How to take better, clearer notes during case interviews?

Bain BCG Case Interview MBB McKinsey Notes notetaking organizingnotes Structure Taking Notes Written
New answer on Jan 21, 2021
23 Answers
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Gauthier asked on Jun 25, 2017

My notes are awfully unclear and unreadable. How do you make sure to keep them neat and clear? Any sample is welcome.

What I currently do:
- Split the first page in 2, with a small column on the left to write key information & goals.
- Write down an issue tree on the first page, plus my hypothesis on the top.
- Use a separate "draft" page for calculations.

Things get messy after I have announced my structure, and I typically can't keep tidy, well-organized notes from that point onwards.

Thanks!

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Originally answered question:

Note taking

Francesco
Expert
Content Creator
replied on Jan 03, 2021
#1 Expert for Coaching Sessions (3.600+) | 1.300+ Reviews with 100% Recommendation Rate | Ex BCG | 8+ Years of Coaching

Hi there,

I would suggest to divide the first page into 4 parts as below:

  • top-left: who is the client
  • bottom left: initial information
  • top right: objectives
  • bottom right: structure

Landscape format in general works better. Sometimes you will have to go back and forth, as you may get information, objective 1, additional information, objective 2, etc.

The vertical line should be closer to the left border and the horizontal line should be closer to the top border so that there is more space for the structure.

After the first page, you can structure as below:

  • top-left: name of the first area analysed
  • bottom left: structure for the first area
  • top right: name of the second area analysed
  • bottom right: structure for the second area

The vertical line can now be in the middle so that the left and right parts have the same distance.

Besides that, you can also improve your notes with the following:

  • Ask the interviewer to repeat in case you missed information. It is better to ask for missing information upfront rather than later
  • Do a recap after the prompt. This ensures you took notes correctly since the interviewer will correct you otherwise
  • Use abbreviations. Eg, for revenues use R, for costs use C, for increase use an arrow directed up, etc.
  • Write down essential information only. You do not have time to write everything, thus you should exercise in writing down only the necessary information. If you have a client that produces steel which has four plants, with a revenue problem, your notes could be something as Steel producer, R (arrow down), 4 plants
  • Keep a separate sheet for math if you tend to be disorganized in that part

Hope this helps,

Francesco

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Originally answered question:

Note taking

Henning
Expert
replied on Jan 03, 2021
Bain | passed >15 MBB interviews as a candidate

Hi A!

Note taking is of course a critical piece of a strong case delivery, so it will pay off to practice this early on in your preparation.

Whatever system you chose (and practice), it needs to fulfill 3 main purposes:

  • Allow you to note down the critical data and information you hear during the case prompt and have the readily available whenever you need them
  • It needs to enable you to note down an initial framework and track the execution against it
  • It should provide room to store your key insights (1-2 numbers or 1 short bullet point per branch of your framework)

There are certainly many different styles of note taking that provide these three functions, so you should find our which one works for you and enables you to focus on the case execution, rather than the note taking. Keep in mind that you should practice this system early on in your journey, so you are comfortable with this method when you go into the interviews.

Find below a screenshot of the notetaking system that works for me personally. In this system, I first draw one vertical and one horizontal line. Then I use the column on the left side to take the initial notes during the case prompt and clarifying questions. Then I write down the key question of the case in the top row and develop the framework in the main area on the page.

During the case, I scribble less important stuff on separate pages (e.g. notes during the quant part). However, I will write down the key insights of each branch of the framework at the bottom of my main page. That way, when I get to the recommendation, I can simply read the notes from left to right to have the supporting arguments for the case recommendation.

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Originally answered question:

Note taking

Ian
Expert
Content Creator
replied on Jan 03, 2021
BCG | 100% personal interview success rate (8/8) and 95% candidate success rate | Personalized interview prep

Hi there,

In regards to your casing template

1) A seperate sheet for each "portion" of the case...with clear locations + methods for title/subject, notes, calculations, takeaways, etc.

2) Figuring out a location for everything and where each information type should go

3) Seperate sheet for math calculations

In regards to quickly taking notes in general

1) Decide physical vs virtual - are you a faster typer or writer?

2) If virtual, pick the best tool - try outlook draft emails (so you can store/organize with your email), try notepad, try a tablet so you can write on it, etc....find the one that works for you

3) Only write down what is important - you should know this! You don't need to capture everything. Just like in a case, figuring out what information is not needed is just as valuable as figuring out what information is needed.

