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  • The Wonderful World of Case Competitions

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    Case competitions are one of the many chapters that an Illinois MBA can add to her or his story while in the MBA program. During a case competition, MBA students are given the opportunity work on a team to present their solutions to company problems and compete against other schools and other teams doing the same. First-year MBA student, Jaren Gaddi was on a case competition team for Nielsen in which his team won. Jaren has a background in retail pharmacy operations and is currently concentrating in Finance and Strategic Management. I had the opportunity to interview Jaren regarding his experience at the Nielsen Case Competition.


    What is the Nielsen Case competition?

    The Nielsen Case Competition was an internal case competition open to all graduate and undergraduate students at the University of Illinois. It was hosted by Nielsen Consulting, a marketing research and consulting firm specializing in consumer trends and preferences. The case itself was fictional but based on a typical problem that several of Nielsen's clients are facing. This was their first annual case competition, so it was great to be a part of a brand new case competition organized by several College of Business alumni who currently work at Nielsen!


    What was it like to be on a team working on this case?

    It was definitely a challenge trying to get everyone to agree on the strategy we would use to solve the problem presented to us in the case. There were several different options, and our team spent a lot of time trying to sort through all the data and determine the best course of action for our client. For example, we spent an entire 4-hour meeting debating just one element of the case that we felt was a potential problem only to throw the idea completely out the window the next time we met.  

    Part of the reason for the disagreement mentioned above is that everyone from our team had very different backgrounds and expertise, and we all viewed the case with a different "lens" because of our varied backgrounds. Although it made it difficult initially to decide on what we felt was the best course of action, this really was a benefit. Because of our different backgrounds, we each brought several different ideas and strategies to the table. I feel that this was a key component in creating our action plan as well. We really got the ball rolling once we agreed on a strategy, and we were able to quickly create and evaluate different elements of our action plan once we were all viewing the case with the same objectives in mind.


    How did it feel to win? What did you think your team did better than the other teams?

    Winning was great! It definitely felt good to know that we were able to provide and sell a sound set of recommendations to our panel of judges. There is a lot of information to sort through in these cases, and the key to success is being able to identify the key issues facing the company and provide solutions that effectively address these issues. There is no "right" answer in case competitions. Once you pick a position, you need to be able to not only support your ideas in your final presentation but also to be able to address potential concerns that can be raised with the strategy you have presented. The Q&A session can make or break the overall quality of your presentation, so you need to be ready for questions that can be raised that challenge the position you take. Our team came prepared to address questions that challenged our position, which I believe set us apart from the other teams.


    Why do you think case competitions are important to be a part of while in business school?

    Case competitions are a great way to take the lessons you learn in business school and apply them to a real-life situation. We get a lot of practice with case work in the program, but it’s nice to have those skills evaluated by professionals outside of the University. More importantly, many employers are incorporating cases into their interview process as a method to evaluate how one handles pressure, analyzes a problem, understands business concepts, and communicates ideas. Case competitions gives one a chance to showcase what one has learned while practicing the skills necessary to succeed in these interviews. Although cases for competitions and interviews vary in scope and detail, the analytic process is still the same. Practice makes perfect!


    What was your favorite part of the case competition process?

    Giving the final presentation was the best part. Don't get me wrong, it was extremely stressful preparing for it and awaiting our turn to present! The final presentation was a culmination of our hard work and I felt a great sense of accomplishment once we were finished. While we didn't get to sit in on other finalists' presentations, we did get a chance to discuss with other teams about their strategies and insights. As I mentioned before, there are no "right" answers, so it was definitely interesting to hear about how other teams developed a solution to the problem at hand. 


    Any advice for those thinking about participating in a case competition?

     Definitely consider it! I feel like a broken record, but there is a lot of data for you and your team to sort through and agree on, so keep in mind that it will take up a lot of your free time (which is usually scarce in a MBA program). As long as you go into it dedicated to do your best, you will get a lot of benefit from participating! Plus, if you participate in corporate-sponsored case competitions, you will get a chance to network with people in the company as well!