Case in Point: Book Review

I finished reading Marc Cosentino’s Case in Point: Complete Case Interview Preparation in January 2010. I previously read this book in 2007, but I re-read it this year to reacquaint myself with some techniques in tackling case interview questions. If you’re preparing for a case interview, then my recommendation is to purchase this book to help you prepare.

The introductory quote to this book is clever:

The mind is wondrous. It starts working from the second you’re born and doesn’t stop until you get a case question.

And so, the premise behind this book: to learn how to prepare for the case interview question.

And what is the case interview? It’s a type of interview typically held by consulting firms such as McKinsey, Boston Consulting Group, Bain, Monitor Group, and many others. The purpose is to see how the applicant can apply business fundamentals in solving a (usually) real-life case revolving around business principles such as increasing profits, creating a larger marketing presence for a particular product, pricing a product, reducing costs, etc.

In the rest of this review, I explain how the book is organized, what you will learn in each section, and where appropriate, my comments regarding the different sections.

Organization
The book is organized into nine sections, with lengths varying from a single page to one hundred twenty pages. The chapters/sections, explained briefly, are below.

  1. Introduction. Mr. Cosentino begins this book by describing a case question and explaining that “consulting firms are in the business of renting out brains.” What do consultants do? They synthesize data, purge irrelevant or inconsequential information, structure an approach to an issue, and provide recommendations/solutions to the respective clients who have hired the consultants. This is a one page section, but Mr. Cosentino reassures the readers of this book that he has relevant experience regarding the case interview: he has been a career officer at Harvard University for over eighteen years, and he has helped more than ten thousand students prepare for case interviews. Even though this introduction is just one page long, Mr. Cosentino sets the record straight: he will prepare you for the case interview if you read this book, but he advises you to read the entire book and not to skip any pages.
  2. Interview. In this chapter, you’ll find how the typical consulting interview is structured. To be sure, you’ll face the typical behavior questions such as “Tell me about yourself” or “Tell me of a time you showed leadership skills?” (how do you answer that?) or “Have you ever failed at anything?” (quick tip: be sure to answer yes for this one). There’s a handy-dandy box which outlines some reasons why you’d want to enter the consulting field (“You’ll work and learn from intelligent and articulate people” and “You’ll be exposed to many industries” are some good reasons; a bad reason is “It will always look good on your resume”). This section also provides some helpful questions which you could ask the consulting firm or your interviewer (“What type of work does an entry-level consultant do?” and “How is a case team picked?”). Finally, this section concludes with tips on how to handle the “stress interview” (where you’re put on the defensive with a barrage of questions coming at you) and advice for international students (since consultants typically present their cases to clients, it is essential to work on minimizing one’s accent, for instance).
  3. Case Questions. This chapter explains what the case question in great detail. In “The Case Commandments” section, Mr. Cosentino gives thirteen excellent tips on how to go through the case interview (for example: how to properly manage your time, to make sure to ask clarifying questions, and to be coachable). The chapter also explains the types of case questions (such as “brainteasers,” for which you might pick up this book to better prepare, and “back-of-the-envelope” questions, which often involve doing some calculations, such as figuring out the weight of a Boeing 747 airplane). This chapter also includes a short note on what you shouldn’t do (things which could annoy the interviewer, such as asking to repeat the question multiple times, going on a five minute spiel/monologue, and speaking too fast).
  4. The Ivy Case System. This is an important chapter which provides a solid framework on how to approach and solve case questions. The Ivy Case System developed by Mr. Cosentino consists of two parts: the four steps to begin the approach and the approach in tackling twelve popular case scenarios. The four steps are: summarizing the question, verifying the objective (the case question always has at least one objective), ask clarifying questions, and lay out your structure to solve the case. The twelve case scenarios are as follows:

    (1) Entering a New Market
    (2) Industry Analysis
    (3) Mergers and Acquisitions
    (4) Developing a New Product
    (5) Pricing Strategies
    (6) Growth Strategies
    (7) Starting a New Business
    (8) Competitive Response
    (9) Increasing Sales
    (10) Reducing Costs
    (11) Increasing the Bottom Line (Profits)
    (12) Turnarounds

    For each of the twelve scenarios above, you’ll be exposed to the typical questions you should ask when encountering a case question which fits into one of those categories. The best part of this section is that you’ll see a graphical tree chart which summarizes the approach. The end of this chapter includes a very helpful “Ivy Case System at Glance,” which outlines the approach and elements for each type of case question type. For example, in Mergers and Acquisitions, you’ll break down your approach to covering the objectives, the price (and how to pay), performing due diligence, and explaining possible exit strategies. If you’re asked to reduce costs, you can reasonably break down the approach into assessment of the situation, and ultimately performing an internal cost analysis (union wages, supplies, materials, economies of scale) as well as an external cost analysis (state of the economy, interest rates, government regulations). For each of the twelve case types, you’ll find a similar breakdown.

