Tips for Cracking a Consulting Case Interview

Interested in broadening your work experience in order to move into a higher-level position (or even a leadership role)? A stint at a consulting firm can help you gain the visibility, exposure and business acumen necessary for that sort of professional advance.

Most (if not all) people who apply for a consulting job need to pass a case interview. The interviewer will present a business problem of some sort, and expect the candidate to propose a plan for solving it. For tech pros without a business degree, these sorts of interviews can pose a new and unexpected challenge.

“Don’t wait until you’ve booked the interview to start preparing, because you can’t master the fundamentals overnight,” advised Marc Cosentino, CEO of CaseQuestions.com. “For instance, recent MBA grads generally spend 40 to 60 hours preparing for a case interview and they’re already familiar with the format.”

As those MBA grads know, though, you can handle pretty much anything with enough preparation. Follow these steps to crack your next case interview.

Understand the Consulting Objective

A case interview question is usually short and concise; when dealing with a tech pro who wants to consult, the interviewer may choose to emphasize the technical aspects of the problem. In any case, coming up with the right solution requires a mix of confidence, rigorous thought, and a bit of creativity.

Because these cases are often based on real-world problems, there are usually several ways to handle the challenge. The interviewer is interested in seeing how you think through the problem, and whether you can communicate effectively with clients and sell your ideas.

If the problem includes limited information, feel free to present solutions or approaches that fit several likely scenarios. Showing that you can think through a problem in a logical and consistent way is more important than arriving at a particular solution. At the same time, make sure you don’t get too detailed too soon; you don’t want to end up in the proverbial weeds.

“Be concerned with hidden users’ goals and objectives that could affect system design or optimization, as failing to uncover their needs may come back to bite you when you’re presenting your solution.” Cosentino advised.

Before you work the problem, make sure you understand the ultimate objective. Ask clarification questions, if necessary, and repeat back what you’ve been told. While some tech pros are concerned that asking too many questions will give the impression of confusion, interviewers are often impressed by candidates who take the time to frame out the parameters of the issue at hand.

“Don’t start solving the problem right away,” noted Pam Skillings, founder and chief coach of Big Interview. Ask about the budget, timeline, current tech stack, and whatever else you might need to come up with a viable solution. “You may have to run with the information you’re given, or you may uncover pertinent facts that were intentionally omitted.”

Gather Your Thoughts and Go

After you’ve absorbed the information, begin diagramming your solution. As with whiteboarding interviews, make sure to demonstrate your work for the interviewer, walking him or her through each step. One reason why many tech pros do so well as consultants is that both fields hinge on logic and technical knowledge; while some consultancy jargon and practices may seem unfamiliar, the underlying notions are often the same.

MBAs often use frameworks such as Porter’s Five Forces or 4 P’s for breaking down a case and structuring a solution; tech pros may also prefer relying on PPT (people, process, technology) to meet their goals. Ultimately, using a simple hybrid framework that applies relevant elements from several structures is an ideal way to showcase your creativity.

Remember to cover the potential risks of your solution, and walk the interviewer through the hypothetical next steps. With consulting, whether you’re proposing a solution to a client on your own or as part of a team, your primary goal is to seal the deal. “Think of the interviewer as a client and state your recommendations with confidence,” Cosentino said. “Then show that you know what’s expected of you by closing with the tagline: ‘And we can help you with that.’”

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