Case Interview Preparation Time

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In reviewing the thousands of emails I've received in the last few months, one of the extremely common questions I am asked is how much time is needed to prepare for case interviews.

Today, instead of just writing my typical commentary, I am going to do something a little different.

But before I do, a quick personal update.

I am in the seaside town of Aptos, California near Monterey. I'm  staying at a resort here, but sadly am here only for work (really.. at least that is what I tell my wife :).

It is supposed to be beautiful here with 180 degree views of the Pacific Ocean -- though I wouldn't know because I arrived after the sun went down, and will be out of here first thing in the morning to give a speech.

Oh well... that's the life of a consultant, travel to very cool place for which you are too busy to see.

Okay, back to case interviews...

I am going to share four emails I received in the past 48 hours, all on the topic of case interview preparation time.

I would like you to study the four emails below (consider each email a piece of data), and determine what conclusion you would draw from the data (and if you really want to, you can even practice a conclusion synthesis out loud... I'm kidding.... LOL, but only a little 🙂

By the way, my commentary appears after the last email. So we can compare notes at the end.

 

*** Reader #1 ***

I'm about to go through the case interview at Mckinsey next Friday. As you will realize, I don't have much time left. I work full time and then try to prepare myself for the interview in the late afternoons.

Can you advise me on which videos to focus on considering the time available? I will have full Thursday to spend practicing and half Friday.

 

*** Reader #2 ***

I don't have the LOMS program yet, but I am planning to buy it tomorrow.

I want to ask you: how much time does it take when I order the LOMS to be sent to me?

Actually I received today a phone call from Monitor, and they set me an interview this coming Friday. Do you think it will be useful if I studied from the LOMS program?

 

*** Reader #3 ***

Thank you for all the information and help you provide on case interviews.

I applied to Mckinsey on a suggestion from a friend and surprisingly they called me and I had a case interview on Thursday, but was not invited to go the next round.

I know that I probably did not put in the amount of prep time needed to be fluent with these cases and the verbal communication needed to show confidence.

But now I am very interested in business consulting, and I am now committed to prepping myself to be successful in my next opportunity.

McKinsey says I cannot apply again until after a year. However, I would like to look into Bain and BCG.

 

*** Reader #4 ****

I thought I would drop you a quick e-mail to say thank you for your help with my consulting interviews.

Much to my (and my family's!) delight, I was able to secure an offer with Bain, BCG and a smaller firm in [Western Europe].

I am transitioning into consulting from a PhD background in Engineering. I gained a great deal from your videos describing some of the more qualitative aspects of great case interviewing, such as synthesizing, structuring a response, and learning how to ask good quality clarifying questions.

By far the biggest insight I took away from your videos and e-mails was the effort required to succeed in the interview process.

I am very fortunate to have a very supportive wife who is now very knowledgeable on the whole case interview process!

I was awful at my first case, but after you've done 40 or 50, you can relax and begin to enjoy the process and focus confidently on the interesting and quirky aspects of each case.

I'm very much looking forward to reading the new consultant newsletters, and seeing the results of the first webinar.

If you are ever in [Western Europe], do look me up and I'll buy you lunch.

 

My Comments:

So pop quiz, what conclusion do you draw from the four pieces of data above?

The key takeaway here is: extensive preparation gives you an enormous advantage.

Can Reader #1 pass the McKinsey interview this Friday with only two days of preparation (and only a few evening hours each day)?

Can Reader #2 pass the Monitor one on the same day with similar time for case interview preparation?

Is success possible in such a short time frame?

Before I answer that question, keep in mind that Readers #1, #2 and #3 were essentially competing against reader #4 -- the one who did 50 (that's fifty) practice case interviews.

Now to answer the question of: is success possible in such a short time frame -- yes it is, but it is certainly not easy.

I do get emails from a few people who on Monday find out they have an interview on Thursday, Google this "case interview" thing they just heard of, find my site, study like crazy for a few days and end up getting an offer.

So yes, this is possible.

But, I get a lot more emails from people like Reader #4 who either do 50 hours of practice with Look Over My Shoulder® preparation or 50 live cases with other people, or both... who then "ace the case" and get an offer.

The ratio is probably 15:1 or 20:1 in favor of the person who prepares a lot vs. someone who prepares little.

Now for some people, the situation is unavoidable. They apply to MBB, have no idea what the industry is about, much to their surprise get an interview, and then for the next 72 hours they are Googling "what is management consulting."

So someone in this kind of situation is a little bit out of luck.

But, there are also quite a few people who are much earlier in the process. Perhaps this is you, and your likely interview dates are weeks or months away.

Assuming this situation describes you, you have a very important decision to make.

