Since I have to give most practice interviews over the phone, I rarely get the opportunity to see the candidate’s paper. As such, I figured I would just give some general tips that helped me keep things organized and clear through the case.
This is how I like to set-up my first paper. I make spot for notes, a spot for conclusions and a spot for the framework. I do not actually use a sharpie, but I wanted to make sure that what I wrote would be easy to read on the picture. Let me give you a little more insight into each section.
I use the notes section to write down the introductory information from the case. When I’m not using a thick pen, I’ll be able to fit in identifying information about the client, specifics of the problem, and the ultimate question that I need to answer.
Notice that I circled the question and its parameters. You should too. Many cases are designed with complexity intended to distract the candidate from the primary issue. If you don’t have an incredibly easy and obvious way to remind yourself what you’re looking for, you’re likely to forget.
Displayed in the pictures is an abridged version of Victor Cheng’s “Business Situation Framework.” I actually don’t think it would be great for this made-up case (so don’t try to use the two notes and a question to make any inferences about how to solve cases).
With the framework section, I like to number each of the initial buckets. I do this for two reasons: (1) it reminds me to say the number out-loud when I’m explaining it to the interviewer and (2) it allows me to use the numbers as reference points on future pages. Notice that both of these purposes are still relevant when doing a phone interview. Even though the interviewer won’t see your framework over the phone, write the numbers.
I always like making my frameworks go from the top to the bottom, but there’s no reason against going left-to-right.
You might notice that there’s a lot of space under the framework. When I’m not using a thick pen, I also like to flesh out 3rd or 4th level insights or categories to analyze, which typically takes me close to about half the page down. From there, I will either end up leaving the remaining space blank, or sometimes using it to build a second framework if another independent question develops in the middle of the case.
Whenever I find a piece of data that will be relevant to the final recommendation, I write it in the conclusions section. This makes it so that when I get to the end of the case and the interviewer asks for a final recommendation I can immediately give the recommendation and the supporting evidence. Many interviewers will allow the candidate to take a few seconds to gather his or her thoughts before making a recommendation, but I have been in more than one interview that said something to the effect of “you’re in an elevator with the CEO. You don’t have time to think. Go.”
Notice that I included some numerical information with the conclusion in the picture. Final recommendations are best when specific numerical data is included, and writing it in to that section helps make it easy.
There are two major times when I write something into the conclusion section. The first, and most important time is whenever I get to the end of a branch of analysis. Even if I find out that the branch is irrelevant, I write that fact into the conclusions section.
The second major time I write something into the conclusions section comes whenever I find out a specific piece of data that just seems “weird.” Whenever I find something that’s highly unexpected, it’s probably important, so I’ll often write it there to remember to include it.
There’s a lot going on in the picture above, so let me break it down.
The “1” in a circle on the top left of the paper is important. It corresponds to the “1” bucket on my framework. I am not trying to fit the analysis in to that first paper, nor am I planning on doing analysis for multiple buckets on this same sheet of paper. I use a separate piece of paper for each part of the analysis. Even if I end up writing two things on this paper, the paper will not be used for anything beyond analysis for that bucket.
Sometimes I will need to use two pieces of paper for an analysis, or I will have to perform two different analyses on the same bucket. Whenever this happens, I label them “1a”, “1b”, etc. It’s not rocket science, but it does help.
The first part of the paper under the label is a chart of information. This is not meant to represent data that I copied off of an exhibit, but information that the interviewer told me verbally. It is common for interviewer to tell the candidate lots of information that they have to organize and understand, and the candidate should start putting it into some sort of chart or other organizational tool right away.
Sometimes the information that comes will be a bit scattered or incomplete. For example, the interviewer might tell costs, then revenues, then quantity of goods sold, then the locations the products are sold at, etc. Even if the chart doesn’t look as pretty as you would like, it’s still helpful to organize the information like that as the information is being given, and then reorder things if necessary (though it will rarely be necessary).
This also helps you recognize if any information is missing. On occasion, the interviewer will leave out just one piece of information (such as the costs of one product, while giving the rest). This can be easy to overlook without a chart. More likely is that the interviewer will leave out a “column” of information, such as giving revenues without giving costs. Having the columns to look at (especially if you label them) translates more naturally into an equation, so you can have an easier time identifying any missing information.
I explained the full “Calculation Method” in my first post of 5 Quick Tips for Case Interviewer Candidates, and here’s a short example of it. The equation is written at the top of the calculation section, the numbers for each calculation are written clearly and with a label, and the answers all come in a logical spot.
Also notice the circle. For this made-up case, Green has the highest “Money Earned” when you add happiness/color (yes, it’s nonsensical). I pretended that this was important for this case, so I circled it. That way, even if in the rush of the moment I forget to write this conclusion down in my “Conclusions” section, it will be easy for me to find again at the end.
Another advantage of this paper set-up is that even if I forget to circle the important part, the important piece of information will likely be at the bottom-right of my used space. Typically, the last thing you do on a section is find out the relevant piece of info, so using a separate sheet for each analysis is a nice safeguard against forgetting anything important.
The Final Paper
The final paper doesn’t look too different. There are a couple things in the conclusions section, and the framework will have been run through entirely.
The last thing I want to point out is the”X” on the “Product” bucket. Sometimes you will find out that a bucket of your analysis isn’t needed to solve the case. For example, the company might have a profit problem that consists solely of out-of-control costs while not having anything useful to address in revenues. Cross off any branch that you determine to be useless. This communicates to the interviewer that you are capable of moving on from worthless analysis, and ensures that you don’t lose valuable time trying to think or rethink about useless stuff.
Crossing pieces off means that you must fully investigate a branch of analysis. This should be your modus operandi. Don’t move on to another branch of analysis until you’ve exhausted the current one. Once you’ve exhausted the current one, write down the conclusion for it, synthesize the conclusion and how it relates to the original question to the interviewer, and move on to the next branch of analysis. When you’ve analyzed all the branches, you should have found all there is to know, and be able to give a confident, detailed, and quick conclusion.
I haven’t said much about making little graphs or pictures, and that’s just because I didn’t find as many opportunities to make that tactic useful in my case experience. I did find some opportunities to make little bar graphs to compare different cost structures, and once in a while drew a line graph to demonstrate a trend. These tools can be useful and highly effective, so don’t be afraid to use them. Except for pie charts. DO be afraid to make a pie chart.
Also, make sure you write somewhat neatly. You should be turning your paper around to your interviewer when you explain the framework, and you want your writing to be clear enough both so that the interviewer can read it, and so that you can read it upside down as you’re explaining it.
Finally, I want to re-emphasize the importance of circling things. Anything critical should be circled or boxed, or set-apart in some way. You will be thinking quickly through a fog of a billion different things under pressure when you’re in a case. You want to make important things so obvious that you can even find them when you’re stressed, tired, confused, hungry, dizzy, nervous, and spent. Make it easy on yourself and draw a circle.
Keep seeking truth.
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