So, you have to know what your spike(s) are, what will make you remembered. People don’t remember that you work at Goldman Sachs or went to Harvard because now there are too many people having that background. So think very carefully about what differentiates you from the pack, then deliberately build that into your introduction in private or even in a group setting if you have the opportunity to present yourself.

It’s easy to be remembered

Now, although we said that it’s very hard to distinguish yourself in these consulting networking events, it’s easy to be remembered and that’s where your spike in the introduction comes in. Make sure to have a very clear and compelling story discussing no more than 3 things that you can deliver in 15 seconds.

Why would you want to be remembered at a McKinsey networking event? Because you’d want to start building a relationship with them after the event. You’re going to follow up with them afterward. Building the relationship is the key objective of a consulting networking event. So, your goal is to get connected with those people so that you can start building a relationship with them.

The follow up is key. People usually send out follow up notes 2 or 3 days after the networking event. Some people even don’t bother to send out a thank you note.

We know some candidates who would sit in their car after a networking event to type up a thank you note on their iPhone. We are not saying that that kind of intensity is going to set them apart but all other things being equal, the fact that you sent out such a prompt follow up note does stand out in the eyes of interviewers. We are always quite impressed when candidates do that, especially when the event ends at 11 pm or 11.30pm but the candidate still stayed up to midnight to type it up. Many McKinsey representatives would remember that.

To recap, understand the type of consulting networking event you’re attending since they are different. Understand whether your resume has been screened, whether your application has been screened, whether this is an event where they already know you and want you to go through the recruitment process or whether this is just an information sharing session.

Understand the 3 major myths about consulting networking events. Which are, it’s very rare you can change things, it’s really for the firms’ benefit to get people to apply to their offices, and these events are not mandatory.

Understand the structure of the event. Understand the consultants’ background, what they’re up against, and the kind of demand on their time. And also understand that when you introduce yourself they’ve pretty much heard everything before. So you have to really think carefully beforehand about what your spike is, what are one or two things that would differentiate you and build that into your 10 to 15 seconds introduction.

McKinsey networking is basically a dance where partners are chosen

It really is. Your job at a McKinsey networking event or another consulting firm’s networking event is to find people that you could build a strong relationship with afterwards so that when the time comes that you need to submit your resume, they could do it or could provide you guidance on the interview process. So, never forget that the key of a McKinsey networking event is what happens afterward, not the event itself.

It’s basically a dance where partners are chosen. So you’ve got to know who’s interested. It’s easy to recognize who is disinterested in you when their eyes start glazing over when you start speaking. The trick is don’t spend too much time investing in them because it just becomes awkward. Just thank them for their time and move on to another person. Consultants are different people and not all see the same value in your background. The way you dress, the way you act, the way you speak, the way you have prepared all play a big role in whether you will build some kind of chemistry with a certain person.

Don’t let yourself be awkwardly left out

Also, remember that attending a McKinsey networking event or another consulting firm’s networking event is a bit like musical chairs. You don’t want to be the guy who cannot find a chair. You want to be the person who has managed to link up with someone, or two people if you’re lucky. And after the event, you can email them and say you had a good time last night, had a few follow-up questions, and whether they’d mind if you talk about it. Then you build your relationship. I found too many people seeing the McKinsey networking event as an end in itself. Well, it’s not. It’s a mean towards an end and that end is to build relationships further beyond the McKinsey networking event.

So have a strategy when going to a McKinsey networking event or another consulting firm’s recruitment event. Know how you’re going to introduce yourself, understand the objective of networking event is to building a relationship beyond the event and hopefully everything will go well. Just remember if the McKinsey networking event or another consulting firm’s networking event does not go well, it’s okay. There will be other events and there will be other partners. People understand the pressure you’re under and don’t hold you to such a high standard. Just remember to manage the downside and exploit the upside if the opportunity presents itself.

What is next?

If you have any questions about our membership training programs (StrategyTV.com/Apps & StrategyTraining.com/Apps) do not hesitate to reach out to us at support @ firmsconsulting.com. You can also get access to selected episodes when you sign-up for our newsletter above. Continue developing your strategy skills or case interview skills. And if you are ready to put in the work required to build and strengthen a powerful skill-set we teach (all training is done by former consulting partners from major firms), become a Premium member here. We will send you a guidance email once you subscribe with a plan on how we reccomend to work through the programs.

Cheers, Kris

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