But first! In response to Biz Wiz’s blog post on finding the right post for specific content that I completely agree with, I’ve reorganized my tags to make it easier to find all of my posts that contain advice.  From now on, those posts will be marked with the Advice tag.  It is nowhere near as good as Dino’s organization, but seriously, Dino is awesome.  I feel confident making that claim having interacted with him at Kellogg the last year.

I’ve also added a tag cloud to the sidebar to make it easier to find the posts for specific topics.  I opted to leave it off originally because I’m constantly struggling with usability versus simplicity (I’d love my blog front page to not require any scrolling at all), but I think the benefits win here.

Now for the good stuff.
<hr />Although there are a lot of factors that contribute to your chance of getting a consulting internship with your target company, such as your GMAT score, likability, and background experience, the case portion of the interview can easily make or break you.  That’s why the Kellogg Consulting Club organizes so much case prep, and some people end up doing 25+ practice cases leading up to the interviews.

There is a lot of discussion around when students should start doing case prep, with some folks arguing that it should start before January.  I used to be in that camp, but I reflected on the issue quite a bit for the Consulting Club leadership elections, and I ended up changing my mind.  Although case prep is important, I don’t think that starting it sooner is going to be much of a benefit in the end.

One piece of feedback that I heard from both recruiters and 2nd-year students is that “Kellogg students tend to be too prepared” for case interviews.  It goes back to the argument that you shouldn’t practice too much for an interview or else you’ll come off as robotic and stiff.  It also tends to induce tunnel vision, where you are so well prepared for a specific set of questions, that when you have to step outside of that set, you can panic and falter.  I saw this happen when I was giving practice cases in January, where the other person focused so much on using the frameworks they had just learned in the last quarter (and honestly, don’t expect to master these frameworks in 1 quarter), that they’d hit a wall if the answer wasn’t immediately apparent after applying a 5 Forces, 5 C’s, etc analysis.

Here is where I am going with this.
<blockquote>If you really want to start prepping for the case interviews in the 1st quarter, then focus on thinking through strategic business problems sans frameworks.</blockquote>For example, you might look at what is currently going on, like Toyota’s PR issues (how do they turn it around after so much bad publicity on quality issues), the iPad (how would you launch a product that defines a new product category, what would you focus on, etc), or what can Ford do to position itself to become the #1 car maker.  There is plenty of material on scenarios to think through in the WSJ or New York Times.

Just to be clear, the point isn’t to go through as many of these as possible.  The point is to start training yourself to think about problems analytically and strategically without relying on frameworks as crutches, because when it is game time, and the pressure is on, it will be hard to rely on something that you have just learned a few months back.  The more diverse the problems that you tackle, the better.  Furthermore, consider talking through these issues with classmates, because they may provide some insight that you hadn’t considered and challenge your thinking, which will help it become more robust from the get go.

After speaking with BCG folks at “sell” weekend, I got the impression that 2nd-round case interviews are mainly based on actual projects that the Principal or Partner have worked on.  There is a really good chance that you will not have encountered anything like these cases before, so you have to be ready to think on your toes.  One of the cases that I got was in an industry that you would probably never look at…ever….ever.  On top of that, some of my classmates told me that they had very different experiences in their interviews: for some, the format remained fairly structured (what you’ll practice); for others, the interviewer didn’t give them time to “write out their thoughts” and instead made it very conversational and dynamic.

Unfortunately, focusing solely on doing a ton of cases means that you are missing the forest for the trees.  I can assure you that you will learn how to walk through the standard case interview process without any problems.  In fact, everyone will learn how to walk through the motions, so you won’t be able to differentiate yourself just by becoming good at the case interview process.  Here is what I think the split between case process (gray area) and critical thinking (green area) in a case interview looks like graphically (beautifully hand-coded by yours truly).

<div align="center"><table cellspacing="0"><tbody><tr valign="bottom"> <th align="left" width="200">Problem Introduction</th><td>
<table cellspacing="0"><tbody><tr><td bgcolor="#cccccc" width="150">
</td><td bgcolor="#33ff66" width="50"></td></tr></tbody></table></td></tr><tr valign="center"> <th align="left">Problem Solving</th><td><table cellspacing="0"><tbody><tr><td bgcolor="#cccccc" width="50"></td><td align="center" bgcolor="#33ff66" width="150">

Your job offer is waiting for you here.

</td></tr></tbody></table></td> </tr><tr valign="center"> <th align="left">Recommendation Summary</th> <td><table cellspacing="0"><tbody><tr><td bgcolor="#cccccc" width="150">
</td><td bgcolor="#33ff66" width="50"></td></tr></tbody></table></td></tr></tbody></table></div>

Here is how the above maps to the steps I outlined in my “Refined Guide to the Case Interview” in this post.  Problem Introduction is steps 1-2, Problem Solving is steps 3-10, and Recommendation Summary is steps 11-12.

As I mentioned above, everyone will become good at the case process (gray stuff), which will occasionally get completely thrown out by the interviewer, via the case prep in January.  Unfortunately, the stuff that matters most, critical thinking, is harder to master. 

Looking back on my own experience, I now think that I was extremely fortunate to be able to interview before starting grad school.  When I was looking through the case prep books, I saw the sections that discussed the standard frameworks, but I decided to skip them because I knew I wouldn’t be able to use them well mid-interview given that it was my first time ever being exposed to them.  That meant that I was able to focus on thinking through each problem critically, relying on my own experiences and observations about business.  This is what motivated me to write this line in my consulting recruiting advice blog post: “By framework, I don’t mean something like 3Cs, 5Ps, or whatever they are called.”

If you are looking for some excellent resources to begin “studying,” here are a few to get you started.
McKinsey Quarterly
The Economist
TED Talks
NY Times <p>