Ah, case competitions. You’ve heard the phrase thrown about, but it usually produces a look of confusion outside of business schools! Case competitions are a unique beast, but they offer a number of fantastic opportunities to MBA students that you should not miss as part of your MBA at Oxford. And if you’re in next year’s class, you’ll have to keep up with our track record this year of winning nine case competitions and counting!
Our team (Marla Woodward, Charlotte Kirby Thomson, Neetu Puranikmath and Arpit Jain) recently won a case competition at the Yale School of Management in New Haven, Connecticut. It was an intense 24 hours of analysing financial statements, debating strategic opportunities, and creating a compelling presentation for industry judges. But, cliched as it sounds, we were not the only winners at that competition. Each person who took a break from their hectic studies to apply their learning to a real-world business problem gained perspective, experience, time management practice, and team leadership skills.
What exactly is a case competition, you say? Case competitions can be a confusing world to enter for the uninitiated. In this reflection we hope to leave you with four things:
1) What a case competition is
2) Why you absolutely should enter one
3) How to find a suitable competition
4) How to do well (and hopefully win!)
What is a case competition?
A case competition is an opportunity for students to work together in teams to solve problems and create business solutions for a specific case study. Business cases can be on a range of subject matter (finance, strategy, real estate) covering a wide range of industries (consumer goods, financial services, technology). The competitions can have varying team sizes (4-6) and timeframes (6 hours, 12 hours, two phases, prep over a week).
The general competition format requires teams to digest a lot of case data in a short amount of time, analyse opportunities and threats facing the case company, perhaps run financial models, and create a presentation on your analysis and recommendations that you then present in front of a panel of judges.
In short, case competitions allow you to take everything you’re learning in the MBA, put it into practice, and get feedback from industry professionals on your approach to business problems.
Why should you do at least one competition during your MBA?
Case competitions provide a number of unique opportunities that will help build out your overall MBA experience. We reckon everyone should try to do at least one!
1. Assembling a diverse team – There’s no better way to see the results of an attempt to assemble a diverse team and lay the groundwork for success than in a pressured environment. It’s a good way to learn how to address multiple functional considerations (e.g. finance, marketing, operations), especially when you don’t know the case beforehand.
2. Team dynamics under pressure – Case competitions are a great way to learn how to get the best out of a team when you’re having to work together under pressure to solve a problem and produce an output. It’s a real-world environment, particularly if you’re planning a career in consulting.
3. Presenting to and networking with industry figures – Case competitions are a great way to be noticed by key figures in your industry, as they will often be invited to judge competitions. You can use the competition to hone your presenting skills, put your best foot forward, and build a relationship over drinks afterward to get a follow up meeting.
4. Relationships with classmates and other competitors – You’ll also have the opportunity to network with other competitors from all around the world, and get to know your classmates much better. You’ll be hanging out for a few days with cool people from around the globe and possibly exploring a new city together in your downtime.
5. Subsidised travel – There’s no better way to explore a new part of the world than with awesome adventurous classmates, especially when the trip is partially or fully funded because you’re representing your university. Both Saïd Business School and your College may have funding available to support travel and entry costs for teams who are representing Oxford at competitions.
How do you find out about case competitions?
It can be hard to think about case competitions when you have a ton of course work on your plate, so doing some research before you arrive at Oxford is always a good idea. There are a few different ways to find out about case competitions:
1. Google and Wikipedia – Don’t underestimate the power of a good Google or Wikipedia search, particularly for finding competitions relevant to more niche industries that last year’s class might not have entered. Just make sure the competition is for MBAs and not undergraduates. Competitions often take place during Michaelmas and Hilary terms, so start looking early.
2. Networking with the previous class – This is a great way to find out who was in the team for a particular competition last year, and get some tips that are specific to that competition. A good way to connect with last year’s class is to run for chair of an Oxford Business Network (OBN) and connect with last year’s chair/s.
3. Google doc from the 2017-2018 class – Our class has compiled a list of some competitions that Saïd Business School students have competed in over the past year. You can find those details (and how well we did!) here in Google Drive: https://bit.ly/2I5UWIx
4. Oxford MBA admins – The MBA programme administration team circulates a weekly email with programme updates. Occasionally this includes a few upcoming case competitions, though they are often advertised the week that the application is due.
