Success in a case competition can be what takes your business school experience from a good one to a great one. Whether you’re studying for an MBA or a business master’s, the chance to apply what you’ve learned in real time, for a real company, can be invaluable.
At the Kogod School of Business at American University, administrators have taken this message to heart, as they’ve been running their annual Kogod Case Competition for 26 years.
Andrew Toczydlowski is the director of student development and services at the school and works closely with all those involved in the competition.
For Andrew, what makes the case competition at Kogod unique is its format. While the final of the two rounds takes place on the school’s campus, the preliminary round is completely digital, open to students from any university around the world.
This year, the school partnered with Goodwill, the famous American non-profit organization.
“What surprises the students the most is the assistance they’re providing to a real company,” Andrew says. “For this one, it was real issues that Goodwill was actually facing, and Goodwill is going to implement some of [their] ideas.”
In such a big competition, however, it’s surely challenging for a team to stand out—how can students make sure that they make an impression, and even take home the top prize?
Here’s three steps to winning a business school case competition:
1. Create a well-rounded team
In Andrew’s experience, success starts with creating a well-rounded team.
Students at the Kogod School of Business are at an advantage here, as they come from a diversity of industry backgrounds and often enter in groups from their business classes. However, even individuals stand a fighting chance.
“Students can register as a team or as a ‘free agent,’” Andrew explains. “We have a free agent social which lets them meet and figure out how to form a strong team.
“Fun fact—our free agent team, without fail, places in the top three every year.”
When asked why he thinks this is, Andrew has a hunch: “A lot of the time, students will form teams with their friends,” he explains. “Free agents are coming from different programs and different life experiences—their teams are a lot more well-rounded.”
Evidently, stepping outside your usual group of colleagues can be of huge benefit. MBA student Emmy Prosko, one of the winners of this year’s competition, agrees.
Emmy comes from a background in the US military, and she met her teammates for the case competition on the MBA immersion in Beijing. One of the key takeaways for her was that working in a diverse group of people can make or break any business project.
“You have got to get the right people on the bus,” she advises. “What made the experience for me was the quality of the colleagues that I was interacting with—we had 20 years of combined business experience between us, and everyone was from a unique background so brought different skills to the table.”
2. Show that your ideas have value
The second key to a winning case, according to Emmy, is all about presentation.
“You can have all the functional knowledge in the world, but even with the best ideas, if you can’t convey the value of those ideas to others, [they’re useless],” she says. “Our team spent a considerable amount of our time preparing for the competition focusing on teamwork and how we were going to communicate this fantastic idea we had to the executives.”
Ronak Bhalla, a fellow Kogod case competition winner, has participated twice while studying for his bachelor’s degree in business administration, and he agrees that communication skills have been a key takeaway from the experience—not just when speaking to executives but also to his own team.
“Being able to talk with people in a company and tell them in a professional and personable way what they’re good at and what they can improve—that’s a great [learning] opportunity,” he says.
3. Be confident
Ultimately, however, success in a case competition seems to come down to one thing: confidence. That’s something that the Kogod School of Business aims to instill in its students from day one.
“Students need to take advantage of some of the offices and resources that they have [here], whether that’s our Center for Business Communications, our faculty, or their peers,” says Andrew.
For Emmy, too, this is the key.
“There are so many great ideas out there waiting to be tapped into that have potential, but we really had to believe in our mission and our idea and believe in each other as teammates,” she says.
“I think that our excitement about that idea came to life in the competition—that really was the competitive advantage for us.”