On the Case – How to Ace the Consulting Case Interview
What Is a Case Interview?
In a case interview, the candidate is provided with a detailed situation, problem or challenge and asked to analyze it and come up with a solution.
A case interview question can be based on a creative business situation your interviewer has experienced in real life, or one manufactured to deduce your abilities. Questions can range from the basic (How do you know the light goes off when you close the refrigerator door?) to the sweat-inducing (Estimate the volume percentage of disposable diapers in the total US household garbage).
Acing the case interview is a key factor in getting hired in management consulting. After all, companies hire consultants to strategize solutions to business, organizational, or industry-specific problems.
Case interview questions help an interviewer understand how you think and how you would approach a client challenge if hired. Case interviews are also used in investment banking and other industries that require strategic business thinking.
Getting Down to Brass Tacks – Case Questions
You may be asked a few getting-to-know-you or warm-up questions first, but the interviewer will soon get down to the main event of the interview: the case question(s).
Each case question will outline a business problem. The problem may be general (“Determine the market for a drug that prevents baldness.”) or very specific and detailed (see example below).
“The global market for crystal giftware is growing at 3% a year, yet the client is experiencing steady declining sales and shrinking market share worldwide. Therefore, the CEO of Swarovski has retained your consulting firm to help him identify the cause for their declining sales and market share. He would like you to figure out two specific problems: Why is Swarovski’s market share declining? What can they do about it?” 
You, the candidate, are expected to resolve the problem within a limited amount of time while being observed. Many applicants fail in this challenge — especially without proper preparation.
How to Answer Case Interview Questions
Firms use case interviews to evaluate analytical ability and problem-solving skills. Your interviewer is more interested in your overall approach to the problem than the final outcome.
Your future employer is trying to see if you can analyze complex problems critically and break them down in a logical manner. Do you take all critical aspects into account? Do you avoid jumping to conclusions? Do you ask insightful questions? Do you have strong critical thinking skills?
If you arrive at the “right” answer or close to it, you get a gold star. However, it’s not always possible to get the “right” answer — either because there are multiple correct responses or critical information is not provided.
You can ace the case interview without getting the answer correct as long as you show that your thinking and problem solving processes are sound.
Your process will highlight your strengths in key competencies: numerical and verbal reasoning, communication and presentation, listening and observation, and understanding of business models and concepts.
Here are some high-level guidelines for answering case interview questions effectively (also see below for resources to help you dig deeper into your case interview preparation):
- Listen carefully. Pay attention to the question, including specific word choice, and make sure you understand what the interviewer is really asking for. Take notes so you’ll be able to refer back to provided data points.
- Ask clarifying questions. Make sure that you understand the purpose of the case. For example, in our giftware case question above, you’re dealing with a typical “increasing market share” problem. You should also ask for additional information and/or direction if needed. By asking smart questions, you show off your critical thinking skills and also engage your interviewer in the process.
- Outline your approach. After you’ve considered the case and asked any clarifying questions, explain to your interviewer how you plan to structure your response. This shows purpose and framework.
- Think out loud (but take your time). Tell the interviewer the factors you are considering and strategies you plan to use. If you decide to reject an option, explain a valid reason. However, don’t feel the need to express every thought that you have. Pause to consider before sharing a particular thought process with your interviewer. You don’t want to blurt out something that will make you look foolish.
- Stay focused. It can be very tempting to get bogged down in detail and possibilities. Keep the original question in mind and don’t allow yourself to wander too far from the main objective.
- Pay attention to feedback. Many interviewers will provide feedback — verbally or via body language or facial expression. Be observant and you’ll be able to see clues that you’re on track or way off base. If you get stuck, ask for input or validation of your understanding.
- Show off your quantitative skills. Take advantage of opportunities to calculate estimates or otherwise demonstrate your comfort with running numbers.
- Wrap up and summarize. When you’ve worked through the problem, take time to end crisply and confidently with a summary of your approach and key findings.
Preparing for a Case Interview
Preparation is key when it comes to acing the case interview. The best way to get good is to practice. Your competitors for the job will be practicing and you should too.
You never know exactly what case questions you will get. However, you can hone your skills by reading as many business-case dilemmas as possible.
The more types of cases and case frameworks you are familiar with, the smaller the risk of encountering a problem that will stump you. Standard case frameworks help you structure your answer by giving you detailed guidelines on how to generate solutions. Examples of frameworks: segmentation of a market, analysis of a competitor’s initiative, product pricing, etc.
Practice, Practice, Practice
Reading up is a good start, but you should also spend time on mock case interviews. You can practice with a friend or colleague. This will be most effective if your practice partner is briefed on the basics of case interviewing so that the role play is realistic.
You can also work with a professional coach if you want truly realistic practice and feedback. At Skillful Communications, we have helped many clients prepare for their case interviews and land jobs at top consulting firms.