A Comprehensive Guide to the Consulting Case Interview – With Examples
This guide, written by a former McKinsey consultant and Wharton MBA, breaks down the management consulting case interview into comprehensible parts with relevant, realistic examples at every turn.
By Tracy V.
Posted August 17, 2023
While the consulting case study interview may seem daunting at first, most cases follow a typical song-and-dance. Once you get a hang of it, prepping feels much more manageable. The first part of this guide will give a broad overview of the case interview. The second part will break out the typical structure of an interviewee-led case. The last part will dive into each component, with tips and suggestions for preparing. Note that some firms may have their own specific case interview style. Be sure to familiarize yourself with your target firms’ interview processes before the time comes to recruit.
Case interviews involve tackling a business issue or problem faced by a company (the client). These interviews allow consulting firms to gauge candidates’ ability to perform the job. Specifically, firms are testing whether candidates can:
- Think in a structured and creative way
- Analyze and interpret new information
- Communicate persuasively and succinctly
Most firms conduct interviewee-led cases, as outlined in the guide below. In these cases, the candidate is expected to drive the case forward by asking the interviewer for data or information relevant to forming the recommendation. A few firms, most notably McKinsey, are interviewer-led, meaning that the interviewer will be the one guiding the discussion.
Below are a few common types of cases that you can expect to receive. Some cases can be several types all in one (lucky you!):
- Profitability - Determine cause for profit decline and / or ideas for increasing profit; you will rarely get a standalone profitability case – It will usually be rolled up in another case type
- Growth - consider strategies for company growth; could be through sales or market share
- Market Entry / New Business - Assess attractiveness of entering new geography / business / sector and method for entering
- Due Diligence / M&A - Assess attractiveness of purchasing / acquiring a company or business; client can be another company or a financial sponsor
- Competitive Response - Address a competitor’s recent action (e.g., new acquisition, change in pricing strategy)
- Non-Traditional - Similar to the other cases but the client (non-profit, NGO, education-focused entity) has different objectives than a typical corporate company
Case Interview Components
- Setup (2-3 minutes)
- Prompt: Interviewer reads aloud the case while the interviewee takes notes
- Recap: Interviewee provides a high-level summary of the case and confirms accuracy of information written
- Clarifying Questions: Interviewee asks 2-3 high-level questions
- Framework (4-5 minutes)
- Structuring (<2 minutes): Interviewee takes a few minutes create a roadmap for approaching the case
- Framework Presentation (2-3 minutes): Interviewee reviews the structure with the interviewer, who may have follow-up questions. Interviewee then moves the case forward by asking for additional information
- Interview “Questions” (10-20 minutes): There is no particular order for these and you may get more of one component than another
- Brainstorming: Interviewee is expected to list out several solutions or ideas (e.g., cost drivers for an industry, ways to increase sales)
- Exhibits: Interviewee will be given data in forms such as graphs or charts and expected to provide high-level insights
- Math: Interviewee will be asked to perform a calculation with the new information or using data from the exhibits. Oftentimes, interviewee is not given enough information and must ask for the relevant data
- Synthesis and Recommendation (2-3 minutes): Interviewee provides the answer first, then supporting facts from the case, and finally risks and next steps
Setup (2-3 minutes)
Prompt: The interviewer may be giving you A LOT of information - don’t write down everything verbatim. Jot down facts and figures, the client name, and the objective(s). If you miss something or don’t remember what a number means, you can ask after your recap.
- Prep: Have a friend read you several different case interview prompts and practice taking down notes. Create your own shorthand and learn how to recognize extraneous pieces of information
Recap: I always reference the client by name and start my recap with the objective(s) first, since this is the most important part of the case. The recap should be summarized, not verbatim, and you should be checking that the figures you wrote down are correct.
- Prep: Practice summarizing your notes out loud instead of repeating the case verbatim. Time yourself to make sure it’s <1 minute.
Clarifying Questions: Very detailed questions should be saved for the case. Clarifying questions are meant to help you with your structure or alleviate any confusion. Keep these at 2-3 questions. I usually ask questions pertaining to:
- Language/terminology - The interviewer won’t expect you to know the nuances of every industry or practice area. It is better you start off the case on the right footing by asking for clarifying definitions
- Goals/objectives - I always ask if there are other goals the company has in mind and, if relevant, specific financial targets or timeframe. Sometimes, the objective given is vague, so I will ask the interviewer to be more specific.
