Having Flexibility in Case Interviews

Note: My current comments are included below in [ Brackets ] so you can see my latest thoughts, given how this entire conversation evolved.

Reader's Email #1:

I have been practicing cases for management consulting case interviews for more than a month using your videos and on your Look Over My Shoulder® program.

[I received this email nearly a month ago, so in total this person has been practicing for nearly two months before the final round interview... there is a lesson here.]

It has been very useful, and I thank you a lot for your help.

Your materials enabled me to have very good feedback from the first rounds I had so far: it appears I am very well structured in my approach, very logical, hypothesis driven, good business sense, very creative... but a little weak when it comes to the quantitative side, or the basic algebra problem they will always ask during the interview.

Since I have a second round Bain interview (Europe) after the holidays, I would like to know how and on what I can practice this specific part of the case.

I have a scientific background, so the "math" is not really the problem, it is more the method to calculate what they ask for, with business tools, and to do it efficiently and quickly enough.

Thank you so much for helping all of us!

My Repy #1:

I hope you do not take offense at my suggestion, but it is my honest opinion on what you should do to improve those skills.

I would suggest getting a GRE Math practice book and practice "word problems".... translating word-based problems into their underlying math components quickly.

That math formula itself is not hard, but getting the wording into a formula can be tricky if you have not done these kinds of problems in awhile.

[ I have since created a page with math practice resources located here: http://www.caseinterview.com/mckinsey-problem-solving-test/ ]

The other tip is to make sure you understand business terminology, so that you can spend less time trying to figure out what the interviewer is actually saying.

Reader's Email #2:

I got an offer from Bain & Company (Western Europe) that I am going to accept, and I wanted to thank you a lot for all your help during the process.

LOMS and your daily emails were so helpful!

[My comment: I am always grateful for these notes, and it's useful to keep in mind that the most helpful part of the process was this person's decision to devote two months to preparing for the interviews.]

I also wanted to tell you that I found out that the cases I had were less difficult than the ones I heard in the LOMS program, because in fact the interviewer guides you a little more, in terms of where they want you to go in your analysis.

As you said, "Same skills but different way to express them!"

So thank you again, and I look forward reading your first year consultant emails!

 

My Reply #2:

Congratulations! I'm excited that your offer worked out well, and you're quite welcome.

I'm glad the actual cases were easier than the ones in Look Over My Shoulder® (LOMS).

As I have mentioned on several other occasions, out of the 20 people I interviewed for LOMS, nobody came close to passing the two hardest cases.

Yet, several of the same people promptly turned around and got offers from McKinsey and Bain a few weeks later.

One comment you made that I want to highlight for others who might be reading this.  You quoted me as saying, "same skills but different way to express them."

Let me elaborate on what I meant by that, and how it applies in both your case and in others.

It is very difficult to anticipate every possible case interview format and variation.

Some people go into the case interview preparation process attempting to try to memorize every possible case format, every possible framework, and every possible firm rule.

Realistically, this is just not possible, and to assume it is ends up being an exercise in frustration.

This is the same once you start working with clients.

There is no handbook that tells you exactly how to solve every possible problem a client faces -- after all, that's the whole point of hiring a consultant to figure out what to do.

Note the distinction between "figuring out" what to do versus looking up the right answer in a book or hiring a consultant who has "memorized" the right answer.

In the real world, client situations are messy -- rarely a clean, simple problem to solve.

In the real world, client problems must be "figured out".

In many ways, the interview process reflects this.

However, this is where many people run into problems.  They assume (implicitly or explicitly) that a case interview is like a exam in school -- study, memorize, do well.

The problem is the case interview is not a memory recall test. It is primarily a critical thinking test.

Sure, there are certain patterns and habits that are useful in being more consistent in your critical thinking, but in the end, it is not possible to do a case without thinking very hard about the case.

For the benefit of others, let me  take a few liberties and attempt to interpret your comments (hopefully accurately).

It sounds like LOMS helped you develop good case interview skills -- skills that proved to be useful regardless of case interview format.

In your actual Bain final round interview, the format was in fact different than what was shown in LOMS -- it was easier (in the sense that you and the interviewer were doing the case together).

So you had a partner to help you out and point you in a specific direction, telling you what he/she was looking for.

In LOMS, if the candidate went off in the wrong direction, I let them wander -- very little help.

Going back to the phrase you mentioned regarding how different case interview formats "test the same skills, just expressed in a different way."

I think this will be increasingly true in the years to come. The consulting firms are tired of candidates that are just "robots" following some formula.  They really want candidate who know how to think in a a particular kind of way.

The firms are continuously inventing new case formats at a pace I've never seen before. They are hoping that these twists will make it hard for robot candidates to perform well. (And in my opinion, they are right.)

I think it will become increasingly difficult, and at some point impractical, to keep up with all the format changes.

But, what is universally beneficial and timeless is learning how to think critical in a particular kind of way.

My intention in LOMS was to teach this style of critical thinking through various examples of it being done poorly vs. well.

What I have grown increasingly concerned about as of late is how some LOMS users are taking the LOMS examples as literal rules, as opposed to flexible rules of thumb.

The idea is not to copy the specific decisions demonstrated by candidates in LOMS.

The idea is to grasp the underlying critical thinking approach that in one particular instance led the candidate to make a specific choice in that particular case.

The instance is not the rule.

The instance is merely an example that illustrates the rule of thumb.

The takeaway people should be getting from LOMS is to grasp the rule of thumb -- not how the rule of thumb happened to be applied in that particular case.

This is a very subtle skill to pick up. It is my hypothesis that the reason LOMS members who have used the program for months, and in some cases five times, do better in interviews is because they've had more chances to pick up these subtle skills.

The first time through LOMS, all you notice is the surface level decisions. As you go through LOMS multiple times, paying attention to different aspects, you start noticing these subtle distinctions.

And as one LOMS member mentioned to me, somewhere along the way of preparing "I just got it."

This was my own personal experience as well. At some point in my own case interview preparation process, I finally started seeing business problems totally differently than I used to.

"I got it" -- and once I did, it didn't matter what kind of case I got, or what kind of format I got it in... I could just "see" how to solve it in a structured way.

In hindsight, I can not tell you which day or which practice effort switched me from mediocre to competent.  It was very much a gradual process -- picking up little pieces, one layer at a time, until these rules of thumb became second nature to me.

I wanted to point this out because clearly you did grasp the underlying rules of thumb illustrated in LOMS and were able to apply them to your Bain Final Round.

Equally important to note is how you were able to adapt what you learned from LOMS and my emails to the particular case you received from your interviewer (and the format in which the case was given).

This flexibility is important, as it not only leads to interview success, but also to on the job success with clients.

Once again congratulations, and best wishes at Bain.

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