The case interview: A way to assess decision-making skills

In a classical job interview, the interviewer asks you questions about your previous career experiences. The thinking is that a track record of past performance is a likely indicator of future performance. However, some employers have discovered that resume-based interviews alone aren’t sufficient to evaluate certain kinds of skills — in particular, decision-making skills.

As an alternative, some firms have opted to use a case interview — an interview that involves a hypothetical situation similar to one you would face regularly on the job. Case interviews are especially popular in the management consulting industry. Firms like McKinsey, Bain & Company, and the Boston Consulting Group use case interviews to simulate and assess the kinds of problem structuring, data analysis, and logical thinking that a new hire would be expected to demonstrate when doing actual client work.

For employers, case interviews are highly effective for evaluating a candidate’s ability to make decisions under difficult to anticipate situations — such as the unpredictable work that consultants routinely face. In contrast, a case interview is overkill for roles that involve prestructured decision making (such as a customer service agent who uses a predefined procedure manual for deciding what to do in commonly occurring situations).

In a typical case interview, the candidate is given a hypothetical business situation that a client might face and asked how they would solve it. Examples might include:

• Ford Motor Company just announced a $200 million financial loss. How do you get the company back to being profitable?
• is considering a $1 billion investment to roll out drone-based package delivery. What factors should they consider in making this decision? What do you recommend they do?

During the case, you are expected to ask questions to gather data relevant to the situation, analyze the data, and arrive at a client recommendation. By the end of the case interview, you’re expected to present your recommendation along with the facts, figures, and evidence you’ve gathered that support your conclusion.

If your recommendation isn’t based on the data you requested and hopefully analyzed, you don’t pass. If your recommendation is contradicted by the facts of the situation, you don’t pass. If the logic of your conclusion has holes and flaws, you don’t pass. If you overlooked a key factor and never considered it, you also don’t pass.

As someone who has taught over 90% of the new consultants at McKinsey, Bain & Company, and Boston Consulting Group how to tackle the case interview, here are a few strategies for how to do your best:

1) Develop and communicate a problem-solving plan. Organize or “structure” your approach before you dive into the details. If you’re analyzing a company that’s losing money, you might say, “First, I’d start by gathering data on the company’s revenues to see whether they’ve decreased. Second, I would analyze the company’s expenses to see whether they have increased.” Doing so demonstrates you’re able to plan your work before you start. In real life, consulting firms don’t give you a blank check to consume unlimited amounts of a client’s resources. Engagement managers want you to have a work plan before they authorize travel or allocation of billable hours.

2) Use a hypothesis to solve problems more efficiently. If the interviewer asks, “Should client X make investment Y?” you could easily ask a million questions. A faster and more cost-efficient way to solve client problems is to use hypothesis statement like this: “Well, let’s assume Y is a good idea. What factors would have to be true for that hypothesis statement to be valid? Well, I can think of three factors that must be true for Y to be a good idea…” The hypothesis forces you to consider the most vital factors, while ignoring the hundreds of other factors that aren’t remotely as important.

3) Think out loud. The only way the interviewer can assess your thinking process is if you reveal it to them. The interviewer is more interested in how you arrived at a conclusion than the conclusion itself. If you use a thinking process that’s linear, logical, and analytical during a case interview, you’re very likely to use the exact same process in a client engagement. If you come up with ideas seemingly out of nowhere, that’s a highly unpredictable thinking process that makes consulting firms extremely nervous. The only way for them to tell which kind of thinking process you use is to think out loud.

Employing these strategies, you’ll deliver your best possible case performance. This will give the employer a chance to see if you’re a good fit for their firm. The case interview also gives you a chance to see if you would enjoy the kind of work that consultants at that firm face every day.

Victor Cheng, a former McKinsey consultant and case interviewer, is the author of Case Interview Secrets. He’s also the founder of

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