Even for an accomplished grad school student with an impressive track record, approaching a management consulting case interview with an elite firm like McKinsey, BCG or Bain can be a daunting proposition.
Any job interview is nerve-wracking, but management consulting case interviews up the ante by kicking off with big, nebulous business problems and powering through a series of mental math drills, charts and data analysis. Keep in mind, candidates are also expected to narrate their thought process throughout.
Faced with this challenge, many candidates kick into interview practice overdrive. It's not uncommon to hear stories of students who have completed 80-120 mock interviews before walking into their first real interview. Although the intent is admirable, there are critical flaws in this brute force approach.
Primarily, candidates mistakenly substitute quantity for quality (e.g., "If I just do 20 more cases, I'll be ready!"). More importantly, candidates lose sight of the individual skills upon which case success is built upon and prepare less efficiently.
The good news is that there is a solution: we call it the Level set, Skill build, Repeat loop. It's similar to how professional athletes keep their skills top notch. The process is driven by playing games/matches, reviewing performance, honing skills that need work, and repeating the loop to drive higher and higher levels of performance. Let's take a look at what this looks like for case prep:
1. Level set
This first step is critical. Start your case prep process by doing an introductory mock interview with a friend who understands the case interview process well (ideally, a former consultant). The goal here isn't to perform perfectly in this interview. Instead, your aim is to complete a level setting exercise, where you evaluate how you did on each component and skill set tested in the case, to identify the “hotspots” you need to improve on.
After the mock interview is over, make sure you get honest, unfiltered feedback from your mock interviewer. Focus on each skill one by one: How did you do on your case start? How did you do on the math components, charts analysis, and concluding summary? Once you have a strong understanding of where you’re strong and where you need improvement, move on to the next step.
2. Skill build
Now that you've done the level setting exercise, your goal is to take a step back and practice the areas of the mock case that didn't go as well. If you struggled with extracting insights from charts, drill yourself on any consulting style charts or data displays you can find.
You may want to start by taking charts and writing the key insights on a piece of paper. Once you’re comfortable with that, start adding difficulty: push yourself to arrive at the insights more quickly, or practice verbalizing your conclusions and the sound rationale behind them.
Similarly, if you struggled with case starts and structuring the initial case problem, practice this specific skill. One route is to pick up an issue of The Economist or the Wall Street Journal, scan the headlines and think about the large business challenges covered in the leads. Then, similarly, drill yourself on coming up with a framework to address them.
This style of practice can be applied to any area of the case you're struggling with. The key here is to be honest with yourself about where you need improvement, and creating a series of structured sessions for yourself that focus on those areas. This will help you work smart, not hard.
Now that you've made meaningful improvements in the key areas, revisit the full process by doing a few more mock interviews. At this point, your goal should be to demonstrate meaningful improvements in the key areas you were working on.
If possible, consider doing this round of mock interviews with the same partner that you provided feedback on your level setting mock interviews. This will allow for calibration and commentary on whether your skill building exercises have started to pay off.
Don't fret if your progress isn't dramatic on the first loop; this is an iterative process. As you continue to repeat this loop, look for different partners to practice mock interviews with, which will give you experience with a variety of interview styles.
One last piece of advice: approach your own case interview preparation in the same way that you would approach a case itself.
Expert consultants take big, nebulous problems and break them down into mutually exclusive, completely exhaustive buckets. You can apply that same approach to your preparation process. The problem of ‘excelling at a case interview’ becomes a lot easier when you break it down into manageable chunks.
Once you’ve done that, you can celebrate your strengths and focus relentlessly on improving the skillsets where you're falling short. That's a recipe for success.