The Easiest Way to Solve a Case Interview

Question:

First of all, let me thank you for the LOMS programme. I believe it has advanced my case cracking skills significantly.

May I also thank you for continuous tips that I receive in the form of an email newsletter. Those are of great help as well, especially the ones about "how not to feel nervous on the interview" and "how to get the most from the LOMS" and other tips.

I would like to ask you a question, and would highly appreciate if you could suggest how to endeavour it.

What is the best way to summarise / remember the case interview question?

It seems to me that interviewers tend to provide significant information about a particular problem in a quick manner, which was the case in my unfortunate experience, and it is hardly possible to note down everything they say.

The reason might be that the interviewers ask the same question a couple of times per day to different candidates, and maybe that is why all they say in the very beginning is kind of clear and obvious to them.

To the contrary, the question and the basic information about the particular problem might not be that familiar to the interviewee.

And, as the interviewee's overall approach on how to attempt the case is depending upon what they have heard in the very beginning, it is extremely important that they remember all the details of the question, as well as background information.

Let me give you an example to make my question sound more clear. In my disastrous first interview, I was asked a question on how to grow sales of additional luggage of an airline in a very short period of time.

The background information was that the overall industry is in crisis. The interviewer mentioned this in the very beginning just once, and I did not pay much attention to that. And I actually forgot that condition.

In structuring my approach to attempt the case, I spent lots of time on trying to grow the number of passengers on long haul flights.

This was a mistake, as the background information provided told that the overall industry is in crisis. In the end, I showed poor performance.

Had I remembered the crisis condition, I would have eliminated the option to grow the number of passengers.

In a nutshell, do you think there is a technique that can help the candidate to summarise all the significant information provided by the interviewer in the beginning of the case interview?

 

My Reply:

As you have discovered, the start of the case where the interviewer describes the situation is extremely critical.  Particularly for interviewers who do a lot of interviews and start their cases very consistently, oftentimes everything said is very deliberate.

So bottom line, you have to do three things:

1) Be a good listener.

2) Remember what you heard.

3) Confirm with the interviewer what you heard.

That is the three-step process I recommend using. Let me elaborate in more detail on how to do this well.

First, realize the first few sentences that the interviewer uses to describe the case are very important. So the #1 thing you need to do is pay attention, focus,  and do not get distracted.

This is where being nervous can work against someone. Because when you are nervous, you don't listen very well. So #1 - Pay Attention.

What I do next is an approach I use out of personal preference. I write down keywords of important points or bullet points. I do not write down entire sentences -- it takes too much time.

In school, I took notes the exact same way -- just jotting down keywords that I could use as a trigger to remember a key idea. In contrast, one of my friends took perfect notes -- almost a transcript of every word said.

In school I was able to use my friend's notes (she had taken the course in an earlier term) and get an A in the class just by reviewing her notes. In contrast, nobody could read my notes, because my notes made no sense to anyone other than me.

I'm not sure if I would recommend this approach to you, but it has worked for me.

So in the example you gave, I would have written down the words "industry crisis" or "industry problem??" (sort of a question to myself to remind myself of a potential hypothesis).

Next, before you jump in to the case you want to confirm your understanding of the case parameters and the question being asked.

A lot of candidates spend their time analyzing a situation to answer a question that was not the focus of the case.

For example, client wants to "improve sales" vs. client wants to "improve profits" are two very different things.  If you confuse the two, you can end up solving the wrong problem.

This is especially true if you come from a non-business background and are not as familiar with certain business terms.  You want to double check that your understand of the term is the same definition the interviewer is using.

Many people rush the first 3 - 5 minutes of the case. I never rush this part. I always go slow.

Once I get going, I am often able to rip through certain parts of a case extremely quickly (not by rushing, but because I have a particular hypothesis in mind and all the data is pointing to the hypothesis being true... so I'm able to get all the data very quickly)... but I never do this and assume anything at the start of the case. Go SLOW.

Next, you want to confirm understanding by specifically paraphrasing what you thought you heard the interviewer say (by the way, this is a good skill to use with clients to make sure you never misunderstand what someone is saying).

So I'll say something like "The client's key question is _______________________", "Is that right?"

And what we know about the client's situation is: 1) the industry is in crisis 2)_______ 3)_______

In this way, you can confirm the overall objective for the case interview, and you confirm the key points provided around the situation.

If the interviewer speaks too quickly, then it is perfectly okay to ask them to repeat what they said more slowly. Or to double check certain parts of what they said, or to clarify any ambiguous terms.

By the way, one of the ways to use Look Over My Shoulder® (LOMS) is: after you get feedback from an interviewer, go through LOMS one more time, this time just focusing on your one problem area.

So I would recommend going through LOMS one entire time, just listening to the various ways candidates do and do not summarize the opening of the case.

For most of the examples in LOMS, you will notice that the candidate recordings are ordered from worst performance to best performance.

If you listen very carefully to the last half of the candidates (the ones ranging from good to excellent), you will notice a distinct difference in how the better candidates open a case.

They consistently start not by structuring the case. They consistently start by re-stating what they heard the interviewer say.

Now if you listen through LOMS the first time, you wouldn't think much of this -- as it doesn't seem like a very big deal. But, knowing that you made a particular kind of mistake in a real interview, you now know something aboutyour natural tendencies... and know you have something specific to work on.

With this knowledge in mind, you want to go through LOMS one more time with this new perspective in mind... until you master this specific habit.

This is one of the reasons that the best practice is to go through LOMS 3 - 5 times (taking 30 - 50 hours in the process). Every time you go through LOMS with either greater skills or greater awareness of your unproductive tendencies, you're able to get something different out of the program.

As one recent McKinsey New Hire mentioned to me in LOMS: He went through LOMS countless times, mostly by playing it in the car while driving around... and at some point in listening to LOMS over and over again he "just got it"... it's very subtle.

So I would strongly encourage you to go through LOMS one entire time, devoted to just this particular aspect of the case.

Also, one very important tip:

If an interviewer ever mentions a particular point more than once... Your alarm bells should go off, and you should realize the interviewer just gave you a big hint.

That point that was mentioned more than once is really important.

It is possible to get such a hint and not be penalized for it in the interview. Sometimes as an interviewer, we forget what things we mentioned to whom, particularly if we are giving a case to multiple people.

Sometimes we'll just mention something a second time just in case we screwed up by not mentioning it clearly the first time.

If a candidate picks up the hint, runs with it, and nails the case, then as an interviewer, I would often give the candidate the benefit of the doubt -- especially in an early round, and especially if they had a strong consulting resume.

So if you get one "hint" disguised as a comment mentioned two times, pay attention and think about what it means.  Also, very often the specific points made by the interviewer in the opening of the case are very much relevant.

It is easy to dismiss the comments as off-handed introductory remarks...but don't make that mistake.

You need to consider the very real possibility that the comments made were both deliberate, and highly relevant to the case.

I made this mistake in one interview myself, and it almost cost me my McKinsey offer. Don't make the same mistake.

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1 comment… add one
  • roy Oct 22, 2013, 1:07 am

    helpful

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