Management consulting is a great nonclinical career option for physicians and other medical professionals. It’s interesting, challenging, lucrative, and it can open doors for future career moves to high-level positions in healthcare, pharma, and other sectors. Landing a job with one of the big players in management consulting is no cakewalk, however. You need to demonstrate your accomplishments in your resume. You need to show how your personality is a fit in behavioral interviews. You also need to excel at consulting case interviews.
Case interviews are routinely used by management consulting firms as part of the job interview process. They’re also commonly used in the finance industry (for example, private equity firms) and other industries that have internal consulting departments or analytics teams.
Consulting firms want to hire consultants who are not only bright, but quick in their thinking, able to approach problems from multiple angles, and skilled in their ability to communicate thought processes and results. Case interviews are a way to help them identify these candidates.
What are consulting case interviews?
A consulting case interview is a type of job interview in which the applicant is provided with a hypothetical business problem or other situation and asked a question about it. The candidate must then work through the problem in front of the interviewer and provide a result or solution. Most case interviews are one-on-one interviews lasting about 30 minutes, though group interviews and other variations on the typical format are sometimes used.
Examples of scenarios that might be presented to the candidate in a consulting case interview include:
- A technology company is releasing a new product. What is the estimated market size for the product?
- A pharmaceutical company’s new drug is not selling as expected. What should they do?
- A business is considering opening a second location in a nearby city. Would this make financial sense for them?
Don’t expect healthcare-related cases just because you’re a doctor. In almost all cases, the industry doesn’t matter. It’s your approach to solving a business problem that is being assessed.
Cases start out by providing you with varying levels of detail. Both the scenario that is present and the question that is asked can range from very broad to very specific. Certain facts and figures relating to the case are often provided at the outset, but the candidate may be required to specifically ask the interviewer for certain details. You then need to work through the problem in a way that is as systematic and structured as possible.
Most cases involve this general set of steps:
- Define the problem
- Break down the problem (often with the use of a framework)
- Gather or estimate facts and make assumptions
- Summarize and communicate the result
The concept of a consulting case interview can seem foreign to physicians who are new to the world of business. Practice and preparation will get you far when pursuing a job in consulting. That said, as a doctor, you have more relevant skills for nailing case interviews than you might think.
How doctors can excel at consulting case interviews
Some doctors don’t feel qualified for case interviews when, in fact, there are a lot of similarities to situations we encounter in clinical medicine and the types of thinking we use when seeing patients. Certain problem solving skills you use as a doctor can be easily adapted to solve the problems presented in case interviews.
Here are some of the many ways that you can use your background and clinical skills as a doctor to shine in a consulting case interview.
Ask the right questions
In clinical work, a patient’s initial explanation of his symptoms usually lacks a lot of details that are important to making the right diagnosis. How you follow-up in asking questions is key to effective clinical decision-making.
In consulting case interviews, the initial scenario that is presented to you often doesn’t include all of the information you need. You, as the candidate, need to determine what other information is needed and then ask the interviewer for additional details. You must ask relevant questions with an appropriate level of detail.
Assimilate information and figure out what is important
In clinical work, you have a ton of information and data to sort through or to consider obtaining. Some information is relevant to the patient’s presentation, and some is not. You need to determine what is pertinent and then figure how it relates to the clinical picture. There are countless diagnostic tests that you could order to obtain more information, but it usually only makes sense to order a few.
In consulting case interviews, there is similarly a lot of information that might be relevant to the case. The interviewer might throw in an impressive-sounding figure that doesn’t actually impact the case. Moreover, it may be appropriate to ask the interviewer a question like:
What is the company’s annual revenue?
But it would be frowned upon to broadly ask:
What other data do I need to solve this?
One of the most important first steps when presented with a problem in either clinical work or public health is to define what the problem is. Without a solid problem definition, it’s impossible figure out what information is significant and what is missing. Likewise, your first step in a case interview should be to make sure you understand the problem. From there, you can determine what information is important.
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Use your limited time wisely
In clinical work, a delay in making a diagnosis or implementing a treatment plan can mean worsening symptoms or a bad outcome. You need work carefully, yet quickly.
In consulting case interviews, time is similarly of the essence. You need to think fast in order to solve the problem in the allotted time, but rushing through the case without being thoughtful is detrimental. It’s okay to take a minute or so to gather your thoughts. It’s not okay to take 5 minutes thinking in silence.
One of the reasons that consulting firms use case interviews is to evaluate how well you can think under pressure. As a doctor, you’ve almost certainly been under time pressure with a waiting room full of patients or a lengthy census to see on a hospital ward. Your ability to use your limited time wisely will come in handy during a case interview.
Think in a structured manner
In clinical work, your thought process needs to be structured. If it’s not, important findings will slip through the cracks. Many clinical algorithms exist to help doctors with this. Mnemonics are also common; for example, the ABCs of assessing an unresponsive patient or SAD PERSONS for evaluating depression.
Any readers who have been involved in clinical quality improvement studies have likely used frameworks to assist in structured thinking, such as the PDSA (plan-do-study-act) cycle.
In consulting case interviews, frameworks are key to structuring your thinking. Business frameworks are unfamiliar to most physicians, so these require some studying prior to case interviews. These include Porter’s Five Forces, the P’s and C’s of Marketing, and SWOT analysis. Feeling comfortable with these will help you greatly in solving cases.
Perform mental calculations
In clinical work, we frequently have numbers to contend with and interpret. Some data from labs, imaging, and various clinical measurements will impact treatment plans. Often times, precise calculations are needed.
