“You did how many case studies?” I asked.

“I don’t know maybe 50-100 while in undergrad”

It was my first training week at McKinsey. I was taking part in the Basic Consulting Readiness training and talking to my new friend Josh. He detailed how he had decided in high school, after getting into Stanford, that he would work in strategy consulting. He talked about how groups were set up to help students prepare and networks with alumni working at the firms that would help them understand what to expect.

I had none of this. I had gone to a non-target school, The University of Connecticut, and been practicing cases in the mirror and by myself in my dorm room. It’s no wonder that I was rejected from every consulting firm on my first attempt to break into the industry in college

How a Case Study Interview Works

What is a case anyway? At the highest level, most cases are similar:

  1. The interviewer presents background on a “client’s” business problem or scenario (e.g., a global consumer goods company needs to develop a strategy to reduce environmental impact, a trucking company has experienced declining profits for the past five years, a “neobank” is launching a new product and needs a go-to-market plan)
  2. The candidate takes a minute to think, then shares a plan to tackle the question or problem
  3. Along the way, the interviewer prompts the candidate to answer specific questions (e.g., how many users would the neobank’s new product need to be profitable in the first year?) to test a specific skill (in this case, math)
  4. There’s a lot of rough calculations, sharing of hypotheses, and thinking out loud to engage the interviewer
  5. Although the format is naturally aligned with management consulting (where it’s not atypical to have a new client, with a new problem, in a new industry on every project), case interviews have spread to other industries over time. Who wouldn’t want to test a candidate’s problem-solving abilities (rather than hear about them in the traditional behavioral interview)?

The Most Famous Case Practice Book

Marc Cosentino has the best business plan for books: write one that almost everyone who wants to work in consulting has to buy. On its 11th edition, Case In Point, originally published in 1999, serves as the de facto bible for “cracking” the case. I downloaded the book in 2006 to prepare for my consulting interviews. 

The most recent version of the book outlines several different “reasons” why these case interviews are done:

  • to probe your intellectual curiosity
  • to test your analytical ability
  • to test your ability to think logically and organize your answer
  • to observe your thought process
  • to probe your tolerance for ambiguity and data overload
  • to assess your poise, self-confidence, and communication skills under pressure
  • to discover your personality
  • to see whether you’re genuinely intrigued by problem-solving
  • to determine whether consulting is a good “fit” for you

I think cases can test for all of these but in my perspective, I think that case studies end up testing mostly for:

  1. Being willing to do a lot of preparation for a hoop you need to jump through
  2. Ability to think and communicate at an abstract level, under pressure
  3. General interest in solving business problems

Boston Consulting Group shares a similar sentiment: “Case interviews are designed to simulate real-world problems faced by client teams, so you’ll be able to experience the type of work we do, show off your ability to problem-solve and demonstrate any technical or specialized skills related to the role for which you’re applying.”

There are a few problems with this. First, on the first criteria, if everyone knows they need to spend tons of time prepping, you end up in a situation where no one in the applicant pool is differentiated. I was a bit naive when I first applied in 2006 and easily beat out by people like my friend who was at Stanford. But now, this information is far easier to find online, and the fact that you need to prepare is common knowledge – everyone knows that everyone knows you need to prepare.

On the second and third points, the biggest challenge is that interviewers vary in their assessments and are generally bad at systematically assessing these kinds of things anyway. The whole situation is ripe for interview bias.

And when someone went looking into it, this is exactly what they found:

“Such An Enormous Waste of Energy and Human Potential”

When Atta Tarki founded Ex-Consultants Agency, a firm dedicated to staffing former consultants on projects, he assumed that case studies were a tried and true way of assessing consulting talent.

As he said, “When ECA was founded 10 years ago, we wanted to take a more data-driven approach to executive search…We assumed that case-based interviews would top the list.”

What he found surprised him, “…we were dismayed to learn that there’s no academically validated support for this assumption. Research suggests the opposite.”

He came to the same conclusion I did:

We think of the tens of thousands of MBA students and job prospectors that spend huge amounts of time and money each year prepping for case interviews. It’s such an enormous waste of energy and human potential.

On top of all the time interviewees have to spend preparing, it might shock you to see how much time employees also spend coaching interviewees. For certain schools, you are typically expected to participate in the campus recruiting team and help potential interviewees come into the interview prepared. The firm offers free prep calls with current consultants. While doing these it always felt like we could be using the time in more productive ways.

Consulting Firms Are Aware Of The Issues, But It Seems Like They Are Just Adding MORE Hoops To Jump Through

When I applied to McKinsey, I had to take their PST, or problem-solving test. I assume I got a “passing” score since I got the offer but nothing was ever shared with us after hiring. I suspect the test was more of a general intelligence and reasoning test (which CAN be predictive of job performance). 

But in the years that have passed, they have gotten rid of the test and added another hoop to jump through in the form of a digital game, called “McKinsey Solve” which you can find a screenshot of below:

I suspect that this standardized digital approach does improve on the human-based assessments but the problem is that they didn’t simplify their interview process. Candidates still have to go through multiple rounds of case interviews after finishing, not to mention the more “standard” behavioral-focused “McKinsey PEI” interviews.

Bain has added a bit more to their process as well, asking for portfolios of past work on top of written assignments and online assessments. They recently added a new component to their interview process: the Bain Sova test. The test was created in partnership with Sova, a UK-based company that creates recruiting and talent solutions (the company claims that they can assess candidates with up to 90% accuracy, using a fair and intelligent approach that is balanced for diversity and “powered by ethical and responsibly applied AI.”)

