The Structured Case Interview
What is a structured case interview?
Having become increasingly popular in the last couple of years the structured case study is an evolution of the traditional “unstructured case study” The interviewer presents you with an information pack detailing a company’s current situation and what you should address in your review of the company. They then give you an amount of time to consume and digest the information provided before being asked to present back your findings with the recommendations requested.
There is one characteristic that the structured case study possesses:
“There will be too much information and too little time to read it”
A structured case that I took in the autumn of 2018 was approximately 30 pages long and I had 10 minutes to analyse the client's competitors and identify growth opportunities as a result of competitive advantages.
With a mix of text, graphs and tables there is a lot to consume and it is important to remain disciplined throughout. Although you have 10 minutes, it is more like 2 minutes to choose the direction you would like to take your analysis. Then 8 minutes to gather all of the facts and reasoning you require to make your recommendations with substantial reasoning to support them.
Unstructured vs. Structured
The most common form of a case interview is the unstructured case, an open-ended question whereby you are required to provide an appropriate structure before investigating the cause of the issue presented and recommending a strategy to reverse the trend or achieve the required outcome.
Using the framework, you designed you are then invited to request information from the interviewer and explore the situation further in order to develop a greater understanding of the case and comprehensively assess the causes of the businesses difficulties or critical considerations for their business strategy moving forward.
Our recommended approach to answer unstructured cases is outlined here.
The structured case differs in the quantity of information provided to the candidate at the start. Instead of having to work through the case and request the information you might need, you are given all of the necessary information and more at the start.
How to answer a structured case
Whilst one format requires information collection and the other involves information dissection, the fundamentals of answering both formats remains the same.
Both require a robust structure and comprehensive reasoning. To construct a good answer to a structured case, we suggest the following steps:
Skim read the information booklet in full first. This gives you the context of the whole situation, what information is available to you and the chance to narrow your focus. Skimming through you can develop an idea of the bigger picture, conclude brief takeaways from the graphs and tables which allows you to hypothesise solutions immediately.
Layout your answer from top to bottom on the page. This makes talking through your findings easier with the interviewer as it will flow naturally down the page. Don’t be tempted to jot things down randomly and if you do then use a separate piece of paper to do so.
Keep It Simple. Pick four or five factors or bullet points on which to construct your recommendations early and then delve back into the information pack to find that particular information. Typical points might be a previous decision or a recent event that is significant and factors may be revenue, profitability, growth, costs, competitive advantages or similar. Avoid getting caught up in unnecessary technicalities or specifics and rather focus on the bigger picture throughout.
Use simple matrices and tables to provide structure to your analysis. Using an axis with simple labels such as profitability vs growth allows you to easily compare elements such as companies, markets or customer bases.
Not only is this the easiest way to record a complex comparison, you will score well if you show this visualisation to your interviewer as you talk them through the matrix. In the example above you can quickly discuss some differences, such as company B's potential which could threaten the market shares of A, E and D which are unlikely to experience any growth in the future.
Similarly, tables are an easy way to draw comparisons. A simple table with different factors and a ranking can provide a structured way to reach a conclusion. For example:
In the table structure used above each of the companies has been ranked on the selected parameters. The lower the total score the better the company performs on average, we can quickly recognise that not only is company B the most profitable it is also the most profitable, a possible cause for this could be a competitive advantage, perhaps a new technology. However it also seems that revenue and profitability are negatively correlated that suggests company B will find its margins squeezed as it grows revenues. These insights are valuable to your answer and are likely to be scattered amongst pages of information, collating it and interpreting the findings is the key to a good answer in the structured case interview.
Ultimately a simple and comprehensive answer is better than a complicated and shallow answer. Thinking on your feet, making quick judgements about what is relevant and then producing a structured and sound answer is what is required to score well in the structured case study. The most important component is structure, with just notes your answer will not be deemed sound and reasonable, it is not enough to go on intuition and gut feeling for your answer.
It is also possible that a market sizing question will be included in the requirements. If so, then you can use this to your advantage. If you are confident in your ability to answer a market sizing question then you can leave it until the interviewer is in the room. Working through the issue tree and calculations in front of the interviewer will not reflect poorly on you and will buy you an extra 2 or 3 minutes to sift through the mountain of information in the pack.
Read the information booklet in full first
Layout your answer from top to bottom on the page
Keep It Simple
Use simple matrices and tables to provide structure to your analysis
Follow these tips and you will score highly on your structured case.