Candidates attempting to launch a career in management consulting by applying for positions with firms like McKinsey, Boston Consulting Group (BCG) and Deloitte are waiting nervously for that invitation to interview. And, increasingly, management consulting position interviews with employers like these include a case study component. Adequately preparing for these case study interviews is a key step in the recruitment process.
This introduction to and overview of the case interview process from the experts at The MBA Exchange can help you nail your management consulting case interview. We’ve got all the examples, samples, explainers and tips you need to answer case interview questions with confidence and land your targeted management consulting position.
Serious management consulting candidates need to prepare with care for case interviews, ideally working with a partner or other consulting field expert.
What is a Case Interview?
Case study interviews provide recruiters from consulting companies with a window into your analytical problem-solving capabilities. These skills that key for any management consulting career. And it’s difficult to show your ability to work on dynamic issues without a “live test,” so to speak. That’s what case study questions are for!
Case study questions ask you to come up with practical solutions to real-world business problems, grounding your answer in hard data, logical reasoning and effective communication. Case interviews are less about demonstrating correct knowledge, or your ability to hit to a “right” answer, than showing off your ability to reason on the fly.
What is the focus and format of the case interview?
The form of case interviews can vary. You might face a stand-alone interview with a partner, or case study questions may be part of an interview that also includes more traditional interview questions designed to gauge “fit.” Case interview questions can vary dramatically from applicant to applicant, so it’s not worth much of your time to try to guess or anticipate them.
How long is a case interview? Case study interviews usually last about 45 minutes. Some companies may send you the case question and some data 24 hours in advance for you to study. Others will present the case at the start of the interview. You will be expected to ask questions to elicit more information during the interview, and use that information to resolve the problem with specific recommendations.
What is a quantitative case interview?
If you plan to apply for positions with firms like McKinsey, Bain or BCG, you should be prepared for quantitative case study questions and answers.
Quantitative case interviews focus on your mathematical and logical problem-solving capabilities, a must for our data-driven reality. Often, quantitative case interviews form a core element of the management consulting recruitment process. You might also encounter quantitative case study interview questions in interviews for positions in general management, marketing or even engineering.
Quantitative interview questions reveal the key strengths that you as a candidate will need to become a successful consultant. Here are some examples of questions from different case interview question categories:
- Market sizing: “Estimate the total industry-wide sales of bicycles in the US”
- Revenue estimate: “Estimate annual sales for Starbucks retail stores in the US”
- Breakeven: “A running shoe manufacturer sells shoes for $100 a pair. To produce each pair, the company spends $10 in material and $5 in labor. They have $1M in monthly operating costs. If they sell 30,000 pairs a month, what is their monthly profit?”
- Price elasticity: “The price of a one-way ticket from Seattle to New York is $400. Should JetBlue raise their price to $450?”
- Lifetime value: “What is the customer lifetime value of a Visa card holder over the next three years?”
You need to be prepared to field questions like these, no matter the twists and turns your interview takes! Remember to demonstrate mathematical dexterity: We’re used to doing math with calculators and designing and running complex data analysis algorithms. As a result, we don’t have as much experience doing math by hand. Often, a quick back-of-the-envelope analysis is needed to test that you are on the right path. Quantitative interviews test your ability to manipulate numbers manually at speed.
What Are Top Consulting Companies Really Looking for?
The case study is not meant to test your domain knowledge or your ability to get to a “right” answer. Instead, what companies will look for is:
- Problem-solving abilities – what approach you take to start addressing the question presented in the case study. Today’s business world has many new and ambiguous problems. Consultants need to be able to tackle unfamiliar challenges with incomplete information and devise a logical framework for setting a course of action. Can you?
- Analytical and creative thinking: What role does creativity play? It informs how you attack the problem, the kinds of probing questions that you ask, the connection you forge with the interviewer and the conclusions you present at the close of the case. Your creativity will certainly set you apart from the rest.
