Tips for Case Interview Mastery

There are lots of little things that separate a candidate who does a good job on a case vs. an excellent job. While it's not necessary to be perfect on every case, it is necessary to come pretty close most of the time.

It is far easier to have a higher success rate and be more consistent if you have good habits and are using them in a disciplined fashion.

Basically I think of the recruiting process as a race against time.

The more you prepare and practice, the better you get - this is a given.

The million dollar question is actually - When will you get better? By the time you master the case interview, will you have any interview opportunities left?

When people get rejected from consulting, they generally fall into two categories.

1) Those who are just not a good fit for consulting (like forcing a round peg into a square hole); and

2) Those who are a good fit, but their learning curve timing vs. the number of interview opportunities available were in conflict, and they ran out of time before they finally reached mastery level.

I do get a fair number of emails from people who "miss" by just a little.

If you've been following the success stories in my emails, you will notice some of those people figured out what they did wrong, fixed it, and worked like crazy over the next 12 - 24 months to try again -- and succeeded (though it is much harder the second time around, mostly due to self-imposed pressure, which really can be enormous if you don't keep it in check).

I continue to feel that the best practice approach to case interview preparation is to use a 50/50 combo of Look Over My Shoulder® and live practice with a partner.

LOMS helps you build good habits.  Once you have good habits, you use live practice with a partner to improve your consistency under stress.

Live practice simulates stress in a way LOMS cannot. Conversely, just doing live practice without LOMS is a slower process.

That's because you don't always pick up on all the little subtleties that would jump out at you when you are able to compare your answer to a "best practice" answer on a minute-by-minute basis in a case.

Unless your practice partner has formerly worked in consulting as a consultant or interviewer, your partner  is not going to notice the subtle mistakes you might be making.

Often these are the mistakes you don't even realize you are making until you get a rejection from one of the firms you are interviewing with -- but that lesson comes at a very steep price because now you are a (N - 1) firms remaining.

This whole idea of managing speed to competency is surprisingly important in recruiting because you are constantly working against the clock.

Which happens first? You master case interviews or you run out of interview opportunities?

By the way, this is the reason why those who start their case study interview practice efforts early, particularly at an intensive level, have a huge advantage.

Trust me... in the days leading up to a final round, those candidates are practicing like crazy because they lack time.

In contrast, folks just starting their recruiting process almost always assume they have a lot of time to prepare as the recruiting process unfolds, so their initial efforts are fairly modest. In many cases, this is a missed opportunity.

Here's why.

If you think of case level mastery as a algebraic formula, I would argue here is what the formula looks like:

Talent x Intensity of Preparation x Time = Case Interview Performance Level

You can't control your own talent, so all you can control is the intensity level and time.

In some cases, people don't even know the consulting field exists until the very last minute. So in those situations, there is no time, and all they have left to work with is intensity.

But, there is a very specific situation that many people sub-optimize.

It's the situation where the person knows what consulting is, knows they want to do it, and are in a situation where their likely interviews are 2 - 6 months away.

(The rationale is: why work too hard now when you don't even know if you're likely to get an interview? This is a valid point.

However, people forget that this is a competitive process for highly sought after jobs. If there is a way to get an edge and you don't take it, then very likely, someone else will.

Don't forget that.)

People in these situations have the opportunity to manage both: 1) prep intensity; and 2) time.

Someone in this situation has the option of having a major advantage.

They could prepare as if they had a final round in a week or two, and keep up this intensity for the several months preceding the likely time of their first interview.

It's important to note that I did not say this is an advantage. I said: this situation gives one the option to have an advantage. It is still up to the individual to decide if he or she will exercise this option.

The rationale behind this approach is fairly simple.

By starting a very intense level of preparation extremely early in the recruiting process, you maximize your chances that your skills will hit their peaklevel before your first interview.

When you delay the intensity level of your practice efforts, you delay the time in which your skills hit their peak.  If you time it well, your skills peak just before your last interview opportunity.

The downside of this approach is you're just as likely to have your skills peak after your last interview opportunity too -- when it basically no longer matters anymore.

The big takeaway here is: Time is your friend ... but only if you take advantage of it.

Now moving on to some other points. The idea of learning case interview skills from a single guide, school of thought or teacher is an interesting idea.

Let me explain my perspective on this.  What you have most likely seen me write about are topics related to the case interview practice process.

And despite the fact that there are now around 600 articles on this topic on my blog, my knowledge of case interviews represents less than 5% of what I know about business.

I don't really ever mention the other 95% because it generally is not relevant.  But, it is useful to keep in mind how I learned the other 95%.

While much of it was from personal experience,  I learned a fair amount of that 95% from other people.

While many people reading this consider me a teacher of sorts, I see myself as much more of a learner/student.  And in that process of learning, I have come across many interesting insights about the learning process.

Here's the first one.

Not all teachers agree with each other.

Whether the field is leadership, marketing, information technology -- if you ask five experts what's the best approach, often you will get five different answers.

The temptation is to learn from all five, piece together the best of each, and create a super-composite.

The problem is sometimes the difference between "teachers" are fundamentally in conflict with each other. For example, many of the people who read my blog have also read Marc Cosentino's book - Case in Point.

While there are some things Cosentino and I agree on, there is one major area where we disagree. He favors a framework-driven approach with lots of frameworks to memorize, whereby I favor a hypothesis + critical thinking approach that uses only two or three frameworks.

Now that's a fundamental foundational conflict in ideas.  You can't simultaneously learn more and less frameworks at the same time.

What happens when you're learning something from two different schools of thought is often you simply get confused -- especially if you try to integrate two different philosophies that just might not mesh well together.

This is not to say you shouldn't learn from multiple schools of thought. It is to say that if you do take the approach, you need to be very careful about trying to force ideas together (trying to get a best of both worlds outcome) that at some level might be very incompatible.

Finally, the last point I want to emphasize is the idea of taking whatever approach you are going to model in your prep efforts and personalize it.

For example, many of my success story emails come from people who used my two primary frameworks early in their case interview prep process and ended up modifying the framework to be more intuitive to how they think.

My framework was the starting point, and they evolved the framework based on their own experiences.  By the way, this is an important step in case interview mastery -- knowing something so well you are able to see its limitations (or at least its limitations given your tendencies).

(The opposite, which drives interviewers absolutely crazy, is when a candidate is using a framework because they were told to use it... they don't know what they are doing, and because of their superficial knowledge of the topic, they are not able to recognize when a particular framework has reached the limits of its usefulness in a particular case.)

When it comes to case interview mastery, personalizing frameworks is a favorable sign because it indicates you are trying to modify the framework so that it is more intuitive for you to use automatically (without having to think too hard about it).

This is important because it frees up your mind to focus on what is unique about this specific case and how to handle those unique aspects in a creative way or to use that mental capacity to notice insights that are hard to notice if you're busy working only at the framework level.

In closing, there is one thing you will notice if you have been paying close attention to my writings. When it comes to case interviews (as well as serving clients), each case has layers and layers of insights.

A case interview is like an onion. As you peel off one layer, you discover the next (which was not possible to see until the outer layer was removed first).

Whenever you hear interviewers giving feedback using words like "you need to drill down deeper," "find secondary and tertiary drivers, not just primary ones," "good structure, but lacking sufficient insight," "good analytics but business acumen needs some work," those are all code words for the same thing.

You didn't peel off enough layers of the onion.

And the ability for one to do that is a function of case interview mastery... and mastery is a function of preparation intensity x time available to prepare.

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