In consulting case interviews, one of the goals is to determine the candidate’s ability to do mental calculations (eg, math without a calculator) quickly and to accurately interpret numbers in the context of a business scenario. Though mental calculations can take some practice for doctors who are used to relying on a calculator, our general comfort in working with numbers, ratios, and statistics is a huge help in approaching case interviews.
Manage uncertainty and accommodate changing information
In clinical work, we never know exactly what will happen next. We do our best to predict the likelihood of a certain diagnosis, the outcome of treatment, or a patient’s prognosis. But we can never be certain. Figuring out the best actions in the face of uncertainty is part of the art of medicine.
Moreover, there is uncertainty in our caseloads and in patient presentations. Who will be the next patient to come through the doors of the ER? How many admissions will there be this shift? There’s no way to know in advance, so we prepare ourselves as best we can.
In consulting case interviews, there are also uncertainties. You might ask the interviewer for a detail that you feel is needed to solve the problem, only to be told that it’s unavailable.
You might get thrown a curveball half-way through the interview. For instance “What if this was a nation-wide health insurance company instead of a small plan with members in a single state?” Consultants need to be prepared to change their approaches and solutions to a business problem based on changing priorities, resources, new information, or other factors.
Make assumptions, but not too many
In clinical work, doctors often need to make assumptions. Assume that a GI bleed in an elderly patient is cancer until proven otherwise, for example. At the same time, making too many assumptions can be detrimental. We have to strike a balance.
In consulting case interviews, assumptions are typically needed to come to a conclusion despite not having every possible piece of data that is relevant to the case. As the interviewee, you need to judge whether it’s appropriate to make an assumption. You might, for example, make assumptions about the size of a population or customer type to estimate a market size. You should tell the interviewer what assumption you’re making and why. That way, he’ll understand your thought process and (hopefully) steer you in the right direction if you’re off base.
Explain your thinking clearly and succinctly
In clinical work, the way you communicate with patients about their clinical workup, diagnosis, and treatment plan is crucial to their understanding, acceptance, and adherence. Few patients are very knowledge about medicine. No patients are mind readers. Good explanations are key to both establishing a relationship and obtaining good clinical outcomes.
As doctors, we also need to explain our thinking to other doctors. Effectively presenting patient cases during hand-offs or when asking for a consult is critical to achieving continuity of care and the best outcomes.
In consulting case interviews, you can come to a wonderful solution to the case you’re given, but you won’t receive high marks if you don’t explain your thought process. Interviewers are less interested in the final conclusion you come to than they are in how you arrived at that conclusion. You need to communicate your thinking and rationale as you go.
Ask for help
In clinical work, it’s common and expected to ask for help. When a clinical situation is beyond the scope of our expertise, we refer to the patient to another specialist. When we’re somewhat unsure of the next step in management, we consult with the literature or clinical practice guidelines – sometimes while the patient is right there in the room with us. Accepting the fact that we don’t have all the answers is crucial to being a good clinician.
In consulting case interviews, you might get stuck or not even know where to begin. Rather than flounder for a full 30 minutes with nothing to show for your efforts at the end, you need to ask the interviewer for help. There are some tactful ways to do it. For example:
Am I on the right track here?
My understanding of the problem is XYZ, is this accurate?
I’m unsure of what to make of XYZ, is there any additional information you can share about it?
Or, if you’re really uncertain of how to approach a case:
I’m afraid I’m not sure where to begin here. Do you have any recommendations to help me get started?
This approach is better than struggling by yourself for 30 minutes. It’s not ideal, but your interviewer will likely appreciate your honesty and your ability to identify that fact that you need some help.
Describe pros, cons, and trade-offs
In clinical work, every treatment and diagnostic test comes with at least some level of risk. Weighing risks and benefits is part of every clinical decision. Ensuring that the patient understands the risks and benefits of a treatment or test is part of each decision, as well.
In consulting case interviews, you’ll need to determine the pros, cons, and trade-offs of a business problem. And you’ll need to describe them to the interviewer and use them to justify the conclusion you come to.
Accept that there is no single right answer
In clinical work, there is often no single best approach to managing a patient. This is especially true in complex cases. We use evidence-based medicine when possible, but sometimes the evidence is lacking or there are “real world” factors that make the evidence less applicable than it was in a clinical trial. This is the reason that patients get second opinions, that clinical specialists debate with one another, and that multidisciplinary teams exist.
In consulting case interviews, you similarly need to be accepting that there is no single right answer to most business problems. You need to be both analytical and creative at the same time in order to come to a reasonable conclusion. Your interviewer might challenge your conclusion. Don’t interpret this as being wrong; rather, think of it as an opportunity to explain your reasonable and support your findings.
Prepare to be judged on more than just your knowledge
In clinical work, you can be an extremely knowledgeable about science and medicine, but you still might have dissatisfied patients if your bedside manner or communication skills are lacking.
In consulting case interviews, you’ll be evaluated on more than just your answers to business case scenarios. Your eye contact, energy, timeliness, and communication skills are equally important. These factors can make or break your candidacy.
Consulting case interview practice and prep
As a doctor, you may not have business or consulting experience. But, with some practice, you’ll likely be able to successfully tackle consulting case interviews. You’re used to high stakes situations, thinking on the spot, working with numbers, and communicating your conclusions.
How to approach specific types of case interviews is beyond the scope of this article, but there are many resources available for this. Free online guides, such as Accenture’s Case Interview Workbook are helpful. Many business school consulting clubs offer case prep workbooks, as well. Books are also useful – check out Hacking the Case Interview and The Ultimate Case Interview Workbook.
Simply being a doctor isn’t enough to land you a job at a top consulting firm. Nonetheless, it gives you a leg up in preparing for case interviews. The thought processes and approaches to problem solving that assist you in your work as a doctor can also assist you in taking the right approaches to case interview scenarios.