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 

Training by ex-McK, BCG et al. Partners

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