Unstructured case interviews can seem stressful or daunting to those that have only been preparing for the typical consulting case interview.
Your interviewer may skip some steps you are typically accustomed to in a case interview or try to rush you to get your answer without giving you enough time to structure your thoughts.
If you are unsure of how to best handle unstructured case interviews, we have you covered. By the end of this article, you’ll walk in your unstructured case interview with confidence.
We’ll go through in detail:
- What is an unstructured case interview
- How to solve unstructured case interviews
- Example of an unstructured case interview
- Recommended resources for unstructured case interviews
If you’re looking for a step-by-step shortcut to learn case interviews quickly, enroll in our case interview course. These insider strategies from a former Bain interviewer helped 30,000+ land consulting offers while saving hundreds of hours of prep time.
What is an unstructured case interview?
An unstructured case interview is a business problem that you and the interviewer will solve together through a series of 3-5 questions with discussion built around each. You will often have minimal time to structure your thoughts, have limited data, and jump between topics frequently.
Unstructured case interviews are most frequently asked in final round interviews, usually by more senior interviewers, such as partners or managing directors.
More senior interviewers have more freedom when deciding what case interview to give candidates, so they will often give cases based on their actual work experience, without needing to do much preparation.
As a result, these cases often come off as unstructured compared to the types of case interviews candidates see in their first round interviews, which are explicitly written out and tested before given to candidates.
There are five main distinctions between unstructured case interviews and traditional case interviews.
1. Unstructured case interviews often jump right into the first question of the case
In traditional case interviews, the interviewer will give you the case background information, you’ll summarize the key points back to the interviewer, and then you’ll have some time to ask clarifying questions or create a framework to structure your thoughts.
This may not be the case for an unstructured case interview.
In an unstructured case interview, the interviewer may give you the case background and then immediately ask you the first question of the case.
While you may try to ask the interviewer for a moment to structure your thoughts, they may not give you the time and instead ask you to just start talking.
2. Unstructured case interviews may jump suddenly to a different question
In traditional case interviews, after each question is asked, you’ll likely try to tie the answer back to the overall case objective.
In other words, how did the answer you just reached help you support or change your current hypothesis or working recommendation?
In an unstructured case interview, the interviewer may make you jump to a different question before you have the time to connect your previous answer to the goal of the case.
3. Unstructured case interviews tend to be more qualitative in nature
For traditional case interviews, you’ll spend part of the case doing math. You may be calculating a breakeven point or estimating total annual revenue.
Unstructured case interviews, on the other hand, most often have minimal to no math.
Most questions asked in an unstructured case interview are qualitative in nature, meant to assess your foundational business knowledge and intuition.
4. Unstructured case interviews tend to have more interruptions from your interviewer
In a traditional case interview, the interviewer will usually allow you to finish completing your thoughts before interjecting.
In an unstructured case interview, expect to be interrupted quite frequently.
Remember, just because you are being interrupted does not mean that your answers are poor or that you are on the wrong track.
Most of the time, the interviewer is trying to challenge your thinking or understand how you think.
Unstructured case interviews are meant to be a collaborative discussion, so it is a good thing if your interviewer is excited to interrupt you and respond to what you are saying.
Be prepared to defend your thinking or adjust your thinking and approach as you get new information from the interviewer.
5. Unstructured case interviews may not have a final answer
Sometimes, unstructured case interviews don’t have a final answer. This most often happens if the case that the interview is based on is an ongoing engagement.
A lot of the times, senior interviewers will give you a case that is based on the current project that they are working on. Since the project is still ongoing, a final recommendation has likely not been given yet.
Therefore, the interviewer is asking you the same questions that they are facing to get new ideas, strategies, or approaches for how to think about and solve the case.
If after several rounds of back and forth with the interviewer, you still have not achieved a final answer and have run out of time, don’t worry.
Unstructured case interviews are more meant to assess the quality of discussion between you and the interviewer rather than the ultimate answer that you give.
As long as you had a high-quality discussion with the interviewer, you should be in a great spot.
