By students, for students.

Cracking the case: how to survive the assessment centre

In Coaching, Management on January 20, 2013 at 12:32 am

Cracking Eggs 03

As assessment centre season rolls on, HBR offers you some insight into the daunting hurdles between you and employment – and seeks to help you clear them.

Whether over the phone, in groups or in interview, a large proportion of graduates will go through case study exercises before securing their first job. These can be daunting for those without a background in business and who might feel unprepared compared to those who use SWOT diagrams and matrices daily.

Never fear! Businesses call upon case studies for the very reason that there is no unique qualifying background for many occupations. Instead, case studies seek to test general analytical and problem-solving skills. Case studies usually simulate a discussion about a business decision regarding either a problem with the company, product or competitors or an opportunity which requires exploration. The point is not to arrive at the ‘right’ solution, rather to proceed logically, raise questions, identify key issues, use frameworks and demonstrate creativity, confidence and poise. Phew! Got all that?

McKinsey & Co, world leaders in problem solving, suggest the following approach:

  1. Understand the question: ask for clarification where unclear
  2. Think broadly: don’t get bogged down in any single issue before useful areas have been explored
  3. Break down problem into logical structure
  4. Don’t be afraid to request additional information: as you better understand the problem the need for more information may become clear
  5. Test emerging thoughts: question whether you are answering the question asked
  6. Conclude: synthesise thoughts concisely and develop a recommendation, discuss trade-offs and relate back to question

McKinsey decision

That’s all very well in principle, but how do you get from an open question to an insightful response?

Learning a few basic frameworks 

There are not many better starts than Porter’s Five Forces, one of the most widely-used frameworks in business. Like any framework, it is not complete, but it is useful starting point for any discussion. Porter posits that, at the most fundamental level, there are five primary forces which determine relative competitive advantage in industries:

  • Threat of new entrants – entrants have to overcome barriers including economies of scale, product differentiation, access to distribution channels/raw materials/favourable locations and information costs.
  • Bargaining power of buyers/customers – buyer groups have influence if they are concentrated, purchase at large volumes, face small switching costs and are deciding between undifferentiated products.
  • Bargaining power of suppliers – the industry is vulnerable if it is an unimportant customer of the supplier, if the supplier group is a crucial input to the buyer’s business or suppliers pose a credible threat of forward integration.
  • Threat of substitute products – comparable products which compete on price, place, promotion or benefits are disruptive to the existing order.
  • Rivalry with competitors – competition increases if industry demonstrates slow growth, high fixed costs, well-balanced rivals or a lack of differentiation.

These factors are important because they impact businesses’ ability to make money. Competition pressurises firms into minimising price and adding benefits to attract customers. Therefore, markets with intense competition allow only minimal profit margins. Conversely, mild competition gives companies the freedom to operate at wider profit margins.

Hopefully, this has started you on the right track. Other frameworks to look out for include (click to enlarge):


Keep calm, progress logically and remember that recruiters don’t want experts, they want thinkers. Good luck!


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