Case Interview Framework Vomit

Question:

I am writing to thank you for the great help you provided me with the LOMS program, and also to ask you for your point of view on seeming too prepared for the case interview.

So far, thanks to your program, I have been able to pass successfully four case interviews at Roland Berger in [Europe], and a last one is scheduled fairly soon.

Normally, the recruiting process in this firm is composed of three cases, and the fact that they added two for me is quite puzzling.

I have the intuition that the people I have met during the interviews believe I am very well prepared for the cases, which in the end raises doubts about my ability to perform as a consultant.

This is only my assumption to explain why they added two cases to the recruiting process, and the reason why I assume this is that I have a strong feeling that the cases went pretty well.

Having no opportunity to get feedback from them before the end of the recruiting process, I would like to have your personal opinion on this matter.
Can a candidate seem too prepared?

Of course I'm not looking for an answer about my personal situation, on which I provided only a little information, but I would like to know if preparation is a parameter that recruiters take into account.

And if yes, how do they get a feel/measure of it?

 

My Reply:

First off, good luck on the remainder of your interviews with Roland Berger and I'm glad LOMS and my other materials have been helpful in getting you past the first four cases.

As for your question about whether or not it is possible to "too prepared" for a case study interview, my short answer is both yes and no.

Let me explain.

Interviewers do complain that many candidates are "too prepared," but what they mean by this comment is not what it seems.

The "too prepared" designation comes from two categories:

1) The candidate prepared incorrectly and did a lot of it.

2) A discrepancy exists between a candidate's talent level (which to them is synonymous with "insightfulness") and their case process skills.

Or stated differently, the candidate starts the case well, structures it well, analyzes within the branch well but misses key insights that normally a candidate with this skill level does not normally miss.... and thus ends with a conclusion that misses certain elements.

I'll elaborate on each of these two categories.

For years, interviewers have complained about candidates being framework-robots. The complaint is similar to the story about a child with a hammer where suddenly everything seems like a nail.

The less-sophisticated candidate will force a framework on to a case situation even when (to the interviewer) it is clearly the wrong framework or approach.

An interviewer would characterize this as "too prepared," but what they really mean is they prepared incorrectly so much that they are being stubborn in their errors, stopped listening during the case, and basically stopped thinking.

This is a thinking game, not a memory recall game.

So let's call this scenario "framework vomit".... where all you do is swallow a bunch of frameworks in preparation for a case interview, and then vomit it all back up during the case, regardless of whether it actually makes sense to use in that specific case.

I know of one McKinsey (might have been BCG) case interview trainer in Hong Kong who has gone so far as to tell candidates to not prepare at all!

This is of course crazy because the case interview is extremely competitive, and the act of doing a case interview is an unnatural act -- it is learned skill.

I guess the interviewers there were complaining to this person about how much framework vomit they were getting.

The real message is that they want candidates who can think in an interview, not just blindly recall the 15 questions associated with a particular framework.

The key is not the 15 questions associated with the particular framework.

Instead, the key is to listen to the answers you get to the initial few questions out of the 15, and to think about what is really happening here (e.g., formulate a hypothesis) and then decide if continuing with the framework would actually be useful or not.

A framework is just a a tool. If it is used as the only tool a candidate has in his or her toolbag, then it will come across like the candidate is "too prepared".

The second scenario involves a candidate whose case interview skills are wildly asymmetrical -- really good at the process skills in a case (e.g., how to open, analyze, and close a case) -- but not very insightful.

So the language, style, client skills, and communication skills are excellent, perhaps the approach is structured, but the candidate doesn't notice any of the insights he has uncovered through the analysis.

This kind of candidate can come across as "too prepared."

What the interviewer is really wondering is, "How can you be so good at four out of five aspects of the case, and so poor in one out of five aspects?"

So the feeling is that the reason for the asymmetry in skills is because in four out of the five areas, the person was heavily coached to that level of skill, and in the one area that was extremely poor, which was based more on talent, their actual talent level must not have been that high.

Normally, most candidates will have one or two relative weak spots. So maybe the structuring was good, but the math was accurate but a little too slow.  Or maybe the opening was good, but the synthesis wasn't very crisp.

Normally the weak spot area is perhaps at 70% - 80% of the ideal level (meanwhile, all the other skills are at the 100% level and worthy of an offer).

Once in a while (it is not very common), you'll get a candidate who has 100% proficiency levels in four out of five areas, but a 50% proficiency in one out of the five.
Interviewers find this kind of profile very puzzling. How can someone be that good in four out of five areas, yet so bad in one area?

It doesn't make any sense to them, because usually case interview skills improve all together... so this assumption is the candidate is really a 50% level candidate across all five areas, but prepared so much that he was able to get to100% level in four out of five areas... but clearly forgot one.

So sometimes "over prepared" is really just code for asymmetrical skills.

An example of this is someone who has the communication skills of a partner, but can't even do the math of an analyst.

In terms of your situation of getting an extra two interviews in final round that were not anticipated, this is not that unusual. It probably happens in one out of 20 final rounds where you are basically borderline.

Often it means there is a major disagreement amongst the interviewers.

One interviewer thinks you had some moderate problems, and the other interviewers all loved you a lot.

In a situation like this, often they will say, "We need to get a few more data points, let's give the candidate a few more interviews, just to see which interviewer's assessment is right."

This is an interesting performance pattern because if your performance was perceived as merely "okay" by all the interviewers, you typically do not get the offer.

So the fact that you were offered additional interviews means many people really liked your performance, but at least one person had a major concern.

So there's a possibility that you did extremely well and poorly at the same time.

It would be useful for you to consider where you might have made a major mistake in a prior case.

In terms of whether or not firms try to measure your preparation level and perhaps penalize you if you prepare too much, I have not seen this happen anywhere.

The firms generally don't care about your case interview preparation or case interview practice. What they care about is your case interview performance.

In terms of a next step, I would suggest:

1) Speaking to the people who interviewed you (or the recruiting coordinator) to see if they might be able to give you any feedback. Sometimes it will be the person who loved your performance that will let you know what the other interviewer had concerns about.

She might say, "Overall I thought your case was excellent - strong structuring, good analysis, very insightful. But I know one of my colleagues had concern about your XYZ skill - so you might want to work on that."

2) Re-evaluate any comments you might have received during the interview or re-assess your own perceptions of how the interviews went given my suspicions that you probably made a mistake in one of them.

If after re-assessing your own perceptions of performance, you can't figure out what you might have done wrong, I would definitely re-double your efforts to try to get some feedback from the firm.

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