Case Interview Dress Code

I often get questions about the dress code in a case interview. What follows are 2 such questions and my responses.

Question 1:

I hope you are doing great!

I cannot thank you enough for providing:

  1. The free case interview preparation videos on your blog
  1. My favorite – LOMS sessions at an affordable price and last but not the least
  2. your frequent “insightful” emails sharing interview experience of other candidates

Being a MS student in Computer Science (zero business background/knowledge), I found the material to be the best (value for money) case interview preparation material that I have come across on the internet.

I have been invited to the McKinsey Round 1 in a week’s time for the Associate position (I had three years’ work experience prior to my MS).

As I understand, it consists of two rounds:

–  the McKinsey Problem Solving Test

–  two “breakout” sessions of interviewer-led group case solving

Now to the question – although on the email from the recruiter, the dress code is mentioned to be business casual, am I expected to wear a business suit (it is a consulting interview after all)?

I hope you understand — I do not want to come across as an ugly duckling (in business casuals) amongst the candidates (wearing suits), hence I am asking you this question.

Please suggest what should do? Also, I am most interested to hear any other tips that you have regarding the 1st round break out sessions that you might have?

My Reply:

Thank you for your kind note.

If the recruiter says it is business casual, you should dress business casual — but a very nice-looking business casual.

For men, that is dress slacks (wool, sort of like the pants from a suit) as opposed to jeans or cotton pants that would be considered business casual in technology circles (I’ve worked in both), a nice long sleeve shirt or dress shirt, socks, dress shoes. In a business casual environment, you could definitely wear a blazer (no tie) still be considered business casual without being overdressed.

For women, I have no clue about women’s fashion. But hopefully, someone can cross-correlate when a man wears a button-down shirt alone or with a blazer with what a woman wears in a comparable level of dressiness.

If you overdress when the dress code is explicitly business casual, it may cause envy in the eyes of other candidates, but it will backfire with the interviewer. It looks like you are trying way too hard, which is a big turn off.

By the way, I should explain where this guidance comes from. It is the same rule of thumb that we apply on the job when deciding what to wear when visiting clients. The general rule of thumb is to match what the clients wear, but slightly nicer. So, if they wear a suit and tie, wear a nice suit and a nice tie. If they are business casual with jeans, we are business casual with slacks.

If everyone is in a t-shirt and shorts, and we come in a suit and tie… well that’s being tone-deaf and artificially creates an us vs. them dynamic that is counterproductive.

As for your other questions, here is more information on the McKinsey Problem Solving Test.

For the McKinsey Round 1 Interviewer-Led case, take a look at the PDF handout in Look Over My Shoulder® titled “McKinsey Round 1.pdf” (or something like that). It is in the handouts zip file.

Note: this note was not included in the early version of LOMS, so you may need to go back to the site and re-download the handout file (the other files remain the same).

Question 2:

From what I have seen in your website and from having spoken to few others, I realize that it’s likely I might get through the first filtering process, since I have a good school name as a backup, and my academic record and extracurricular activities are not bad.

That brings me to my question. It might sound really strange, but your views would certainly help me out. I have long hair, and wear a ponytail all the time. If I am lucky enough to be invited for an interview, I don’t know if it would be appropriate for me to go with my ponytail. If I manage to do well, and if I am given an offer, then getting rid of the hair is no issue.

Would my long hair come in the way of my assessment at the interview?

My Response:

Short Answer: Yes, the ponytail is a problem.

Long Answer: The underlying question the interviewer asks him/herself is, “Do I want to put this person in front of my client?”

For the top tier firm, the standard rule of thumb in terms of appearance is to dress and appear one level more formal than the client. If they wear blazers, you wear blazers and a tie. If they wear t-shirts, you wear a button-down shirt, etc…

The ponytail kind of ruins the conservative image most firms want to have. I think the ponytail will cause many clients, and therefore interviewers, to be immediately biased against you.

I personally would not put a guy with a ponytail in front of a client. You start off the relationship in the hole which makes the whole thing much harder.

If I were in a case interview, I would probably be skeptical at first. But, if the ponytail guy really nailed the case… and I mean really nailed it (got it right), I would probably pass him but tell him there’s no way he’ll get past the final round with the ponytail. I’d suggest that cutting it off would improve his chances.

First impressions do matter… and the ponytail image is not the image a BCG, Bain, or McKinsey want to convey.