How to read and prepare an HBS-style MBA Case

HBS is among the most prolific producers of Business School case studies

HBS is among the most prolific producers of Business School case studies

MBA classrooms all over the world use cases to teach. Each case tells the story of a business problem from the point-of-view of a “case protagonist.” Cases ground a future conversation about what the protagonist should do, and the goal of that conversation is to arrive at some insight that students can use when facing similar business challenges in the future.

While many business schools write cases for use in their classrooms as well as others, all cases generally follow the same format: a page setting up the situation, followed by some pages of background historical information, a longer narrative of the problem, the decision to be made, and concluding with numerous pages of data and exhibits. The cases are short, but are meant to be comprehensive for the following case conversation. This makes the case conversation more realistic as business leaders often have to lead their firms through uncertainty and with limited information.

Sounds simple, right?

In fact, it’s deceptively simple. Cases end up being remarkably dense, making them much harder and slower to read than a Wall Street Journal article. Their stories open up a million doors, making it difficult to tell where the case conversation might actually go. Their data can be analyzed in a million different ways, each taking up valuable time that could be spent preparing for other classes or recruiting interviews. So how can you work smarter and prepare the case properly?

1. Know where the case fits into the curriculum

The first case in a class is a special introductory case meant to include and highlight all of the topics you’ll cover over the course. The last case is a capstone summarizing all of the concepts previously covered. Usually one or both of the two were previously used as the basis for a final exam. All the other cases in the sequence (except those meant to accommodate the personal schedules of visiting case protagonists) are meant to illustrate an incremental concept within a module. Look at the syllabus for clues as to what those concepts might be so that you can run the analysis before class. Examples might include calculating the appropriate WACC in finance or analyzing the 4 P’s in marketing.

2. Before you start reading, set a timer

Parkinson's Law states that work will expand to consume all the resources available to it. The same goes for cases. There is always another analysis to run; always more investopedia articles to read. Rather than allow the case to eat up your schedule, set a timer and “time box” your analysis. When the timer goes off, stop working on that case and move onto the next one.

Shoot to get your reading and analysis down to an hour or less per case by the end of first year. At the start, you’ll probably need to give yourself something closer to 90-120 minutes.

3. Get your bearings

Before you read the case cover to cover, skim it to get your bearings. First, read the entire first page, then the first line of each paragraph, and then all of the exhibits to orient yourself. Understand that cases are each meant to stand alone as a document, and so they include a lot of extra detail that anyone with Google can just look up for themselves. By skimming you can avoid the red herrings and focus on the details that matter. Ask: what is the decision that has to be made? What are the immediate causes of the central problem? And who are the stakeholders?

4. Skip historical background section

This is usually on pages 2-4. You can read it if you're personally interested, but it is almost never relevant.

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5. Develop a note taking system.

I’m a fan of 4-color pens. Here is my system: black is for all primary notes; blue is for organizing primary notes, taking secondary notes, and making revisions; red is for all names and contact information; green is for all to-dos and follow-ups.

As I read a case, I box all stakeholders and circle all numbers in red. I take notes to answer discussion questions in black. I note all questions I want to look-up or ask my discussion group in green. I save blue to write a summary of the case discussion and the major takeaways at the top of the first page of the case when there is only 5-10 min left in class.

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6. Apply any frameworks you have been given

Frameworks that get introduced in one class tend to make repeat appearances in the following classes. Most first-year classes spend the first half of each session drawing out these frameworks on the blackboard and then filling them in, fact by fact. If you’re just looking to make a quick "chip shot" comment in class, offering a piece of analysis to fill these frameworks can be a great way to do that. To calm your nerves and give yourself a lifeline in case of a cold call, fill in the full framework in advance so you won’t be caught off guard in the moment. If you’re gunning for a good grade and a next-level comment, don’t use the frameworks to answer "case fact questions" – instead use them to see further faster. Use them to see what the analytical conclusion will be and then be ready to make sense of it once it is revealed.

For example, in marketing class I just took the summary slides that the professor showed us with the frameworks on them, deleted the text, printed them out, and took notes on that sheet. Because I did that, I would often understand earlier than my peers which channels were most profitable for a company to use, which price points to target, or which product lines to discontinue.

7. Only conduct hypothesis-based analysis

Even a short case has too much data to run all the numbers. Plus “boiling the ocean” is not how business leaders make decisions anyway. Instead develop 1-2 theories as to why the the business is facing the problem that it is and then run the numbers to see if you’re right. Or, if you think you know what the key takeaway from the case will be -- such as calculating beta for comparable financial analysis (see #1 in this list) -- run just that analysis.

8. Ask if you have any relevant experience worth sharing

Those comments tend to be memorable, bring the section closer together, and yield better grades.

9. Limit your notes to 1-2 pages, print single sided

They’ll need to be short enough to reference in the heat of the moment. You won’t want to be flipping pages back and forth either.

