Case Interviews: The Dangers of Too Much Practice

by Vault Careers | July 30, 2012

This is the second in a series of posts for Vault by Nick Waugh and Kenton Kivestu on preparing for the upcoming consulting recruitment cycle. Check in for a new interview-related post each Monday until August 27th, when we will be launching the 2013 edition of the Vault Consulting 50, which will feature insider information—including tips and sample interview question—from thousands of practicing consultants at the most prestigious consulting firms in the world.

 

Most candidates prepare extensively for their case interviews. They read books that lay out standard frameworks and they commit those frameworks to memory. Like a doctor they look for symptoms when they hear a case, form a diagnosis (fit it into their framework) and then make a recommendation on treatment. The practice they do with case books full of examples reinforces this idea that every business case will fit nicely into one of the frameworks they memorized. The framework will then dictate the answer or “treatment”.

Truth is, the cases that consultants solve daily rarely fit into a nice framework. If they did, the need for consultants would cease to exist. Most interviewers find that those that have memorized frameworks are easy to spot within minutes. They sound rehearsed and often quickly dive into a structure only at the highest level. They are listening for certain symptoms (e.g., profitability has fallen, client is thinking of entering a new market) and they immediately try to apply the framework they memorized for that type of issue.   

Structuring the problem is one of the most important parts of any case interview and yet there exists little to help a candidate prepare for this component. Students at business schools “case” one another but as their fellow student is usually untrained, the practice is more quantity than quality. “Experts” offering advice and writing books, often were not consultants themselves and did not have the benefit of the interview training consulting firms require their interviewers to take. Thus, there is a shortage of practice tools and a shortage of qualified and trained coaches to help candidates navigate this step in the process.

"Square Peg, Round Hole"

One candidate we coached practiced hundreds of cases with his fellow classmates. He read the obligatory books and went to the sessions his business school’s consulting club conducted. We sat with him initially when he had “well into the hundreds” of practice cases under his belt. As we often do, we decided to tailor a story from the front page of that day’s Wall Street Journal as a case (logic being if a business is on the front page of the WSJ, clearly the business problem is challenging them). As we read this candidate the case, he took notes and asked questions to clarify what he was hearing and ensure he had the facts straight. He asked for a few moments to organize his thoughts but when he started to draw out a structure he stopped 3 times to start a different framework he had memorized. He failed to realize that the problem we were discussing was in fact pieces of all the frameworks…not just one.

Frameworks are valuable but candidates use them as a crutch. They rely on them too much. Much like a doctor that can only treat something they read about in a book or had seen before, students who only use frameworks will be constrained in their solution set. Instead, we encourage students to think of frameworks as checklists to ensure that they have considered all aspects of a problem and are being mutually exclusive and collectively exhaustive.

The best method of practice is to sit with other smart classmates or friends, and discuss real-life challenges that business face and have those discussions in a structured manner. If Delta and Northwest are struggling in their merger on how to handle their frequent traveler programs, think about the main components or high-level categories and the steps necessary to consider in those categories. Use the frameworks to ensure you have left no stone unturned, but don’t limit your structure.

Success

By its nature, the case interview is not without flaw and there are many schools of thought disputing its effectiveness. Consulting firms are constantly analyzing their interviewing practices in the hopes of making them more efficient and better at finding talent that meets their unique needs. As the firms get hundreds of thousands of applicants each year, it is a necessary evil to attaining a position with them.

While there is no failsafe way of preparing for the consulting interview game, applying some logical interviewing methods can increase the chances of success. Candidates should step out of the typical interview practice norms and understand the nature of what is being tested. Take every chance to practice with consultants at the firms that do the interviewing. Understand the difference between the firms and what they are particularly seeking. Understand the difference between interviewing with a partner and an associate.

Many of these answers are not found in a book or on a blog but with a bit of research and discussion with people at the firms, candidates will find they are more informed and the case interview will be less intimidating overall.  

Next Week: How to Take the Stress out of Doing 'Public Math'

Previously: How to tell the story of your summer internship

 

Nick Waugh is currently with a private equity firm helping to form and implement strategies within it's portfolio. Prior to that, he was an Engagement Manager at McKinsey and Company where he was heavily involved with recruiting out of the country's top business schools. Having been through hours of case interviews, Nick wants to see candidates more informed and thus more successful. He can be reached at nick@rocketblocks.me

Kenton Kivestu is a Senior Product Manager with Zynga. While in business school he worked at the Boston Consulting Group and prior to that was at Google. He has helped to recruit and hire top candidates throughout his career. Kenton has channeled his desire to help others interviewing at consulting firms through his case practice tool www.rocketblocks.me. Email Kenton at kenton@rocketblocks.me

Filed Under: Consulting | Interviewing


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