It feels like Bain is taking a more customized approach and does use some methods (like written assessments) that to me, seem to do a better job of simulating on-the-job experiences.

But man, it’s just so much!

And while Boston Consulting Group’s career page only lists the two traditional kinds of interviews they also launched their digital case experience: the BCG Online Case Experience, or the BCG Casey.

This test has two components: GMAT-style questions and interviewer-led cases with a chatbot (Casey). The interview with Casey simulates an actual case interview. This step has replaced the BCG Potential screening test (which emulated the GMAT).

This Just Creates Far More “Work” For Everyone

Though I am in principle supportive of efforts to make the interview process less biased through standardized assessments, I’m not convinced that these tests are a net positive for candidates. As with the case interviews themselves, there is a small industry around “cracking the MBB test.” 

On sites like MConsultingPrep, candidates can buy courses for each of the firm’s simulations and assessments. At least with the case interviews themselves, there is a level playing field in what you need to prepare. But now, to be competitive, candidates feel they have to buy courses or read guides for McKinsey, Bain, BCG, and probably other firms too. Not to mention the high-ticket coaching packages that many students definitely will buy. And this is all on top of the case interview prep itself.

I’m sure the firms would argue that no serious preparation is required ahead of the simulations – after all, they are meant to assess skills candidates already have acquired in school or prior work, like logical thinking. On a list of FAQs for candidates, McKinsey even states, “There is no preparation needed for Solve. We are aware external companies offer coaching, but it is not required or necessary to do well.” 

That strikes me as unrealistic. These consulting firms know the behavior of the people they are recruiting. The acceptance rate at McKinsey is <1%. With those odds, of course candidates have an incentive to overprepare, using whatever means they have to gain an edge. 

I suspect a lot of what keeps the interviews around is that everyone in charge of recruiting had to go through them: back in my day we did these, so we can’t get rid of them! Not to mention the fact that the top firms see themselves as special and likely do take some joy in having a weird, convoluted, and challenging interview process. 

I’d love to run an experiment one day where for a single year, a firm hires candidates who pass a single test by lottery. Would the outcomes be better or worse? I suspect that would be about the same. The firms all hire from pools of highly educated, intelligent people. None struggle to give automatic offers to the Rhodes Scholars or obvious geniuses. But is picking between the 20th-ranked person and the 75th at Harvard Business School going to make a difference?

Case vs. Actual Consulting Work

To this day, if you put me in a case interview, I would probably not be one of the best people.

But if you put me on a case team, I am very confident that I would be good in the role of consultant. I have a knack for synthesis and am comfortable thinking at an abstract level. But on the job, I had more time to think, more time to iterate, and the opportunity to get feedback. 

In my opinion, those conditions are fundamental to doing great knowledge work and as work has gotten more complex and information-dense it seems crazier to keep doubling down even more on interviews. 

Those case prep books I mentioned? Many of them include laundry lists of frameworks that interviewees will try to memorize. If you’re lucky, you can squeeze in a case interview this way (I’ve seen it). But coming up with solutions for a client’s problem is never as easy as pulling a framework out of a hat. Sometimes it can be good to have a bunch of frameworks to use as a starting point, but reality is almost always more complex than any standardized model.  If you don’t learn how to think creatively, how to ask the questions that clients aren’t asking themselves, and how to craft a new solution that hasn’t been done before, you will struggle to stand out in your work. 

Better Ways Forward

From my experience, I have seen some good models:

  • Completing a case study asynchronously (gives time for prep and thinking similar to a job)
  • Engaging in a presentation with a group of interviewers (simulates the team environment)
  • Showcasing a project I had worked on previously to a panel of interviewers (lets the interviewee lean into an area they have already mastered)
  • Standardized problem-solving assessment (there are strong links to abstract thinking and job performance from testing)

With a prior project, there is something very compelling about showcasing something you know what you are talking about. It also puts into perspective how silly it is to ask someone to riff on a make-believe problem delivered differently in each interview. Not to mention the hundreds of hours savef of everyone’s times. 

If You Are Going To Go Through With It, Focus On Communication

One of the clearest benefits of preparing for case interviews, if done thoughtfully and not just through the recycling of framework after framework, is appreciation and practice of structured communication. It’s often the thing that my clients pick up the quickest in my workshops. It’s probably the most valuable thing I learned in the process. I remember thinking, “Oh wow, it is quite useful to think about the most important point BEFORE presenting something.

Practice cases also taught me the importance of listening and “playing back” a question to ensure we were on the same page, structuring my thoughts using the pyramid principle, and stating my hypotheses clearly. 

This laid the foundation for a deeper understanding of structured communication skills once I actually started working in the industry. But what was it’s overall effect and importance? Quite quite small. I’m sure of it.

I sucked at case studies so I’m biased.

But its helped me focus on what I do think matters here at StrategyU. Despite the clear opportunity to sell case prep to hungry seekers, I can focus on the people dedicated to their careers who just want to level up and NOT work in consulting.

At StrategyU, my goal isn’t to help people break into consulting. If you want to do that, cool. But I’m more interested in helping you learn skills like structured communication learned on the job in consulting. 

Most people leave consulting. The average tenure is less than three years. I rather help you learn skills that will last the rest of your career. 

Do you have a toolkit for business problem solving? I created Think Like a Strategy Consultant as an online course to make the tools of strategy consultants accessible to driven professionals, executives, and consultants. This course teaches you how to synthesize information into compelling insights, structure your information in ways that help you solve problems, and develop presentations that resonate at the C-Level. Click here to learn more or if you are interested in getting started now, enroll in the self-paced version ($497) or hands-on coaching version ($997). Both versions include lifetime access and all future updates.