Case Interviews: 5 Steps How to Prep for Consulting, Tech and Finance

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Case interviews? That’s just for consulting, right? Wrong – the top firms across an increasing number of industries have borrowed this gruelling selection tool from management consulting to seek out the best new talent on the market to add maximal value to their enterprises.

Increasingly, if you want to work for anyone from Google to Capital One, you are going to have to get to work on your case interview skills. Of course, if you’re wondering how to prepare for interviews at consulting firms like McKinsey, Bain and BCG, this will be directly useful too!

Whatever your target destination, read on for five tips to ace case interviews.

First, for the uninitiated, we’d best explain what a case interview is…

What is a case interview?

Interviewer and candidate looking at exhibits in a case interview

A case interview is different from a more typical job interview in that a large portion of your time in the interview room will be spent on a case study:

  • The case study will be a relatively lengthy problem for you to solve in back-and-forth conversation with the interviewer.
  • Some case studies will be relatively abstract and take a form much like a Fermi Problem. However, in most instances, the specific details of this case study will very likely simulate the kind of work you will be doing for the company – often, cases are based on recent projects.
  • Various exhibits – that is, charts and pieces of data – are likely to be shown, either alongside the case prompt at the start, or as you progress throughout the case.
  • Generally, getting the “right answer” in these case studies is less important than showing the interviewer that you are capable of working through the problem in a logical manner whilst demonstrating the kinds of thinking and communication skills that they are looking for.

Step Zero: Start Early!

Let’s start at a “zeroth” tip before we get to our big five. Novices consistently underestimate how long it takes to prepare for case interviews properly. This is not something you can do the day before or even the week before.

Even those with MBAs and multiple years’ experience in industry still lavish many hours preparing for business case interviews.

Think of it like being asked to give a speech on a specific topic. Even if you know the subject like the back of your hand, you are still going to have to practice to do a good job. If you don’t yet fully understand the topic, it is going to take even longer to be ready.

So, how long is right? How many weeks it takes will depend on whether you are working a job or studying for a degree at the same time. In total, though, a good rule of you farm out 40-50 hours to case interview prep at an absolute minimum, especially if you are coming in from outside your target industry and applying to a top-end firm.

Office set up for a case interview, with two chairs facing one another over a table.

Five Steps to Prepare

Especially given the long-running stiff competition around management consulting case interviews, a lot of ink has been spilled about how to prepare for various flavours of case interview.

Technical details about the kind of case you are given will depend upon the industry and the specific role you are applying to. Whichever kind of case you are going to be up against, a quick google will help find guidance on the specifics. However, these five tips will stand you in good stead regardless:

#1 Mental Math is Key

One of the most neglected, but fastest, ways to make a positive difference to your case performance is to get your mental math up to speed.

Relatedly, make sure you can interpret all kinds of graphs quickly and accurately. You need to be able to rapidly pick out what is actually important in the data you are given.

#2 Build Fundamental Skills

For business case studies, get to grips with the basics of accounting, finance and economics.

Generally, make sure that you are able to break down problems rationally. Case studies will often seem intimidatingly complex and intractable. The trick is always to break down the larger problem into a sequence of smaller, easier tasks.

#3 Don’t Rely on Case Interview Frameworks or Other Generic Solutions

Think about it – the best firms in the world are not hiring people to deal with simple, routine issues.

Especially in management consulting interviews, the case studies you are given will be based on recent projects the firm worked on – which clients only brought in because they couldn’t solve them themselves with standard methods.

The takeaway is that you shouldn’t simply learn a lot of generic answers and standard frameworks and expect them to work every time without any thought from you. Instead, be prepared to use your fundamental skills to tackle questions from first principles when required.

#4 Practice Practice Practice!

You simply cannot practice too much. Just knowing how to approach cases in principle won’t translate into a job-landing performance in practice. Think of cracking cases like playing the piano. Theory is important, but it only sets the scene for practice.

It is important not to simply practice by yourself. This is useful, but it should not be all that you do. Find some case interview examples and a case partner and/or employ a professional coach so that you can better simulate the real interview.

#5 Communication

One reason to practice with other people is that a case interview can be about communication as much as it is analysis.

The whole point of case interviews is to test how you think, but an interviewer can’t know what you are thinking unless you clearly explain your process!

Two young men practicing case studies together

Bonus – Don’t Forget About the Rest of the Interview!

In pretty much any case interview, as much as half your time in the room will actually be spent on “fit” questions. These are more the kind of interview questions that you might be familiar with. “Tell us about yourself” etc.

Never neglect these questions – the presence of a case doesn’t mean that fit questions are going to be any less important. You still need to take them seriously and prepare thoroughly.

Now It’s Your Turn…

Man in a suit with a briefcase crossing the road en route to a case interview.

There is no magic bullet to ensure case interview success without putting in the work. What we have said here is a great jumping-off point for you to start putting in the time to become a case cracking machine and ultimately land your dream job!