I have a question about case interview preparation which I was hoping you could answer for me. I provided some context and I am sorry if the email is far too long. I listened to the Firmsconsulting podcasts and articles I like the honest views provided.
I am currently a PhD candidate at Princeton, with an undergraduate degree from South Korea. I started casing about 6 months ago and completed about 120 cases with casing partners in my consulting club and over the internet. I bought several books and other programs. I paid to have my resume edited with an online service.
The problem is that I cased with a friend of a friend recently and it did not go well. He is a McKinsey manager. It was very, very bad and he really did not like my resume. I was embarrassed to explain to him that I did so much work. I am now a little confused and frustrated. I do not know what I did badly or correctly, and not sure what to do. I feel all my efforts have been wasted and concerned that if I continue, I will keep wasting my time.
Should I quit pursuing management consulting or am I using the wrong services?
Thank you for your email and the context. I would have preferred slightly more information but this is good enough to post a detailed response. I plan to be brutally honest in this response, as always, so do not take the feedback personally. The feedback is important to help you understand where you stand on your career plans. It is after all, your life and lifestyle on the line.
It is important to understand that your situation is not uncommon. So you should not feel as if you are doing worse than others. We often speak to candidates who have done 50 to 120 cases and still struggling. Therefore, this is not a “weakness” about you, but possibly the techniques you are using which can be easily fixed.
My response is split into 4 parts: general immediate advice, your resume update, case interview preparation and next steps.
My first piece of advice is not to spend more money on case training, advice etc. This is the general advice I will provide for you. I am not saying you should never spend money, but for now, you should not. Go cut your credit cards. The two weeks it will take to get the replacements will help you reflect. There are several reasons for this.
Candidates like to look for that “magical” idea, approach or service that will push them over the top in case interviews. Do not fall for that trap.
First, it is clear the money you have already spent is not working. I am not sure if it is because of the services you used or your own application of the material, but that is irrelevant at this point because the outcome is what you should measure. Irrespective of when you bought the service, you should do well after 120 cases. So, I am guessing it is both things.
Candidates like to look for that “magical” idea, approach or service that will push them over the top in case interviews. Do not fall for that trap. If it looks too easy it usually is not going to help you. On the other hand case interview training should never feel painful. If it is, it could either be your learning style or even that the career is not ideal for you. That said, for anyone to prepare well, real effort is involved. If everyone could buy online services and get into McKinsey et al, things would be too easy.
Until you know why you have not improved, and it may have nothing to do with the services you use or everything to do with them, you should not make any more purchases. It helps to step back and take a fresh view on things. That can usually only happen once you have “forgotten” some of the reasons and tactics you applied in your previous case interview experience. This may sound counter-intuitive, but poor past reasoning will affect your current judgment unless you find a way to jettison this reasoning. Time usually does this.
When our own clients either fail to get an interview or fail to get an offer from the first firm with whom they interview, I ask them to take their foot off the accelerator, decouple from the training and come back after 2 to 3 weeks. No cases in this time, no planning, no reading – a complete vacation from cases. We regroup and re-plan upon their return. This is the opposite of what most candidates do.
You have unfortunately been hard-wired by millions of dollars of Nike and Adidas adverts to think that just a little more hard work will push you over the top. Therefore, most candidates work even harder when they are unsuccessful, merely doing more of the same and repeating the same mistakes. You have to be smart, not just work harder.
Let’s discuss resume services.
With all due respect to companies offering resume writing services I have nothing good to say about the idea of believing a resume can be edited electronically and be acceptable. We do not offer them and there is a reason for that. We do edit the resumes of our clients but that is not a simple process. To properly edit a resume takes a minimum of 4 sessions lasting about 30-60 minutes each, and in some cases we have taken 8-12 sessions to edit a resume. It is a critical, complete and detailed transformation. There are several reasons why it takes that long. I am writing out the steps so you can do them yourself.
Here is something to ponder. If resume writing experts where so good, the analogy would be that a publishing company’s greatest assets would be the editors who transform moribund author transcripts. Yet, that is not how things work.