- Business model or geography - Very helpful for cases in niche industries; understanding geography can also prompt you to think about factors like labor cost or global competition
- Scope - To save you time from considering every possibility, you can ask whether the company is leaning towards one option or excluding a set of options completely
- Prep: Have a friend read you case prompts and then practice asking 2-3 clarifying questions on the fly. Try to think of them as you’re taking down notes and giving the recap. Are they helping you with your structuring or are you asking the first thing that pops into your head? Are they broad enough or overly detailed? Are there types of questions you should be asking but keep forgetting?
Framework (4-5 minutes)
Structuring (<2 minutes): Do not use the word “framework” during the interview. I ask if I could have time to “gather my thoughts” when I am structuring. In your structure, you should have at least three but no more than five “buckets.” These are areas that you want to explore in order to solve the case. In each bucket, there should be at least three sub-bullets. Make sure there is no overlap between the buckets.
- Prep: Time yourself structuring your roadmaps. Be comfortable with recalling the different buckets you should be considering for each type of case and brainstorming sub-bullets for those buckets. It’s okay to go over two minutes when you first start, but as you get comfortable, make sure you are becoming more efficient. For example, as you become more familiar with the buckets, you don’t need to write down every example for the sub-bullets, they will become muscle memory as you recite them out loud. Review the suggested frameworks for the case and take note of whether there are vital topics you keep forgetting or whether there are unnecessary buckets you keep adding. There is no one “right” answer, but your roadmap should enable you to uncover the necessary information to make your recommendation.
Presenting: Introduce the high-level buckets first before diving into each one. You will want to “customize” your framework to the specific case you’re working on. This does not mean creating a custom framework for every single case. You can use the same topics for similar types of cases (but ensure that those topics are relevant - some cases sneakily rule out an entire topic to see if you are paying attention), but you need to make sure that you are using case-specific language and examples when you present. This shows that you are thinking about the specific problem, not just recycling a generic framework. After going through the structure, pause and ask if the interviewer has any questions. Then, give your hypothesis and state which bucket you want to start with by asking for data pertaining to that bucket and why you want it.
- Prep: Present your structures out loud and note whether you are rambling or being case-specific in your language. If you find that your presentation is too long, consider cutting down on the examples or explanations. Be succinct and say enough to get your point across. Don’t just move on to the next case if your presentation falls short. Keep practicing until you feel satisfied and make mental notes for the next case.
Interview “Questions” (10-20 minutes)
For each type of question, you are going to be doing the same things: answering the question, providing insights, conveying how it impacts your recommendation, and driving the case forward. Every time you have “answered” a question, you want to be thinking, “What else do I need? What’s the logical path forward?” The only way you can prepare for this is to run through entire cases! Remember, your framework is your friend. Refer back to it often if you don’t know where to go next.
Brainstorming: You will want to structure your ideas into MECE buckets. They can be fairly simple (financials vs. non-financials, external vs. internal, etc.). Similar to your framework, you will give a preview of the buckets first before going into the details of each and you will need to ensure that it is “custom” for your case. If a structure doesn’t naturally come to you, you can create a pseudo-structure by organizing how you will present your brainstorm. For example, you can state how many ideas you have from the onset or say that you will first go through the ideas first and then the associated risks.
This is a highly debated practice, but I always ask for a few seconds so I can think of a structure (they may say no). Don’t take more than 30 seconds because you can add to your buckets as you are presenting.
For non-technical brainstorms, be creative! For example, when interviewers asked about how to increase sales for a consumer-facing retail company, I would bring up TikTok campaigns and celebrity endorsements as a few ideas. Have fun with it!
Occasionally, interviewers will prod you with, “What else?” This does not always mean you didn’t give enough ideas. Sometimes it’s the opposite – they are looking to challenge you or see how you will react. Just roll with it - if you don’t have anything else, say so.
- Prep: Practice brainstorming for different types of prompts. Collect a bank of general ideas and solutions that can be customized for use across industries. Try to think of as many ideas as you can (four to six at the very least) and exercise that creative muscle. To help you with structuring, have a list of “easy” MECE buckets that you can pull out on the fly.
Exhibits: First, give an overview of the exhibit. As an example, for graphs say what the axes represent, tie it back to the case, and give your interpretation of those axes. This gives the interviewer a chance to course-correct if you misinterpreted the exhibit. Give some insight, even if it is low-hanging fruit, and tie it back to the case. There are three levels of insights for both exhibits and math:
- What the numbers say, patterns/trends (X is smaller than anticipated, Y is the largest driver)
- What the client should do (enter the market, cancel plans, plan for launch)
- What we should do next (reconsider something specific, research more data on X, move on to Y)
Oftentimes, exhibits will tie into a calculation. If you are given an exhibit with data that can be used to calculate more insightful information, tell the interviewer that you would like to make those calculations. The interviewer will lead you down that path regardless but it is more impressive if you call it out.
