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Case Interviews: A Dozen Key Guidelines

By Marc Cosentino

Whether answering a brainteaser, guesstimate, or business case question, these simple tips should help you maneuver through your answer with poise and confidence.

Verbally outlining your response is the hardest part of a case - and the most crucial.

Almost all consulting firms use case interviews as part of the interviewing process. Case interviews are intended to assess how you will fare on the job when posed with an actual client's business problem or other conundrum (e.g., "Why are manhole covers round?").

Although some consulting case questions may seem somewhat ludicrous and extremely difficult to answer, they do serve a purpose and have been proven to be effective tools for discerning logical thinking and problem-solving skills.

How many golf balls are sold in the U.S. each year?

Du Pont has just invented a light-weight, super-absorbent, biodegradable material that would be perfect for disposable diapers. What should they do with it?

To help you optimize your case interview performance, we offer you these dozen guidelines. Whether answering a brainteaser, guesstimate, or business case question, these simple tips should help you maneuver through your answer with poise and confidence. Be sure to brush up on (or learn) some business basics, and then practice, practice, and practice.

The Guidelines

1. Listen to the Question
Listening is the most important skill a consultant has. The case isn't about you or the consultant; it's about the client. What are they really asking for? Pay particular attention to the last sentence-one word can change the entire case.

2. Take Notes

Taking notes during the case interview allows you to check back with the facts of the case. If you blank out, all the information is right in front of you.

3. Summarize the Question
After you are given the question, take a moment to encapsulate the highlights (out loud). It shows the interviewer that you listened; it allows you to hear the information a second time; and it keeps you from answering the wrong question.

4. Verify the Objective(s)
Professional consultants always ask their clients to verify their objective(s). Even if the main objective seems obvious, there could be an additional, underlying objective. When the objective seems apparent, phrase the question differently: "One objective is to increase sales. Are there any other objectives I should know about?"

5. Hold that Thought--One Alligator
The interviewer wants you to think out loud, but think before you speak. If you make a statement that is way off-base in an interview, the recruiter will wonder if he can trust you in front of a client.

6. Ask Clarifying Questions
You ask questions for three main reasons: to get additional information that will help you identify and label the question; to demonstrate to the interviewer that you are not shy about asking probing questions under difficult circumstances (something you'll be doing on a regular basis as a consultant); and to turn the question into a conversation. Nothing turns off an interviewer quicker than a five-minute monologue.

7. Organize Your Answer
Once you've identified and labeled your case, you can choose a response strategy and lay out your structure (this is when knowing your business basics will come in handy). Verbally outlining your response is the hardest part of a case-and the most crucial.

8. Manage Your Time
Your answer should be as linear as possible. Don't get bogged down in the details. Answer from a macro-level and move the answer forward. It's easy to lose your way by going off on a tangent. Stay focused on the original question.

9. Be Coachable
Listen to the interviewer's feedback. Is she trying to guide you back on track? Pay attention to her body language. Are you boring her? Is she about to nod off? Is she enthralled?

10. Be Creative and Brainstorm
Some of the best experiences you'll have as a consultant will be brainstorming over Chinese food at ten o'clock at night. Brainstorming without commitment allows you to toss out uninhibited suggestions without being married to them. It gives you the opportunity to review all the options and eliminate the inappropriate ones. Consulting firms like liberal arts candidates with intellectual curiosity who can "think outside the box" and offer up a new and interesting perspective. While you don't want to get lost on a tangent, offering creative answers to the original question is certainly endorsed.

11. Exude Enthusiasm and a Positive Attitude
It's not enough to do well on the case, you have to thrive on the challenge of the case. Recruiters want people who are excited by problem solving and can carry that enthusiasm throughout the entire interview.

12. Bring Closure and Summarize
If you have done all the above and you've made it through the analysis, the final action is to bring closure by summarizing the case. Review your findings, restate your suggestions, and make a recommendation.

Practice Questions:
And now for the practice, practice, and practice. Grab a roommate, cousin, or coworker to coach you through the following questions.

  • Which of the dozen guidelines are your strengths? Which are you working to improve?
  • How many hotel-size bottles of shampoo and conditioner are produced each year around the world?
  • A client company of the consulting firm comes to us to discuss expanding their bicycle business. They are exploring the idea of producing battery powered skate boards. They have called us in to help identify some of the problems that they will be facing in entering the market with this product. What factors should we consider?
  • Approximately how much money does a large ski resort make in a weekend?
  • A man is dead, hanging from a ceiling by a rope in a room with no windows, doors or furniture. With the understanding that no one else has been in the room except the deceased, what happened?

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