When practicing case interviews with different people, I would occasionally receive mutually exclusive feedback from two different interviewers. Whenever there was a conflict between what a consultant said and a fellow student said I always gave deference to the consultant. But every once in a while, two consultants would tell me opposite things. Here are some of the controversies that I encountered and how I tried to solve them.
Repeating Back the Prompt
After the interviewer reads me the prompt for the case, I typically liked to repeat back some key parts of information to make sure I heard and understood correctly, especially when speaking over the phone. Some interviewers recommended against doing that, since it seemed redundant, boring, and unintelligent. Others recommended to always repeat the information so that you don’t mess anything up.
My biggest recommendation is to just repeat the info back anyway. Although some interviewers are slightly bothered by the exercise, I think they would be more bothered if you made significant errors in the case due to a lack of understanding of the original material presented. It can be a “pick your poison” situation, and I drunk the poison of repetition.
I also recommend that you find ways of verifying the information besides just parroting back the prompt. Asking clarifying questions that are based on the info you understood can simultaneously verify the data and give you additional insights. I think that most interviewers had this idea in mind when they said not to repeat information in the prompt; it’s not that they don’t like you being clear, but that they prefer a more sophisticated verification method.
Transitioning to the Framework
I received feedback from multiple interviewers saying that I should not ask the interviewer if I could gather my thoughts, but tell the interviewer that I was going to take a minute. They said that taking a “tell” approach demonstrated that I could be in control of the situation and have the confidence to handle big problems.
When I started to tell instead of ask, a few interviewers suggested that I ask instead, since it gives more deference and respect to the interviewer. Telling can be perceived as obnoxious or overconfident. So I was left trying to figure out if I should be perceived of as weak or obnoxious.
For this issue, you mostly just have to find your own style and work with it. I ultimately decided that the “tell” approach fit with my style the best. I felt that I was normally able to show respect and deference in many other ways, and I occasionally received feedback that I didn’t seem as confident or aggressive as I should. I figured that a subtle change here might help tip the balance over to the right amount of strength.
Although I usually used the “tell” approach, I still paid attention to the character of my interviewer. Every once in a while it would be clear that the interviewer enjoyed a greater amount of deference, preferring to call the shots or enjoying hierarchical respect. For interviewers like these I would use an “ask” approach.
Explaining Frameworks by Depth or Level
As mentioned in5 Quick Tips for Case Interview Candidates, some interviewers like candidates to explain their framework (and other multi-layered issues) with a layer-level agenda, and other prefer immediate depth. Since I addressed it there, I won’t go into too much more depth except to provide some additional solutions.
The simple matter is to simply focus on being clear. Whenever you receive feedback to explain the framework (or anything else) differently, it’s simply because you explained it in a way that wasn’t as clear as it needs to be. Find the style of explanation that consistently gets interviewers to commend your clarity. To my experience, most seem to like the layer agenda approach.
Also note that when using the layer-level agenda approach, you should not go into any depth when giving the layer-level overview. If you have multiple buckets, don’t tell them anything more than the label of each bucket. Even if the label itself doesn’t fully articulate the meaning of the bucket, you’ll explain that bucket more fully in the next minute or two, so you don’t need to worry. Tell the interviewer how many buckets you have, the labels of each, and then start going into greater depth one-by-one.
The Word “Buckets”
In practicing cases, we often talk about “buckets,” “levers,” “drivers,” and lots of other consulting lingo. I typically didn’t encounter any opposition to using the words “lever” or “driver,” but when it came to “buckets,” more interviewers had opinions.
Some interviewers like the word “buckets” because it’s clear to them. I found that most interviewers don’t like the word “buckets” because it isn’t clear to the client. Consultants might think in buckets, but CEO’s might not know what that word refers to.
Don’t use the word “buckets” to describe the different categories of analysis. Call them “categories,” “topics,” “things,” or something else that a 6th grader could understand without explanation. I would usually say that I had “3 categories of analysis that I want to do.”
No one will hold it against you if you don’t use the word “buckets.” Some will hold it against you if you do. There are plenty of other words to use that no one will penalize. Don’t use the word “buckets.”
You may have found the controversial points somewhat trivial. They are. You could probably do the opposite of nearly every solution I’ve mentioned here and still get the job. I wrote this because in the flurry of feedback and things you need to think about when preparing for cases it can be hard to figure out what’s more important. The complexity only gets worse when it seems like interviewers are telling you opposite things. Hopefully this can give you an idea of what is and is not important, and how to handle yourself when interviewers seem to give conflicting information.
Ultimately, the solution to any conflict in tactical advice is to identify the basic principle that the interviewer is trying to address. Not all tactics can work with your overall strategy to approaching cases, so you need to make sure you understand basic principles first.
Keep seeking truth.
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