First, imagine I sent my resume to have it edited by an expert. That expert assumes that I mean exactly what I say in my resume and there is perfect clarity in my statements. So he/she edits the resume based on what he/she reads in that resume. The obvious problem here is that people rarely mean what they say, and most people cannot write well. So you have an expert trying to produce perfect prose, capturing all the details of the role, benefits, data, numerical dollars values etc., off poorly written input. It can never be correct. Bad input, from the resume owner, will only equal bad output.
Here is something to ponder. If resume writing experts where so good, the analogy would be that a publishing company’s greatest assets would be the editors who transform moribund author transcripts. Yet, that is not how things work. Editors cannot create best-sellers from weak material and need excellent work from authors. That is why the rejection rate on manuscripts is so high. The editors will only work one-on-one with the writer who has a solid manuscript.
Second, the expert can only edit what you have provided to him/her. What if something really important and valuable from your past, has been deliberately left of your resume? How will the expert know this? How will the expert include this? The resume writer cannot know this, and what you end up having is the resume writer’s interpretation of your interpretation of events. When we write resumes, we go line by line, in every call through the resume. I ask all kinds of questions to completely understand what the owner of the resume means when they say certain things. Rarely is the intent and original phrasing correct.
In fact, if you look at the amount of edits we ask for in every single line, it can be overwhelming. We need to be speaking to clients and working with them to accomplish this. It is the only way.
Third, your resume needs to reflect your spike. Your spike is that one thing you are good at and which will get you remembered by the interviewer. When I read an early resume, I sometimes see the apparent spike. Usually that early interpretation of a candidates spike changes. It takes several sessions of speaking to someone to really dig into every line on their resume and flesh out unwritten extra-curricular activities and/or other roles.
Understanding and using your spike is such a vital part of the resume writing process, but how in the world can someone deduce that from your resume without having spoken to you? Moreover, why obtain this service unless you explicitly answer this question – what is your spike?
In other words, you are impressed with the improvement on your resume, which the interviewer never sees. So do not do this. You should rather compare your best attempt to that of a top candidate from Wharton, Harvard etc.
Fourth, every client of a resume writing service merely looks at the resume they sent in and the version they receive back. If their new resume looks better, they are pleased. I say looks better, because for the reasons above, it really cannot be much better in terms of content. Form is only important if the resume content is great. Excellent formatting with poor content is still a disaster. Comparing your new resume to your old resume is a flawed approach to measure quality.
The interviewer does not see your before and after version. What the interviewer sees is your best attempt and compares this to the other candidate’s best attempts. In other words, you are impressed with the improvement on your resume, which the interviewer never sees. So do not do this. You should rather compare your best attempt to that of a top candidate from Wharton, Harvard etc. It may make you cry when you see the competition but at least you have time to fix things.
Fifth, editing resumes is a process of formatting, accumulation and then attrition. In terms of formatting, some resume formats just look better, and therefore make you look better. Format counts because it creates an impression that you are prepared well, or at least had people from the elite schools helping you prepare. Both can only help your image. In the accumulation phase, I ask every client to add as much information about themselves that they can. I don’t care if they won a prize for the three-legged race in their freshmen year, add it in.
I never rely on clients to filter their own life details, since they cannot always know what is important. Attrition is an important choice of words. We next cut out the obvious clutter. The three-legged race will be edited out unless you ran it with Bono to raise money to save orphaned children in Somalia; unlikely, but not impossible considering Bono’s schedule and proclivities. The next step is critical. Rather than making massive cuts in just 1 or 2 edits, we make small changes to see how it looks. If you make large cuts to the content, it is very tough to add it back, because you forget what was cut out, and you end up perfecting what is left versus what should be left. This editing-by-attrition-process is important since it prevent mistakes, encourages discussions which uncovers your spike and leads to a better resume. As expected, the editing by attrition process cannot happen in 2 sessions, no matter who is editing the resume.
Now let’s discuss case training.
As mentioned above, it is tough to know if the problems reside with the services you used or your own use of them. There are surely good firms, good people and well-meaning people. Note that well-meaning does not correlate to competence. That said, case interview training is the Wild West in many ways. It is unregulated. Services shamelessly promote themselves, and people do buy into the hype. How do you know if someone is a good coach or know what they are talking about? You cannot know. Testimonials mean less than nothing. Let’s be honest, who is going to put up bad testimonials? What about unsolicited testimonials in forums etc.
