When learning any activity, there is a transformation that takes place as your skills improve.
It is like learning to drive a car. Initially, you have to think about every little thing.
Check your mirrors.
Check your blindspot.
Focus on where you want to go.
Look out for bad drivers on the road.
But somewhere in that learning process, all those things that seemed challenging when first learning to drive suddenly became automatic.
There is no magic moment when this happens, but at some point there is a realization that, "Hey, I did it right without even thinking about it."
When I took public speaking in college, my instructor explained to me there are four stages of learning something.
Stage 1: Unconscious Incompetence
Stage 2: Conscious Incompetence
Stage 3: Conscious Competence
Stage 4: Unconscious Competence
Translated into case interview terminology:
1) You stink at cases and have no idea you stink so bad.
2) You stink at cases, and you now know you stink.
3) You're good at cases, but you have to remember all the steps.
4) You're good at cases, and it's as automatic as breathing.
To get a consulting job offer, you need to be at Stage 3 or 4.
The more competitive the other candidates are (e.g., later rounds with a firm, or interviewing with more selective firms), the closer you need to get to Stage 4.
The hardest cases you get as a candidate are ones that are very unusual. Often you have to not only be strong analytically, but also creatively as well.
As an interviewer, I really like the unusual cases because they distinguish from the candidates that are merely good vs. those that are exceptional.
This happens in part because really unusual cases defy being solved with a memorized formula. It forces a candidate to think both analytically and creatively simultaneously -- just like I had to do every day as a consultant at McKinsey.
Of course it is hard to be both analytical and creative at the same time, unless you have mastered (i.e., at Stage 4) for one of the two skills.
When I interviewed, somewhere around my 20th or 30th live case study interview, I made the transition from Stage 3 to 4.
From those cases onwards, it was basically a given that I could do the analytical portion of any case. It was as natural as breathing.
What I could then do is focus my energy on looking at the unusual aspects of the more difficult cases.
Cases where standard frameworks didn't apply and where nothing obvious came to mind for components of an issue tree.
These were cases that I had never seen before... nothing even close. They were very unique cases (just like the client situations I ended up facing as a consultant).
To illustrate this point I want to share a success story from a CaseInterview.com student. What follows is what this person learned from the process that you can apply to master the case interview yourself.
*** Customer Success Story: Lessons from 3 Consulting Offers ***
I wanted to drop you a thank-you email to tell you that I managed to secure offers from three different consulting firms (AT Kearney, Arthur D Little and a boutique consulting firm), thanks to all your preparation materials.
I have been following your advice the last two months and have been practicing a lot using your different materials.
Having gone through the consulting interview process, I wanted to share what I have learned.
Based on my experience, success in the consulting interview process is based on three pillars:
In order to secure interviews at top firms as well as to show my deep interest in the firm, I have always first contacted consultants working in the company I was interested in.
This enabled me to have a point of contact within the firm and to tailor my motivation letter as well as to ask for any specific HR person to contact.
By doing so, I have seen a huge increase in the number of positive responses for first round interviews.
I think this is no secret, preparation is key.
I think the key here, as you mentioned many times, is not only to read or to listen passively to a case, but also to try to repeat specific parts of the case and to use a stop and go approach trying always to answer personally first and then to listen/read the solution.
This became a habit and I think only a lot of preparation can help with that.
Flexibility (Mainly regarding the frameworks)
If at the beginning I was heavily relying on frameworks, my approach changed with time and practice.
I began to use different analysis (for example: customer, competition, company) as tools and began to build my own frameworks using my previous "rigid" frameworks as toolboxes.
I think this is a key (mainly in more advanced case interviews) and candidates shouldn't hesitate to ask for one or two minutes at the beginning of the case to be able to build your own decision tree.
Once again, I wanted to thank you Victor for the LOMS and HSMC programs.
I wanted to elaborate to this person's comment about shifting from using "rigid" frameworks to using a more flexible approach -- using parts of each framework as tools in a toolbox.
This is a very important point that many people don't quite grasp.
For example, the business situation framework has four major sections to it:
Now a CIB (Case Interview Beginner) would typically go through all four sections of the framework for every case and ask all questions listed under each section.
This is what the person in the success story meant by being "rigid"
Now this isn't a bad place to start as a CIB, but you do want to move beyond this entry-level habit. Otherwise, you just end up being a FR (Framework Robot).
Instead, it is useful to think of the business situation framework as a single framework that has nested within it four separate frameworks -- one for customer analysis, one for product analysis, one for company analysis, and one for competitor’s analysis.
Whereas a CIB sees the business situation framework as one framework, a F1Y (Future First Year Consultant) sees it as five frameworks.
When you get more advanced in your case interviewing skills, you instinctively develop the ability to use parts of pre-existing frameworks that you are familiar with and often combine them with custom issue trees.
For example, perhaps you are working on a case where understanding the customer is extremely important.
You can use just the customer portion of the business situation framework to help structure that particular branch of your issue tree.
In other words, if CUSTOMERS is the main focus of the case, don't force the interviewer to listen to you analyze the PRODUCT.
Let your hypothesis determine your framework or issue tree... instead of stubbornly sticking to a framework (because you're "supposed" to) and you end up using all of your time analyzing issues that are not that relevant.
This is the big difference between mastering the case interview and not.
At the end of the day, the goal is not to analyze everything. It is to analyze as little as is needed to solve the client's primary issue.