Case interviews: care and feeding
Listen well, think carefully, and practice, practice, practice
You walk into a room, primed to talk about your strengths and put your “worst weaknesses” in the best light. You’ve lined up stellar examples of times you saved the day with your remarkable leadership, and vignettes illustrating your great teamwork.
The interviewer hands you a paper, and says pleasantly, “Let’s discuss this in ten minutes.” The paper reads: You’re called in to lead a client engagement for Target Corp. The company wants to expand into a location currently dominated by Wal-Mart. What do you recommend to your client?
Welcome to the world of case interviewing, in which a job candidate is challenged to solve a specific problem on the spot. Currently favored by management consulting firms, the case approach is also being adopted by recruiters in a variety of industries and disciplines, such as marketing, finance, operations, IT, law firms, and human resources, says Larry Wasser, associate director of the Johnson School’s Career Management Center (CMC).
“The case interview allows us to give a candidate a real-life scenario that a professional might face out in the real world, and see how they’re going to respond to being in that situation, and what their approach might be,” says Angela Ciborowski, campus recruiter for Ernst & Young’s Advisory Services practice.
While there are many types of case interviews (ranging from “brain teasers” such as “How many manhole covers are there in the United States?” to scenario-based questions that ask candidates to address specific business-related challenges), consulting companies typically ask scenario-based questions. These often are taken from real client situations that the company itself has faced. “Case approach interviews can be effective for employers who seek to gain a view into how candidates will approach challenges likely to occur in their specific environment,” points out Gary Kozlowski ’89, a partner with Ernst & Young’s Global Financial Service.
Why case interviews?
According to Ciborowski, the case interview is useful for evaluating
three types of skills in prospective employees:
- Organizational: “Does the candidate break the problem down into smaller steps and make logical assumptions along the way?”
- Problem solving: “Is he or she able to prioritize the issues?”
- Communications: “How is the candidate communicating the issues? Is he or she staying poised, clear, and articulate?”
In addition, the case interview can help a recruiter determine a candidate’s strengths and weaknesses. “Someone might be technically great, but need some work on communication or presentation skills,” says Ciborowski. “We’re looking at how well rounded the response is from many levels.”
Although a group of candidates may receive the same question, each one’s response to and discussion with the interviewer will be unique. “The interactive nature will allow the interviewer and candidate to proceed down a unique path each time, based upon each other’s different experiences and perspectives,” says Kozlowski.
On their own, case questions may not be the most effective way to gauge some attributes, such as a candidate’s collaborative skills, ethics, or commitment to client objectives. Accordingly, the case approach is often used as one part of a multi-faceted interview – for example, one that includes a writing assessment and a behavioral interview, says Ciborowski.
“The behavioral portion is intended to learn more about the candidate and his or her past actions in specific circumstances, such as ‘Tell me about a time when you led a team that failed,’” points out CMC director Fred Staudmyer. To gain more insight into such things as teamwork dynamics, says Kozlowski, candidates may also be evaluated in a group setting.