Lately, I’ve been getting a lot of questions about how to handle case interviews via video conference. At the time of writing this article, many firms are not meeting candidates face-to-face due to COVID-19. While video conference case interviews weren’t unheard of before, they are much more common right now.
Today, I’d like to cover some of the things about the case interview process itself that you will want to handle differently when it is done via video conference.
Having a good technical setup is crucial. It allows the interviewer to see and hear you clearly. This is especially true when you need to show the interviewer your notes and framework drawings.
If you have an older computer, you might consider getting a new one with a high-resolution camera. These are important because consumer services like Skype or Zoom are overloaded right now so they’re downgrading the quality level of the image to accommodate the increase in traffic.
Before the video conference, test out your camera and make sure that it’s a high enough resolution that you can read the text and see the drawings that you’ll be writing out on your pad of paper.
Remember that all consultants are doing these video conferences with their clients right now. They understand that things are a bit different. So, just use what you have and make the best of it.
If you’re brilliant, but the video feed isn’t great because you’re on a budget, they will still see that brilliance. They see the logic. They understand that, if you were to have a better camera, you’d be fine with a client.
So, don’t be too worried about the camera. First, worry about what you’re communicating, then they will be able to see past some of the other things.
There are a few different ways that consulting firms facilitate video conference case interviews. Most likely, these interviews will be hosted through a service such as Zoom, Webex, Skype, or similar services.
No matter what your setup is, you want to make sure that you have a high-speed internet connection. If you have a bad internet connection, it can cause disruptions or distractions during the interview process.
Handling a Bad Connection
If you have a bad internet connection, you might experience packet loss and/or latency — losing bits and pieces of the data in the video conference (which is when you get jittery images) and delays.
If either happens, it's very disorienting. If you experience image or audio signal loss, you cannot be 100% sure that the interviewer understood what you said. There are two ways to handle this:
- Slow down your pace of speech so that more of the content and context of what you say gets across.
- Repeat yourself by saying things like, "As I mentioned earlier, my hypothesis is X, and to test that hypothesis, I need three pieces of data..." In this case, you might have mentioned your hypothesis a minute or two ago, but if you noticed some jitteriness, you might want to repeat that point just to make sure that the interviewer heard it and understood it.
If your network connection experiences latency or delays, it means that you will be able to hear and see clearly but there will be a longer than usual time lag. Latency happens when you have a good internet connection (no signal loss) but a very long distance to travel (say halfway around the world).
In that scenario, you need to deliberately pause more often, allowing extra time when you anticipate that the interviewer might say something. Also, you want to be extra sure the interviewer has finished what they were saying before you begin talking.
Writing/Drawing Issue Trees
In a video conference, the interviewer can see your face but may not be able to see what you write. You need to find a way to overcome this difference. There are a few different strategies that you can use depending on your setup and your budget.
- Digital Whiteboards
- Document Cameras
- Screen Sharing
The simplest and most cost-effective option is to use a clipboard. As you write and draw, use words to describe what you are doing. Essentially, you are “drawing” pictures with spoken word.
Say things like, “My hypothesis is XYZ. So, I'm going to draw a box at the top of my issue tree called ‘XYZ.’ Next, I think there are three things I need to examine to determine if XYZ is true. In the first branch of my issue tree, I'm going to label that ‘Data Source A.’ In the second branch, I'm going to call that ‘Data Source B,’” etc.
Every so often, hold up the clipboard and show the interviewer what you’ve written so that you can discuss it. Practice this on camera before the case interview because it’s all going to be reversed on your screen. It can be a bit awkward to adjust to. Showing that you can successfully work through this problem and walk the interviewer through it is an essential skill.
Right now, people at McKinsey are not seeing clients in-person. So, for client meetings, they’re using these video platforms as well. If you have a client that’s not great at doing fast mental math, you’ll have to draw it out so that they can see it. When you show this skill in the case interview, the interviewer will know that you can walk a client through the same process.
If the interview takes place in a corporate video conference center, they may have a digital whiteboard for you to write on. If this is the case, you have to forget about your pad of paper.
With a digital whiteboard, you will have less space to work with. You have to be conscious of everything written on the board. I recommend writing the issue trees on the digital whiteboard but using the pad of paper for taking notes or writing computations. This way, your notes don’t take up valuable space on the whiteboard.
Also, consider if you prefer to write from top to bottom or from left to right. Both can work, but it depends on how tall you are (can you reach the top of the board?) and the dimensions of the digital whiteboard.
Most whiteboards are oriented to be wider than they are tall, so it suggests using a left-to-right orientation on your issue tree.
Another option is a document camera. A document camera is a mounted camera system that records a video feed of your notepad. This is basically a flat piece of wood with lights on the left and right side to light the workspace and a video camera above that points straight down at the document. It looks a bit like a microscope in its shape.
