If you want to become a consultant, you’re going to have to familiarize yourself with the case study interview.
The consulting case study interview might just be one part of the application process, but it’s where you can stand out to your prospective employer and show you’ve got what it takes to crack cases day in day out.
Whether you have your eyes set on Bain, BCG, or McKinsey, or a smaller boutique consulting firm, here’s everything you need to know about the case study interview:
What is the consulting case study interview?
The consulting case study interview requires you to solve a simulated problem for a client. There are two types of case interview: The interviewer-led approach and the candidate-led approach.
“We use a client-like problem such as how to reduce a carbon footprint, how to make a workforce more diverse, how to leverage technology, or how to grow a customer base, and ask you three questions that simulate the kind of problem-solving our teams do in a client engagement,” says Amy Ross (pictured), senior expert in McKinsey’s global assessment team based in New York.
The three questions aren’t in a set order, but you can expect to focus on identifying the issues, then doing analysis based on information the team collects (that McKinsey provide), then coming up with insights and developing a conclusion. The McKinsey case study interview is consistent across global offices.
The interviewer-led approach of the McKinsey case interview means you’ll be guided through the process by your interviewer. However, there’s a caveat, explains Eugene Goh, the cofounder of HR tech startup, HireQuotient, who worked as a principal for BCG for more than eight years.
“They’re expecting a lot more detail and depth,” says Eugene, who’s recently cowritten From the Interviewer’s Seat: The Insider’s Guide for Aspiring Consultants, a book on the consulting interview.
The candidate-led BCG case study interview will similarly present you with a real BCG case from previous client work. You’ll then be presented with the client’s challenges and have 45 minutes to walk your interviewer through your solution, rather than being led question by question. The BCG case study requires you to build your solution step by step.
“They’re looking for people who can structure their approach from end to end,” Eugene explains.
How can you stand out in your case study interview?
The case interview is supposed to simulate the problem-solving approach of the firm you’re interviewing with, which at McKinsey involves a lot of back-and-forth between team members, says Amy. You'll need to tackle case study interview questions that mimic a real consulting case.
“Candidates should listen to the client context and think about what it means, rather than repeat back everything the interviewer says.
“If the case covers an industry that is unfamiliar, candidates might consider whether there is an analogous industry they are familiar with and see if that helps them think of good ideas.
You should ask questions to clarify your understanding of the data and the issues at hand. Amy advises that you take a moment before speaking to collect your thoughts.
“Listen carefully, making sure you consider the information provided and the meaning behind the specific questions. You’ll stand out by putting the client front-and-center and by sharing interesting insights.”
The Bain case study, like the BCG case study, is often candidate-led. To stand out, your interviewers are looking for your analytical skills; the ability to break down challenging problems into parts you can tackle in a sequence; strong communication skills; the ability to simplify complex concepts; teamwork; and the ability to work successfully among others. That's according to Keith Bevans, head of global consultant recruitment at Bain & Company.
He explains that tackling a Bain case study is akin to playing in a jazz quartet. There’s no script, so you’re going to play a bit, and improvise. Improvisation is a key thing interviewers are looking for when you're solving a Bain case study.
“I think some students want to be perfect and play classical music and don’t want to share their insight or preliminary analysis until it’s right," says Keith. "The truth is I need them to share because what they share may not be perfect, but it’ll spark something in somebody else. I need students who are comfortable in that sort of environment.”
That's why MBA and business master's graduates are so well placed to enter consulting. They develop the skills that the Big Three consulting firms are looking for through live consulting projects, and constant group work that tests their ability to manage and lead diverse teams of peers to solve complex business problems.
Skills that will help you stand out
How to prepare for your case study interview?
The best thing you can do ahead of your consulting case study interview is prepare. Make sure you work with real case study interview examples.
Your business school will likely have a consulting club that offers consulting case study prep sessions, which will give you ample opportunity to work through mock case study interview questions. You may also have on hand a network of business school alumni who likely work in consulting, as well as professors—use them.
Amy from McKinsey recommends going to the website of the firm you’re applying to—McKinsey have case interview examples you can use to brush up on your casing. That way, you’ll know what to expect when you face your case study interview questions in real time.
She adds that there are many coaches and preparation services available to candidates, but the firm doesn’t expect you to use them.
“Frankly, we are worried there’s a lot of misleading advice out there so, again, we advise to consult our website, and feel free to ask your recruiter to arrange for you to meet one of our consultants who can be your interview coach,” she asserts.
Approach the case study interview like a McKinsey consultant
→ Make sure you understand the information provided.
→ Ask questions.
→ Collect yourself before diving into your answer.
→ Alongside logical ideas, challenge yourself to provide a few that are more ‘out there’, things you and a client team would want to test first. Sometimes, those bolder ideas are the best ones and often they really show McKinsey how you think.
Beware though, as you can see too many case study interview examples and overprepare. Angela Michalik, MBA recruiter at BCG, says that to avoid being overprepared focus on the quality not quantity of your prep.
Do one case, then get feedback, she says. At the end you should know where you were weak, and then in your next case go hard on the areas in which you’re weakest.
“I feel by doing that, students really improve,” she says. “You have to reflect on what you need to work on and practice.”
If you notice that you’re going straight into applying a framework to a case before you take the time to think, you might be overpreparing.
“Each client problem is different and deserves an initial approach that meets their needs. We realize interviews are filled with uncertainty, but the link between preparation and success in our process is not so strong,” Amy from McKinsey notes.
“Practice enough so you know what to expect, stay current with what’s new in the business world, and then bring curiosity and an open mind to your case interview.”
Granted, you need to be ready for ambiguity, something that can be hard to prepare for. But there’s a step-by-step approach Eugene says can help break away from the fixed framework approach:
- Define the objectives. What are you trying to do? Understand a bit about the client’s constraints. What’s the timeframe for the project, their budget, for example.
- Dive into the diagnosis. Why does the client have a problem?
- Option generation. What approaches could the client take?
- Option evaluation before coming to a decision
“It sounds generic but almost every problem, even in the real world, requires you to roughly go through those steps,” Eugene (pictured) says.
“That is a more helpful approach as it applies to all problems, therefore all cases.”
Case study interview prep is a key component of your overall application. But don’t stress. Focus on the quality of your preparation and lean on your business school network of MBA alumni in the consulting sector, as well as the resources available from your school’s consulting club.
Run through case interview examples from the firm’s you’re interested in and breathe before you approach a problem. That way, you’ll be best placed to ace your interview and launch your post-business school career as a consultant.