The use of case interviews to select new recruits used to be associated specifically with management consulting. However, good ideas have a habit of spreading and now top tech firms are also interviewing candidates in the same way.
Management consulting firms have a longstanding reputation for finding and nurturing some of the very best business talents within a generation. Seeing this record of success, the top firms in other sectors have started adopting the same selection practices for themselves.
As you might expect, Tech has been an early adopter as the case interview has escaped the bounds of the management consulting sphere. The result is that these days if you want to work for the likes of Google or Apple, you are likely to face an interview process a management consultant would find very familiar.
This might sound daunting, but the good thing for you is that, since consultants have been facing these interviews for decades, there are already plenty of tips and resources to draw upon to get you up to speed!
Now, before we dive on in, we should really back things up a bit to make sure everyone is on the same page. To start, then, let’s get a bit of background on what exactly a case interview is and why they are being used more and more often.
What is a Case Interview?
In a case interview, you will be required to complete a case study. This will be done in the company offices, in conversation with the interviewer, who will also be able to refer you to various “exhibits” – graphs, data tables, and the like – as they see fit.
Some case studies are actually abstract, hypothetical problems. The cliché is something like “how many golf balls would fit in an airliner”. However, most are supposed to be direct simulations of the job. Often case studies will be based on recent work the company has done.
For example, if you are in a management consulting interview, you might be asked to advise a hypothetical client on a profitability problem their firm has been experiencing; drilling down into the information to establish a root cause and then recommending solutions to address it.
Similarly, if you are interviewing for a tech/digital role, you might be asked to solve a problem with a computer system.
In all such interviews, you will not only be assessed on whether you provide the “correct answer” to the question problem you have been posted (in reality there might be several equally valid answers to the same problem anyway). Rather, your interviewer will be most interested in how you have moved towards your answer.
Why is Case Interviews so Useful for Employers?
Employers like to use case interviews simply because they allow them to test the skills required for the job directly within the interview itself.
Top firms often hire candidates from a range of different academic and professional backgrounds. Especially when a company is working at the cutting edge of an industry, recruits will have to be found in various places rather than from a precisely defined pipeline.
By actually trying candidates out with a simulation of the job, the employer can see how they do in practice. Perhaps even more important, the fact that the interviewer can see exactly how you think will mean that they can tell if you will be easy for the firm to train.
The result is that firms can accurately compare candidates with their consulting resumes, all in terms of how useful they will actually be for the company.
How Can I Prepare for Case Interviews?
Given their centrality to the selection process for management consulting, a lot of resources have been put together helping candidates prep. In this short article, we’ll start you off with five tips for case interview success:
1. Start Early!
Preparing for case interviews is demanding and takes significantly longer than most candidates imagine. You cannot simply do this the night before but should start weeks in advance.
2. Make Sure Your Mental Math is Sharp
Don’t think that because your academic math is at a high level that you don’t need to put in practice to make sure that your mental arithmetic is quick enough for the case interview.
You usually won’t have a calculator or similar in case studies, but you will be expected to calculate almost as fast as if you did!
3. Build Fundamental Skills
Build up your critical thinking and skills in logically breaking down problems. Case study questions can often seem insurmountable, but they can be broken down into a sequence of more straightforward mini-problems. Get used to seeing problems in this way!
4. Avoid Frameworks and Generic Answers
There are some sources which claim that you can get through case interviews by giving fairly generic answers or by various other “simple tricks”. However, these are likely not to work and could cost you a job. Employers will intentionally be giving you unique, tricky problems to see how you cope.
5. Practice a LOT
Don’t underestimate how much practice will be required to get up a good standard. Go through as many example case studies as you can get hold of (this will be more difficult for tech than consulting, where thousands are in circulation).
Crucially, don’t just practice alone, but also with partners to actually simulate the interview. Always remember that it might be your thought processes that are being assessed – but your interviewer isn’t a mind-reader and part of the challenge is communicating your thoughts.
Don’t Forget Fit Questions!
Now, whilst the interview as a whole might be called a “case interview”, it is important to note that, almost universally, these interviews will also include “fit” questions besides the case study.
In short, these are the more familiar kinds of interview questions you will likely be familiar with already. For example:
- Why are you suited for this job?
- What is your biggest weakness?
- How would your friends describe you?
- Where do you see yourself in five years?
Once candidates start prepping for case studies, they often either forget about these fit questions altogether or imagine they are now unimportant.
However, fit questions are not just some kind of formality either side of your case study, but are an equally important test of your social and communication skills, as well as a company to gauge whether you are likely to stick it out in your role long enough to be worth hiring.
You can be assured that any firm taking selection seriously enough to implement case interviews is going to be implementing a high bar for performance on their fit questions as well!
Hopefully, this article has provided a good start on how to prepare for an interview where you will be faced with a case study. Now you have an understanding of why these formats of interviews are being used and how to start getting ready for them, you are one step closer to acing selection and landing your dream job!