Consulting interviews are a different breed. Following a more traditional “experience” interview, candidates are tasked with proving their ability to do the job in question: solving complex business problems through case studies.
Preparing for a case study interview at a top consulting company like Bain takes time, effort and a true understanding of the process. Truth be told, if you treat a case study as if it were a customary interview, you’ll likely fall short. Case studies are designed to be business discussions, not Q&As.
We talked to Keith Bevans, head of Bain’s global consultant recruiting team, to get some insight into how best to prepare for a case study interview and a few key tips on maximizing your opportunity. Like many other consulting firms, Bain is hiring.
Practice make perfect: While there are terrific resources available to help prepare for case study interviews, make sure to supplement your research with live practice sessions, says Bevans. “Reading can help you understand a framework and a potential answer, but the real skill is learning how to verbalize your thought process in a coherent business discussion,” he said. This takes practice.
While at Harvard Business School, Bevans knew a group of first-year students who would meet every Saturday morning for breakfast to conduct one-on-one practice interviews while the others watched. On top of their traditional studying, they spent just 90 minutes once a week working together. All four of ended up with consulting offers for the summer.
While teaming up with other students is helpful, also look to utilize your school’s alumni network and all the resources provided by the institution itself. Most top business schools bring full-time consultants back to campus to help the next generation prepare for the interview process. If you’re an undergrad, walk over to the business school to see how they can help, Bevans said.
Look beyond the frameworks: No doubt, preparing yourself for case study interviews involves understanding certain analytical frameworks that are covered in business school and often applied in the world of consulting, like, for example, fixed versus variable cost models. But don’t just memorize and regurgitate frameworks. Quickly prove that you understand the model and apply it to the situation, then move on with your analysis. Remember, Bevans said, the person across from you has their MBA too. You don’t need to act like you're teaching them.
“Some struggle to pull up from frameworks and remember it’s a business conversation,” he said.
Ask the right questions early: Case study interviews aren’t static situations; the answers change as the dialogue develops. When presented with a problem, immediately follow with the key questions needed to fully understand the variables that may be at play. Good answers start with great questions.
Limit your inner monologue: Candidates who tend to fare poorly in case study interviews prioritize the answer over the thought process. Firms like Bain certainly take note of your final conclusion and recommendation, but they care just as much, if not more so, about how you got there. Always provide insight into your thinking and all the variables that you are considering, Bevans said.
“If you missed something in the answer and didn’t give me insight into you thinking, I don’t even know if you were considering the right things” he said. “It would be like me asking you to do math problem, and you turn around and say ‘27.’ I want to know how you got there.”
It’s OK – frankly, it’s even recommended – to say that you would move forward based on certain facts but you’re also concerned about variables that you don’t have visibility over, Bevans said. It’s only a 30-minute interview, but firms like Bain want to know you at least considered them.
But you still need an answer: While the key of acing a consulting interview is to ask questions and promote dialogue, it’s still critical to offer a firm recommendation. Some candidates get so caught up in the analysis that they forget to answer the original question, Bevans said.
While it is fine to offer a recommendation fairly early in the conversation, know the rest of the interview time will likely be spent considering other variables.
Be empathetic: Case study interviews are meant to mirror real-life consulting situations. In fact, every one of Bain’s case studies is based on a project that they’ve already completed. So, it’s important to show a human touch and not treat a situation dispassionately. “We might ask you how you would position a difficult decision to management,” Bevans said. Say you are recommending ending a new store pilot in part of the country. A firm like Bain may ask to see how you would deliver that message.
Keep your butterflies in formation: Another common mistake that candidates make – usually those who are less prepared – is to concentrate so much on the question that they forget “interviewing 101 skills,” according to Bevans.
Having a firm handshake, making eye contact, smiling and looking up from your notes – these are all basic interview rules that still apply, despite the pressure of the moment. “We can’t take the risk that your head will be down while a CEO is speaking with you,” Bevans said. “You may have butterflies in your stomach, but you need them flying in formation.”
Those who fail to follow common interview protocol tend to be those who only study from books and websites rather than taking part in practice interviews, he said.
Take your time: When faced with a follow up question that’s a bit of a curveball, it’s not a bad thing to ask for a short period of time to think things over. You’re always better off taking 10-15 seconds to collect your thoughts rather than stumbling through an answer.
“And know we aren’t out to trick you,” Bevans said. Recruiters and hiring managers will support you and lead you back to center if you’ve gone down the wrong path, he said. Recognizing this can help with the nerves.
Ask industry questions: If you are faced with a case study involving an industry that you don’t know all that well, don’t hide it. Ask all the questions that you need.
When Bevans interviewed at Bain, he had only taken part in technical internships. But during one case study, he was asked to offer a recommendation to an insurance client. “I spent several minutes asking him to explain how premiums worked,” Bevans said. “Bain doesn’t expect you to have a thorough understanding of every industry.”
However, if you are confronted with a case study in an industry in which you have worked, expectations will rise, he said. “If I’m asking you a question about an airline – and I can see you have worked for a competitor – your framework should be more robust.”
Take notes: While eye contact is critical, candidates should write down whatever they need to keep track of the data. “When you are nervous, you may forget half the information you’re given,” Bevans said. “Always leave a breadcrumb trail to get back to framework.”
For more Bain-specific tips, check out the firm’s career advice page. Bain recently added a video with examples of good, better and best answers to real case study questions.