Candidate-Led Cases vs. Interviewer-Led Cases

As if case interviews were not already difficult to master enough, it seems that the major consulting firms want to make it even more complicated for candidates by differentiating case interviews between “candidate-led” and “interviewer-led” cases. Especially McKinsey is known for its interviewer-led cases, but is it really that black and white, and are those two archetypes indeed different types of interviews? The answer is a clear “no” to both questions.

It’s not a black and white differentiation, not even within McKinsey. Yes, McKinsey typically tends to have interviewer-led cases, but this is mainly and mostly true for first-round interviews. The more senior your interviewers are, the more likely it will be at best a mixture between an interviewer-led and candidate-led case, but more often than not leaning towards the candidate-led case type. Why that, especially since most online resources talk about interviewer-led cases at McKinsey? To answer this, let me ask you a simple question: Do you believe in the idea that McKinsey partners and directors sit down before candidate interviews, reviewing ready-made cases from a library, grabbing some slide materials and bringing that along to the interviews? I’d say McKinsey partners are too busy for that in the first place, and apart from that are smart enough to create great cases on-the-fly to thoroughly test their candidates in any aspect they like.

Before diving in further, let’s first review of what actually constitutes a typical candidate-led and interviewer-led case, as well as similarities and differentiators.

Candidate-Led Cases vs. Interviewer-Led Cases
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The principal idea of a candidate-led case is to test a candidate’s ability to start from a vague client question, breaking it down into single areas to analyze, conduct the required analysis, generate insights and draw meaningful conclusions/recommendations – and all that driven mostly by the candidate from start to end!

And exactly this is the main feature of a candidate-led case – you are supposed to drive the case forward step-by-step fully on your own, starting from the question at hand to the recommendation at the end. Again: it’s you on your own, navigating through the whole case, with minimal guidance by the interviewer (if at all).

Let’s now look into the major process steps to resolve a candidate led case:

  1. Understanding the client situation
    This is mostly done by listening to the case prompt and absorbing all information provided by the interviewer. However, on top of that, you need to switch on your critical thinking from the first second into the case and immersing yourself deeply into the client situation. This will help you to really understand the situation – and the key point at this stage – to ask additional clarifying questions to get a better grip on that very situation. This crystal-clear understanding of the client’s situation is the base for everything which follows afterwards. Logically, if you don’t get the basis right, whatever will follow won’t get any better.
  2. Clarifying the client objective (and thus the deliverable which you need to produce)
    While sometimes the client objective is very clear and there is no room for misunderstanding, in many cases the interviewer keeps the client objective mildly vague on purpose. This will already show to the interviewer if a candidate is super-critical in his thinking and following up on the client objective to understand it deeply, as it would be required in a real-life situation. If you are not clear on what’s the main goal for the client, you simply won’t deliver the correct answer at the end.
  3. Laying out a plan on how to systematically analyze all relevant aspects (a.k.a. the case structure)
    Once you understood the client situation and the objective you need to reach, then it’s time to develop a “MECE” (mutually exclusive, collectively exhaustive) approach on how to reach the client objective. Simply speaking, it’s all about breaking down the overall situation into its components. Since it’s not only supposed to be mutually exclusive but also collectively exhaustive, it means that once you ran through all those components, you must be able to give a solid answer to the client.
  4. Analyzing those areas laid out in your plan
    Once those areas are defined in your case structure, it’s time to do a deep-dive and analyze all those areas. However, not all areas might be of the same importance, so typically the time spent on a given area is determined by the importance of it (e.g. you might need to conduct only a shallow review of the client’s external factors to not overlook something principal here, but going really deep into the internal operations if that’s supposed to be the main area of analysis).
  5. Synthesizing all pieces of your analysis into a wholistic view and generating client recommendations on how to resolve the issue
    Since you will learn many new aspects during your analysis along the case, it might lead to a scattered perspective all over the place. Obviously, that’s not what the client is ultimately interested in. At the end, the client pays you to get a solution for his issue, and this comprises synthesizing all single pieces of your analysis into a cohesive whole and generating actionable recommendations based on your analysis, which you will ultimately present to the client.

Having now established the major process steps, let’s look at the key challenges, especially when comparing the candidate-led case style to the interviewer-led style:

  • Running through the whole case from start to end fully on your own. From another perspective, you are not allowed to make any major mistake along the way which leads you into a wrong direction, therefore into a dead end of the case, since consequently you won’t deliver a correct answer at the end of your case.
  • Keeping track of your analysis and the time simultaneously. Since you are fully driving the analysis of the whole case, you will receive tons of information which you need to keep track of throughout the case, which is already a challenge by itself. On top of that, while managing the whole analysis subject-matter-wise, you are also required to manage the time spent in each of your areas of analysis, so that you run through all major areas and thus can present a solid recommendation at the end of your case.

While the principal steps of an interviewer-led case are quite the same as in a candidate-led case, the whole dynamics along the case are quite different. Yes, you also need to understand the client situation, clarify the objective, develop a structure, do an in-depth analysis and come up with a solid recommendation at the end.

