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How to take better, clearer notes during case interviews?

Gauthier asked on Jun 25, 2017 - 13 answers

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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Carlos
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replied on Jun 26, 2017
(On a break) Deloitte S&O BA l Certified by Cornell University for Interview Prep l First timers get 50% off second case
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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

Originally answered:

How to be better at notetaking?

Francesco
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replied on Nov 07, 2017
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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

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.

Originally answered:

Taking Notes McKinsey Led

Hemant
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replied on Jan 12, 2017
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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

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 — Alice on Jan 12, 2017

Ghali 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 !

Jens 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

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.

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.

Anonymous updated his 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)

Guennael
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replied on Oct 22, 2018
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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!

Originally answered:

Taking Notes McKinsey Led

Astrid updated her answer on Jan 13, 2017
PrepLounge Community & Marketing Manager

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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