Recently I have received several emails from readers asking if you can be “too prepared” for a case interview. My answer is both yes and no.
Let me explain.
Interviewers do complain that many candidates are “too prepared,” but what they mean by this comment is not what it seems.
The “too prepared” designation comes from two categories:
- The candidate prepared incorrectly and did a lot of it.
- A discrepancy exists between a candidate’s talent level (which to them is synonymous with “insightfulness“) and their case process
Or stated differently, the candidate starts the case well, structures it well, analyzes within the branch well but misses key insights that normally a candidate with this skill level does not normally miss…. and thus, ends with a conclusion that misses certain elements.
I’ll elaborate on each of these two categories.
For years, interviewers have complained about candidates being framework-robots. The complaint is similar to the story about a child with a hammer where suddenly everything seems like a nail.
The less-sophisticated candidate will force a framework on to a case situation even when (to the interviewer) it is clearly the wrong framework or approach.
An interviewer would characterize this as “too prepared,” but what they really mean is the candidate prepared incorrectly, is being stubborn in their errors, stopped listening during the case, and basically stopped thinking.
This is a thinking game, not a memory recall game.
Let’s call this scenario “framework vomit”…. where all you do is swallow a bunch of frameworks in preparation for a case interview, and then vomit it all back up during the case, regardless of whether it actually makes sense to use in that specific case.
I know of one McKinsey (might have been BCG) case interview trainer in Hong Kong who has gone so far as to tell candidates to not prepare at all!
This is of course crazy because the case interview is extremely competitive, and the act of doing a case interview is an unnatural act — it is learned skill.
I guess the interviewers there were complaining to this person about how much framework vomit they were getting.
The real message is that they want candidates who can think in an interview, not just blindly recall the 15 questions associated with a particular framework.
The key is not the 15 questions associated with the particular framework.
Instead, the key is to listen to the answers you get to the initial few questions out of the 15, and to think about what is really happening here (e.g., formulate a hypothesis) and then decide if continuing with the framework would actually be useful or not.
A framework is just a a tool. If it is used as the only tool a candidate has in his or her toolbag, then it will come across like the candidate is “too prepared”.
The second scenario involves a candidate whose case interview skills are wildly asymmetrical — really good at the process skills in a case (e.g., how to open, analyze, and close a case) — but not very insightful.
The language, style, client skills, and communication skills are excellent, perhaps the approach is structured, but the candidate doesn’t notice any of the insights he has uncovered through the analysis.
This kind of candidate can come across as “too prepared.”
What the interviewer is really wondering is, “How can you be so good at four out of five aspects of the case, and so poor in one out of five aspects?”
The feeling is that the reason for the asymmetry in skills is because in four out of the five areas, the person was heavily coached to that level of skill, and in the one area that was extremely poor, which was based more on talent, their actual talent level must not have been that high.
Normally, most candidates will have one or two relative weak spots. So maybe the structuring was good, but the math was accurate but a little too slow. Or maybe the opening was good, but the synthesis wasn’t very crisp.
Normally the weak spot area is perhaps at 70% – 80% of the ideal level (meanwhile, all the other skills are at the 100% level and worthy of an offer).
Occasionally (it is not very common), you’ll get a candidate who has 100% proficiency levels in four out of five areas, but a 50% proficiency in one out of the five.
Interviewers find this kind of profile very puzzling. How can someone be that good in four out of five areas, yet so bad in one area?
It doesn’t make any sense to them, because usually case interview skills improve all together… so this assumption is the candidate is really a 50% level candidate across all five areas, but prepared so much that he was able to get to100% level in four out of five areas… but clearly forgot one.
Sometimes “over prepared” is really just code for asymmetrical skills.
An example of this is someone who has the communication skills of a partner but can’t even do the math of an analyst.