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Can you conquer the hardest strategy questions asked in finance interviews?

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An argument can be made that the hardest interview questions in all of financial services are asked by top consulting firms. They require intense preparation but also the ability to think on your feet and adapt to real-world scenarios. The most fear-inducing inquiry of all may be the estimation question, simply due to the fact that there is no right answer. “Correct” responses can vary wildly. Really it’s all about your ability make fair assumptions, rationalize those educated guesses and apply mathematical skills when needed. Practice helps too.

Below are ten estimation questions that were asked by consulting firms and other companies that hire in strategy roles. They were asked of MBA students in real interviews. We’ve also included some tips on how to ace the questions, courtesy of Victor Cheng at CaseInterview.com.

How would you do? Pick one and give it a shot. We’d love to hear some prospective rationalizations in the comment section below. They may even get graded by a real consultant.

Estimate the volume of beer consumed in April in the United States.

 

beer

 

How many wrapped gifts are given on a non-holiday day in Florida?

Gifts

If ten couples want to meet each other, how many handshakes will occur?

 

Handshake

 

How many cigarettes are produced annually in the U.S.? In the world?

 

cigarettes

 

How many fire hydrants are in the state of New York?

 

There's a fire raging at Knight Capital

 

 How many pairs of chopsticks will be sold in Japan next year?

 

cooking_chopsticks

 

How many miles does Southwest fly a year?

 

 

boeing_737-800_southwest_airlines

 

How many burger buns are sold in the United States every year?

 

Burger and fries

 

What is the weight of the Empire State Building in New York?

 

Empire

 

How much change would you find on the floor of a mall in downtown San Francisco?

 

money

 Things to remember when attacking an estimation question:

  • An acceptable answer MUST mention a specific number.
  • Acceptable answers can range wildly. Success is all about showcasing logic.
  • Make explicit assumptions. It is not possible to answer a question without doing so.
  • Explain to you interviewer that you are making a specific assumption and give your rationale as to why. Always rationalize.
  • Showcase your use of mathematical formulas if possible (cubic volume etc.)
  • The math shouldn’t be all that complicated, mostly high school level stuff. Communication is your key focus.
  • That said, be sure not to make rudimentary math mistakes. Practice your mental math.
  • Always “show your work” vocally.

 

Reprinted with permission from Victor Cheng. Read more from him here.

Comments (2)

Comments
  1. The bizarre part of this article is that people are surprised that it occurs. It is well-known (at least in the U.S.) that, in the 1950s (!!), a Professor of Engineering at Purdue University used to reserve the right to pose the “final question” to Ph.D. candidates defending their thesis in “oral arguments.” The question was, “How many gasoline stations are there in the U.S.?”

    The twist in the story is that the Professor, when working on a consulting project for Esso, a.k.a., Standard Oil of New Jersey, (the progenitor of Exxon) posed the question to Eugene Holman, Chairman of the Board. When neither Holman nor his staff had the information available, Holman went ballistic, and ordered a study to determine the “accurate number.”

    After a week, Holman provided “the” answer in a conference; it was validated / confirmed by the U.S. Department of Commerce. At the conference, the Professor’s estimate was opened from a sealed envelope … he had underestimated by 1,000.

    The point is that, while these inane mind-twisters might appear foolish, they have valid, real-world effects.

  2. I have seen this Standard Oil example across multiple industries:

    2001-A large SW US transportation fleet of 5,000 20 yard trucks, had not modernized any of their 55 10,000 gallon diesel fuel tanks to monitor in real time the replenishment of their fuel tanks. They did not realize that they were losing 30% of the 30.0+M gallons of diesel fuels they wer purchasing through fuel driver “shorting at the fuel delivery to the fuel tanks” and other internal theft = 30% theft of 30.0 M = 9.0 M @$3.50 per gallon = represented an annual loss of USD$31.5 M.
    After we installed a USD$700,000. HW/SW system designed to monitor every bulk fuel tank delivery, in real time we had zero shorting and zero losses.

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