Top 3 Tactics to Ace Your Case Interview

Management consulting recruiting season is upon us and the reality is, most people don't make it past the first round. Follow this advice from a former Senior Manager at Bain to nail your case interview.

By Chip Longenecker

September 16, 2022

Management consulting recruiting season is upon us and the reality is that it’s difficult for most people to make it past the first round–the case interview–and through to the second round. As a former interviewer for Bain, I know we only took two or three people from each “slate” of 12.

What separates those two or three with the gold star from the others is only a very slim margin. Usually, the others are still pretty solid. They have the process down: use a scrap piece of paper, have a framework, write down your math, and give a recommendation. However, doing these things alone is not enough to get you through.

So, how do you get the gold star by your name? You need to rack up enough high-level points across several dimensions and “wow” your interview. Here’s how you can do it.

Involve the interviewer as if they were your manager on a case team

The consulting case interview is intended to simulate the real-life, problem-solving situations that we as consultants encounter every day. As part of that, you want to make the interviewer feel as if you were actually in a conference room on a case, working together.

  • When it’s time to do the math, don’t just write down the math. Do it out loud. The worst thing you can do is the math in your head. The second worst thing you can do is silently write down the math. The best thing you can do is work through the math with your interviewer out loud, walking them through what you’re doing. This invites them to be a part of your process and allows them to intervene if something goes awry.
  • Brainstorm with them. Usually, there will be a time to brainstorm alternative ideas late in the case interview. Use this space to invite your interviewer to opine on your ideas. Your interviewer loves to brainstorm, too!
  • Be bold with how you involve them, to a point. Don’t be afraid to look up at them, prod them, and ask them questions like, “Does that sound reasonable to you?” This is how you would really act with your manager in a real case, and doing so in the interview will make you more memorable. It also breaks the monotony for the interviewer of not being involved in the vast majority of cases.

Weave a cohesive narrative throughout your interview that is capped off by your recommendation

The worst recommendations are the ones that come out of nowhere and the interviewer is blindsided. How do you avoid this? Follow a couple of key steps:

  • Have an Answer First (initial guess/hypothesis) and write it down. Everyone will have a framework at the beginning, or an explanation of the areas you will probe. But, before you start, pause and give a simple guess at the case. If it’s a profitability problem, you might say, “I don’t think the cost is a challenge here, I think the company is struggling to grow customer lifetime value.” It doesn’t need to be more complex than that, and you don’t need to linger here. Just write it down in a box to memorialize it.
  • Continuously revise your guess after each phase of the case. Once you receive a new piece of data or insight, and before you move on to the next part of your framework, consciously stop and think, “Okay, this told me that revenue growth is not a problem, so let me go back to my hypothesis. Now, cost is more of an issue.” Physically, flip back to your hypothesis.
  • At the end, your recommendation should be a natural extension of what you have already summarized. If you have done this correctly, both you and your interviewer will know where your answer is coming from, because you will have revised your hypothesis several times along the way. It also makes for a lighter and more seamless way to end the case, vs. a lengthy, surprise recommendation.

Showcase your creativity

The business problems that top management consulting firms solve require high levels of creativity, not just analytics. You want to show the interviewer in discrete places that you have the ability to think outside the box.

  • Build creativity into your framework. I would not advise creating a brand new framework; but, within a relatively “standard” framework, work in bullets or points that are interesting and fresh. Even if you don’t end up exploring them down the line, it wins you points early for creativity.
  • Take advantage of the brainstorming session. There will be a time, usually in the last third of the case, where a question like, “Any other potential ideas?” comes up. This is a critical point at which you should get out a fresh piece of paper and write down creative ideas. This doesn’t mean rattling off ten random things. Focus on going slow and laying out three to four high-value, innovative ideas. You can even weave in real-world examples here. For example, “I saw XYZ company do this and succeed, and it might apply here.”

If you follow these steps, you’ll be well poised to impress your interviewer and get through to the second round. I love doing case interviews and helping you improve your tactics. If you’d like to work with me one-on-one for any guidance on the consulting application, hiring, or interviewing processes, book a free intro call on my profile to get started!