Case study tips for assessment day success

Graduate jobs

What is a case study test? Well, one of these is often a part of an assessment day and doing one is a bit like fire-eating. An interviewer will throw a question at you that you've never thought about before and which, at first taste, you think you can't digest.

But with a bit of advice and practice, anyone can tackle a case study with confidence!

The three flavours of case study

They come in three main flavours, which The Gateway calls the Brain Teaser - for example, "Why are manhole covers round?", the Guessestimate - for example, "How many toasters are sold in the UK each year?" and the Business Dissection - for example, "What is The Gap's business model?"

When they use a case study test, employers are trying to find out how you think. Questions such as those above give them some idea of whether you could develop the judgement necessary to advise a range of clients on financial and strategic issues - and so whether you'll make a good management consultant or banker.

The bite-sized approach

So how do you approach case study questions? Our first tip is to ignore their fearsome appearance and break them down into bite-sized chunks.

Brain Teaser questions are relatively rare, so we'll first take an a example from the Guesstimate category. For instance, if you were faced with the question of how many toasters were sold in the UK in 2010, you might go about answering as follows:

"A household usually has one toaster. The average British household consists of three people. Given that the UK population is 60 million, there are 20 million households in the country. A toaster needs to be replaced every four years, so a quarter of households are going to buy a toaster every year. So 5 million toasters were sold in the UK in 2010."

You might go on to add that other places use toasters, such as hospitals, food courts and workplaces, which should also be taken into account. If you estimate that these places buy about 500,000 toasters per annum, your final estimate would be that 5.5 million toasters were sold in the UK last year. And take a bow.

Down to business

But what about the Business Dissection? How should you go about analysing the workings of a high street chain?

As with the Guesstimate questions, the answer is to go through the problem step by step - we recommend starting with general issues that affect all companies, then drilling down into the factors that are relevant to the company's industry and finally thinking specifically about the business at which you've been asked to look.

For example, if asked to dissect The Gap, you could start with general economic factors and make some observations about consumer confidence, whether incomes are rising or falling, and the availability of finance and interest rates.

Next, zoom in a little to focus on the industry in which The Gap operates - that is, the rag trade. Selling clothing to the general public is a highly competitive business where the consumer is king. There's an almost infinite choice of substitute products from rival firms, so sourcing cheap supplies to maintain profit margins is important.

Then you could move on to look at The Gap itself. You might think you don't know much about its business model, but anyone who shops regularly in these shiny barns would be able to produce some insights and, if you don't, you could compare the chain to the outlets where you do buy your threads.

You could give your impressions of The Gap's marketing and branding, locations and ambience of its stores and customer service. You should also consider any factors relating to the geographies in which the company operates.

The Gap is American, but sources its clothes from China. So as Chinese workers ask for wage rises, The Gap faces rising costs and so pressure on its profit margins. Currency spats between China and the US might also be worth referring to at this point.

And remember...

Bravado takes you a long way: the interviewer won't expect you to have all the relevant facts at your fingertips or to produce an answer instantly, but wants you to dazzle them with your thought processes - the secret is to conjure up what you need from logical assumptions and to arrive at a plausible conclusion with a flourish.

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