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How to avoid being that candidate in case interviews

Three common case interview mistakes to avoid

Kenton Kivestu, ex-Google, ex-BCG, Founder at RocketBlocks
Published: September 18, 2016 | Last updated: May 7, 2020

Case interviews are difficult enough... don't play against yourself by committing "unforced errors" which will significantly ding your chances of landing a job amidst stiff competition.

Here is the good news: you are not going to make 99% of those "unforced errors" because if you've landed an interview at McKinsey, BCG or Bain, you've already crossed enough impressive hurdles in your life to date and will know how to comport yourself accordingly in an interview with an elite consulting firm.

But, and there is always a but, there are certain types of questions, temperamental misjudgments or even cultural quirks that might creep up on you. So here we'll call out three fairly common but nevertheless candidacy-ending, interview mistakes to avoid. Bottom line: don't be that candidate!

For this post, we interviewed Abhi Tiwari, a former BCG consultant and interviewer. He's seen the good, the bad and the ugly and here is what he had to say.

  1. Never ask how you're doing
  2. Don't "flip" the interview around
  3. Don't be a Negative Nancy

1. Never ask how you're doing

Do yourself a big favor: never, ever, ask this is in an interview. Not in the middle, not 75% of the way in, not after the case part is over. The right time to ask this question is: never.

"I had one candidate who paused repeatedly during the case to ask me how they were doing. This is a bad thing to do. It demonstrates a lack of confidence and you'll never get a real answer." - Abhi Tiwari, former BCG consultant

Think of it like an Olympic 200 meter sprint or 800 meter swim. You don't see Usain Bolt or Katie Ledecky stopping in the middle of race, turn to the crowd and say: "How am I doing?" or "Am I doing this correctly?" The only thing you should be asking about in the case is the case content itself. Don't let your eyes off the ball. Olympic athletes don't win competitions by pausing for a status check - and you won't win an interview this way either.

Finally, if you're still miffed on this, here is why it's such a big deal: consulting is a client facing business. Your clients will be paying richly for your expertise and thus you need to do your work with aplomb. And confident people aren't constantly asking for sanity checks on their performance. You got the interview, you've prepared. Be confident.

2. Don't "flip" the interview around

This error is more subtle and is often brought about by a candidate over-thinking questions to ask the interviewer. So, the good news here is if you're doing your due diligence and thinking about good, thoughtful questions to ask the interviewer, you're on the right path.

The challenge is not to let your creativity in question brainstorming "flip" the interview, such that you've turned the tables on who is being interviewed. Yes, you should ask insightful questions that give you useful data about the firm. But do not under any circumstances try to trick the interviewer with a question.

"Someone once asked me after the case, 'What about me do you think would make me a great consultant?' That's an awkward thing to ask for a lot of reasons. Primarily, that question really puts me on the spot. Not only is that jarring for me, but more importantly, it makes me wonder whether this person will unnaturally put our clients on the spot too, which is a big no no." - Abhi Tiwari, former BCG consultant

Remember that the best way to "earn points" via the questions you ask is to probe on topics you genuinely want to learn more about, that couldn't be answered by simple Googling or reading the firm's website. You won't gain anything by turning the tables unnaturally.

3. Don't be a Negative Nancy

During the fit portions of interviews, you'll have the opportunity to discuss your personal and professional experience. If you've had a less than optimal prior experience, don't fall into the trap of coming across as a Negative Nancy. The firms don't appreciate candidates that come across as "complainers." But, what they love, are people who've faced tough situations, navigated them well and learned lessons.

Let's look at a concrete example. Say you spent eleven months at a startup and ultimately quit because your boss wasn't respectful of his direct reports. That's an unfortunate, negative experience. If an interviewer asks you why you left that company so quickly, you could state just that. After all, it's the truth. But since the interviewer doesn't have the context, it could just come off as a complaint and leave a negative impression. Instead, you should frame your response, so that you can accurately explain the situation and highlight a positive outcome.

For example: I joined that startup because they were tackling a hard problem in an interesting field. However, I ended up reporting to someone who didn't respect his direct reports, and learned that the CEO wasn't interested in correcting the situation because he produced good financial results. Ultimately, I quit. And what I learned is the importance of a respectful company culture and that the tone of an organization is set from the top. It was a good lesson that I'll be able to apply repeatedly in the future when evaluating career options.


Finally, if you're wondering what other subtle, non-obvious blunders could be lurking out there, here is a final piece of advice: ask your friends and fellow consultants. This works because if something stands out in his/her memory, it was likely a bad enough error to cost them their candidacy. So by asking a few friends, the blunders to avoid will bubble to the top.

P.S. Are you preparing for consulting interviews?

Real interview drills. Sample answers from ex-McKinsey, BCG and Bain consultants. Plus technique overviews and premium 1-on-1 Expert coaching.