The Case Structuring Contest Winner Is...

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A week or so ago, I held a case structuring contest.

I showed a TV interview of a U.S. college student leader arguing that all university student debt should be forgiven and that college tuition be free to students.

The person being interviewed was unprepared and didn't propose a well reasoned or structured argument. So I held a contest to see if any CIBs could do a better job.

As I was reviewing the contest entries, I asked myself, "If I heard a candidate open a case this way in an actual MBB case interview, would I pass this person on to the next round?"

Out of the approximately 50 entries, I would have declined 46 of them. Of the 4 that I would have passed, 3 of them were borderline performances that I would pass but only for a first round interview. (I gave feedback on most of the contest entries, and it is worth studying to see what could have been done differently to improve each response.)

There was only 1 entry that was MBB final round / job offer caliber, and here is that winning entry:

"If my hypothesis is that "college in the United States should be free for all students", there are three assertions that I would need to be true.

1. A material number of new students will be able to attend school
2. The economic benefit will outweigh the costs
3. The quality of education will not decrease

To expound on the first point, I would need to believe that there are qualified students who currently do not attend college for economic reasons. I define qualified as having grades and test scores indicating at least 90% confidence that they would successfully complete a degree within six years. I would gather that information through statistical analysis of people who have finished degrees and surveys of students who were not able to attend college.

I would then use the number of qualified students to estimate the economic impact of this proposal.

I would want to verify four facts to verify that the economic benefits will outweigh the costs. First, the job market could absorb the new students who now have those degrees without meaningfully devaluing the current degree holders. Second I would want to figure out how much value is created by having students without substantial debt who are able to invest in the economy. Third I would want to verify that the decrease in domestic investment created by a tax increase to pay for this program would not outweigh the benefits listed above.

Finally, I would verify that the quality of the education would stay the same by checking two assertions. First that colleges would not lower their admission standards to let less qualified students in. Second, I would want to make sure that employers would not view degrees as less valuable, which would offset the economic gains I had calculated previously.

If I am able to prove those three things: that it will have an impact on a material number of people, that it will be a net positive gain for the economy, and that the quality of education in the US will not decline, I would believe that college in the US should be free for all students."

Congratulations to the winner, Adrian Obleton, for a job well done. I made a $250 donation in his honor to his favorite charity, The Children's Miracle Network.

After I chose the winning entry, I was very curious to learn about Adrian's background. His case structuring was noticeably superior to the other contestants. I was quite curious as to how he got that good at case structuring and how he has been doing in his job search process.

Adrian is a third year university student at a historically non-target school. In other words, he does not attend an Ivy League university.

He also recently received internship job offers from Bain and the Boston Consulting Group. In addition, he did pass a McKinsey first round before deciding to voluntarily drop out to accept one of the offers he already received.

He had been practicing cases for 15 months prior to his final rounds, and estimates he has done 100 - 200 practice case interviews. He used my book Case Interview Secrets, my Case Interview Math practice tool, and Look Over My Shoulder as his case preparation resources.

Ahhh... my curiosity was satisfied. In short, he prepared and practiced A LOT and it showed.

What was most eerie about his entry wasn't merely the logic and grasp of the important issues (as a handful of other entries had those). What stood out for me was his eloquence, conversational style, and concision.

I call his answer eerie because he sounds EXACTLY like what my former McKinsey colleagues and partners sounded like in meetings with clients. There's just a certain balance and resonance that comes from a well-structured and eloquently-stated case opening.

Here are a few tips and takeaways as to what makes an exceptional case opening:

  • The logic must be there, that's a given.
  • You can't give too much detail because it takes up way too much time, and you won't have time to analyze the case you just structured.
  • You can't include every possible consideration, because then it sounds like you're reciting the dictionary in hopes that surely the right words must be in there somewhere.
  • You must include the MOST important factors concisely -- while leaving room to drill down into more detail if/when needed.
  • You can't just bullet point the structure because the interviewer wants to see if you can string together some eloquent sentences in front of a CEO client.

Remember, the purpose of a case interview is NOT strictly to see if you can solve the case. It is also to see if you can handle simulated client work AND client interaction.

If you got the "correct" answer, but you said it poorly - you get rejected.

Key Insight: This isn't due to McKinsey, Bain or BCG's high standards. It is due to McKinsey, Bain, or BCG's CLIENTS’ high standards.

NEVER, EVER forget that behind every action, requirement, or criteria a consulting firm uses in recruiting is one thing, and one thing only....


At the risk of sounding harsh, which is not my intention, if I walked into a client meeting and read out loud those 50 case structuring answers to an MBB senior client, 46 of the 50 times I would have been kicked out of the room by the CEO and asked to never return again.

And in those 46 times, the CEO would have said to him or herself, "I just paid $1 million for that?"

If you think MBB interviews are tough, it's because you haven't yet met MBB senior clients.

In closing, I want to acknowledge and thank everyone who participated in the contest. There were tens of thousands of people who could have entered the contest, but did not.

You took the time, took a chance, and made the effort. This is how you get better.

Keep it up.

And for the record, the first case I ever had to structure was much worse than ALL 50 contest entries.

We all start somewhere.

Just strive to improve by 5% with each practice attempt. And to discover how to improve by that 5%, get Look Over My Shoulder and listen to it two or three times.

You'll start to absorb those subtleties that make a great case performance; then with much practice you will internalize and master those skills to the point where you perform exceptionally well automatically.

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1 comment… add one
  • Frank Dec 27, 2015, 12:12 am

    The winner has an elegant structure to prove the hypothesis but I’m disappointed that the objective is merely implicit; I infer his objective is economic growth. Why did he choose this as opposed to another like tax dollar ROI or effective altruism? E.g., would increased taxes be better spent eradicating poverty, disease, or any number of noble causes to minimize suffering, or the greatest good for the greatest number of people? This is where such arguments become less tractable, but would like to acknowledge the assumptions implicit in focusing on GDP in light of alternative measures and alternatives to free college to achieve that. Would love to hear thoughts on this from victor and from contestants, and especially Adrian. Thanks!

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