Wednesday, September 25, 2013

A Crash Course on Case Interviews for Consulting Jobs

Preface: What do consultants actually do?

Consultants are experts hired to help organizations decide on new strategies or improve efficiency in ways that might not be visible from inside. An outside consultant provides a fresh perspective, unhindered by biases or an entrenched way of thinking regarding how things “should” be done. Some of the more widely known consulting firms, like McKinsey and Bain, are generalists who help with strategy and management in any industry or department (IT, operations, financial services). But there are also tons of smaller consulting firms that specialize in particular fields. For example Putnam Associates - whose employees presented our Case Interview Tips event last Tuesday - focuses on pharmaceutical and biotech companies. If you want to learn more about consulting and whether it’s a good fit for you, check out the Career Center’s page on consulting resources and industry information.

Why do consulting firms use case interviews? What are they looking for?

When we interview for a new job, we’re accustomed to interviews questions like “What’s your greatest weakness?” “Tell me about a time when you…”, or “If you strongly disagreed with your boss, what would you do?” They’ve already seen your qualifications based on your resume, and now they’re looking at your character/fit.

But in the consulting industry, case interviews often make up almost half of the “score” that determines whether you get an offer. Usually, consulting companies are not hiring based on expertise in a particular industry, but rather for your ability to think critically and innovate in any industry. And that’s a skill set difficult to prove on paper. Case interviews are an entirely different style of interview, built to show the interviewer how you think. The questions aren’t about you - they’re logic and strategy problems involving math, analysis, and business sense. (That being said, you don’t have to come from a business or quant-heavy background to get into consulting. Firms actually like liberal arts candidates who can bring a different perspective. At least year’s Careers in Consulting Networking event, I met a Tufts alumna who’d majored in Spanish and Community Health.)

Case questions are simplified, miniature versions of the kind of project you would actually work on as a consultant, so it’s directly relevant to how you’d perform with a client. You need to do more than get the right answer - you have to present it well. If you can’t confidently and effectively communicate your analysis to the interviewer, you won’t be able to convince a client either. The Tufts alumni from Putnam Associates gave a list of assessment criteria that sums this up - in other words, here’s how the consultants evaluate you in a case interview:

Assessment Criteria

  • Analytical skill - think logically; determine what’s relevant and ask probing questions
  • Adaptability - take cues from the interviewer, and if he/she challenges your reasoning then show you can think on your feet
  • Communication skills - confident, engaging; make it a conversation not a monologue
  • Organization - easy to understand, clear thought process
  • Business sense - good grasp of business strategy; creative solutions
  • Personal traits - self-motivated, creative, diligent, poised, trusted, curious, people person/team player (solo projects are pretty much nonexistent)

Types of case questions

Basic (aka “back of the envelope”)
  • Estimation scenarios and market sizing questions that rely on quantitative abilities and logic to estimate a numeric answer
  • Ex: What is the size of the disposable diaper market in the US? (answer here)
Strategy scenarios
  • How will you enter a new market, develop a new product, create a pricing or growth strategy, or acquire a business?
  • Ex: Our client purchased a popcorn manufacturing plant that packages popcorn for two mid-sized brands. Once he saw the margins, he decided to manufacture under his own brand. What does he need to do? (answer here)
That’s a very basic breakdown - honestly, going through an example is really the only way to understand what a case interview entails. It would take too much space to go through an example case here, but luckily, there are plenty of resources to help you do that.

How to practice

With real people:
  • Career Center group case interview prep - If you haven’t done a mock case interview before, this is the place to start. It’s informal and geared toward beginners. I did one on Monday with no preparation and it was really helpful. Now I actually understand case interviews.
  • Career Center one-on-one mock case interviews - If you’ve already practiced on your own and attended a group session, make an appointment for an hour-long mock interview.
  • With friends or family who are willing to help!
  • Many companies have practice cases and interview tips on their websites
  • BCG, McKinsey, and Bain have interactive practice cases
  • Deloitte has interactive cases divided by type
  • A full guide from Wharton, sample questions from Ace the Case (a book guide), look around and you’ll find more.
In print:

  • Case in Point, by Marc Cosentino - known as the aspiring consultant’s Bible
  • But, our Putnam alumni also cautioned that you shouldn’t feel like you have to stick to Case In Point’s rules. Here’s a blog post from Vault (a career guide publisher) on the dangers of practicing too much for case interviews.
  • The Dowling Resource Library (adjacent to the Career Center) has the Vault Career Guide to Consulting, the Vault Guide to the Top 50 Consulting Firms, and a directory of consulting organizations

Advanced tips for preparing, from Putnam Associates:

  • Research the firm and interviewer as much as possible - context will help you figure out where the case is going and what kinds of knowledge and analysis will impress
  • Read business articles from publications like the Economist, WSJ, and Businessweek to hone your business sense and provide business analogs you can reference in interviews
  • Practice makes a huge difference, so it’s clear when you haven’t practiced and that shows you’re not serious about consulting. Make sure you practice with people who will give you brutally honest feedback, and you can also practice on your own with anything that comes to mind. For example, figure out how to calculate how many hours student spend in the Reading Room each week.

If you have more questions, you can make an appointment with a career counselor. You can also go straight to the source by talking to employers from consulting organizations at the Career Fair this Friday (Sept. 27). Check out the Career Fair Guide (consulting companies are listed on page 40) to learn who’s coming, a little about them, and what they’re looking for. And you can find out more about specific companies by coming to their on campus info sessions - look on Jumbo Jobs to find out when they’re here.