When I read unsolicited testimonials about anything, let alone an unregulated sector, I fondly think of Enron. Just 12 years ago EVERYONE was singing the praises of Enron. It was a multiple company-of-the-year winner in Fortune Magazine no less, and everyone believed the hype. It was true then and will always be true today – people will believe whatever you tell them, despite glaring evidence in the annual reports. Doctored reports, yes, but there was more than enough evidence to see through the charade. From just the Enron debacle we can deduce that the majority of people are not analytical enough to deduce what works and what does not. We can also deduce 99% of people, even those with finance MBA’s, cannot read a balance sheet. Yet, that is for a different discussion.
The point is that people will believe what they want to believe and when they want to believe it. People will believe there is a 1% hope of achieving something even if all the data indicates otherwise. And everyone wants to believe that it is easy to get in Bain, BCG and McKinsey. That could not be further from the truth. It takes discipline and effort.
It always amuses that when I ask candidates immediately after their interviews how they think they did, they are never completely confident, but after getting an offer, they are adamant that it was due to x, y and z. And those reasons always paint the candidate in the best light.
Moreover, since most people cannot deduce quality, they rely on the collective wisdom of others. They read forums, usually populated by people who never got in, and have less than a 5% of chance of getting in. We receive so many emails about “a friend who got in from my school with only a 3.7 GPA and he told me that I must focus on my leadership to differentiate myself.” That is from an actual email. The problem here is that the friend is an outlier. Moreover, the friend, with all due respect, cannot know why he got it.
It always amuses that when I ask candidates immediately after their interviews how they think they did, they are never completely confident, but after getting an offer, they are adamant that it was due to x, y and z. And those reasons always paint the candidate in the best light. A candidate will never admit, or know, that McKinsey’s preferred choice turned them down and the candidate was the 3rd person on the list for the oil and gas practice. People bend the truth to make themselves look good. You need to unbend the distortion.
If you extrapolate this willingness to follow the mass consensus to case preparation information on the internet, do not buy into the hype, and do not follow the crowd. Unless you can clearly understand the value of doing/buying something, do not do it – ever. If you are relying on others feedback, then you are delegating critical reasoning to others. And if others were sufficiently analytical, they would not be using case interview preparation services in the first place. Ergo, they are not analytical and you should not be listening to them.
I am potentially talking about our own client base here, but we also insist that our own clients take accountability for their careers and not delegate decisions to the wisdom of the masses in forums. Just to be clear, if you do not see the benefit yourself, run. I insist our own clients ask tough questions as well.
If you insist on listening to others, get a large enough sample size and ignore people who went to Booz, ATK, and Deloitte S&O etc. With all due respect to these firms, they are not the same as the big three and we only focus on McKinsey and BCG, and to some extent Bain.
From where should you obtain information?
You need to win-with-winners. Translated to case interview preparation, it means listen to and work with people who are successful in consulting firms. Getting into McKinsey et al does not make you successful. About 70% to 80% of people who get an offer will be managed out, which is a euphemism for being fired. Staying and getting promoted makes you successful.
When I see someone with about 5 months to 2 years at Bain-BCG-McKinsey on their resume and no promotion, I immediately think they were managed out – usually because they were managed out, though not in all cases, but definitely the majority. Very, very few ambitious people will leave the ultimate CEO-finishing schools, consulting firms, without trying to progress up the ranks.
Why would you listen to someone who could not succeed at your target firm?
Before getting into your case interview performance, I have two assumptions to state.
The first assumption is that you actually did very badly in the mock case interview with the McKinsey manager. Some candidates tend to exaggerate their actual performance deficit; either by design, upbringing or for attention. For example, my physics lab partner used to have panic attacks every time we scored less that 95% on an exam. It was a crisis for her, and we once actually did not have the highest grade in the class. Oh, the horror! She had to go home that weekend to be consoled by her mom. I am assuming that is not your case, even though no details are provided.
