Nailing Your Case Study Interview

With summer heat turning to autumn chill, recruiting season for consulting firms and tech companies is here, and with it, thousands of seniors across the country are preparing for their case study interviews.

Case studies are hypothetical business problems or scenarios that companies present to prospective employers to get a sense of their problem-solving skills and critical thinking abilities. The cases can address anything from how to maintain a profit when market conditions are changing to estimating how many piano tuners there might be in Chicago.

These kinds of scenarios will rarely have an answer that is instantly obvious, and instead put the interviewee in a situation where she must show her ability to make reasonable assumptions, do accurate math, and creatively come up with solutions.

The preparation process can be overwhelming, but don’t fret. We asked five former case study interviewees their experiences and recommendations. Here is what they said:

Where Do I Get Started?

Alex Bargmann, product manager at Noodle, explains that the book “Case and Point” by Marc Consentino is the place to start. The book includes dozens of up-to-date case studies and explanations on how to solve them. Consentino also includes information on the different categories of case studies that exist, and how to successfully identify them, so you can use a standard framework to solve this type of case.

Daniel Michaeli, CEO of SaleMove, also recommends breadth when it comes to books you are reading. “Case study books are extremely helpful, but reading books about business strategy also helped me get a better grasp on how I could inform my answers.”

The other piece of advice that everyone emphasized was the importance of practicing different case studies as much as possible. Alex says, “Do case studies with friends and at the career service center.”

Daniel suggests that you “find a smart person and go through a case with [her] every night.” While practicing alone can be helpful, practicing with another person can help you get a different perspective on how to solve the same scenario. Practicing with another person forces you to explain your process out loud, in a clear and concise way, which is essential to the success of your upcoming interview.

Moving Past the Basics

Once you’ve taken care of the basics when it comes to readings and practice, here are some actionable steps to take your case study to the next level.

1. Use company guidelines.

Once you are starting your application process for specific companies, it’s important to do research on what their interview process entails. Shan Huang, marketing analyst at Noodle, explains, “Different consulting companies have varied guidelines for case study types, questions, and structure of answers. It is important to keep those specific guidelines in mind.”

Make a list of companies you are interested in and start visiting their websites to understand what they are looking for in their case study interviews. Websites often include videos of case studies and possible answers, explaining why one option is better than another.

Sasha Katsnelson, product manager at Noodle, recommends starting by using the videos of the highest regarded firms on your list and working your way down. “Almost every firm will have a lot of examples, and they are all pretty similar. This way you’ll still be ready if you run out of time.”

Sasha also emphasizes that you should have information about each of these companies under your belt: Know about when the company was started, who are the founders, an important project the company has worked on, and the economic indicators that are important to them. On the day you go in, check the S&P 500 and DJIA.

2. Ask the right questions.

It’s OK if you don’t know everything. As long as your questions are intelligent, and show that you are trying to comprehend the scenario, they will be well received. In fact, asking questions will help you understand whether you are heading in the right direction. Shan emphasizes that the right questions will help you define the scope of the case.

Additionally, Sasha explains how questions can play into the personal narrative you present to the interviewers. “You are telling a story about yourself. So if you aren’t representing that you are an expert on X, and they are asking about X, that’s OK, but if you’re supposed to be an expert on the topic, then make sure to know the basic facts about that subject. Your explanations should fit your narrative.”

3. Be smart about assumptions.

Part of what the interviewers are trying to assess in the case study is how well you deal with the unknown. Most cases will include making some assumptions and estimations. What’s most important is to be clear about what you are basing those assumptions on.

Frame your assumptions within information you know. For example, in a case about the time-frame of building something, you can base your approximation off of another project’s time frame: “The bridge they built in Boston took four years to finish, and it was a pretty wide river. Is that a safe assumption for this building time frame?”

Along those lines, Justin Intal, business development associate at Noodle, recommends interviewees to ask “Can we safely assume X?” when stating an assumption. Checking in with interviewers and explaining where the assumptions came from is important, since this allows them to correct you if you are going in the wrong direction. Justin explains that if the assumption is wrong and they give you new information, that’s OK. This is a good opportunity to show them you can take in new information and be flexible.

4. Be careful about math.

“When you need to come up with numbers for your assumptions, use round numbers,” explains Sasha. Practice doing mental math before the big day.

“Also, bring your own pen and paper,” Justin explains. They may not have it for you during the interview, and you want to be able to keep track of your work.

5. Structure and summarize your answer.

Justin recommends writing down notes as the interviewer goes through the question, so you can keep track of important numbers and facts later. Break down the question into different segments, and address them one at a time, explaining why you decided to start where you did and why you are moving on. “Deliverables and results are important,” Justin emphasizes.

Leave a couple of minutes at the end of the process to summarize the work you did. “This is really important,” explains Shan, “if you don’t take the time to do this, the whole performance will be discounted.” Being able to clearly articulate your work and explain your ideas is one of the most important skills that the interviewers are looking for, practice doing this with friends.

Final Take-Aways

  • Sasha: “If you are going to a school where the company is recruiting, your career office will set up the first round of interviews. If your schools don’t do this, you’re going to need to stay ahead of the game.”

  • Alex: “Product management programs, like Facebook’s or Google's associate product management tracks, also are starting to ask case questions in their recruitment process.”

  • Daniel: “Become an expert at identifying the different categories of cases. This will help you know what framework the interviewers are expecting you to use.”

  • Shan: “When you are asking the interviewers questions, ask the managers questions about the company’s strategy, and ask HR people more about company culture.”

  • Justin: “Reach out to your alumni network. They may have helpful advice for you, connections they can refer you to, or they may even be the ones interviewing you.”