- Presentation of qualitative and/or quantitative data or evidence and logic to support your analysis and recommendations
- Communication skills: Work gets done by teams. To persuade team members and leaders to your point of view as a consultant, you must be able to convince others with logical, objective arguments backed by numbers. Ability to ask insightful questions as well as answer follow-up questions
- Demeanor and poise: Good consultants are calm and inspire confidence. Poised individuals communicate with an approach that is balanced, not emotional. That balanced approach is based on a strategy of sound logic and hard numbers. If you can show these key qualities during your case interview, you’ll be well on your way to management consulting success.
In a case interview, the consultant is looking to see how the candidate will attack the problem. Will they grasp the main question that needs to be solved? Will they ask the pertinent questions to get the relevant information needed to come up with an answer? Will they develop a logical solution based on the evidence?
In addition to solving the problem, or “cracking the case,” the intangibles in the situation also matter. Does the candidate walk through their logic clearly? Are they comfortable doing calculations in their head? How do they present themself? Are they confident and positive? Are they building rapport with the consultant?
Case Study Interview Examples
Check out these examples of the types of case interview questions you can expect from major management consulting firms. How well would you do, if you had to craft a response on the spot?
“You are a product manager at a well-established ride-sharing company operating in a highly competitive market. Recently, you read an article in the “Weekend Journal” section of the Wall Street Journal that examines how senior citizens engage with the digital economy. The article describes how a team of researchers from a reputable US university conducted focus groups with senior citizens who frequently use ride-sharing apps because they are no longer able to drive. One of the findings was that seniors are frustrated by how quickly their cars arrived – often in under five minutes – after the ride was booked. With this information in mind, describe what recommendations you would make to your ride-sharing company (if any).”
“The Weston Group is a Canadian retailer that is facing limited growth. The CEO has proposed creating a new tablet, the ‘Hudl’, that will be affordable and target the 75% market in Canada that does not have tablets. Do you think that this is an innovative idea? Should Weston Group pursue this venture?”
“Assume you have taken over Nokia as CEO. Following the major sale to Microsoft, what steps would you take to ensure the company’s profitability and future survival?”
Case interviews are not a cause for panic or concern: you should welcome them as an open-ended opportunity to demonstrate your understanding of, and comfort with, analytical problem-solving. Rather than a “correct” answer, the interviewer is seeking to understand how you think and communicate.
How to Answer Consulting Case Interview Questions
The key to success in case interviews is to think logically and follow a linear thought process, while still leaving space for creativity in your final response. Here is a general format for you to follow:
- Listen very carefully and take notes on the case as presented by your interviewer. Pay attention to subtle cues and guidance that could help you justify your proposed solution.
- Ask for clarification if you don’t understand something significant. Your questions will be “on the record” so be articulate and thoughtful. Pose a “framing” question to elicit more information than you were given upfront. For instance, if you are given a case about a venture capital firm considering an investment in a startup, you can ask: “Does this VC have other portfolio companies in the same industry and therefore might be planning a roll-up of multiple companies?”
- Paraphrase the situation and the key issues/problems/opportunities. For instance, “Company X is losing market share despite a growing market for its products. The CEO must decide whether to reduce price to increase demand, differentiate the offerings to justify a higher price or seek a merger partner to add scale and reduce manufacturing cost.”
- Walk through the steps of your analysis clearly. Make simplifying assumptions as necessary. You can use paper and pencil to do your calculations, and you can share any simple illustrations, like a 2×2 matrix, that illustrates your problem-solving process.
- Develop your potential solution and test your answer to make sure it is achievable. For example, are your sales projections reasonable given the size of the total market and current growth rates? Are there additional criteria that need to be checked to reach success? For example, does the company have an adequate supply chain to sustain its projected growth? Look for disconfirming evidence to ensure your solution is robust.
- Confidently summarize the problem that was posed and your hypothetical solution, identifying three convincing support points for your solution. For instance, if you think Company X should seek a merger partner, your support would be: the market is already price sensitive, there is excessive supply available, and other companies with more efficient factories are also feeling pain.” Three points of convincing support should shore up your suggested solution, giving you a solid tripod of elegant evidentiary reasoning.
Case Interview Prep for Consulting
You don’t need to panic when it comes to case interview preparation. You can’t control when you’ll be invited to consulting interviews with companies like BCG and McKinsey, or who you’ll interview with when the time comes. You can’t even control what the subject matter of the case will be. But you can control your ability to perform well during the case with your prep for case interviews.