Do you prepare now for the case without knowing if you will get an interview?  Or do you wait until you definitely know you have an interview, and then start preparing?

The real problem is one of lead time.

From the moment you get a call from a recruiter saying they would like to interview you to the time you actually need to show up for the interview is typically 3 - 7 days.

So in theory, it would be smarter to wait until you know you have an interview, and then start to prepare.  The problem is:

1) you don't end up having enough time to do a great job, and

2) you're competing against people who started preparing months ago.

They enter the first round doing their 51st case. You enter your first round doing you first case. It takes an awful lot of talent to compensate for such a major disadvantage.

The alternative isn't great either. Perhaps you decide to prepare in advance, and then you risk doing all this work and possibly not even getting the interview!

So yes, the timing tradeoffs in this critical decision pretty much stink.

Basically, the key is to pick the decision that stinks the least for you and your situation.

Pick the decision you would least likely regret later.

The scenario you want to try to avoid is doing preparation half way.

I get a lot of emails from people who did not put the time into preparation, did so as a conscious and informed choice, lined up interviews with six firms and then promptly get rejected from five of them.

In a moment of shear panic, I get the email that says they realized they under-prepared, they've decided to fight back and commit deeply to getting good at cases before the interview with the 6th firm, they work like crazy, and then get the offer from the 6th firm.

This is cutting it kind of close don't you think?

So in the end, this person ends up practicing just as much as everyone else who gets an offer, but everyone else gets multiple chances to perform at their best (perhaps they prepare really well before interviewing with the first of sixfirms), meanwhile your back is against the wall and you only have one shot to get it right....

Dude, that is a lot of pressure.

You just need to ask yourself if working in consulting is something you are deeply committed to or not.

If you are going to be deeply committed, then it pays to be deeply committed early.  Because deep commitment late in the process is the same amount of work with much lower likelihood of success.

It is awfully difficult to perform perfectly on every single case, every single time.

I mean when I interviewed, I had about 61 case questions of which I only passed 60 of them.  My sole rejection was from BCG in Round 1. And for what it is worth, it still bothers me to this day! And to add insult to injury, it was just an estimation question, not even a full blown case.

Actually, I think I did make some moderate level mistakes on another case, but the interviewer passed me anyway -- mostly because his colleagues all thought I was pretty good, so I think he gave me the benefit of the doubt.

For that case in particular -- I was jet lagged (three time zones), only slept four hours, was very tired, not thinking at 100%, and missed something small but significant in the very unusual case.

Stuff happens.

Give yourself some breathing room to allow some margin for error.

And quite ironically, when you know you have some margin for error, you're able to relax, and you end up performing a lot better than having only one shot.

Another observation on this point, when I get emails from people with offers from MBB - McKinsey, Bain & BCG.... 50% of the time, the person got an offer from only one of the top three (+ an offer from another Top 10 firm).

35% of the time, they get an offer from two out of the top three firms.

And 15% of the time they get an offer from all three of the Top 3 firms.

Phrased differently, 85% of those who end up working at McKinsey, Bain or BCG made a "mistake" somewhere in their recruiting efforts that did not allow them to get offers from all three firms.

In other words, 85% of the "winners" had done extremely poorly at least on one occasion.

It is very hard to be perfect.

So the key is: give yourself as many opportunities as possible after you have thoroughly prepared.

Avoid deciding to prepare after you get rejected from all but one of the firms you are interviewing with.

The timing of when you prepared has a very high leverage impact on your recruiting results. The timing of the preparation is very 80/20.

Some people say that the most talented people are the ones who end up getting the offers.

There is some truth to that statement.

But there is also truth to the statement that the offers go to the people who are most deeply committed to getting an offer (and by extension are the ones whose commitment takes the form of extensive preparation time).

While I think both statements are true, I think most people overestimate the importance of talent and under-estimate the importance of deep commitment/preparation.

Okay, now let me circle back to the four emails and answer the questions each reader posed, so you can see my thoughts on each topic.

 

*** Reader #1 ***

I'm about to go through the case interview at Mckinsey next Friday. As you will realize, I don't have much time left. I work full time and then try to prepare myself for the interview in the late afternoons.

Can you advise me on which videos to focus on considering the time available? I will have full Thursday to spend practicing and half Friday.

 

My Reply:

Go through all the Case Interview Secrets videos in the order they are listed.  This should take about 5 - 6 hours. If you have time left over, either:

1) Practice some cases with a current/former consultant or a very talented friend who is also recruiting, or

2) Get Look Over My Shoulder®, skip most of the recordings, focus only on cases #3, #4, and #5 and only listen to the very last candidate in each case.

These are best practice interviews that demonstrate how to do a case the right way. This should take about three hours.

(Note to others: If you know you have more than three hours prep time, I would not recommend jumping to these cases. I would recommend going through the cases in the order listed.)

