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Case Study Style Interviews | The Careers Service Case Study Style Interviews – Oxford University Careers Service
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What is a case study?

All management consultancy firms, and many other City organisations, use case studies as part of their interview process. In a case study the applicant is given a situation or question to explore and resolve. For example:

  • How would you choose the optimal balance of economy/business class seats on an airline?
  • What strategy should a New World wine producer use when seeking to enter a European market?
  • How many washing machines are sold each year in the UK?

The question may be as brief as those above, may be a slightly more specific business problem explained to you verbally, or may require preparation by reading related documents right before the interview.

The case study allows recruiters to assess your capacity to perform in an actual consulting assignment (and is sometimes based on a past project of the interviewer). To gain an actual offer of employment, you will have to perform well on a case study.

You are likely to be interviewed by someone who manages consulting projects day-to-day (‘Job Manager’, ‘Engagement Manager’, ‘Senior Associate’). This is someone who could well be managing the team you will be on if you join the firm so, above all, they will be evaluating you to see if you are someone they would want on their team. According to consulting companies, the key attribute they look for is passion. You need to demonstrate engagement, energy, and interest in the problem under discussion. As in all interviews, they are assessing whether they want to work with you.

Structure

For a management consulting job you are likely to have three to five interviews, of which two to four will probably involve a case study. The case study section of a one-to-one interview can last between 10 and 30 minutes, and you might even have two case studies within a half hour interview. Your interviewer will present the problem to you either orally, or in writing, or both. Occasionally, the interviewer may ask you the business issues around something from your own background, so be prepared!

How to get practice

You will perform better if you are familiar with case study formats and expectations, and have practiced some examples. Try to do some case studies with someone else where they play the role of interviewer. In fact, try to practice with different people as you’ll probably meet many interviewers even at the same organisation who will each work in a different way.

Books listed in “Our Resources” below can help you prepare, as can employer-led case study workshops advertised on CareerConnect. Usually the Careers Service hosts up to four workshops in Michaelmas term, two or more in Hilary term and a further workshop in Trinity term.

In addition, employers will host their own case events across Oxford, details of which will be available on their recruitment webpages. Some of these events will be run in collaboration with student led societies and  it is worth joining one or more of the consulting societies at Oxford: these include:

Some societies will also help students to find other students to practice with. CapitOx, for example, run a Case Buddy Scheme which is for anyone at any level at Oxford to practice case studies one-to-one. details can be found on their website, or contact the society’s president for more information.

See the “resources” sections below for further ways you can get practice.

Top tips
  • Clarify. You’ll need to understand the problem and its component parts sufficiently to get started. Only if absolutely necessary should you seek extra information or clarification. It’s a good idea to briefly state your understanding of the problem in your own words. The case may appear simple and with no data (for example, ‘What would you think about in setting up a new coffee shop in Oxford?’) or very complex with pages of printed charts and graphs. It is much better to make assumptions (aloud) and get started, such as, ‘We are looking at burger sales in Europe; this is a large market so I propose to focus first on England and then extrapolate the results’.
  • Take the lead. The interviewer wants to see if they’d like you on their team so show them that you can take the initiative.
  • Think aloud. The interviewer wants to know what you are thinking. They are not telepathic so describe aloud what you are thinking every step of the way.
  • Write things down. Make sure you have an A4 pad of paper and pen/pencil with you, on the slim chance they don’t supply them. Write large, legibly, in note form, and leave lots of space, so the interviewer can follow what you are doing and perhaps join in. Don’t be afraid to start new sheets (paper is cheap) and draw pictures/sketch graphs/block diagrams.
  • State your approach. It’s not so much the answer you get but the process you use to get there. Avoid the temptation to answer the case immediately with a possible solution – consultants have to show they have been thorough and demonstrate how they have explored every option. In the jargon it’s ‘MECE’ (pronounced “meesee”): Mutually Exclusive and Collectively Exhaustive.
  • Explain. Once you are clear about the problem, explain how you are going to approach it. List some top-level topics either down the left hand side of the (landscape) page working towards the right hand side with more details, or, work from top to bottom (portrait). Either way, the key is to clearly show your thinking.
  • Ask. After you have laid out the structure and demonstrated that you can take the lead on the problem, ask if the interviewer wants you to focus on a specific area or has more information for you. This can be a full three to five minutes after you start; don’t be tempted to ask for help sooner as that shows you need lots of guidance and would be interpreted as someone who does not take initiative and would not pull their weight on the interviewer’s team.
  • Listen. Be ready to listen and respond to any direction that your interviewer may give you in response to your proposed analysis. The structure you recorded on paper will help you to remain focused and provide you with a ’map’ or reference point if you get diverted or distracted. Also, if/when you think of topics you missed, you can add them to your structure. Most importantly it will demonstrate to the interviewer that you have the logical thinking and analytical skills they seek.
  • Develop hypotheses. Don’t try to answer the question directly but develop hypotheses to which you may not have the answer, for example,  ‘prices are higher than competitors’ and ‘revenues have dropped because volume has dropped’. Keep talking as you develop all this.
  • Suggest data you would need to prove/disprove the hypotheses. Sketch some simple charts, for example, ‘I’d need to know sales of car tyres over the last three years,’ then draw an x-y chart, with time along the x axis and sales up the y axis. Then guess some lines, for example, sales rising over the three years. You don’t have to know the actual data (how could you?) but you can say, ‘If sales have done this, then…’.
  • Develop some recommendations. Once you have found/agreed some data, it’s time to move to the final stage, recommendations for the client. ‘If I were working with a client considering opening a new coffee shop in Oxford, based on these data, I would recommend…’.
  • Landscape paper. It may be preferable to use the paper in a landscape orientation, since that is how consultants’ presentations appear. Another reason for using the paper landscape way round is you can move left to right with Structure –> Hypotheses –> Data –> Recommendations. You may well need more than one sheet.
  • Be happy with numbers! If you have not used them for a while, make sure you are especially comfortable with percentages, ratios, long division and multiplication, estimates, and working with large numbers. Dust off your mental arithmetic skills. Be happy to round to one or two significant figures. Make sure you know some rough data, such as populations of UK (+/- 60 million), London (+/- 6 million), Europe (+/-300 million), USA (+/- 250 million); size of a football field (+/- 7,000m2) or length of a jumbo jet (+/- 70m); weight of a human (+/-70kg). It is also a good idea to use the metric system since it’s easier not to get jumbled up with units.
  • Use your common sense. You may not have any business experience in the areas that the case study covers, so instead make use of any perspectives that you may have acquired from being either a user or a consumer of the products and services that are the subjects.
  • Be ready and willing. Be prepared to respond to further interviewer requests as you go along, e.g. to brainstorm ideas or to work through some estimates of market size.