4) And then, what you do write down, write it in shorthand!

I.e. If I say "Your client is Bills Bottles. They earn $800M in profits each year by manufacturing bottles to soda companies in the US and Europe. Over the past two years they've seen profits falling and have brought you in to investigate"

You should write:

  • Bills Bottles
  • Manufacture
  • Client = soda comp
  • 800M P
  • P [down arrow] 2 yrs
  • US + Europe
  • Obj: Fix P
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Originally answered question:

Note taking

Denis
Expert
replied on Jan 03, 2021
Ex-Bain 5 yrs | Goldman Sachs Investment Banker NYC | MBA Chicago Booth | Passed > 13 MBB > 20 IB interviews

Hi all,

Henning proposed a nice approach! I have been using and preaching a slightly different one, serving the same purposes.

Each point below refers to one sheet of paper.

(1) Goal of the case, initial framework:
After the case prompt and your "minute off" to come up with a suggested approach (initial framework), I have been using this one pager as sort of a go-to / agenda of the entire case. You should only use for structural reasons (i.e. what step is next in the case) and also write down key results of each branch or part of the framework.

(2) + more as needed: New sections / branches of the initial framework:
Use one piece of paper for when you make a deep dive into a specific part of your initial framework, with all notes / final numbers etc on it. E.g. initial framework may have talked about you doing a quantitaive analysis first (e.g. margin calculation), followed by a qualitative analysis (e.g. root cause identification focusing on competitors, customers, company, products). This could be followed by brainstorming implementation activities (e.g. clustered by feasibility/impact, time to implement/impact etc). Take a new piece of paper for each new branch / section of the initial framework.

(3) Final recommendation:
Always take a fresh piece of paper, put it in landscape mode and use it as a real slide. Write a nice headline / tagline on it reflecting the recommendation of the case. The body of the slide should then have crisp bullets backing up your recommendation with facts collected throughout the interview (read the tip below on how to do that quickly). Please make the last bullet "If we had more time / Next steps".

Tip: I always suggest candidates bring their own basic text markers / highlighters colors (e.g. yellow and green). Whenever you jot down a result / number / note you d like to use for the final recommendation slide, highlight it with the text market. That way, even if your calcualations and notes tend to get messy, you will quickly identify key points you came up with or encountered throughout the interview to use for your final recommendation or interim summaries.

Best,
Denis

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Anonymous replied on Jun 26, 2017

This is definitely an underrated (but important) skill to develop when working on cases. Usually, the people I've worked with have adopted the same format you currently have with some minor tweaks:

- Position of paper is horizontal (adds more space for the issue tree going from left to right)

- Set space for a column to the left where you can jot down notes from the initial prompt / question asked

- Draw a line on the top of the page for you to write the objective / key question of the case. This is especially important because you will refer to this throughout the case.

- The remaining portion of this first page will be dedicated to the issue tree (with your hypothesis included above the issue tree)

- Lastly, and this is based on preference, write the page number on each paper you use (think of your notes as "draft slides" that you'll place in front of your current "slide" to use as reference)

From then on, although you won't have new objectives, you will definitely be given new information. So, it's usually good practice to structure the remaining pages with a narrow column to the left and space for calculations, new issue trees, etc. What's important, nonetheless, is making sure that you highlight key pieces of information that add substance to your hypothesis. More often than not, we tend to overlook or forget certain points that are given to us. So, by highlighting them or circling them, it becomes easier to connect the dots and, ultimately, develop / finish your case.

When it comes to calculations, definitely keep a separate page but you should practice having an organized sheet that you can cross-reference in case you need to go back through your assumptions and / or calculations.

Hopefully this helps! Keep in mind that everyone has a different structure and it usually takes multiple sessions to find a structure that works best for you. Feel free to shoot me an email if you have any additional questions or would like to practice a case.

Best,

Carlos

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16
Originally answered question:

How to be better at notetaking?

