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5 Tips for Acing the Case Interview

In a competitive economy where hiring top talent has become a key corporate investment, interviewers do not only want to hear about the qualifications of business school graduates. They also want to see how MBAs think on their feet and respond to real-world business problems--before they even consider offering them jobs.

One way recruiters can see how MBA students might perform on the job is the case interview, in which students are given a business scenario or problem to respond to, according to case interview expert Marc P. Cosentino, who has spent the past 24 years training more than 100,000 students to tackle these exercises. According to Cosentino, acing the case interview is about showing your critical thinking skills.

"In the end, it's not whether you are right or wrong," Cosentino said. "It is how you present yourself, your information and your thinking."

Although case interviews have been part of the management consulting hiring process for years, Cosentino said, they are now used to recruit business school graduates for marketing, strategic planning, operations, product development and private equity positions. Investment banking, human capital and non-profits are other fields that are coming to rely on case interviews to recruit graduates of MBA programs.

Case interviews ask students to tackle a range of problems, Cosentino said. One type of case interview may require MBAs to estimate the size of a market. Another may ask MBAs to outline how they would enter that particular market. A third type of case interview may require MBAs to make a strategic decision within a particular market; for instance, higher-level executives may ask MBAs whether they should purchase another firm to keep competitors from buying the enterprise.

5 tips to ace case interviews

In his book "Case in Point: Complete Case Interview Preparation," Cosentino lays out his unique approach to tackling case interviews. Cosentino learned the ins and outs of case interviews during his 18 years as Harvard's associate director of career services. He now visits about 50 MBA programs annually to teach students how to handle case interviews. Here are Cosentino's top five tips for MBAs to showcase their talents during case interviews.

1. Practice before the interview.

Most students at the top business schools go through 30 practice cases before they attend case interviews, Cosentino said, adding that MBAs should videotape themselves during practice to gauge their confidence levels. "It's important to project confidence in interviews," he said.

2. Check the facts before solving the case.

Once MBAs receive the case from interviewers, Cosentino said the first thing they should do is to check the data. Cosentino recommends they outline all the facts and numbers to confirm with interviewers they have understood the information correctly. "You don't want to base your answer on the wrong set of facts," he said.

3. Take great notes.

MBAs should take organized and readable notes, Cosentino said, adding that their math calculations should also be understandable and complete. "Most firms--at the end of the interview--will collect your notes to see how well organized they are and how well you did your math," he added.

4. Lay out a logical structure.

How MBAs lay out a structure to solve a problem is "extremely important," Cosentino said. MBAs should draw decision trees, boxes, arrows or charts to illustrate solutions and walk interviewers through their proposed steps, Cosentino said, noting this allows interviewers to visualize MBAs as team players already assisting clients with projects.

5. Conclude your case correctly.

Interviewers ask MBAs to summarize the case at the end of the interview, Cosentino said. "Do not rehash the case," he advised. "Provide a little bit of background and two or three recommendations that you want them to remember."

Case interview mistakes to avoid

"Making emotional decisions, not taking the time to analyze the case is the biggest mistake you can make," Cosentino said. He recalled a case where he asked students what they would do if the company's supplier was also selling to its largest competitor. Many students blurted out that they would crush the supplier. Cosentino calmly replied: "Let me tell you why you're wrong." Cosentino said recruiters look at the replies of interviewees to see whether they handle difficult situations diplomatically or defensively.

Answering a math problem before making sure the number makes sense is another mistake to avoid, Cosentino said. "If you do it once, you'll raise eyebrows," he said. "If you do it twice, it's a pattern, and a pattern is a problem." Cosentino advises that MBAs should always think about the answer before they speak.

But thinking before speaking doesn't mean awkward silence is okay. "Silence is fine if you're doing something--working on a problem," Cosentino said. "But just sitting there, taking time to think, without speaking, is not good." MBAs should interact with the interviewer as much as possible--the case interview should be a conversation, Cosentino said.

Through Cosentino's "Case in Point" book and, readers may learn additional information to solve case interviews, including how Cosentino would tackle individual cases.