Helga Kirchner: "Case competitions involve working closely with companies, which helps candidates decide whether this type of work and the organisation are ultimately the right fit for them."
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What is a case competition?

Companies and business schools sponsor case competitions and invite teams of students to solve real-world business problems. These problems include evaluating new ventures and resolving management dilemmas with time-critical deadlines. Using all this information, the teams formulate their recommended action plans, which are presented to the chief executive and board of directors.

The longest-running competition, nearly 30 years strong, is hosted by the University of Texas’s McCombs School of Business in the United States.

Not everyone can solve problems quickly and generate consensus, but those who aspire to become tomorrow’s leaders must be able to demonstrate these virtues. What better way for MBA students to show these qualities than by competing against each other in case competitions.

What do recruiters look for?

A case competition makes it possible for recruiters to evaluate profiles of candidates in greater depth than is possible through interviews alone. It is an opportunity to see them work under pressure, especially when it comes to defending the collective results of their team’s work.

Companies also observe the profiles of each group. Successful teams recruit carefully and aim for a broad mix of employment backgrounds and cultural diversity in the hope of putting together a business plan that can take them through to the final.

Wolfgang Most, human resources director for Indra Business Consulting, a Spanish strategy and business management consultancy, explains: “The cases are so demanding that it is possible to clearly differentiate between a soundly structured team that has worked well on the case and covered all of the end-to-end objectives, and another team that has done little beyond a superficial approach and an average analysis.”

Why should students take part in a case competition?

For participants, these contests are a great way to apply what they have learnt in their MBA. Participants must demonstrate various competencies that would make them more marketable when it comes to seeking employment opportunities:

  • Problem-solving: the ability to resolve complex dilemmas
  • Personal impact: the ability to work well with your team members and manage conflict
  • Leadership: the willingness to take personal risks and influence the team to gain consensus
  • Drive and motivation: the desire to achieve results and excel

The presentation of the final results to the company’s panel of judges develops participants’ presentation skills, which are useful for real-world scenarios, such as pitching to clients to win new business.

What can students achieve from taking part in competitions?

The winning team may walk away with a small amount of seed capital or the opportunity to do an internship with the sponsoring company. But taking part is not just about winning prizes and gaining prestige.

An MBA student and contestant from Esade Business School in Spain, managed to secure a job offer, for example. The case he worked on was about the Czech communications market and whether a fourth mobile telephone licence should be launched or if the decision should be postponed.

“As a result, I gained a far better understanding of how consulting projects are run and vastly improved my chances of securing an offer,” he says.

Case competitions involve working closely with companies, which helps candidates decide whether this type of work and the organisation are ultimately the right fit for them.

Another student from the same school also got an interview with sportswear company Adidas as a prize for winning a case competition. The interview successfully turned into an internship, which she converted into a full-time job at Adidas in Germany.

Can competitions help students to broaden their network?

Yes competitions can definitely help students expand their contacts. Through these experiences, students have the opportunity to network with company representatives, but also with students from other business schools.

In several cases, students have stayed in touch with company representatives and leveraged these contacts for their future careers. Some participants have even launched their own ventures.

Any tips for students taking part in case competitions?

Talk to teams who took part in previous competitions so you can learn from them. Find out more about the judges and try and predict what questions they will ask. Once you have prepared your answers, assign appropriate team members to answer these: it is important to choose your team carefully. Also remember to work on your presentation skills.

Helga Kirchner is director of career management at Esade Business School in Spain.

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