Francesco
Expert
Content Creator
replied on Nov 07, 2017
#1 Expert for Coaching Sessions (3.600+) | 1.300+ Reviews with 100% Recommendation Rate | Ex BCG | 8+ Years of Coaching

Hi Anonymous,

in order to better take notes initially, this is what I would recommend:

  1. Use abbreviations.Eg, for revenues use R, for costs use C, for increase use an arrow directed up, etc.
  2. Write down essential information only. You do not have time to write everything, thus you should exercise in writing down only the necessary information. If you have a client which produces steel which has four plants, with a revenue problem, your notes could be something as Steel producer, R (arrow down), 4 plants
  3. Keep different section in the paper for different pieces of information. My recommendation would be to divide the paper in 4 areas as reported below; when talking notes, you can then put the information in the appropriate box. Sometimes you would have to do back and forth, as you may get information, objective 1, additional information, objective 2, etc.
  • top-left: who is the client
  • bottom left: initial information
  • top right: objectives
  • bottom right: structure

It’s not ideal to ask the interviewer to slow down, although that’s better than missing key information; something you can definitely do is instead clarify the areas you feel you have not heard correctly when you repeat the initial information provided.

Hope this helps,

Francesco

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Originally answered question:

Note taking

Antonello
Expert
Content Creator
replied on Jan 04, 2021
McKinsey | MBA professor for consulting interviews

Hi,

Two important tips:

- Use the left hand side of the paper to take notes (consider 5 cm from the left and draw a line).

- Use separate sheet for computation. It will leave your sheet clean and structured.

- Try to look at the paper like a slide on PPT.

Hope this helps.

Best,

Antonello

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Originally answered question:

Note taking

Gaurav
Expert
Content Creator
replied on Jan 05, 2021
Ex-Mckinsey|Certified Career Coach |Placed 500+ candidates at MBB & other consultancies

Hi there,

the general advice is to practice a lot in note taking and find a specific technique that works best for you. In addition to what has been suggested here, you might wanna look up these preplounge answers:

https://www.preplounge.com/en/consulting-forum/how-to-take-better-clearer-notes-during-case-interviews-673

https://www.preplounge.com/en/consulting-forum/note-taking-techniques-1620

https://www.preplounge.com/en/consulting-forum/taking-notes-in-case-interview-2654

https://www.preplounge.com/en/consulting-forum/note-taking-7215

Hope it helps and good luck!

Cheers,

GB

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Originally answered question:

Note taking

Clara
Expert
Content Creator
replied on Jan 04, 2021
McKinsey | Awarded professor at Master in Management @ IE | MBA at MIT |+180 students coached | Integrated FIT Guide aut

Hello!

This is highly personal.

however, one universal piece of advise if bullet points. This for sure helps, always

Best regards,

Clara

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Originally answered question:

Taking Notes McKinsey Led

Hemant
Expert
replied on Jan 12, 2017
Current partner @ Andreessen Horowitz (VC firm). Ex-Mckinsey, ex- strategy guy at Google.

I almost always keep a "master sheet" for case-solving and rest of the sheets are "scratch sheets" (though you can't just write completely unorganizedly in there). The master sheet is:

1. divided horizontally into 2/3rd and 1/3rd and the 1/3rd is used for mostly figures/numbers, e.g., revenue in 2011 was xxM and fell to yyM in 2015, etc.

2. use the 2/3rd of the page for the primary case - the main facts, etc (e.g., company X is a mfg firm, profitability loss since 2011, etc etc.). Also your main structure goes here as well as hypothesis1, 2, 3...

3. Use other papers for solving the case, but return to the main sheet to write down the important results. E.g., profitability in 2011 was xx% and y% in 2015, etc.

4. Keep going back to the main sheet to remind yourself of your structure and current hypothesis you are working towards proving/disproving.

I know this seems like extra work but the few seconds you spend writing / duplicating some data on master will save you minutes of efforts and confusion later.

Hemant

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5
Alice on Jan 12, 2017
Thank you thank you! Makes sense. Also, so one can probably transfer small "mini-conclusions" to the master sheet in order to know what the conclusion/synthesis should be in order to avoid confusion then
Originally answered question:

Any advice/tips&tricks to organise your notes?

Anonymous replied on Jun 10, 2016

Not sure I understand the question. I assume you mean the notes during the case interview?

Best practice that I have seen is to use three sheets.

Sheet 1 is for the overall structure of the case. If the case is about profit, it could be the general profit formula. If the case is about growth drivers (just an example), it could be a tree with X growth drivers or something. (Bonus trick - turn it into landscape, that's how consultants think, and you will always find the sheet, even if things get hectic).

Sheet 2 is for detailing out the main points of the structure in Sheet 1. For example, if on sheet 1 you have "Profit = Revenue - Cost", then you would start on Sheet 2 with "Revenue", underline it, and detail it out, then the next point.