Preparing on your own
Candidates who are serious about pursuing a career in consulting should set aside a significant portion of their time to practice their case interviewing skills. Did you know that the best practice case interview questions actually often come from business news articles in major publications like the Wall Street Journal or The New York Times? Find an article about a company that is facing a difficult business decision, and describe for yourself what and how you would address it as the CEO. There you go, that’s case interview prep!
At a minimum, you should prepare yourself for success by committing to practicing your case techniques for several weeks before your interview. Doing 50–70 cases is common. However, it is just as important to practice the right way if you want to achieve your management consulting career goals.
Welcome these open-ended opportunities to demonstrate your understanding of, and comfort with, analytical problem-solving. Solving cases is a skill that can be learned and developed. Just as you would have better chances of scoring well on the SAT, GRE or GMAT by studying the format of the test, doing practice tests and developing a strategic approach, you can improve your case-solving skills during your consulting case prep.
Preparing with others
The best practice is doing cases with someone who can give you targeted feedback not only on the obvious factors such as correct case math, appropriate frameworks, and logical structure, but also on the intangible components of the evaluation, such as your communication skills and client-facing presence.
It’s a good idea to look for some guidance and support from people familiar with the industry as you build your business case prep plan. Practicing written cases with your peers helps you internalize the logic for cracking cases. However, a peer will not know what the evaluation criteria are for top tier firms and won’t be able to evaluate how you are performing versus your competition.
For a realistic assessment of your strengths and weaknesses, you should do some case interview practice with someone from the industry — either an industry contact who is willing to practice with you, or a firm like the Career Consulting Academy.
The more you practice, the more comfortable you will feel and the better you will do on interview day. In addition to the guidance provided above, top management consulting firms such as McKinsey, Bain and BCG feature valuable suggestions and sample case interviews that you can use to prepare. In order to ensure that you are practicing the right skills, look for some guidance and support from people familiar with the industry.
Strategic preparation for consulting case interviews
A strategic approach to preparing for case interviews involves:
- Working through cases out loud with an expert coach
- Receiving constructive feedback on your strengths and weaknesses
- Developing a plan on how to improve your case interview skills
- Building skills and confidence in the case interview process
Understand and internalize key frameworks, don’t try to memorize them. A common mistake is the desire to remember the solution to every single case in every single industry. Clearly, that’s impossible. Understanding how case solutions are structured and internalizing the key logical steps to take to solving a case is much more effective than memorizing fifteen frameworks and trying to think through what framework matches the problem you’ve been presented with during the interview.
Get comfortable with oral math. Nothing is more off-putting than someone who cannot perform simple multiplication, division, taking percentages, etc. out loud. Wean yourself off of your calculator and learn how to make meaningful estimates that simplify your calculations.
Remember that half of the evaluation will be on intangibles — your executive presence, your skill at building rapport with the interviewer, and your oral communication skills. If you think it’s all about the “right answer,” you’re wrong!
With these steps, you can step into case interview or qualitative case interview situations with confidence and mental clarity, providing instant evidence of how competently you can handle the challenges of a top-tier management consulting career at your consulting interviews and impressing potential employers when it matters most.
Who is The Career Consulting Academy?
We’re a team of 20 former management consultants with extensive experience from working in worldwide offices of 11 leading management consulting firms. We know what this industry is about and what it values most in new hires. We’re also skilled advisors from The MBA Exchange who have helped more than 5,000 applicants gain admission to highly selective business schools worldwide. We have a CPA-verified track record for helping individuals compete and win against all odds.
As consultants, we are reviewing resumes and giving fit and case interviews regularly, and making hiring decisions. We have a grounded understanding of what separates those who get offers and those who don’t. These experiences allow us to give targeted feedback on your strengths and weaknesses, which help our clients develop focused prep plans. Consulting Career Academy would love to have a conversation with you to answer any questions and propose the best approach for your management consulting career plans.
Ready to start your journey to a career in management consulting? With our decades of experience, we can help! Have a 15-minute chat with a former McKinsey, BCG or Bain consultant to discuss your career interests, needs and priorities – there’s no cost or obligation!