The second assumption I am making is that your manager was interested in your performance and gave honest feedback. Poor interviewers default to giving “improvement” areas if they have not been paying attention in the case. At least this way, by providing improvement areas, they at least appear to have added value to your life. If an interviewer tells you any of the following or some derivation thereof, without explaining it to you, then he/she was probably not listening to you and you need to think carefully about what your performance actually was:
• “You must be more structured.”
• “You need better hypotheses.”
• “You need to be faster at math.”
• “You should be more MECE.”
This is rather obvious and if you could do it, you would do it. So getting this feedback is really a waste of time to you and rather disrespectful. It is a little like berating a homeless person for not having enough money to change his/her life.
Now let’s discuss your preparation. I can quickly see a few major mistakes you are making.
If you have poor technique to solve a case and you repeat that poor technique 120 times, you are simply ingraining a poor technique.
I noticed that the most important data piece in your feedback was doing “120 cases.” You are discussing quantity of cases over the quality of the sessions. Firmsconsulting has worked with just over 350 clients in the last 3 years. We keep detailed records in each person. I can tell you how many cases they did with us, how many questions they asked us, how many people practiced with case partners, how many times they practiced, how many math mistakes per session, communication gaps etc.
I can also tell you that the number of sessions you do is inversely correlated to your success.
That is very counter-intuitive so let me explain it. If you have poor technique to solve a case and you repeat that poor technique 120 times, you are simply ingraining a poor technique. If you had a good technique, you would have done well, but since you did not, we can assume the technique is at least part of the problem. Technique refers to the way you solve cases, and I am guessing you are framework obsessed since that is the way most people work. We hate frameworks since they prepare you for nothing useful. You need to focus on understanding cases from first principles and building frameworks from nothing but the original case interview question/information.
The other point is that 120 cases over 6 months are tiring to do. I cannot image you are giving them all sufficient attention to extract the appropriate lessons. We have an online library of cases and when a client rushes ahead to do many unnecessary cases well before our sessions, the system automatically converts their file to a bright crimson red. Rushing ahead is indeed such a major indicator of failure.
I want to tear my hair out when I see case books immediately starting candidates off from tough questions case interview questions. You need to layer the difficulty. You have to start with simpler cases and slowly work into more and more complex cases.
You should therefore make sure you have a good technique and then understand the concepts rather than trying to do as many cases in the hope of finding a familiar case in the interview. That is ultimately the flawed strategy of anyone who pursues quantity over quantity. Those pursuing quantity believe it is more important to see as many different types of cases as possible, versus understanding the underlying principles.
It is like doing math. A great math student will do a few cases and learn the core principles. They will then learn to apply it. A bad student does not really understand the underlying principles but hopes that if they do more, eventually, they would either understand everything or at least see a similar question in an exam. That is a bad strategy.
Keeping on the math theme, no one learns calculus without a fairly solid foundation in math. You need to build up to the point of taking on calculus. I want to tear my hair out when I see case books immediately starting candidates off from tough questions case interview questions. You need to layer the difficulty. You have to start with simpler cases and slowly work into more and more complex cases. It is like waking up and immediately going to run a marathon. It will not be pleasant experience since your body is not conditioned to handle the harsher pressures it will face.
Fatigue is another problem I see and for several reasons as well. 120 cases is a lot of cases. That alone will tire you. Imagine if you did the cases in the wrong order. Let’s assume you started with the tougher ones first since you did not know better. Can you imagine how difficult and frustrating that will be? You just keep going up against a tough problem and not sure why you are failing. Lack of success will lead to fatigue. Moreover, when you practice with peers, they tend to have little experience. They will blindly follow the case book and refuse to let you move on unless you tell them exactly what the case books lists. Doing this 120 times is painful.
There is another type of fatigue as well. If you constantly do easy cases, you start to simply go through the motions since you assume you will easily solve the case, and really, the case is not teaching you much to begin with. This is a very common problem. You then simply end up counting cases, since you assume the more you do the better you become. You should ensure that you always raise the difficulty level of cases each week. This keeps you challenged, encourages learning, keeps you on your toes and forces you not to take things for granted.