How to solve unstructured case interviews
It can be difficult solving an unstructured case interview, as the structure of each case can be drastically different from one to another.
However, the following five strategies can be applied to any unstructured case interview. They should significantly improve your case interview performance.
1. Build a strong foundation of business knowledge
In an unstructured case interview, you won’t have much time to think alone in silence.
Therefore, it is imperative to build a strong foundation of business knowledge in order to have a quick instinct for business.
Having a sharp business acumen will help you understand the unstructured case interview better, develop answers or hypotheses quicker, and give answers that make logical and feasible sense.
If you are struggling to understand basic terms used in business, such as market share, profitability, and competitive advantage, you’ll have a difficult time getting through an unstructured case interview.
2. Structure your answers
It is important to at least have a basic structure for every answer that you give. This will make it easier for the interviewer to understand what you are saying.
Most candidates think that it is acceptable to present unstructured thoughts in an unstructured case interview. Don’t do this.
Your structure can be very basic, as simple as enumerating the different reasons that support your answer.
You can also use a simple two-bucket framework, which takes the form of X and not-X. Examples of these frameworks include: economic/non-economic, short-term/long-term, revenue/costs, and demand/supply.
For a complete guide on how to create tailored and unique frameworks for each case, check out our article on case interview frameworks.
3. Caveat your answers
Because you will not have a ton of concrete information in an unstructured case interview, it is important to caveat your answers where appropriate.
You do not want to take an aggressive and bold stance on an answer if you do not have all the information to be able to support it.
Therefore, when giving your answer, realize that there are assumptions that you are making.
Try to caveat your answer by explaining the assumptions you are making. This makes your answer much more robust and easier to change if needed.
4. Be flexible and coachable
In an unstructured case interview, you should not expect your answer to remain the same throughout the entire case.
The interviewer will be challenging your thoughts and providing some new perspectives or information as you go.
Therefore, it is important that you are flexible and okay with changing your answer.
Listen to the clues and nudges that the interviewer is giving you. If they go against your current working answer, you may want to modify or even completely change it.
Remember, the interviewer is on your side. They are trying to get you to reach the right answer, if there is one. So listen to their advice!
5. Check in with the interviewer often
In an unstructured interview, it will be easy to get off track or go down tangents.
Therefore, it is important to frequently check in with the interviewer.
What we mean by this is that before going down a certain path of the case interview, ask the interviewer if they agree with your approach.
When giving an answer to your interviewer’s questions, ask them if they agree with your answer.
This is an easy way to check in with the interviewer to make sure you are going down the right path and are also giving answers that seem reasonable to them.
Example of an unstructured case interview
Below is an example of an unstructured case interview. This unstructured case is based off an actual case interview that a candidate received in their final round Bain interview.
Interviewer: Our client sells vacation timeshares. In case you don’t know what a timeshare is, it is an ownership arrangement in which multiple individuals share ownership and access to a vacation property.
Typically, each owner of the property is allowed to use the property for a designated portion of the year.
Our client is considering acquiring a timeshare exchange company, which facilitates the trading of timeshare intervals between owners. This enables them to swap their allocated time at their own property for equivalent time at a different location within the company’s network of affiliated resorts.
We are trying to assess whether this acquisition makes sense.
Let’s start off with this question: Why would someone buy a timeshare?
Candidate: That sounds great. Could I get a moment to structure my thoughts?
Interviewer: Let’s just jump right into it. what immediately comes to mind when I ask why someone would want to own a timeshare?
Candidate: There are a couple of reasons I can think of. One, people might buy a timeshare because it may save them on long-term vacation costs. If the vacation destination is a popular and expensive one, owning a timeshare may save money compared to booking a hotel every year.
Two, people might buy a timeshare for their investment potential. If there is significant property value appreciation, timeshare owners could get a high return on investment if they wanted to sell their timeshare.
Three, people might buy a timeshare because it is a more affordable option than buying 100% of a vacation property. By pooling money across different individuals, timeshares enable individuals to own property that they otherwise could not afford.
