Max is an aspiring management consultant who is looking to secure an analyst role with one of the top consulting firms for the upcoming recruitment cycle. His interest in management consulting was sparked by a failed McKinsey interview last year. In this series of blogs, he will be sharing his background, case interview preparation process, useful resources, and any breakthroughs or setbacks that he experiences.

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In my earlier posts, I went over some of the resources I discovered for case interview preparation. Now that I was armed with some frameworks and sample cases, it was time to actually set up an action plan. My personal goal was to have twenty to thirty live case interviews under my belt before any first round case interview in the upcoming recruitment cycle. I figured that case interviews, like everything else, has a learning curve associated with it, and I wanted to be extremely comfortable with the mechanics of doing a case by the time real case interviews rolled around.

As I mentioned earlier in my posts, the lack of preparation for my first-round with McKinsey was absolutely embarrassing. The foreign nature of the case interview made me nervous, and that probably amplified the negative effect of my poor case performance. Having done six co-op terms during my undergrad, I am usually extremely comfortable in interview situations. My friends and I had, on average, five to six interviews for every co-op work term so I am no rookie when it comes to communicating my abilities to an interviewer. However, success at normal “fit” or “experience” interviews will not translate into success in the case interview. I designed my preparation around four areas:

1) Doing live case interviews

2) Solving cases by myself

3) Reading business articles to acquire “business acumen”

4) Working on my mental math abilities

When it comes to doing live case interviews, there is no choice but to find an individual who is willing to feed you cases. Ideally, this person will be a high caliber candidate who is also going through the case interview recruitment process.

Four main ways in which the case interview is delivered

While doing research on the firms, I found that there were four main ways in which the case interview is delivered:

Candidate-Led: In this case interview method, the interviewer presents a short problem like “The client’s profits are down, and the CEO wants to know how to proceed”, and basically shuts his or her mouth. It is kind of like a police interrogation where they will only divulge information when asked.

Interviewer-Led: In this case interview method, the case is structured into different sections. The first section will usually involve the description of the case, and the interviewer asking you “What are the important questions?” or “How would you structure your analysis?”. They are basically looking for you to develop an upfront structure, but not dive into a particular branch just yet. They will most likely point you in the direction they want you to analyze if they are satisfied with your upfront structure.

Group Interview: In this case interview method, small groups of candidates are given a case. They must solve the case together while the interviewer silently observes.

Written/Presentation Interview: In this case interview method, all of the data is given to you. The challenge here is to cut through the fluff and get to the important information. At the end, you will present the conclusion and recommendation.

Even though there are lots of variations on the case interview, it is my opinion that practicing the “candidate-led” version will prepare you for all of the variations – but it is useful to mix it up when you are preparing just to get a taste of what the other types are like.

Finding case interview partners and sample cases

I found practice partners through two methods. First, there were other people in the university consulting club who were preparing for case interviews. Since we were in different cities, we had to do the cases over Skype. My plan was to do two cases a week with these individuals. Second, consultingcase101 provides a small forum where people looking for case partners can correspond.

When it comes to doing cases alone, there are far fewer hurdles. All you need are some sample cases, and a bit of free time. Some of the best sample cases I found are listed below:

1) Vault Samples Cases

2) Wetfeet Sample Cases

3) Case in Point

4) A book called “Crack the Case” which is great because it contains lots of data

5) Sample cases from the consulting clubs of various business schools

Preparing for case interview solo

Of course, it is not possible to simulate the entire case interview when you are by yourself, but you can practice the open and close of the case. By open, I mean reading the case question and structuring your approach. After you structure the analysis, you can go through the case to see if your line of questioning would have led you to the key insight in the case. By close, I mean the conclusion and recommendation to finish off a case.

It is very useful to actually talk out loud when you are doing the opening and closing portions. In addition to the case samples mentioned above, most firms have sample cases on their website. I really liked the BCG ones because it is a step-by-step process that is easy to do alone.

Another great resource for practicing cases solo is Firmsconsulting videos. The thing that I love about this is that you have the ability to play and pause a case, and this allows you to structure your thinking to see if you would have gotten the same answer they did. I previously mentioned that I like to use the frameworks from www.caseinterview.com, but I feel that the www.firmsconsulting.com way is equally good – it just so happens that I came across the caseinterview.com method first. In my opinion, once you are familiar with cases it really becomes a critical thinking exercise and particular frameworks don’t really matter too much. The important thing is to be MECE (mutually exclusive and collectively exhaustive).

Reading business articles

The next part of my process is reading business articles. Coming from a technical background means that my vocabulary doesn’t include a lot of business terms, and I don’t want to get bogged down with terminology during a case interview. Furthermore, I believe that most cases given at the top consulting firms are sanitized versions of something the interviewer actually worked on. By reading about real life business situations, you can populate your mind with ideas and solutions just in case the interviewer wants to see some creativity.

I found the following sources to be fairly helpful:

1) www.ft.com

2) www.businessweek.com

3) www.economist.com

4) www.firmsconsulting.com

It may seem odd that I have listed firmsconsulting.com as a good resource for “reading for business acumen” part of my case interview plan, but I feel that the accounts of actual engagements are invaluable in gaining insight about real business situations. In addition, I feel that many of the articles on the site provide useful information with regards to what the interviewers have to deal with on a daily basis. By understanding this, you can gain a greater appreciation for what they are looking for in candidates.

Doing mental math

The last part of the process is doing mental math. It is a little bit embarrassing to admit that my mental math isn’t as sharp as it should be considering that I come from a technical background. However, most advanced math and engineering courses emphasize conceptual understanding rather than number crunching. Besides, once you get past simple math (addition / subtraction / multiplication / division), it is almost impossible to do calculations in your head. I would be amazed if you can find someone who can do a triple integration to find the volume of a sphere from first principles without writing anything down.

Of course there are those who can do that, but 99% of the population probably can’t. Luckily, it is easy to practice mental math, and I would recommend that you practice things that are likely to come up in a case interview. For example, what is 30% of 70%? Another one would be what is 3 billion divided by 1.2. The point is to keep it practical, and not practice things like what is 7.5 to the power of 6. You can either come up with these questions yourself or find some resources online.

You are now caught up with where I am in my preparation process. I invite you to continue reading my blogs for updates. In these updates, I plan on picking a case I did over Skype with one of my practice partners that week and breaking it down. Furthermore, I will keep you guys updated with any advances or setbacks I have with regards to my case interview application process.

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Image from Trey Ratcliff under cc.

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