Coping with case studies for graduate jobs
Case studies used at graduate assessment centres allow an employer to see you in action. An interview is all about you telling recruiters what you can do; the case study is about showing them, and so it’s arguably one of the fairest and most realistic components of a typical assessment day.
The case study exercise can be for individuals or groups. You will usually be given some information about a work-related scenario and invited to examine the evidence before presenting your findings and solutions. You may also be drip-fed additional information to assess and respond to throughout the allocated time.
Case studies are particularly popular in assessment centres for graduate jobs in banking, financial services, accountancy and management consulting, but they can also be part of assessments for other business sectors and industries. They are typically based on real-life business developments.
Ella Wilkinson, graduate recruitment manager at consultancy firm McKinsey & Company, explains, ‘Our case studies are based on real client situations and problems, giving the candidate greater insight into what the role involves and the employer an opportunity to assess how a candidate will get on in the role.’
Example case study exercises
The following group exercise is a genuine investment case study. Candidates have to work together to find answers and respond to incoming news and data. They then have to make a presentation to a ‘management board’.
A publisher of scientific journals and books is looking to make a significant acquisition. It has identified a target company and approached a number of investment banks for their views on the merits of a potential deal and a target price. Based on these presentations, the publisher will decide whether to proceed with a bid and, if so, select one bank to act as their adviser.
Your team is one of the investment banks bidding to win the mandate. You need to analyse the figures provided; to review the marketplace, your potential client (the publisher) and the target company; and to prepare a five-minute presentation giving your recommendations, eg whether to go ahead, go ahead under specific conditions, etc.
How to prepare for the case study exercise in advance
Part of the aim of the exercise is to see how you cope with the unfamiliar, but research will still boost your confidence and help you tackle issues in a more informed way.
Read the organisation’s graduate recruitment literature and check its website for sample case studies and recent press releases. Try to get a feel for the type of work it’s involved in and the kind of business decisions it has to make or advise clients on.
Although you won’t be expected to have extensive, detailed business knowledge, reading the business pages of newspapers will help you to get a feel for current activity in the business world. If you are attending an assessment centre for an industry such as manufacturing or construction, make sure you’re aware of any issues and developments in these sectors.
Practise your mental arithmetic, as you are likely to have to demonstrate your quantitative ability without a calculator.
Check with your careers service, as many run workshops and presentations on how to successfully prepare for case study exercises and assessment centres.
You can also practise for case study exercises online.
How to approach the case study exercise on the day
You need to be clear about what you’re being asked to do. Understand what the problem is, what your role is and what your objectives are. It would be a shame to spoil a brilliant presentation by having missed the basic point of the exercise. Start by reading through the information pack and assessing which parts of the information are relevant.
Manage your time. If you’re working in a group you could volunteer to be the timekeeper, or ensure that someone else takes on this role. Allow time to prepare for the final presentation at the end of the session, and be realistic about how much you can fit in to it.
If you’re working in a small group you could divide up the tasks between you. You could nominate someone to assess any new information passed to the group during the course of the exercise. You could also nominate a note-keeper.
Don’t dominate, but do contribute to discussions. Articulate what you’re thinking so the assessors can see how you approach problems. Ask for more information or clarification if you’re unsure.
Don’t lose sight of your objectives. The final presentation should be relevant, clear and concise, and should include a summary of your conclusions and recommendations.
Tips for great presentations at graduate assessment centres
Make sure the presentation is delivered in an appropriate style for the target audience. If you are asked to make a recommendation or give a view, make this the start point of your presentation, and then present your reasoning and analysis.
If you have three points to make and only three minutes are allowed, that’s roughly 60 seconds per point. Think carefully about who and how many people will present back – switching between presenters needs to be quick and slick. If you don’t present back, nominate yourself as someone who will respond to questions.
Abby Cox, graduate recruitment and development manager at Allianz Insurance, says, ‘Great presentations stand out because of good organisation in terms of how the information is presented; well thought out points; and a confident presentation style. Be clear, don’t rush through what you’re saying and speak with conviction.’
What skills do you need to show in the case study exercise?
The case study exercise is designed to assess some or all of the following skills:
Analysis. How well you assimilate and evaluate large amounts of unfamiliar information.
Problem solving. There will probably be no one right answer, but you’ll need to show that you can respond to information in a logical and constructive way.
Flexibility. How you adjust to a constant drip-feed of new information.
Time management. Managing activities to complete the task in the allocated time.
Teamworking and leadership. How well you work with and and facilitate others. The role you take within the group.
Commercial awareness. Being up to speed with what is currently happening in the business world.
Presentation. Your ability to present concise findings in a confident, clear and appropriate order.