Do these reasons make sense to you?
Interviewer: Those sound like excellent reasons. You could have also mentioned that some people value consistency. A timeshare enables people to return to the same property and location every year, which gives timeshare owners a reliable vacation destination.
Now, let’s think through why would a timeshare owner do a timeshare exchange?
Candidate: There are two reasons I can think of. One, timeshare owners may want a variety of different vacation destinations. They may get bored with going to the same place every year.
Two, timeshare owners may not be able to use their allocated timeshare week or period due to personal commitments or schedule changes. An exchange would allow them to switch to a different week in which they are available to use.
Interviewer: Makes sense to me. Given what we’ve discussed so far, what value would owning a timeshare exchange provide our client?
Candidate: I can think of a few different ways a timeshare exchange could add value to our client.
One, it could improve customer satisfaction. A timeshare exchange provides timeshare owners with greater flexibility. They have the option to change the dates of their vacation and the locations of their vacations.
Two, it could provide a differentiating factor in distinguishing our client from other timeshare companies. If we are the only company that offers exchanges to our customers, then perhaps more customers will buy timeshares from our client.
Three, it is another source of revenue. By offering exchanges and charging fees for exchange, we can increase the average revenue we generate per customer.
This leads me to think that owning a timeshare exchange company makes a lot of sense financially.
Interviewer: Those make sense. Can you think of anything else?
Candidate: Another idea I had is that having a timeshare exchange could increase retention. Instead of selling their timeshares, perhaps some timeshare owners would keep their timeshare and exchange them instead. This provides a more stable customer base.
Interviewer: I think those are all the major reasons. Now, let’s think through what are the potential complications or issues with owning a timeshare exchange. What comes to mind?
Candidate: The primary issue I can think of is complexity. Operating an exchange company involves managing relationships with multiple individuals, handling reservations, and providing customer service to serve customers.
As a result, our client would be less focused on selling timeshares if our client also has to deal with offering timeshare exchange services.
Interviewer: That is an interesting point. Do you think there is a potential for sales cannibalization? In other words, by having a timeshare exchange offering, would customers purchase fewer timeshares?
Candidate: That is a good point. Personally for me, if I had the option of purchasing a second timeshare or participating in a timeshare exchange, I would choose the latter.
I can’t speak to what all customers would do, but I imagine there would at least be some level of sales cannibalization. This leads me to think that we need to calculate the impact cannibalization would have on our revenues to see if owning a timeshare exchange company would actually increase revenues overall.
Interviewer: I would agree with that. I think we are running out of time, but thanks so much for talking through all of these points with me. I hope that you found the case interesting.
Candidates: It was a very interesting case. Thanks for your time!
For more practice, check out our article on 23 MBA consulting casebooks with 700+ free practice cases.
Recommended resources for unstructured case interviews
Unstructured case interviews can be tough because you need a strong foundation of business knowledge, the ability to quickly think on your feet, and a clear, concise communication style.
To prepare for unstructured case interviews as well as the traditional consulting case interviews, we highly recommend the following resources:
- Comprehensive Case Interview Course (our #1 recommendation): The only resource you need. Whether you have no business background, rusty math skills, or are short on time, this step-by-step course will transform you into a top 1% caser that lands multiple consulting offers.
- Hacking the Case Interview Book (available on Amazon): Perfect for beginners that are short on time. Transform yourself from a stressed-out case interview newbie to a confident intermediate in under a week. Some readers finish this book in a day and can already tackle tough cases.
- The Ultimate Case Interview Workbook (available on Amazon): Perfect for intermediates struggling with frameworks, case math, or generating business insights. No need to find a case partner – these drills, practice problems, and full-length cases can all be done by yourself.
- Case Interview Coaching: Personalized, one-on-one coaching with former consulting interviewers
- Behavioral & Fit Interview Course: Be prepared for 98% of behavioral and fit questions in just a few hours. We'll teach you exactly how to draft answers that will impress your interviewer
- Resume Review & Editing: Transform your resume into one that will get you multiple interviews