In some industries, it’s not good enough to tell an interviewer that you’re good at handling complex problems, or share a study about a time when you did. They’ll ask you to prove it right then and there by giving you a case question: a detailed business challenge that you will have to analyze and solve. This way, the interviewer can deduce your ability to understand the causes of problems that come up in your industry and identify what can be done to overcome them.
Of all the questions you might be asked during a job interview, a case question is the kind that takes the most effort, and not just during the interview. An effective interviewee knows when to expect being presented with a case and the steps to follow when they are. If you dream of a leadership role in business, you’ll have real-life cases to figure out every day. That’s why it’s a good idea to develop your ability to think creatively and holistically early on. Here’s how to prepare:
1. Practice, practice, practice.
All types of interview questions deserve a little bit of planning ahead, but case questions take much more. If the interview is the first time you’ve ever seen a case question, you’re already on the wrong foot. There’s no room for a 60-second summary here – the answer you’ll have to give has many steps. Research real-life examples of cases that an interviewer might put before you and see how a good answer might be structured. Find a partner with whom to practice asking and answering so you can see both sides of a case interview. You can even find people online who will be happy to go through questions with you and give you pointers.
2. Define the problem before you start solving it.
The point of a case question isn’t just for you to give “the right answer.” When an interviewer presents a case to you, you need to examine the question carefully and understand what aspect of the situation is creating the business challenge. It won’t help to suggest ways to maximize the client’s profitability if their problem is poor revenue. Ask the interviewer questions to rule out what the problem is not, and you’ll be closer to understanding what the problem is. Before you ask, make sure you know why the additional information you need will help you.
3. Show your work.
Case questions often require many calculations, so it’s a good idea to practice your math skills before the interview. In particular, you should drill yourself on formulas that you’re likely to use often in your line of work. You may not be permitted to use a calculator during your interview, so use a pen and paper during drills. Don’t worry if you make a mathematical error; it happens to everyone. But make sure you look over your calculations a second time and correct any errors before they end up in your final answer. Making a mistake is not fatal, but missing a mistake can be.
4. Map out your answer before you present it.
Showing your work is just one part of a well-structured response to a case question. Before you do that, the first step is to restate your understanding of the problem, followed by making a brief summary of your solution. From there, you can present supporting evidence for your solution, including your calculations. Remember to be concise: an ideal answer should take between one and two minutes to present. Your interviewer will give you time to write down your answer before you deliver it. Make sure to use it instead of improvising.
5. Present your answer well
Confidence is an essential part of all business success. If you’re going to be working face-to-face with clients in the future, confidence is credibility. That’s why interviewers look for candidates who handle case questions with poise, articulation, initiative, energy, and decisiveness. They’re not looking for candidates who never make mistakes – they’re looking for candidates who handle mistakes without getting frustrated or overwhelmed. Even more importantly, they’re looking for candidates who are genuinely interested in tackling the sort of problems they might encounter in a case question on a day-to-day basis, and who are always willing to sharpen their skills.