The hardest part of any management consulting interview is the case study portion, where you will break down a hypothetical business problem and offer a recommendation. It’s essentially doing the actual job you are applying for, other than the fact that you are presenting in front of your would-be future employer, not a client.
The key is to make it as much as a business conversation as you can. Deliver insight, ask appropriate questions and stay relaxed, though that’s easier said than done. We asked two current management consultants at top ranked firms to break down the biggest mistakes they see candidates make during interviews. One of these happens during nearly every interview, they say. Steer clear of these five and you’ll be in good shape.
You are a mouse…or a canary
Case study interviews are meant to be extremely difficult. In fact, if you go through one quickly and think you aced it, you probably didn’t ask any of the right questions and did quite poorly.
When faced with a difficult question with their mind racing, candidates tend to do one of two things: stutter out a few words or ramble on with no real method to the madness. Try to avoid either. Asking for 30 or 60 seconds to collect your thoughts and develop a game plan is not looked down upon, they say, and it’s way better than gibbering nonsense or stumbling for words.
Also, do plenty of live case study practicing with fellow students rather than keeping your nose in a textbook studying frameworks. This will help with any butterflies.
You didn’t give an answer
Case study interviews aren’t as much about answering a question correctly – as there usually isn’t a “correct” answer – but rather assessing the process of how you came to a particular conclusion. They want to see you ask the right questions, use frameworks and make strong assumptions, all while doing a little mental math.
However, while the process is most important, you still need to provide an answer or give a firm recommendation. “Some candidates get so caught up in the analysis that they forget to answer the original question,” Keith Bevans, global head of campus recruiting at Bain & Co., told us last year.
Take the interviewer through all the variables and considerations, but always finish the case study with a confident recommendation.
You bored the interviewer
Top consulting firms are incredibly selective. Unfortunately for them, this means they need to conduct hundreds upon hundreds of interviews. And, because they often conduct case studies in groups, recruiters and hiring managers spend a lot of time behind the interview desk.
As such, they can easily get bored. This means two things: one, they’ll toss in extraneous data or different contextual information – just to mix it up. You should then be prepared for questions that may not make as much sense as your mock interviews. Interviewers will sometimes plant irrelevant information – or a “baboon,” as one person in the industry calls it – just to throw you off. You’ll need to ask more follow-up questions than you might think.
Secondly, you’ll need to combat their boredom by being passionate and energetic. Often candidates worry so much about what they say, they forget about their delivery. Asking somewhat unusual but still topical questions can help, as can including granular and sensory details that will have the interviewer remembering you.
You are a poor note-taker
There are two ways you can screw up note-taking: you can either not do it at all or you can act as if someone is dictating a letter. It is perfectly alright to jot down critical information, particularly numbers if they are given, and as you move forward in the case you may forget critical aspects of the business case.
However, don’t nervously scribble every word. Try to maintain eye contact as much as you can, as if you are in front of a client.
You get stuck in the framework
Part of preparing for case studies involves understanding frameworks, or core concepts and forms of analysis that are often used in a business setting with a client. Oftentimes interviewers will ask initial questions that will cue you to apply the correct framework. Know that this should just be the starting off point.
Consulting firms want to see you recognize the appropriate framework and then move on with your analysis that is specific to the case at hand. Candidates often get bogged down in a framework and don’t remember that it’s a business conversation.