- Prep: Run through different types of exhibits and see how many insights from each level you can pull out. Practice anticipating what type of data you need next in order to move ahead in the case or whether you can/should calculate anything from the data given. Don’t be too insightful though – you only have a limited amount of time to run through the case.
Math: Before you start calculating anything, it is critical for you to confirm what you are solving for and that the information you wrote down is correct. SUPER IMPORTANT – answer the question that is being asked!! If the interviewer is asking for the incremental profit from a certain strategy, you don’t want to calculate the total profit from the strategy. Active listening is so important!
As you know by now, structure is everything. Again, I always ask for a few seconds to organize my thoughts (the worst thing they can say is no). Set up the problem before you start calculating. This allows you to identify whether there is data missing. Walk the interviewer through your method and ask for missing data. You may need to make your own assumptions or estimates – be sure you can justify them.
If your method is off, the interviewer will usually guide you back to the right path. This saves you from wasting time calculating the incorrect answer. Be sure to pay attention when the interviewer is trying to coach you.
As you are solving the problem, walk the interviewer through each calculation and use math shortcuts as much as possible. Again, if you make a math error, the interviewer can stop you before you go down the entire path. Save time by only calculating what is important for the case and understanding what you can skip.
- Prep: Practice setting up the problem, walking the interviewer through your proposed method, and verbalizing the calculations out loud. On paper, make sure your calculations are being done neatly and not all over the place. Look for different math shortcuts and try them out. Not all of them will fit your style, but you might find new tricks. Track whether you are answering the right questions. Once again, active listening is critical to your candidacy. Once you have correctly solved the problem, make sure you are thinking about the, “So what?” Determine how that number impacts your recommendation and where you should go next.
Synthesis and Recommendation (2-3 minutes)
Again, I always ask for a few seconds to collect your thoughts (<30 secs). If the “CEO is already in the elevator,” they may say no. Have a definitive stance – start with your recommendation and then provide two to three supporting facts using data from the case.
Address risks and next steps (i.e., what is the required analysis/gameplan – this is like real life where the firm is trying to sell additional projects). Your recommendation should be <2 minutes. Frankly, the interviewer has most likely made a decision on your candidacy. Don’t ramble and try to finish strong.
The hardest part of this is pulling out the supporting data in a succinct way. Throughout the case, you should be jotting down notes. I tend to circle what I believe to be relevant supporting data. When you present it, don’t be too specific or granular. You want your recommendation to be punchy.
- Prep: Run through whole cases where you are tracking the relevant supporting data along the way. Time your recommendation and practice verbalizing the information concisely. Don’t forget the risks and next steps. I usually have a list of generic risks (e.g., competitor response, regulation, inaccurate projections) that I can “customize” on the off-chance I’m scrambling to think of some. Your next steps can be collecting additional data to support your recommendation or ways to address those risks.
- Your approach is more important than the solution – The interviewer is trying to understand how you think. Some cases have data that support recommendations in either direction. The key piece is that you are able to back your stance using the facts and data uncovered during the interview.
- Deadends are okay – There will be times when you make multiple requests for data and the interviewer does not have it. That’s perfectly fine! You can’t read the interviewer’s mind and the case could go in so many directions. Just look back at your framework to see where else you can proceed.
- Be coachable – It’s not the end of the world if your method is wrong or if you misinterpreted an exhibit. The interviewer wants to see that you are actively listening and can take feedback and improve. Don’t freak out! Stay calm! Listen to what the interviewer is trying to tell you.
This guide only scratches the surface of case interviews. The best way to prepare for case interviews is to get your reps in with entire cases. That way, you can identify your areas of weakness and be more precise with the drills. I can give you feedback and additional tips and tricks so that you are performing at your best on interview day. Book a free intro call with me on my Leland profile to discuss how we can personalize your case prep plan!
Preparing for consulting recruiting and/or case interviews? Here are some additional resources to help:
- Top 3 Tactics to Ace Your Case Interview
- A Comprehensive Guide to McKinsey & Co., Bain & Co., and Boston Consulting Group
- From No Offers to Multiple Offers - How to Take Your Casing to the Next Level
- How a Disneyland Churro Helped Me Land a Job at Bain (and 5 Pitfalls to Avoid in Market Sizing Problems)
- Five Tips to Break Into Management Consulting