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Interviewer-Led vs. Candidate-Led

Candidate-led: the key challenge is structuring the problem

As the title suggests, in candidate-led cases the interviewer expects the candidate to ‘lead’ her/him through the case. As the candidate, it is your responsibility to lead the case by asking relevant questions and also to develop and test your hypotheses. Candidate-led cases are the most common types of cases. You’ll encounter them at the majority of the big consulting firms such as BCG, Bain, and occasionally at McKinsey. A candidate-led case usually has the following characteristics:

  • A very broad description of a situation
  • A very general question or no question at all
  • The interviewer gives you complete freedom in terms of the approach and the structure
  • Data and information is mostly provided at your request

As opposed to interviewer-led cases, it is harder for the interviewer to test specific abilities as the candidate defines what he wants to investigate or talk about. On the other hand, you as the candidate need to be strong in defining and testing hypotheses. You need a clear roadmap in mind that allows you to ask targeted questions as opposed to randomly ‘bombarding’ your interviewer with random questions hoping for a lucky punch.

Be thorough and exceptionally structured. Here are some aspects to consider in a candidate-led format:

  • Based on the information you get through your questions, set up a hypothesis that you test with further questions. Remember to also share your hypothesis with your interviewer.
  • Be thorough in your investigation. Don’t just scratch the surface and give some ideas, but dig deep into your hypothesis to uncover if there is a possible solution. The interviewer would not want to guide you towards the solution. He/She would probably give small and subtle hints to see how you react. For this to work, your questions have to be very specific.
  • Be exceptionally structured in a candidate-led case. You need to be able to keep track of your data. Interviewers will be interested in the synthesis, i.e. how you drew your conclusions. Also, new information might urge you to take some steps back in your argumentation. A good structure and thorough notes are key!
  • Be prepared to answer questions about details that could not be covered due to your choice of the procedure but that are nonetheless important for the interviewer.
  • As soon as it becomes clear what the decisive factor is, reformulate your hypothesis and test it!

Interviewer-led cases: the key challenge is to adapt quickly and also be structured

Interviewer-led cases are most frequently used at McKinsey. As the title suggests, the interviewer’s guidance through the case interview is firmer. Following are a few indicators that hint towards interviewer-led cases:

  • A very specific case question
  • Either a lot of data will be given to you along with an initial breakdown of sub-problems or a broad problem may be given to you and you would need to structure the problem by being as specific as possible. After structuring, the interviewer will ask you a set of pre-determined questions irrespective of what your structure is (this could be an abrupt move, so do not get nervous when this happens!)
  • Interviewer-induced interruptions with turnarounds not resulting from the candidate’s analysis
  • Lots of given data throughout the case, e.g. tables or graphs
  • “What else” types of questions
  • “Please explain more in detail” types of questions

McKinsey-style case interviews give the interviewer a more direct opportunity to test specific skills that the interviewer is interested in learning about you and assess areas of weaknesses.

Remain in the driver's seat and beware of curveball questions

Despite the name of this case class, the candidate still needs to be the active leader of the overall case interview. Especially in interviewer-led cases, the largest fallacy is to become passive, unstructured, and driven by the interviewer. To lead the case, you need to be particularly structured. Be prepared for interruptions and anticipate that they might disprove hypotheses or force you to develop a completely new framework.

  • Keep the big picture in mind. If the interviewer implicitly gives you a hypothesis he/she wants you to test, keep in mind other sources of problems or possible solutions. You might need them later.
  • Be Mutually Exclusive Collectively Exhaustive (MECE). It will help you to be prepared and structurally evaluate further on “what else” and “explain more in detail” types of questions. If you rank your answers into a MECE framework, you avoid a random and unstructured collection of ideas. The biggest difference compared to candidate-led cases is that you usually have to come up with an exhaustive list of hypotheses.
  • Beware of curveball questions and stress tests. Interviewer-led cases are sometimes used to assess if a candidate can handle pressure. The interviewer might deliberately cut your time to calculate things, show that she/he is impatient, or unexpectedly change the direction of the case. The best approach here is to keep calm and adapt as the situation demands.

Key Takeaways

  • Candidate-led cases are about your ability to ‘crack’ a broad problem
  • Interviewer-led or McKinsey-style interviews are about being able to analyze the MECE way. You will most likely encounter a stressful moment. Always pause and think in a structured fashion
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