Sheet 3 is optional, to be used for side calculations to not mess up Sheet 2.

Does it have to be this way? No, of course not. Does it look bad if you completely get lost in all the sheets and have a messy desk? Yep. But if you pull it of, have a nice structure on sheet 1, detail the first point out on sheet 2, copy the final result to sheet 1, detail the next point out on sheet 2, copy it to sheet 1, and calculate the final result just from the numbers on sheet 1, then it's pretty impressive.

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5
Ghali
Proficient
replied on Jan 08, 2018

Hi Talayeh,

The way I do it is I leave two sections at the top, one for the objective on top, and one for the givens. This is usually prior to practice, or even any discussion.

On top, I make sure to include 3 major parts : the objective, time frame and any numerical targets. This way I'm forced to relate all my analysis/questions to the objective. It also helps me word my recommendation in a concise manner.

For the givens section, I make 4-5 bullet points for numbers and variables, and leave 2/3 lines for the descriptive info (strategic concerns, "why" statements .. etc.).

I found this to be helpful to filter out the relevant info only, and keep a good eye on the objective itself. Also, it becomes easier to read, and analyze later on if I'm reviewing my performance.

Hope this helps !

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3
Jens
Skilled
replied on Jan 07, 2018
got the job I wanted. Good luck to everyone!

Hi Talayeh,

I found a mind-map like approach to be the most useful one. Linear-notetaking is usually not helpful during the case, therefore you have to allow for some creativity, which I find is best accomplished using a mind-map approach.

Hope it helps.

Jens

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3
Henning
Expert
replied on Jan 21, 2021
Bain | passed >15 MBB interviews as a candidate

Note taking is of course a critical piece of a strong case delivery, so it will pay off to practice this early on in your preparation.

Whatever system you chose (and practice), it needs to fulfill 3 main purposes:

  • Allow you to note down the critical data and information you hear during the case prompt and have the readily available whenever you need them
  • It needs to enable you to note down an initial framework and track the execution against it
  • It should provide room to store your key insights (1-2 numbers or 1 short bullet point per branch of your framework)

There are certainly many different styles of note taking that provide these three functions, so you should find our which one works for you and enables you to focus on the case execution, rather than the note taking. Keep in mind that you should practice this system early on in your journey, so you are comfortable with this method when you go into the interviews.

Find below a screenshot of the notetaking system that works for me personally. In this system, I first draw one vertical and one horizontal line. Then I use the column on the left side to take the initial notes during the case prompt and clarifying questions. Then I write down the key question of the case in the top row and develop the framework in the main area on the page.

During the case, I scribble less important stuff on separate pages (e.g. notes during the quant part). However, I will write down the key insights of each branch of the framework at the bottom of my main page. That way, when I get to the recommendation, I can simply read the notes from left to right to have the supporting arguments for the case recommendation.

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Dan replied on Jan 09, 2018
Dedicated to practicing and improving the performance of both myself and my partners. Prefer candidate-led style.

Everyone so far has given great advice, so I won't repeat their comments. In addition to what everyone has said, I'll add a piece of advice from Victor Cheng that I've found helpful: keep two pages of notes. One page is a "roadmap" page and the other is a scratch page (or pages) for notes. Here's the type of information on each page:

Roadmap page: This contains the objective, your hypothesis/structure/issue tree, and any key insights or conclusions that you uncover during the case. You can also cross out items on your issue tree if they prove to be dead ends.

Scratch page(s): This is for everything else. It will only be readable by you, but that is ok - you can transfer any important conclusions to the "roadmap" page. This is also where you do calculations.

While it does take some practice, the advantage to this two-page approach is that it becomes much easier to communicate with the interviewer. If you've done a good job of removing branches of analysis and transferring key conclusions to the "roadmap" page, it also simplifies your synthesis because it's all there in front of you.

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Anonymous replied on Jun 11, 2020

Dear A,

During the case interview you will be given sheet for taking note. Designate each sheet to each specialized task.

  • The data sheet is where you note down neatly and ideally in a table format all information, data, provided by the interviewer throughout the case. If you have additional data as the result of analyses or calculations performed, put them into the data sheet too.

  • The presentation sheet is literally what you use when speaking to interviewers. For example, if you say: “… problem A can be broken down into B and C”, literally draw those on this sheet and point to each one as you speak.

