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Note-taking techniques

Anonymous A asked on Apr 25, 2018 - 3 answers


Having done plenty of preparation on preplounge, I am still unsure how to take notes during the case. Apparently, interviewers take your notes after the interview and use them as part of the assessment. Hence, I want to master this skill.

The approach I've heard of is using 1 piece of paper for 'clean' work, such as writing down the hypothesis, the issue tree etc. and another one for 'dirty' work, e.g. to do computations. However, there are plenty of other questions left unanswered:

1. How do you take notes on the initial problem? Write down only numbers and keywords? Should you take those notes on the 'clean' paper as the way I do it now looks a bit messy, very brief and might not make sense to the interviewer?

2. Do you write down your entire hypothesis on paper?

3. Should I draw the entire issue tree before I start talking? Or should I draw as much as I can (1-2 layers) within 1-2 minutes of silence and draw the rest as I go on with the discussion (to avoid an excessively long silence)?

4. For the brainstorming questions (interviewer-led cases), should I just write down all of my ideas on the 'clean' paper and put those ideas into categories verbally as I start my speech? Or should I rather take a few more seconds to think of broad categories, write them down and list a few ideas for each on the 'clean' paper?

5. Would you suggest to write down the conclusion on the piece of paper, i.e. the final recommendation and 1-3 reasons behind it? My current approach is that I just take a few seconds to summarise everything in my head and talk through the conclusion without writing anything on paper.

6. Finally, what exactly do you think should be written on the 'clean' and 'dirty' papers?

I would also be grateful if you could share any sources demonstrating notetaking during the actual case. Apologies if some questions have been answered on the Q&A forum; I was unable to find relevant answers while going through the forum.

Thank you

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replied on Apr 25, 2018
Bain & Company | University of Cambridge | CV/Resume writing | 770 GMAT
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Hi Anonymous,

Using two sheets, one for clean and one for "dirty" work is generally a good idea to separate your structure and thinking from rough calculations. To answer your questions:

1) You will not be evaluated on your ability to take clear notes when you are given the initial prompt. What is important is that you can understand it - therefore, use the least possible level of detail so that you can still clearly understand the key points". I would always take these notes at the top of the "clean" paper, as they form the context of the entire problem and should be referred to throughout the case.

2) Similar to above: as long as it is clear enough that you can verbally explain it, it's fine. I certainly wouldn't fully write it out (e.g. "Profitability has decreased due to increased costs")

3)This really depends but I would generally write out the full issue tree which you intend to take your interviewer through in your opening structure. It is likely that during discussion this will be expanded, at which point it is perfectly fine to expand it further.

4) I would recommend to first think of categories, and then write down specific ideas. For example, if the question is "how are some ways this MNC could increase its profits" you might first break it down into:

  • Existing business
    • Revenue
      • idea 1, Idea 2, etc.
    • Costs
      • idea 1, idea 2, etc.
  • New business
    • New markets
      • Ideas: acquire, organic, JV, etc.
    • Existing market
      • Ideas: acquire, adjacancies, etc.

5) This depends on the case. When the interviewer asks you to make a final recommendation, ask if you can have a minute to structure your thoughts. Some interviewers will want you to answer on the spot (pressure test), in which case you shouldn't write anything. If they give you a minute, then you should definitely write out the (brief) structure exactly as you say with supporting points. To shine in the interview it can also be recommended to add some additional colour on top of the standard "Conclusion is X because of A, B, C" - for example, you might lay out "low hanging fruit" vs "long term goals", or suggest immediate next steps / what further analysis you would want to do if you had the time.

6) It is not worth wasting any time transcribing things from the "dirty" to the "clean" paper. Dirty should be used primarily for rough calculations, while clean is for your structure, notes, and cleaned numbers.

Hope this helps!

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replied on Apr 26, 2018
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Hi Anonymous,

you don’t necessarily need to have two pieces of papers for “clean” and “dirty”, although for long math computations a separate paper could be handy. My recommendations 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

After the first page, you could still divide the page in four parts. Left and right could now be at the same distance. Top areas should be smaller to leave more space for the structures:

  • 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

Besides that you should also

  • 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 which produces steel which has four plants, with a revenue problem, your notes could be something as Steel producer, R (arrow down), 4 plants

I provided an answer to your questions below:

  1. As for the previous structure they could go in bottom left in the first page
  2. You don’t necessarily need to write down your hypothesis – you can simply show the interviewer the part of structure you want to focus first. If you prefer to write it down though that would be ok as well
  3. You should be able to complete the full structure in 1-2 minutes, and at the bare minimum all the first level of the structure, thus when doing mock interviews you should keep that as target. I would not recommend taking more than that time as the interviewer could ask to start after that. If there is any second-third level you are unable to complete due to the fact that the interviewer wants to start, you can complete later when explaining the structure.
  4. It’s better to think about broader categories, in order to show you are able to structure when brainstorming
  5. It’s totally fine to write down the solution points if the interviewer allows time for that in the conclusion
  6. As mentioned you won’t necessarily need two “clean” and “dirty” pages. If you want to keep such division, I would use the “dirty” page for long math computation.



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!

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