Talking brain with a professional tie

The Essence of the Case Interview

As the concept of the case interview has matured, increasing legions of case gurus have swarmed the internet with tips, tricks, and tactics. The dizzying array of advice can be hard to sift through and understand. As noted by my Case Interview Controversies post, some people can even disagree about how to approach certain details of the case.

To appropriately filter through all of this data, you need to truly understand the essence of the case interview. Consulting firms have a reason for using this format, and it’s to test candidates on certain skills and habits. There are three major attributes that firms are testing, and if you can keep them in mind, you can more easily allow the buzz of data to distill gently and coherently upon your mind.

The three things being tested are Intellectual Excellence, Communication Clarity, and Professional Maturity. If that seems simple, it’s because it is simple. The case interview format wasn’t born out of a strange, ritualistic tradition. Consulting firms just want to make sure you can do the job, and these three skills are critical.

Intellectual Excellence

Put simply: can you think good?

To be a good consultant, you will need to be able to demonstrate a high level of logical, structured, organized, analytical thinking. Your clients will need you to take ambiguity, break it into manageable pieces, analyze them, and extract a solution from it all. If this wasn’t intellectually difficult, then it wouldn’t be worth paying expensive consulting firms for the service.

Handling the ambiguity also means that consultants need to think through possible analyses relatively quickly, and be able to target the more important aspects of an analysis. Consultants deal with too much potential data to crunch every number and then decide what happens to be interesting. Consultants must be able to identify ahead of time what will be important and then have the skill to get the important data.

Many parts of the case relate in an obvious manner to the issues presented above, but some people wonder why firms test mental math. Besides the fact that doing quick, accurate estimates through calculation can be a useful skill when interaction with clients, math sections of cases give a clear “correct/incorrect” measure of your ability to organize and analyze data. The math is rarely very difficult on its own, but will usually be presented in a way that can only be processed if you take a rational, organized approach.

Communication Clarity

There are a lot of great brains out there, but consulting firms need brains that can talk. There are a couple of reasons for this.

One reason is that it provides evidence that you can do the appropriate level of thinking mentioned above. It’s possible that an unclear communicator may have great thinking skills, but it’s hard to really know. If a person has great communication skills, and clearly articulates intellectual rigor, there’s almost a guarantee that the person’s mental machine can get the job done.

Firms also focus especially hard on communication because of its place in a consultant’s final product. Everyone needs to communicate something to someone at some point, but consultants are expected to be able to communicate even the toughest ideas in a way that any executive team can quickly understand and act on.

Consultants will also often recommend major and costly changes to large companies. Change isn’t without risk, and without the ability to communicate clearly, convincingly, and correctly, a consultant will end up losing his or her clients. It’s not enough for a great consultant to give the right answer; a consultant must also convince his or her client to follow the right answer.

Professional Maturity

Although partners in consulting firms do most of the client interaction, junior level consultants will still get some degree of exposure to C-suite personnel. No partner wants to field an uncomfortable phone-call of a client being offended or underwhelmed by a junior member of a case team. Poor use of language, bad hygiene, awkward personality quirks, or  unlikeability can detract from a consultant’s efficacy. You may think it’s a bit excessive to eradicate the word “cool” from your vocabulary, but clients don’t need to be rational or kind to you; you must adapt to the needs of your client.

What This Means

These three things should help you contextualize the swarm of tactical advice that you get for case interviews. Nearly all case-interview advice will be designed to help with your thought process, communication skills, or professional demeanor. You don’t have to be perfect in everything, but these three skills should be what you strive to improve as you work on your case interview skills. If you make an effort to identify which of these categories encompasses each piece of tactical advice that you receive, you will be better able to remember and apply the advice.

Keep seeking truth.



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