I kept this for the end since it is most important. You need good technique in 6 areas: communication, estimations/calculations, brainstorming, fit questions, BCG approach and answer-first approach. You have to be good in these areas.
The myth of demand side estimation cases is the greatest mistake taught in case books worldwide and is probably the worst technique a candidate should be using.
Communication is a huge problem across almost all candidates we have seen, including our own. Candidates are so technically focused on cases that they never think about how they will communicate their brilliant insights. I cannot stress how important communication can be and how central it is to cases. Cases are easy to teach. Delivering your solution in a manner which does not make you look like you are in pain is a very different issue altogether. We cover communication extensively in several podcasts, so please go through them all.
Watching candidates conduct estimation cases is a little painful. The myth of demand side estimation cases is the greatest mistake taught in case books worldwide and is probably the worst technique a candidate should be using. Fortunately, it is easy to fix. Again, I will not repeat things here. Simply listen to the podcasts. When trying to speed up your calculations, do not merely try to be faster. Look at the way you do calculations and see if it is an efficient way. Most candidates have a weak structuring of math problems which hurts them. Speed is an outcome of good structuring. I am sure if you could be faster you would. So if you are not, you are bumping against the limits of your technique, and not the limits of your memory to remind yourself to be faster. Becoming faster at arithmetic means redesigning your math approach, and that is tougher than it looks.
Brainstorming is well explained in several previous podcasts and many videos. I am going to include some commentary we previously discussed on brainstorming. Candidates who can brainstorm well will never need to memorize a case framework for the rest of their lives, or get stuck in a case when they cannot recall a framework. No matter how many frameworks they memorize there is bound to be a case which requires a type of analyses they have never seen before, and if they cannot brainstorm, they cannot develop the required analyses approach. Moreover, comfort with this technique plays a major role with confidence building since the candidate never needs to worry about facing a case without a bag full of frameworks. They will not need them.
Firmsconsulting does not teach frameworks. There are no high-five’s for using the correct framework. We encourage candidates to learn to solve cases from first principles and if a framework is ever used, we spend an inordinate amount of time testing their understanding of the approach. This understanding and the candidate’s ability to explain their reasons for using the approach, are far more important than the approach itself. In a simple test, we get candidates to introduce the 4P’s framework to us. Rarely does that go well.
Go ahead and watch Kevin Coyne, the ex-McKinsey worldwide strategy leader do cases in this format in Season 2 of The Consulting Offer – throwing frameworks at him just does not work.
Too many students are obsessed with memorizing frameworks to get offers. Too many online resources present frameworks as the only way to go ahead. Candidates must realize that about 50% of all McKinsey cases cannot be solved using a framework. Go ahead and watch Kevin Coyne, the ex-McKinsey strategy leader do cases in this format in Season 2 of The Consulting Offer – throwing frameworks at him just does not work.
We encourage our clients not to be someone who just does enough to get an offer. You really want to learn the correct approaches so that you can succeed after you join, and never get managed out. So do not just do enough to get the offer, use the effort expended preparing for consulting interviews to learn the correct techniques. That means brainstorming, decision trees and hypotheses development must be studied carefully. We find that candidates generally brainstorm in a very haphazard way. Most simply throw out ideas/solutions which they think best solve the problem they are brainstorming.
I am not going to discuss fit here since it is covered in numerous podcasts and does not appear to be an issue for you. All I can say is that every single student I have ever met tells us their fit is under control and they are weakest at cases. The reality is that they are much, much worse at fit. You need to really focus on understanding the detail around your stories.
The interviewer led and interviewee led approaches are different from the decision tree and answer-first approach. Do not confuse them. It is possible to do a both an interviewee-led and interviewer-led approach for both McKinsey and BCG. Read that line again since it is almost certainly the opposite of what you believe. So really take the time to understand the basics and do them well.
My concluding remarks are to remind you that your position is not unique. Most candidates find themselves in your position. Take a vacation, forget about cases and read this email again. When you start case interview practice again, start from the beginning and assume everything you did before was incorrect. If you do not make that assumption, you will likely retain some techniques which will hurt you – again.