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Acing the case: why case interviews matter and how to ace them

If you’re new to case interviews they can seem daunting, but great preparation and a few golden rules can help you give your best.

Cropped shot of a university student doing some research on a laptop

The ability to absorb information on a strategic business challenge quickly, analyse it, articulate your reasoning and defend your conclusion, while also doing mental arithmetic and trying to build rapport with your interviewer – the case presents the ultimate in interview challenge.

They are also a fantastic platform for showing off a range of skills – problem-solving, creative thinking, clarity in communication, information analysis and influencing can all be demonstrated intensively in the course of one case interview. In terms of selling yourself as a fully-rounded package, they are hard to beat.

Shelley Hogg

Shelley Hogg

If you’re new to case there are some golden rules to remember according to Shelley Hogg, Head of MBA Career Development at Cambridge Judge Business School:

“The most important thing to grasp for anyone new to case interviews is the amount of practice you will need to commit to – around 40 practice cases before you are ready for the real thing”.

So what type of case might you encounter in a typical interview? The challenge set will sometimes be a straightforward estimation question (how many? how much?) but more often you will be asked to analyse and make recommendations on a strategic or operational business challenge.

The interviews are normally conducted one-to-one so you will have to perform in a fairly intense setting. Get used to talking through your thinking around a problem. This takes practice says Shelley:

“Usually, you will be given a scenario and data relating to it and you will be expected to articulate clearly your thought and reasoning processes as you work through the challenge. How you analyse information, how you structure and communicate your ideas, how well you listen and build rapport – all of this takes lots of practice, especially if you are new to it.”

Along with the demands of case analysis the interviewee also needs to remember the fundamentals of just doing a good interview:

“You still need to do all the things you would do in a normal interview. Build rapport, listen, communicate clearly, read the situation and adjust your behaviour as necessary, ask good questions. It’s still an interview so it’s important not to lose sight of that.”

One key skill to get comfortable with is mental arithmetic. Most case interviews will involve an element of doing calculations in your head, so make sure you practice this skill as well.

Also remember that part of the process is learning how to recover from mistakes:

“The cases are not about a right or wrong answer. They are about showing how you go about addressing an issue. If you make a mistake, acknowledge it to show you are aware of it and demonstrate resilience in how you recover from it and work towards a good conclusion. The interviewer is seeking to understand how your mind works, how you build a story, how you go about solving problems.”

And there is plenty of help along the way. Shelley recommends the following:

  • Do your research find out what kinds of case interviews your target company generally set. Look at their careers pages – they will often include information on how they run case interviews – and talk to contacts inside the company.
  • Talk to your classmates – many of your fellow MBA candidates will have worked in consulting or other business roles that required them to become adept at case-type thinking and reasoning; they can give you great advice and help you practise.
  • Look at Glassdoor reviews online to get a sense of how companies do interviews.
  • Speak to alumni from your past educational journey – someone may work for a company on your target list. Ask them for insight and advice on how the company does interviews.

The good news is, you can turn almost anything into a case – newspaper reports, internet research, conversations with peers can all yield scenarios that you can use to practise.

Case interviews are something you should get to enjoy doing and if you find you are not, then that is a good indicator that the company or the role you are competing for may not be right for you, says Shelley:

“Case interviews are a great way to assess if the job you’re going for is right for you. Chances are if you don’t enjoy the interview, then the work you would be doing within that company may not be right for you. But don’t approach them as an ordeal – think of them as solving a problem with somebody and try to enjoy the process. Get used to thinking flexibly around issues and problems in everyday life – it will mean that whatever problem is thrown at you in your case interview, you can cope.”