What Are Interviewers Looking for In A Case Interview?

Consulting, and increasingly many other professions, are using the case interview to evaluate candidates’ ability to logically structure their thought process, communicate under pressure, and analyze and problem-solve through a simulated experience.

As a first year MBA student transitioning from a role in education to one in consulting, I found myself and my classmates asking these questions a lot: How does one prepare for case interviews? What skills should you demonstrate? How do you know that you are successful? During a rigorous consulting case interview preparation process, I spoke with countless consultants from Big Four and boutique consulting firms alike to learn what they looked for in a case interview. Most firms had variations on the same themes – structure, logic, strong communication skills, and analytics. Oftentimes, it was less about your final answer and more about the journey that you took during the case interview. Whether you are entering private sector consulting, government consulting, or nonprofit consulting, the fundamental skills remain the same, however, the context and the nuances behind those cases are often distinct (more on this to come).

While managing recruiting efforts for BDO Public Sector’s consulting practice, I designed a rubric to help us evaluate talent and assess who was client-ready based on their performance during the case interview. Your interviewer operates like a talent scout evaluating how developed your skills are and assessing your potential. Keeping the acronym SCOUT in mind can help you to build your case interview competencies and enhance your case interview performance.

S – Structure:
Management consultants are often brought in to provide an outside perspective, recognize patterns to help improve performance, or apply or modify best practices from comparable organizations or industries to your client. Oftentimes, a lot of data and information is thrown at them at once. Consultants must be able to use a toolkit of frameworks and develop a roadmap that helps gain the understanding needed to solve a challenge or opportunity. Interviewers will be looking for aspiring consultants who can leverage frameworks (more on this to come), develop a logical flow of questions that help them get to the answer, bucket and collect information in clearly organized categories, and recognize patterns and adapt their plan when they realize their initial roadmap has taken them down a wrong turn. Getting the right structure in a case interview and on a consulting project can save a lot of time and heartache for you, your team, and your client.

C – Communication:
Management consultants often have to negotiate, persuade, and think through complex challenges. This is no different in the case interview. Your body language, tone, and what is said and un-said all make up your communication skills. The case interview is designed to assess how you communicate under pressure. Interviewers will assess whether you are clear, concise, and confident. Eye contact, clearly explaining your rationale and hypothesis, and taking your interviewer along for the journey allows you to show your line of thinking and self-correct when needed.

O – Opportunity:
Management consultants recognize patterns – strengths, weaknesses, opportunities, and threats (the all-important SWOT analysis). Your structure should consider what is happening both internally and externally to the organization and how this might impact your roadmap and recommendations. As you consider opportunities, this is your chance to tie in background knowledge, ask questions that help set the context, or make analogies to your experiences.

U – Understanding:
Management consultants use both quantitative and qualitative analysis to limit risk and drive recommendations. Drawing analogies from one industry or organization to the case interview or client is one way to do this. Bucketing information across important factors or collecting information in a clear way (decision trees, tables, matrices, and graphs) can demonstrate to your interviewer that you are listening, comprehending, and synthesizing information.

T – Teamwork:
As a management consultant, you will be working in teams with people from diverse backgrounds and levels of experience. You will need to be able to identify and fill gaps, negotiate and persuade, and adapt to an evolving project situation. The case interview will evaluate your ability to adapt and your ability to be coached. If you are going down the wrong path, are you able to identify that this or be coached out of it? Do you respond well to feedback or do you get defensive? Are you able to disagree respectfully and share your rationale for your position? Teamwork is an often overlooked part of the case interview and more often than not, your case interviewer is a collaborator who is working with you to solve a shared problem.

Keeping the SCOUT framework in mind will help you remember that the case interview is often a collaborate process that gives you the chance to showcase your ability to structure a problem and logically organize information, communicate in a clear, concise, way, draw on outside research, experiences, and knowledge to emphasize your understanding of the industry and problem, and listen, learn, and adjust to coaching and new information.

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Evan Piekara

With over twelve years of experience consulting and working in the government and nonprofit sectors. Evan started his nonprofit career as a member of Teach For America (TFA), where he served as a teacher, volunteer, and in operational support and training roles for the organization. He has supported BDO Public Sector in the launch of their management consulting practice and has provided strategy and operations, human capital, and information technology support to government and nonprofit clients. At BDO Public Sector, Evan led efforts building internal practice recruiting processes including interview questions, cases, and candidate evaluation criteria and developed their Graduate Advisor internship program.