But here comes the major difference: once you have presented your structure to the interviewer, the analysis phase will be sub-structured by the interviewer. In other words, a typical interviewer-led case has around 4 sub-components as predetermined questions (between the case structure and the final recommendation to the client).

Those 4 sub-components are sometimes relating to each other (like specific elements taken out of a candidate-led case), but occasionally also jump around quite a bit between completely different subjects within the context of the client situation.

Typical sub-components in between the case structure and final client recommendation are:

  1. Conceptual questions on a certain subject
  2. Math exercises (of course also including the conceptual way on how to come to a mathematical answer, as well as actually carrying out the math, and occasionally combined with a mini-market-sizing exercise),
  3. “Creativity questions” which are often more like a structured brainstorming and less about creativity
  4. Structuring questions of a given sub-area.

To avoid a principal misunderstanding: just because the case is pre-structured by the interviewer, it does not mean that you can lay back and simply answer whatever question comes up. Within those sub-components you are still required to drive the case forward in a structured way like in a candidate-led case.

Let’s now look into the key challenges of an interviewer-led case, comparing it to a candidate-led case.

  • More specific questions going deeper than candidate-led cases on average. Given the specific format with around 4 sub-components within the case, those sub-components are typically quite specific, distinct pre-determined questions and are often going deeper than in candidate-led cases.
  • Not having a single second to breath in between the interviewer’s questions. While in a candidate-led interview you can quite a bit determine the speed with which you progress throughout the case (although, obviously, you still need to come to a conclusion at the end within the general time-frame of the interview), in an interviewer-led format you are more driven by the interviewer. This significantly changes the dynamic of the whole interview, and for most candidates, this setup increases the perceived pressure in the interview, since many times you just finish answering one question, and merely a split-second later you are already bombarded with the next questions going on throughout the whole interview.
  • Switching between different subjects literally in a matter of seconds. Since the case is pre-structured by the interviewer, it might very well be that you jump from one subject to another in a matter of seconds. You might just discuss e.g. a pricing strategy, while only a few seconds later the interviewer re-directs the case and you find yourself in the middle of structuring a cost-cutting workstream. For most candidates, the challenge is actually less in the subject-matter topics at hand – but more in staying 100% alert, reactive and mentally agile to switch from one discussion topic to another that fast.
  • Answering interviewers’ questions spontaneously in a structured (=MECE) way. Although you will face this challenge also in candidate-led interviews, it’s more of a challenge in interviewer-led cases, as you will face more spontaneous questions by the interviewer, which in turn you also need to answer in a more spontaneous way without having a few seconds in advance to think about it. The key challenge is not only to answer the questions at all in a meaningful way (which is often enough of a challenge already), but to answer them in a thoroughly structured, i.e. MECE way in a matter of seconds. However, adopting the underlying thought process to always think first in a top-down, structured way is a major challenge for all candidates, but this skill will serve you well in any consulting or industry position.

As you can see, there are some noticeable differences between candidate-led and interviewer-led cases. However, the difference in preparation is often over-estimated and exaggerated in the initial phase of case interview prep, but under-estimated in a later stage. To understand this, let’s zoom out a little bit and let’s look at the initial and later prep stage.

In the initial stage of your preparation, it’s actually more important to acquire the general skill of solving cases, which is more represented in the candidate-led type of case. Simply speaking, if you are able to solve a whole case on your own from start-to-end, you are also able to “partially” solve a case (meaning within single sub-components of the overall case, as pre-structured by the interviewer) in an interviewer-led format.

However, in a subsequent phase of your case interview prep, once you are consistently cracking candidate-led cases, it’s time to adopt to the specifics of an interviewer-led case. Needless to say, in case you would be exposed to the specific challenges of an interviewer-led case as outline above the very first time in your real interviews, you will definitely get caught by surprise about the different dynamics of it and will have a hard time to adopt in this high-pressure situation of your real interviews when everything is at stake.

While you can conceptionally prepare to those specific challenges to some extent, only putting those skills into practice will really prepare you well. Exactly for this reason, I am making use of my huge library of real McKinsey interview cases from the past – there is no better way to practice than being exposed to real interview cases, in the way how McKinsey interviewers run the case and getting expert feedback on it!

3. About the Author


McKinsey offers w/o final round interviews - 100% risk-free - 10+ years MBB coaching experience - Multiple book author

  • Professional Experience: Solutions Factory Consulting GmbH, Consulting Case Interviews, Mayr-Melnhof Group, McKinsey & Company
  • Languages: English, German
  • Location: Austria (UTC +2)

With his many years of experience at MBB, Robert is the perfect coach for precisely these job interviews. As a multiple book author, he imparts the right knowledge and helped many candidates to succeed in consulting interviews and secures MBB and Tier-2 job offers. The feedback of candidates ensures satisfaction. On PrepLounge he has a consistent 5.0-star ranking and attained certified awards over several years. Thousand of upvotes guarantee in-depth knowledge.

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