At Saïd Business School, entry into case competitions is usually student initiated so you need to be proactive about organising a team for a competition you want to enter. Occasionally an OBN may run an internal competition to select a team to represent the school if there is a lot of interest in the competition or the competition requires that the school only enter one official team. Some competitions also require a faculty sponsor to ensure the team is approved by the school. Note that you may need to miss classes or other events to attend a competition, so you’ll need to plan your study accordingly.
Six considerations as you prepare for your first competition
1. Team composition is important
Approach a case competition like you would a project team – do you have the right skills on the team to get the job done? For our team, given we had a strategy competition, we needed broad and thorough coverage of business functions. We had team members with marketing, technology, operations, and administrative functional experience. If we could have had a 5th team member, we would have gone for a former finance professional as well. For a finance competition, on the other hand, having a heavier balance of finance professionals is definitely recommended.
You also need geographic diversity so that your team has a higher chance of having had personal experience in the relevant markets for the case, and gender diversity for better decision-making. Our team’s experience in India, the USA and foreign entry into China were all drawn on heavily for our solutions.
2. Discuss what your team members want to get out of the competition individually
While you probably want to win the competition, it’s also important to know why each team member wants to get out of the competition, regardless of ranking. Do you want to try your hand at financial analysis or presenting? Are you hoping to network and meet people from other schools? Whatever your reasons for doing a case competition, make sure everyone is aware of individual goals up front. You can’t always control who wins, but you can control what your team gets out of the experience.
3. Discuss roles and responsibilities in advance
Once you have your case team set and you know their goals, discuss as a group your strengths and weaknesses to understand how to assign roles and responsibilities. Are you a strong presenter? Are you nervous with financial statements? Let your team know. Ideally you will have the following skills spread amongst multiple team members:
a) Creative brainstorming and problem solving
b) Strong command of strategy frameworks
c) Financial analysis
d) Time manager/whip-cracker
e) Presentation design
f) Visual and written communication
g) Presentation speaker(s)
4. Have a decision-making process
You have 1.5 hours to finish your presentation and two team members are torn on which solutions to present. How do you decide? If you don’t have a team decision-making process established, you might waste precious time at this point trying to sort that out. Our team agreed on an established leader and the following process ahead of time:
1. Verbal agreement to decisions out loud (to avoid high energy people thinking they have agreement and bulldozing on without stopping and listening to introverts, who often have great feedback but might not speak up)
2. If not unanimous, then all members vote
3. In the event of a tie, the leader makes the final call
Find a process that works for your team and make sure you all agree to it up front.
5. Have a time management strategy
Time management can make or break a case competition presentation. Agree together ahead of time a timeline for approaching the case so you know how much time you have going into the research phase and when you need to start working on your presentation. If you have a case with a lot of material, you might not be able to read everything, so stick to your timeline.
6. Come prepared with blank templates
With case competitions, you don’t always know what sort of solution work you will need to create. Having a few templates in your back pocket can go a long way to helping you analyse data and develop insights quickly.
• Financial templates: company valuation and project valuation with discounted cash flows are good items to bring for your team.
• PowerPoint templates: both slide designs and content outlines with a presentation flow (also have some good presentation slides and stock photography websites bookmarked, eg. www.canva.com and www.pexels.com)
• Strategy frameworks: we recommend taking all of the frameworks from your core strategy class, putting them all in PPT and bringing them along as analytical tools. Remember to bring external strategy frameworks (Porter’s 5 Forces, Ansoff’s Growth Matrix, PESTEL) as well as internal strategy frameworks (McKinsey or BCG matrix, Core Competencies, Porter’s value chain).
Don’t miss out on doing a case competition!
Whether you’re shooting for a trophy or aiming for personal development and growth, case competitions are a great way to grow and develop during your time on the Oxford MBA. We hope this post has helped clarify some things about case competitions for you. We wish we had found something similar this time last year! Feel free to reach out to either of us if you have questions or want to chat more about these experiences.Back to top of article