Gone for a job interview at a large corporation lately? The humble, much beloved awkward 15 minutes or so of halting discussion about your resume has gone the way of the dinosaurs. Even the much-beloved "panel-interview-followed-by-a-selection-of-personality-tests" has fallen from grace.
One of the more popular formats for a modern interview is the "case". Lifted from the consulting industry, large companies have widely adopted this style of interview, and may actually ask you to come back several times to try several different cases, either alone or in groups, to assess your fitness to join their ranks.
A classic case interview generally takes the form of a broadly sketched business situation. The interviewee is then required to give her thoughts on it, ask questions that he feels are relevant, and come to some kind of conclusion. A case interview may be as simple as an off-the-wall guesstimate ("How many ping pong balls will fit into a 747?") or as complex as to require specific business skills ("Here's a stack of documents about a company purchase we are thinking of making - advise us.") The best case interviews will combine back-of-the-envelope stuff with high-level analysis ("Our company has just invented High Temperature Superconductors. Sketch some implications for us" is a personal favourite.)
Simple or complex, case interviews were developed to deal with the growing awareness that a resume is an almost useless tool in assessing an individual's fitness for the general cut and thrust of life in a given organisation. Resumes can show where you worked for how long, but not generally how well you would apply your presumed knowledge to a new and different situation, or how well you get along with people. Or how you act under stress. Case interviews are designed to show leadership skills, general analytical skills, presentation skills, energy, attention to detail, flexibility, maturity, and plain old "mental horsepower".
So, confronted with this kind of interview, your mindset shouldn't be one of fear of getting it all wrong. In case interviews, most of the marks are given for the working rather than the answer. That's the point.
Top Ten Case Interview Tips:
- Take notes You will need to reference them.
- Do NOT assume This is the most common mistake made in this kind of interview. Take the "ping pong 747" question above. Do you need to fly the plane? What about the fuel tanks?
- Ask sharp questions This is the meat of a case interview. Your questions are judged much more harshly than your conclusions. Conclusions can always change with more information. It's how you get there that counts.
- Repeat 1 - 3 with the answers If the interviewer has done this before (it's a safe bet), then your initial line of questioning will need revising, whatever line you took. Don't be afraid to change tack if the evidence demands it.
- Maintain eye contact You're representing you. They are the client. This will be the only time (if they hire you) that they get to be on that side of the desk, so you need to show them their trust in you to eventually represent them is not misplaced.
- Take all the time you need Generally, 10-15 minutes of the standard 30 are set aside for general discussion, and about the same again for the case. Use it wisely.
- Use presentation format This means you need to be comfortable with the presentation styles used in the industry you are being interviewed to join. Go to some trade shows to see what's expected.
- Bring the interviewer with you Think aloud. Not too many "I need a moment to think" statements. Be in control of your presentation, and ready for the interviewer to add some "tricky" new data to try and throw you.
- Focus: scope, objectives, key players If you forget everything else, these are the three vitals in all business models everywhere. What's the scope? Key objectives? Who are the players? If you find yourself without a framework talking about something you've never heard of before, these three questions either asked to the interviewer or used internally as guides will seldom see you completely wrong.
- Smartly summarise Show you've understood the question, that you're confident with the process you've applied. This is the time to bring in some passion, invest in your own solution.
- Search the web for guesstimates and brain teasers.
- Do some practice general maths to build speed. (GMAT math section, etc)
- Learn some consulting frameworks and jargon. (4Ps,5Cs, Porter's Five Forces, etc.)
- Practice "thinking out loud" with your friends and family.
- Pick 3 companies. Follow them in depth for a few months (buying 5 shares in each is a good way to get lots of info about them) - this will greatly raise your familiarity with general business data if you are not already conversant with it.
Lastly, stay calm and have fun. Really! These interviews are as much about "Do we want this person working with us?" as they are about any objective scale of measure. Have fun with the interviewer, with your case, and you'll probably have fun working there.
VAULT Guide to the Case Interview, The Staff of VAULT, 2001. ISBN 1-58131-129-X
Scores of interviews on both sides of the table.