10. Remember that preparation does not end when class starts

Keep taking notes as the class goes on, either in a notebook or in the case. I print out my case notes in black and take notes by hand in blue. By taking notes, I can often anticipate where the class is going to go and cut it off at the pass with a great comment.

11. When there are 5 minutes left, begin taking summary notes

In blue, if you're using my method. See #5 in this list. That way you won't forget the lesson, either for the final exam or for use beyond.

12. Evaluate yourself

Ask how well you did at (1) finding the “big question” of the case, (2) identifying the key data, (3) analyzing that data correctly, (4) using that data to arrive at the right decision, and (5) communicating that decision logically and persuasively in class.

Podcasts to listen to as you apply to your MBA

Merriam-Webster's Word of the Day

Build your vocabulary with Merriam-Webster's Word of the Day! Each day a Merriam-Webster editor offers insight into a fascinating new word -- explaining its meaning, current use, and little-known details about its origin. (~2 min per episode)

  • Good for: studying vocabulary
  • The narrator of this podcast, Peter Sokolowski, combines wordplay and interesting facts in every one of his expositions. For the vocabulary-intensive GRE, I can think of no other podcast to listen to on the go that will expose you to a greater number of obscure and arcane words that you might encounter on your test. Sometimes you'll even encounter a word or two that will perfectly explain a concept that was previously ineffable
  • The episodes are interesting and very short, making them especially easy to binge consume when you're waiting for something -- like deboarding an airplane.

Finance Career Launch

David Mariano is a Director with Western Reserve Partners, a middle market investment bank in Cleveland, OH. David has spent most of his career working with business owners, CEOs, CFOs and Heads of Corporate Development as an advisor, part-owner and/or business leader. David has served in many other capacities, including Manager of Financial Planning & Analysis, VP of Finance, Head of Marketing and General Manager, and has made the transition from an entry-level, analytical role to one focused on leadership and business development. You and I and everyone else in the first 10-15 years of their career (and beyond, for those willing to admit it) would really like to be mentored, but mentors are impossible to find. I am frequently asked for advice about careers in finance and can do some of this in person or over the phone, but nowhere near as much as I'd like or as often as I'm asked. Finance Career Launch fills this void.

  • Good for: exploring careers in finance
  • Each episode gives an insight into what it is like to work in or recruit for traditional jobs in finance. Worth listening to as you do your due diligence on the future career you want to have.

HBR IdeaCast

A weekly podcast featuring the leading thinkers in business and management from Harvard Business Review. Produced by Harvard Business Review. (~15 min per episode)

  • Good for: interview prep, understanding the state of business research, due diligence on Harvard Business School
  • Articles from the acclaimed (and expensive) Harvard Business Review magazine come to life as the staff of the publication sit down with the authors and thought leaders behind the main articles of each issue. Topics are wide ranging, but can veer on the dry and academic side of things. These podcasts are great for finding topics to bring up in your MBA interview, especially if at HBS. You'll have a great answer if you ever get asked about the research you've done on the school.
  • Great for plugging in on long commutes.

a16z Podcast

The a16z Podcast discusses tech and culture trends, news, and the future -- especially as ‘software eats the world’. It features industry experts, business leaders, and other interesting thinkers and voices from around the world. This podcast is produced by Andreessen Horowitz (aka “a16z”), a Silicon Valley-based venture capital firm. Multiple episodes are released every week; visit a16z.com for more details. (~30 min per episode)

  • Good for: understanding the VC, tech, and start-up industries. Specifically, what are the latest ideas, companies, and concepts circulating around Silicon Valley
  • Not so much journalism as advocacy, but you're getting it from a market leader in the VC industry. At the very least, it is worth knowing what Andreessen Horowitz is thinking about, especially if your stated goal involves working in the San Francisco ecosystem.

Bigger Pockets

Imagine you are friends with hundreds of real estate investors and entrepreneurs. Now imagine you can grab a beer with each of them and casually chat about failures, successes, motivations, and lessons learned. That’s what The BiggerPockets Podcast delivers. Co-hosted by BiggerPockets’ founder & CEO Joshua Dorkin and active real estate investor Brandon Turner, this podcast provides actionable advice from investors and other real estate professionals every week. The show won’t tell you how to “get rich quick” or sell you a course, boot camp, or guru system; instead, the BiggerPockets Podcast will give you real strategies that work for real people. 