The two aspects of LOMS you would be missing in this approach are:

a) Hearing how people tend to make mistakes in cases (so you can learn to recognize the early warning signs of these mistakes in your own performance and avoid them)

and

b) The benefit of repetition and reinforcement

But if you only have 10 hours, you have to sacrifice something, and that is what I would sacrifice.

 

*** Reader #2 ***

I don't have the LOMS program yet, but I am planning to buy it tomorrow.

I want to ask you: how much time does it take when I order the LOMS to be sent to me?

Actually I received today a phone call from Monitor, and they set me an interview this coming Friday. Do you think it will be useful if I studied from the LOMS program?

 

My Reply:

The delivery time of Look Over My Shoulder® is pretty much instant. You just download the files, which takes most people around 5 - 20 minutes, depending on the speed of your internet connection.

Would LOMS be useful given only two days to prepare?  Yes, it would be more useful than not doing anything else to prepare (particularly if you are already familiar with my Case Interview Secrets videos).

But by going through LOMS in such a rush, you only get perhaps 25% of the total value that is possible to get out of LOMS -- which best practices suggest takes going through LOMS 5 times x 10 hours each time = 50 hours.

Will you master cases in two days with LOMS?

I don't think so.

Will you get incrementally better with LOMS in just one day?

Yes.

Will it be just enough of an improvement to just barely pass your first round when the competition is the weakest?  Let's hope so... it has happened enough times that I think this is possible, but let me emphasize that when you pass the first round this way, often you end up barely passing.

I've gotten a few emails attesting to this outcome.. the person gets passed, but the interviewer says, "I passed you, but you know your XYZ skills really need some work before Round 2."

If you manage to squeak by the first round in this way, there is no way you will make it past the second round without a lot more practice.  The caliber of your competition goes up one big step by Round 2.

So for you to pass Round 2, you have to improve your skills at a faster rate than everyone else improves theirs. So right after your Round 1 interview is over, I would suggest immediately preparing for Round 2.

 

*** Reader #4 ****

I thought I would drop you a quick e-mail to say thank you for your help with my consulting interviews.

Much to my (and my family's!) delight, I was able to secure an offer with Bain, BCG and a smaller firm in [Western Europe].

I am transitioning into consulting from a PhD background in Engineering. I gained a great deal from your videos describing some of the more qualitative aspects of great case interviewing, such as synthesizing, structuring a response, and learning how to ask good quality clarifying questions.

By far the biggest insight I took away from your videos and e-mails was the effort required to succeed in the interview process.

I am very fortunate to have a very supportive wife who is now very knowledgeable on the whole case interview process!

I was awful at my first case, but after you've done 40 or 50, you can relax and begin to enjoy the process and focus confidently on the interesting and quirky aspects of each case.

I'm very much looking forward to reading the new consultant newsletters, and seeing the results of the first webinar.

If you are ever in [Western Europe], do look me up and I'll buy you lunch.

 

My Reply:

1) Congratulations on the offers.

2) Your feedback on how the qualitative aspects of the case were most helpful, and echoes comments I hear from other applicants with Phd backgrounds in the math and sciences.

3) Thank you for sharing your thoughts on how much practice was needed. I'm glad it worked out for you, and as you can see, it spawned an entire email commentary on this topic.

4) I hope you gave your wife a big thank you (and perhaps she might want to consider a career in consulting as well.:)

5) Thank you for the lunch invite.  I might actually take you up on that.

On a related note, I have been getting a lot of invitations to "come visit my country / say 'hi' next time you're in my country."

I am toying around with the idea of doing a trip around the world someday, just to meet up for lunches and coffees with various people in the case interview community.

It is just crazy for me to think that I now know people who are on friendly terms with me in Sao Paulo, Ecuador, Perth, Copenhagen, Leningrad, etc...

So I have decided to take these invites seriously, and actually put them all in a single travel planning folder.  I neglected to do this originally and it is unrealistic at this point for me to go re-read a few thousand emails to find these invitations, which tend to be the very last sentence of the email.

So, if you happened to invite me to say "hi" to you next time I am in town in a previous email to me, I would really appreciate it if you could re-email me such an invitation using the following format:

SUBJECT:  Invitation - [Your City, Your Country]

BODY:   Indicate multiple ways for me to contact you.

Please provide more than one way to contact you, since it is unlikely I would make such a trip this year, and contact info for most people tends to change over time.

I am going to start keeping track of these invites, and one of these days just fly around the world and maybe take my oldest daughter with me as one really cool field trip.

For example, she is learning about India next month and would just be amazed that it is actually a real place, not just something you read about in a book.

That's my wrap up today, good luck on your case prep today.

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