Differences in Case Interview Rounds

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Thanks for all your help! I'm just trying to understand the differences in case interview rounds -- between interviewing with Associates/ Engagement Managers in Round 1, vs. Partners in final round, and trying to figure out ways I can get the partners to like me during the interview.

My Reply:

One of the big differences in final round is that more, if not all of, your interviewers will be partners in the firm.

Partners are a bit less predictable in how they do things. They will usually all give you a case, unless it is the practice of that particular office to have one person just do a leadership interview (that's usually done earlier...).

Or in rare case to just try to "sell you" on joining the firm (that's usually done after the offer, but in some firms if a candidate is basically in, it might just be a conversation).

They will typically expect you to lead the case - so be prepared for a candidate-led case (e.g., you lead) vs. an interviewer-led case, where they give you some info, and ask you a very specific question.

The interviewer-led case is more common in Round 1 / pre-round 1 (phone screen). In final round in almost every strategy consulting firm, its almost always candidate-led cases.

The final round is more along the lines of, "The client is losing a bunch of money, they want you to turn it around. What do you do?"

And then they shut their mouth for the entire interview, unless you ask them either a clarifying question or for some specific piece of data.

I don't recall if you have the Look Over My Shoulder® program, but the examples in that program are all candidate-led interviews typical of final rounds at almost all firms.

The other weird things that partners will do: sometimes they will have you do the case on a white board or on a flip chart -- because as a preference, this is how they interact with their teams.

They tend to be much pickier on synthesis and your communication skills.

So if you did the analysis right, but you had a lackluster synthesis, they tend to get irritated by this more than an Associate or Engagement Manager (EM) -- whereas EMs tend to weigh the analysis more than the synthesis.

The reason is: it's their primary complaint with new Associates, when the Associate can not get to the point or can not explain the "So What" of the situation.... as in, the client does not actually have a strong competitive advantage, "So What?", so their intentions to enter XYZ market are likely to fail and should be reconsidered (the answer to the question is a good synthesis).

So in Look Over My Shoulder®, I harp on this point around good synthesis constantly.  I keep pointing out when candidates do not do it correctly or forget to do it entirely. I know it may come across as awfully repetitive,but I do so because it's really important -- especially with partners.

Here is one good case interview practice tip. To practice synthesis skills read a Bloomberg Business Week article, and then synthesize what's important about the article. I'm not talking about summarizing the article, but the "so what" or implications of the article.

So for example, a few weeks ago, Blockbuster declared bankruptcy. That's a summary.

A synthesis is, "Based on Blockbuster's bankruptcy, it suggests that the retail business model in movie rentals may be at the tipping point of being obsolete.

It begs the question of whether the retail model in other "content" industries like books, music, and education are following similar patterns -- and maybe worth analyzing more closely."

That's an "insight" provided via synthesis.

By far the biggest compliment a partner can give a new Associate is, "Wow, that's really insightful" (especially if the insight is counter-intuitive... also known as the exact opposite of what the client assumes to be true).

The reason partners like this is because insights, what others outside of consulting will call "Ah-ha Moments", are what clients remember.

It's where firms like McKinsey provide their value -- the big insight that changes how the client thinks about their opportunities or problems.

It's these insights that makes it much less painful for a client to write that really big check every month (sometimes up to $1M a month).

For this reason, a good insightful synthesis tends to be appreciated more by a partner than by an EM or Associate. And conversely, a poor synthesis is "penalized" more by a partner than by others.

Note this is probably not a deliberate difference in the judging process and probably not even a conscious one, but rather an informed observation on my part.

Some partners may delve deeply into and value your answers to the leadership questions. Others may not even bother asking the question.

Partners own and run the firm, and they kind of do whatever they feel like when they feel like it.

It's harder for a recruiting coordinator to "tell" a partner to do something specific in the interview... whereas a recruiting coordinator would have no problem telling an Associate or EM to cover a specific issue in an interview.

Other than that, the basics of good case interviewing (candidate-led style) will serve you just fine. When I interviewed in McKinsey final round, with one or two exceptions, I could not tell who was a partner, based on the questions they asked.
It was only if they introduced themselves as a partner could I tell.

It's only after the fact and working in the office that I figured out who was who... also in listening in on what partners complain about with respect to new Associates, that I've inferred the piece about synthesis.

Sometimes I find partners are more casual in their style. Maybe they do this intentionally to compensate for any potential intimidation factor.

Or maybe it's because they've done these interviews literally hundreds of times, it's their time to relax a little (whereas with clients, they have to be "on" active / thinking).  Not sure why they do it, but don't let it lull you into a false sense of security.

Just because the partner might be relaxed, does not mean the .standard is more relaxed. You still need to be "on".

For more on what to expect in different rounds of a case interview, watch my free video series on Case Interview Secrets .

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2 comments… add one
  • Joanne Aug 29, 2012, 12:53 am

    Hi Victor, thanks for this article. I’ve been reading your articles related to McK final rounds, but here you said the final round, even at McK, would be a candidate-led case style, while in other articles, you advised the formats would be the same throughout different rounds. For McK, they use interviewer-led cases for the 1st and 2nd rounds, but which format do they usually use for the final rounds in the US (if you have any data on that)? Thank you very much, I hope you can answer this question!

  • Victor Cheng Aug 29, 2012, 1:02 am


    All McK rounds are interviewer led.

    Some of the article references are outdated. It’s very clear now that cases in all rounds at McKinsey are interviewer led.


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