How to ace the case for non-business types

Trust me, this is not the kind of interview you can just wing.

To be quite honest, I was so anxious for my first case interview I had to do yoga every morning to relax. It wasn’t just any normal interview. It was a super day — a full day of back to back interviews at an MBB level firm whose HR head I managed to impress. The company was even nice enough to give me a free practice case session.

As consulting becomes more and more diverse, there is room for people from backgrounds other than business school in order to solve more complex client problems. Case competitions or clubs are already common for business students which comes as an advantage for them. Luckily, there are a lot of free resources online and kind peers and professionals who volunteer to help you out with cases.

Planning for your first case depends on the timeframe that you will get. One week is tight but not impossible if you have a friend with a few cases ready in their back pocket to help you practice. One month is the usual notice you can get from a consulting firm, which is enough time to prepare. The earlier you start, the better. So if you are a year from graduating and already know you want to get into consulting, the best time to start is now.

1. Understand how case interviews are held at your target firm

Do your research and find out the case style where you are having an interview because they can vary quite a lot in how they are run and how difficult they are. Sometimes the firm will tell you how they do it, and it never hurts to ask if they don’t. If you don’t know, then make room to practice the different styles.

For example, I have done mostly interviewer led cases. I have experienced a case where I am given only 2–3 minutes to start talking after receiving the client problem on a sheet of paper. I have also experienced a case where I was given a full 20 minutes to prepare my whiteboard presentation on the spot. On the other hand, a friend has done a case where she had at least 24 hours to prepare a Powerpoint on the proposed solution.

2. Create a study plan

Consulting is a structure heavy job which attracts highly organised people. To prepare, you will also need a system. There are loads of information online that you can go through. One possible way to plan can be dividing your study into theory sessions, self-practice on issue trees, brainstorming, mental math and live cases with 2–3 case types to go through per week.

To save some time, you could take a pre-structured online course. I would personally recommend craftingcases.com because that’s the one that I found most relevant and practical. Their 7-day course is free, but if you can make the small investment in the paid courses then do it. I would be more hesitant on hiring a coach, because there is no guarantee that you’ll get the job despite hiring one.

It also helps to look outside of case interview resources. A friend increased his business knowledge by attending events and watching videos from CNBC and Business Insider. Be curious about the operating models of businesses you encounter on a daily basis and challenge them. That helps you exercise your business and entrepreneurial muscle.

3. Schedule at least 3 practice case interviews

Based on my personal experience and what friends have said, practice case interviews are what helped the most. Ideally, you can find somebody to help recreate the in-person case interview. However, if you are pressed for time and people are busy, then online is next best thing via sties like preplounge.com. I asked all my friends from business school, cold connected on LinkedIn (made really good friends by doing this!) and even got my dad to run through cases with me. You can also try answering along to case interviews on Youtube and compare your solution with the one in the video.

Guesstimation or market sizing cases are good to start with. Those became my favourite and I actually have fun doing those. The next easiest are revenue/profit/cost cases. Some firms are quite particular about your mental math, and those types of cases are good to practice with. Others are not so particular on it so use your time practicing other cases instead. Find cases relevant to the competency area you are applying to such as technology implementation or project management.

If at this point, you realise that you don’t like doing cases, then consulting is probably not the career for you because the case interview is like a consulting project distilled into one hour.

4. Prepare for unusual cases

During my super day, I managed to ace the traditional cases but surprisingly failed the data case. Because I never practiced them! Your interviewer might also throw you a curveball and give you an unconventional case. I had one where the partner of the firm asked me to explain the business case for data visualisation.

Acing a case is not about memorising frameworks. These kind of cases really separate memorisers from problem solvers. Interviewers have also read the same resources and will know if you are just reciting a known framework. This doesn’t mean you shouldn’t learn them. As a beginner, knowing the frameworks will help you to be able to modify them to fit a problem and eventually start creating your own.

At first you might also struggle making MECE (mutually exclusive and collectively exhaustive) frameworks, but it will make sense especially if you work on data and analytics projects where you have to report numbers. Sometimes you wonder why certain concepts are relevant, but it all starts to make sense when you actually start working as a consultant.

5. Confidently communicate in a structured manner during the interview

Aside from getting to the right solution, presentation matters a lot. You are the product in consulting. To learn more about communicating clearly in a structured manner, you can read about the pyramid principle. To be more confident takes practice. But if you don’t have enough preparation time for that, it helped me pretend that I was acting in a play.

You will notice a pattern during case interviews after watching a lot of them online. You will be expected to repeat the information to see if you’ve understood the problem. Then you ask questions, but know that you will be judged on the kind of questions you ask. Ask them with confidence and curiosity.

6. Avoid wasting time on irrelevant information

The interviewers want you to find the right answer and usually help you get unstuck from dead ends. However, this is also a test. They don’t care if you get the answer right if you take too long. In a real project, that means client hours billed on wasted time which won’t make them happy.

An example is asking a question about how many ice creams are sold and focusing too much on a breakdown of sales per ice cream flavour per store location. Technicians get stuck on getting all the data from the systems. Consultants will only get the few relevant pieces of information to answer the question. I find that this happens in real projects as well. Going through case interviews helps me stick to what is essential.

Another mistake I often made was pointing out my lack of expertise in the subject area. One of my cases was about the bull semen market. You’re supposed to make assumptions and estimations and they intentionally pick obscure markets to throw you off.

7. If all else fails, try again

I didn’t get the job during my super day but I didn’t let the rejection traumatise me. Instead, I took it as a valuable learning not just for future interviews but also for client projects. I accepted the next case interview I had and got the offer.

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