Frameworks

It can be useful to have some analytical frameworks to help you deal with the cases you will face. Some of the basic frameworks include:

  • SWOT analysis: Strengths, Weaknesses, Opportunities, Threats
  • 4 Cs: Customers, Costs, Capabilities (of the organisation), Competition
  • 4 Ps: Price, Promotion, Product, Placement
  • Porters five forces

Be very careful with these, however! They can be distracting, they may be inappropriate, and if you don’t fully understand them, they may demonstrate a lack of ability.

Business case studies

If your degree studies have no business element, the interviewer will not expect much sophistication, and will probably help you to choose useful factors to focus on. It is important, though, to show a degree of commercial awareness by understanding some of the main terminology that you may hear or face in a business context, e.g.: Profit or Loss = Revenue – Costs.

There are essentially two types of business cases that you can prepare for:

Definitions of profit & loss

  1. Profits are down’. This is an historical view and we suggest you start with breaking down the elements of profit and then probe each one. Make sure you are familiar with a basic profit and loss account: you can download our basic definitions of profit and loss terms for an example.
  2. ‘Market entry’. This is a future focused view and can arise from an organisation wanting to enter a new market (for example, a new country), or adding a new product line (for example. sports cars to a line of saloon cars), or both. You could use the Ps framework for this one, and we’ve prepared a diagram that illustrates the process.

Bear in mind that a case study could start as a ‘profits are down’ case and turn into a ‘market entry’ case, for example:

“So, having identified the source of poor profits, we can explore ways to improve matters by adding new markets”.

Generally speaking, for most non-MBA graduates, recruiters are interested in assessing the quality of your thinking. Don’t try to be too clever or over-elaborate in how you approach a question.

Maths questions

You may also get two types of basic maths estimation questions: simple (in that there is only one way to answer it) and complex (there are many ways to get an answer). The simple type tests your comfort with handling numbers and making estimates. Examples include:

  • How many footballs would fit in this building?
  • How long would it take to move Mount Fuji?

Make sure you can estimate some sizes of common objects, including an aeroplane, a building, a city, a car, a human being, a football, a golf ball.

The complex type of maths estimation tests your creativity in thinking about approaches; they are generally consumption related. An example might be: “Estimate how many petrol stations there are in London”. The best candidates will think of two or three ways to answer this question. The trick is to make simplifying estimates and assumptions, describe aloud the assumptions you are making, write things down, keep track of the sums, and don’t use a calculator. At the end, go back and identify where you have made assumptions and put some ranges on your original guesses, for example, “I guessed the population of London at 5 million, but if it is actually 8 million then I’d increase my answer by 60%” (that is (8-5)/5).

Our resources

Books

The following books are available in our Resource Centre in 56 Banbury Road.

  • Case In Point, Marc Cosentino
  • Case Interviews: mastering the case interview, Alexander Chernev
  • WetFeet Press Career Management Insider Guides: Ace Your Case!, Consulting Interviews / Ace Your Case II-V
  • Management Consulting, Joe O’Mahoney
  • the Vault (Career Library) Guide to Consulting
  • Teach Yourself Successful Consulting, Anna Hipkiss
External resources

 

This information was last updated on 25 July 2017.
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