With a document camera, you put your pad of paper in the middle of the board and draw whatever you wish like normal.
If you want to invest in a document camera, you can find one between $100 to $300 depending on the quality. No matter the price range, they’re all sufficient for case interview purposes.
Lastly, you could screen share. You would share your screen with the interviewer so that they can see everything that you do on your computer. You might have some kind of drawing program up to create your framework and take notes. You can use a stylus so that it feels more like writing on paper or you could use your mouse. I don’t like this option, personally. I think it’s very awkward, but it is an option.
Connecting with the Interviewer
Now that we’ve covered your options for the setup, let’s talk about the ways that your performance will need to change over a video conference. Mainly, how to make a good first impression with eye contact and conversation over a video feed.
In video conferences, your camera setup can make it hard to make eye contact with the interviewer. If you can't make natural eye contact with the interviewer during the interview because the setup gets in the way, then make sure that when you are greeting the interviewer and talking before the case starts, you make really good eye contact.
By the way, how you make eye contact in a video conference is totally unnatural. You need to smile and look at the camera lens, and not the picture of the interviewer that you see. Usually, the screen and camera are pretty close to each other, but they are not in the exact same position.
So, if you focus on making eye contact with the person's eyes on the screen, since most cameras are above the screen, it will look like you are looking at the interviewer's feet from their perspective.
Another thing that I recommend is to start the interview with some light conversation. When you meet someone in person for an interview, you have some time to build a connection before the interview. But, this is not the case in video conference interviews.
A lot of in-person interviews are done in hotels. The interviewer would find you in the lobby and bring you into a conference room. In this situation, you’d greet each other in the lobby. You might say, “Hi, how are you? How’s it going? You look super busy.” You’d make informal conversation and build a connection while you’re walking to the conference room and getting situated. There are about five minutes of time to just connect before the interview has officially started.
With Zoom or Skype, it doesn’t happen that way. Once the video conference has started, you’re live.
Cisco Systems actually did an analysis of this awhile back. They found that video conference meetings amongst colleagues were much more effective if everyone mentioned something a bit more personal before getting to the formal agenda.
Now, this all depends a little bit on whether there’s time allotted for conversation or not. If they’re holding interviews back to back to back, you don’t have time to build rapport before the interview starts. It would eat away into your interview time.
If they’ve allowed a bit of transition time for bad signals and there’s space in between sessions, then it’s helpful to just say, “Hello, how are you?” Spend an extra minute just on that question before getting into analysis.
You should also build rapport as you go. This will vary by individual quite a bit. As you’re doing a case, just let your personality shine through.
Let’s say I’m showing the interviewer my chart and I drop it by accident. What would you do if the interviewer were a client? That’s what the interviewer wants to know. You might say, “I’m so sorry about that. I’m still getting used to the whole Zoom thing.”
Maybe you are explaining your drawing and you point to the wrong box. “Oh, shoot, I’m sorry. It’s backward.”
Do whatever you’d do in a professional setting to adjust to that. I wouldn’t do any of those intentionally, but I think it’s useful to just allow who you are to shine through.
The best interviews are ones where the candidate is quite technically competent, where it’s obvious that they’re an interesting person. There are some people who are naturally funny. They will make little jokes that are appropriate for the context. Others are not naturally funny, but they make their own small talk with the interviewer.
Video conferences aren’t an ideal medium for the case interview. The interviewer knows that. It’s not ideal, but it’s what we have to work with right now. So, the right mindset is to imagine that theinterviewer is a client and don’t overthink it. Don’t think of it as an interview with McKinsey, think of it like you’re at McKinsey and you’re talking to a client.
In that situation, what would you do? If you would naturally say, “Hey, how’s it going over there? How are things?”, then say it in the interview. Be who you are naturally and give yourself permission to do that.
Now, this is a lot to remember in addition to all of your case prep. So, here is what I suggest in practice. Before the interview starts, make conversation, make lots of simulated eye contact — looking at the lens, not the person's image on the screen — smile, do all that good stuff.
Once the case starts, forget about all of it and just ace the case.
At the end of the case, make eye contact, smile, and make conversation again.
Doing these things at the beginning makes a good first impression. If they know you made eye contact early on, then they know you are not shifty-eyed or dishonest (the usual interpretation of someone who does not make eye contact) if you don’t make as much eye contact during the analysis portion of the interview. They will, at some level, recall that you connected eye-to-eye with them earlier.
At the end, bring the eye contact, smiles, and conversation back in because studies show that, in a social interview (no case), interviewers remember the first two minutes and last two minutes the most.
In the middle, forget about the other stuff since it may just distract you. Just focus on getting the case right. That is, by far, the most important thing.
For more on what to expect in a case interview, watch my free video series on Case Interview Secrets.
For more on what to expect in a case interview, watch my free video series on Case Interview Secrets .