  • Good for: personal finances, understanding real estate and investing.
  • Solid tips and advice presented in a no-frills way. Little frills, little fluff. Mostly conversations with those who have made it in the real estate industry. Criticisms include that the hosts talk too much relative to the guests and that the level of sarcasm becomes grating.
Entrepreneurial Thought Leaders.jpg

Entrepreneurial Thought Leaders

The DFJ Entrepreneurial Thought Leaders Seminar (ETL) is a weekly seminar series on entrepreneurship, co-sponsored by BASES (a student entrepreneurship group), Stanford Technology Ventures Program, and the Department of Management Science and Engineering. (~60 min per episode)

  • Good for: those who live on the east coast but want to speak the language of technology, entrepreneurship, and venture capital spoken on the west coast.
  • A good blend of thought leadership, high-information/low-noise conversation, and questions asked by an intelligent business school student body. Packed full of good lessons for tech entrepreneurs and inspiring anecdotes to motivate them when times get tough.

Top Podcasts for MBAs

How I Built This 

How I Built This is a podcast about innovators, entrepreneurs, and idealists, and the stories behind the movements they built. Each episode is a narrative journey marked by triumphs, failures, serendipity and insight — told by the founders of some of the world's best known companies and brands. If you've ever built something from nothing, something you really care about — or even just dream about it. (45 min per episode)

  • Good for: Entrepreneurs, Tech, VCs, General Managers
  • Interesting interviews with CEOs and Founders that help you "see sooner, faster" when reacting to challenges that any entrepreneur will encounter. Episodes are pretty inspiring. If you're an entrepreneurial person with a good idea but who has also been procrastinating, this will light a fire under your butt.
  • Very conversational and easy to listen to. Guy Raz is a great interviewer and the subjects are pretty compelling.

NPR News Now

NPR News Now is the latest news in five minutes. Updated hourly. (5 min per episode)

  • Good for: everyone. 
  • The fastest way to keep up to date on your way to and from class. New episodes are updated hourly (indexed on Washington DC time) and seldom repeat segments wholesale, so it is worth listening to whenever there is an update. Episodes are short so they won't burn your cell phone's data plan.
  • An excellent balance of US and world news with a consistently professional narration and neutral tone of voice. Much less prone to hysterics and hyperbole than CNN or Fox.

Revisionist History

Revisionist History is Malcolm Gladwell's journey through the overlooked and the misunderstood. Every episode re-examines something from the past—an event, a person, an idea, even a song—and asks whether we got it right the first time. From Panoply Media. Because sometimes the past deserves a second chance. (~35 min per episode)

  • Good for: consultants, social enterprise, public sector
  • Basically, every episode of this podcast is a case study in how to get a good grade in a case-based classroom. You may not always agree with Gladwell's points, but they are always incredibly interesting, consequential, well-researched, and surprising. Gladwell points out how complicated systems such as government work and where they have broken down in surprising ways in the past. This is a great source of inspiration if you are interested in improving the world but are unsure which issues are most pressing.
  • If you've read any of his books (or better yet, listened to any of his audiobook readings) you know Gladwell is a master story teller and narrator. These are the kinds of podcasts you enjoy alone, like a rich dessert. 

Freakonomics Radio

Freakonomics Radio is an award-winning weekly podcast with 8 million downloads per month. It can also be heard on public radio stations across the country, on SiriusXM, on several major airlines, and elsewhere. Host Stephen J. Dubner has surprising conversations that explore the riddles of everyday life and the weird wrinkles of human nature — from cheating and crime to parenting and sports. Dubner talks with Nobel laureates and provocateurs, social scientists and entrepreneurs — and his Freakonomics co-author Steve Levitt. Freakonomics Radio is produced by Dubner Productions and WNYC Studios. (~40 min per episode)

  • Good for: Investors, Bankers, Consultants.
  • Conversational show that presents contrarian views meant to change your mind. Definitely has a libertarian anti-government lean and has been criticized for letting ideology get in the way or research.
  • Generally interesting ideas to bat around with friends. Might even lead to some interesting investing decisions. 

Planet Money

The economy, explained, with stories and surprises. Imagine you could call up a friend and say, "Meet me at the bar and tell me what's going on with the economy." Now imagine that's actually a fun evening. That's what we're going for at Planet Money.

  • Good for: Investors, Entrepreneurs, VCs
  • Each episode examines a person or dissects a big idea that had had a profound and previously hidden impact on the economy. Great at helping build an intuition for the cause and effect of business decisions and policy on the overall landscape of the economy.
  • Great presenters with a lot of enthusiasm for their ideas. Perfect balance of conversational and informative.

Recode Decode

One of tech's most prominent journalists, Kara Swisher is known for her insightful reporting and straight-shooting style. Listen in as she hosts hard-hitting interviews about the week in tech with influential business leaders and outspoken personalities from media, politics and more.

  • Good for: VCs, Tech,
  • Kara Swisher interviews the heros of VC, tech and other fields. It's as close as you would otherwise get to a lot of them. However, Swisher is no "gotcha journalist" and often the episodes turn into puff pieces for their subjects. Regardless, it is a front row seat into the mindset of Silicon Valley and the first edition of what leaders there are talking about. 
  • An easy podcast to come and go with. Good for listening to when you are doing something else.