OMG! I Have a Case Interview!

Christy Murray

Christy Murray is assistant dean for career development at the Johns Hopkins Carey Business School. In this role, Murray leads Carey’s Career Development Office, a team of career coaches and employer relations managers that prepare students to be competitive candidates in the global business community. Murray also serves as a key liaison with the university on the evolution of the life-design framework and career development. Murray holds a Master of Science in Organizational Counseling from Johns Hopkins University and a Bachelor of Science in Social Work from Miami University, Ohio. She is a Myers-Briggs Type Indicator (MBTI) certified practitioner and an active member of the MBA Career Services and Employer Alliance (MBA CSEA) organization.

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Okay, it happens. You hadn’t necessarily planned to pursue a career in the consulting industry. You thought the case interviewing method was only used by consulting companies. Or, yes, you decided on a whim to apply to a consulting internship or full-time position and great newsyou got the call! Then you freak out because there is a case interview component to the screening process.

Relax. Case interviewing can be fun. If you are intellectually curious, enjoy problem solving and finding solutions to complex situations, case interviewing will be a positive challenge for you! So while you could find yourself in the predicament of having a case interview lined up and never having practiced this format, consider the following as you prepare for the hot seat:

You are being evaluated on three main aspects:

  1. Your reaction under pressure
  2. Your thought process
  3. Your ability to articulate logic

Your reaction under pressure. Concerned about freezing if asked to estimate the net present value (NPV) or the number of ping pong balls that will fill a 747 jet airliner? (And yes…that has been asked!) Fearful of losing your thought process mid-way through the case conversation? Breathe in, breathe out. Use the suggestions below to guide your approach:

  • After the interviewer presents the case, confirm you fully understand the question, the client’s main objective, and any other objectives to be taken into consideration.
  • Take good notes. Bring lots of 8.5 x 11 notebook paper to write on (consider graph paper in addition to lined or unlined) and extra writing instruments. And yes, write it downyou will forget!
  • Unless asked for the exact number, round your math to large numbers to make more complex calculations as easy as possible. Calculators are generally not allowed!
  • Prior to the case interview, practice mental math. Warm up with math drills through the CQInteractive resource found on the homepage of your Carey Compass account.
  • Above all, if your interviewer is tough, don’t take it personally. You’ve gotten to the stage in the interview process where the company believes you may be a good fit for the job and organizational culture. The interviewers are presenting actual scenarios that you may be faced with as a consultant working with a Fortune 100 client, as a financial relationship manager on a multi-million dollar client account, or as a brand manager at a consumer products and goods (CPG) firm. Personalities don’t always mesh. If you remain positive, professionally courteous, and un-phased when faced with a difficult interviewer, then you show resilience and demonstrate the ability to rise to the occasion when dealing with a challenging person. In your professional career, you will encounter challenging peopleeither clients or co-workersso be prepared for them in an interview scenario.

Your thought process. Sure, you’re a smart person: an adaptive, innovative, creative leader with a solid GPA, excellent time management skills, and good emotional intelligence (EQ). With an MBA or Master’s from Hopkins, you will surely be an asset to any company. True. How are you prepared to demonstrate your exceptional thought process no matter what case you are given by the interviewer?

Remember why employers case. Cases are usually actual scenarios that the company has encountered over the years with clients. They are looking to see if you offer innovative ideas to their team (ideal), if you are generally thinking along the same lines as what they presented to their client (satisfactory), or if you are totally off in left-field with a rogue thought process (not recommended).

  • Remember your magnificent brain! Don’t panic if you find yourself being presented with a case interview you haven’t prepared for, isn’t your strongest area of expertise, or is on a topic you don’t have a clue about. You will only send yourself into fight/flight mode, which is proven to prevent your brain from thinking creatively.
  • Remind yourself you are excited to solve challenging problems and ask clarifying questions. In a real client scenario, it is true you may have more time and resources to work through a solution, but trust your initial instincts and pay attention to gut reactions.
  • Remember to state your assumptions. Curiously inquire about big picture areas but do not ask the interviewer for the answer. Get clarification if you don’t understand. Remind yourself of the main objective to guide your thought process.

Your ability to articulate logic. Confidence is key. When a company or organization engages a consultant team to help solve a business problem, it is looking for the presentation to have well-thought out solutions backed by knowledge. This is being tested through the case interview process. When you and your partner are presenting the information you have prepared for a client, is it believable? Supported by reliable sources? Solution-focused?

  • Confidently back up your answers with structured, logical reasoning.
  • Use frameworks to guide you. It’s all about demonstrating an organized and logically sound thought process. Some of the more common frameworks that can help guide your approach are: Porter’s Five Forces, the 3 Cs, the 4 Ps, and a SWOT analysis. Important to note: do not state the approach you use to frame the presenting problem or objective during the actual interview. Allow your structure to reveal itself more naturally through your verbal and/or written communications with your interviewer. For additional framework resources, check out my previous post and the Consulting Case Study 101: An Introduction to Frameworks by Street of Walls.
  • Start strong, finish strong. Talk out loud to provide your interviewer with a glimpse of the salient points of your thought process when working through a case interview. At the beginning, state the areas you will be initially exploring. It’s okay to ask for a few moments to “jot down initial ideas” or “make some quick calculations.” Keep in mind the words “jot” and “quick”don’t spend a lot of time with your notes. However, you will be judged on the organization of your note taking and placement on the paper as well as your verbal thought process. When you approach the end of the allotted time for a case interview, it is time to make a recommendation (if you haven’t already done so) and to confidently summarize your recommendations, proposed solutions, and next steps to your interviewer. If the interviewer asks, “Is there anything else you want to add or include?” at the end of your statement, don’t fall apart or unnecessarily question your recommendation. You may be finished. There may not be anything else appropriate to include. The interviewer is looking to test your confidence. Confidently end the conversation by thanking your interviewer. Ask for the business opportunity to move forward with the client project or contract (demonstrating the ability to sell yourself).

So are you ready? A variety of factors may influence your unique case interview experience. Marketing, finance, healthcare and even consulting companies may have a case-like interview method, but a less intense format than the interviewer to interviewee, answer-in-the-moment style of casing. For example, the interviewer may present the case, ask for questions, and then leave you alone in the interview room for 30-45 minutes with a 100-page document to review and 3 blank pieces of paper to create slides summarizing main points. When the interviewer returns, you are then asked to present your proposed recommendations to him or her.

Other common employer requested assessments during the interview process might include:

  1. an online multiple-choice assessment to test your general knowledge in an area;
  2. a writing exercise to test your communication skills;
  3. or a group case interview to test your team dynamics.

Whatever scenario you are presented, breathe, remain confident, and stay organized. Pride yourself in getting that seat (while it may be hot!) at the case interview table.

Happy Casing!

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