  • Lastly, the scratch paper is there for anything else you need to write out in interviews’ brainstorm ideas, calculations, etc. The purpose of this sheet is to make the other two clear and neat. So you don’t have to worry too much about what you write here on this scratch paper.

Also, below some general recommendation on how to take notes:

  • Write down all the important information. You can use abbreviations

  • Client name

  • Industry

  • Geography

  • Current situation

  • Goal/objective:

  • And for your analysis put the name of area you supposed to analysed and it structure

  • Name of the first area analysed

  • Structure for the first area

  • Name of the second area analysed

  • Structure for the second area

Hope it helps,

Best,

André

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Eli replied on Jan 08, 2018
Currently Preparing for McKinsey and Bain interviews in late March

I am usually writing the names of the company, products, market and additional information which looks like you would need to use in the future solving the case. No matter which approach you choose eventually, you should always train and do it systematically. Also, I would recommend to always write down the entire question that you are asked in every part of the case, and get back to the question before answering.

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Anonymous updated the answer on Jan 07, 2018

At the end, everyone should find an approach that he/she is feeling comfortable with. I experienced that it makes no sense too over-engineer the structure of the first page. However, to me three central points are important:

1. Client (Name, HQ (e.g. US))

2. Situation (try to use appreciations e.g. R for revenue or C for cost)

3. Objective (make sure u literally write down the objective of the case; always make sure that you really understand what the objective is e.g. client wants to break-down within 3 years)

Thus, I always structure my paper accordingly. But also consider that in a real interview you never have time to really prepare an advanced up-front structure of the paper itself.

(edited)

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Originally answered question:

Note taking

Iman
Expert
replied on Jan 09, 2021
BCG | Strategy& |Roland Berger | Interviewed >100 candidates in formal hiring process

Hi,

I would suggest to split your notes into different sheet:

  • First sheet - divide into two part left hand side the case basic information, right hand side the insights / answers you get from the analysis
  • Second sheet - case framework, math formulas
  • Third sheet - your scratch paper

You can always add more pages if required for each sheet.

Best,
Iman

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Guennael
Expert
replied on Oct 22, 2018
Ex-MBB, Experienced Hire; I will teach you not only the how, but also the why of case interviews

Needing multiple pages is not a big issue if you always know what is where - but I agree it is suboptimal when a candidate starts moving things paper around and gets lost due to too many pages.

Here is how I set up my page:

1. At the top of the page, I write the question

2. Right below, I draw out my framework

3. Below still, I do my calculations & write down my significant findings (which I put in a box to quickly find them at the end if needed)

4. On the side, I draw a line ~1 inch away from the edge; at the top of that long rectangle, I write out a couple of words for each interim conclusion I have (useful at BCG if the interviewer doesn't leave me any time to prepare a final recommendation

5. At the bottom of that rectangle, I'll write down crazy ideas I have in the middle of the case but that aren't relevant just at that moment. That will help me not forget, and perhaps use in the 'conclusion / next steps' if I haven't addressed by then

Some people write a lot, or write big. If so, a 2nd page can be useful for the question + recommendation; a 3rd page can also be used for all the math. I think that's probably the maximum number of page most people can properly use in a case; anymore and you will stress yourself out while trying to find what you are looking for.

Hope this helps; good luck!

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Originally answered question:

Taking Notes McKinsey Led

Astrid
Admin
updated an answer on Jan 13, 2017
PrepLounge Head of Product & Marketing

Hi Alice,

Thanks for asking your questions. We're happy to see that you are tapping the full potential of our Consulting Q&A! :)

A great answer by Hermant on how to structure your notes!

Just in case you haven’t seen it, yet, here is another Q&A on organising your notes. Our expert Dolf gives his “best practice”:

Sheet 1 is for the overall structure of the case. If the case is about profit, it could be the general profit formula. If the case is about growth drivers (just an example), it could be a tree with X growth drivers or something. (Bonus trick - turn it into landscape, that's how consultants think, and you will always find the sheet, even if things get hectic).

Sheet 2 is for detailing out the main points of the structure in Sheet 1. For example, if on sheet 1 you have "Profit = Revenue - Cost", then you would start on Sheet 2 with "Revenue", underline it, and detail it out, then the next point.

Sheet 3 is optional, to be used for side calculations to not mess up Sheet 2.

As you can see, there are many different approaches of taking notes. You can try them out and see which one suits you best.

Best of luck for your prep,

Astrid

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(edited)

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Francesco gave the best answer

Francesco

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