  5. Additional Tools and Frameworks. This chapter explores some supplements to the Ivy Case System. One of the frameworks you’ll learn about is the “Five C’s and Four P’s” (Company, Costs, Competition, Consumers/Clients; Product, Price, Place, Promotions). There’s also a small section on the BCG Matrix, which you can read more about in an excellent Wikipedia article. Also discussed is Michael Porter’s “Five Forces” case framework and a framework developed at McKinsey known as the 7-S Model. This chapter also has a very helpful section on “If” scenarios, useful for cases dealing with sales, profit scenarios (example: if profits are declining while revenues are increasing, it is useful to review change in costs, changes in prices, the product mix, or change in customers’ needs), and product scenarios (example: if a product is in its emerging growth stage, it is fruitful to concentrate on the R&D, competition, and pricing). The last part of this chapter contains some business case tips, including a one page peer advice from students who successfully went through the case interviews.
  6. Practice Cases. This is the meat of this book: one hundred twenty pages of thirty-six (36) practices cases. If you’ve previously read about how to approach the case interview but just need to go through more practice cases, this is the chapter to read. The 36 cases touch upon all of the twelve case scenarios listed in the Ivy Case System. My recommendation for reading this chapter is to read the case question and write out your own initial thoughts and approach on a separate paper. You cannot answer the entire case question on your own because the nature of the case question revolves divulging important information relevant to the case depending on the prompts/questions you ask the interview. In effect, most of the cases are read through (which perhaps is a major limitation of this book). There are other case preparation guides which contain charts, graphs, and other information required to solve the case from the beginning. You won’t see this approach in this book (because the practice cases are actual interview conversations), but nevertheless, it is still extremely helpful to read through the cases. You’ll find excellent responses as well as mediocre ones (the end of each case question ends with a comment on the approach taken and how well the student answered the case question). To be sure, you’ll also find incredible responses, to the point where you might question how it would have been possible to even approach the elaborate, clever, and such well-organized responses.
  7. The Roommate’s Guide. This is a one page section which outlines what to do if you’re the friend that was asked (or as Mr. Cosentino puts it, “begged, bribed, or blackmailed”) into helping your friend(s) prepare for the case questions. The review list consist of a bulleted list of questions such as “Did they ask probing questions?” and “Were they well-organized?” to “Did they have a positive attitude?” and other subjective questions. The best part of this section is the “Aftermath,” which simply concludes with a single bullet point of “Go out on the town.”
  8. Final Analysis. This section is only a half-page long, but it perhaps contains the most important advice: no matter how hard you prepare, it is vitally important to come to the case interview with a perspective of self-worth and confidence. In other words, methodical preparation will only go so far in the case interview; the rest of your evaluation is how you come across in terms of personality, confidence, and demeanor.
  9. Consulting Buzzwords. This is a short glossary of key terms which you should be familiar with (or rather, know very well). Some business terms which are listed in this glossary include barrier to entry, cost-benefit analysis, depreciation, economies of scale, interest expense, market share, overhead, price-based costing, variable cost, and venture capital. This is a very short section and definitely not exhaustive.

Conclusion
If you’re preparing for the case interview, Marc Cosentino’s Case in Point is an excellent resource. I do recommend reading it from cover to cover. While the methods and practice cases presented in the book will help you create excellent strategies in tackling/approaching/solving case questions, I should mention that reading the book on its own is not a substitute for a solid education in business, finance, and economics. Those of you in an MBA program are already on the right track; undergraduate students in a non-business major may want to invest in a solid economics textbook and a book on basic financial principles. Overall, having read through numerous case preparation books, I do think that Case in Point is worth your time and money; you’ll learn the solid framework and practice from the numerous (36) case questions this book has to offer. If you’ve already read the book and looking to practice more cases, check out CaseQuestions.com, the complementary website of Case in Point.

As Mr. Cosentino puts it: Case closed!