This is the only post about personal interviews in consulting that you’ll ever need to read. This type of interview has many names and components such as personal fit interview, behavioral interview, resume interview, personal experience interview, and so on and so forth.
Let’s dive right into it!
What is the personal fit or behavioral interview?
The aim of the personal interview is to understand more about you, your skills, your personality, background, and motivation. It usually precedes a case interview and lasts between five and 30 minutes.
The importance of these personal questions varies across firms and interview stages, however, for some, this is of similar importance to the case interview. If you fail to impress your interviewers here in one way or another, your application might very well be over.
Key takeaway: Don’t neglect this part of the interview. We often see candidates investing 99% of their time into case interview preparation, completely neglecting to prepare proper answers to behavioral or skill questions.
Make sure to think about and prepare answers and stories to common personal questions beforehand. The personal interview is the part of the interview process where you don’t want to think and make up stories on the spot, but merely remind yourself of your prepared answers. This way you will make sure that your answers are structured, to the point, and exactly hit the dimensions that the questions try to assess.
Similar to the case interview, your answers should be built on an easy-to-follow structure with a concise story arch that conveys your key messages effectively. We will introduce our SCORE framework to answer personal interview questions below in more detail.
A cautionary tale: Do not over-prepare and recite answers by heart. Your replies should still feel natural. More often than not we have seen that candidates try too hard to impress interviewers in this regard.
What type of questions should you expect in a personal experience interview?
0. Introduction questions (ice-breakers)
Introduction questions are mostly ice-breakers. While for smaller firms it is almost guaranteed that you receive one of these questions, bigger or higher-tier consultancies often leave them out completely.
These questions are usually benign and will not make-or-break your case. They are simple interest questions and do not carry much weight in the interviewer’s decision.
It’s just small talk (“how did you find out about this position?”), so we disregard them for now.
1. Resume questions
Resume questions are especially common at lower-tier firms while some higher-tier firms leave them out completely. Remember that everything you put on your resume is fair game. Therefore, you should be able to talk freely and naturally about all items, even the minor details.
Most commonly, you are asked to introduce your professional development (often disguised as “talk about yourself” or “discuss your resume”). Simply lead the interviewer through the ‘highlights’ of your resume. Add a personal note! Add some facts not explicitly stated on the resume to anticipate follow-up questions such as ‘if there is anything else he or she should know about you’.
Other common resume questions you should prepare for are:
- Why did you choose experience <xyz>? (xyz> can be anything related to employment, university or extracurricular activities)
- Discuss your educational/ professional background!
- What did you do at firm <xyz>? What did you achieve?
- What did you do/ learn in situation <xyz>?
- What kind of work/ part of the studies did you like best?
- What were the biggest challenges in experience <xyz>, how did you overcome them, what did learn, how did you benefit?
- How did experience <xyz> influence/ change you?
- What three distinct skills did you develop during your <education>?
Some of these simple questions are often intertwined with more complex story questions. More on these types of questions below. Adapt the depth of your answer as you see fit.
In general, keep your answers focused on professional events or extracurricular activities and leave out everything related to your personal life such as health, relationships, etc.
2. Simple behavioral questions
These types of questions try to elicit some information about your motivation, personality, and behaviors. Answer these questions top-down, starting with a clear structure and the key piece of information, then providing supporting arguments.
Why consulting? Start with a credible story arch how your interest in and dedication to the consulting industry built up during the last few years. List qualities of the job you like and link the answer to the most recent experiences in your resume. Show how you selected these experiences to help you prepare and develop the skills for a career in consulting (e.g. “I chose consulting because it provides a number of unique benefits vis-a-vis other careers. First, …., second, …., third,…I took mostly classes on strategic management and quant, inscribed into the consulting club of my university, and did an internship with a <tier-2> consulting firm last summer which further encouraged me to pursue this career.”).
Tailor the following common motivations for people entering consulting to your individual story: an environment with fun and smart colleagues, high impact at a young age with top-tier clients, (sometimes) industry-changing projects, quick career progression, high-quality training, networking opportunities, tough challenges, a steep learning curve, and international exposure.
A different framing of this question for more confrontational interviewers is: “do you actually know how the job of a consultant is like? Do you want that?”
The ‘why consulting’ is often asked in combination with ‘switching questions’ such as: “Up to now, you have shown a strong motivation in sustainability issues/ just worked in industrial firms, etc. Why do you want to do consulting now?” or “Why do you want to leave your current company?” Make sure to come up with a sensible story to justify your transition.
Proper reasons for a switch to consulting are greater exposure to more diverse topics, industries, geographies, and colleagues, a more challenging working environment, and bigger impact, faster career growth, etc.
Why our firm? Truth be told, this question can probably be answered in the same manner for all firms and the interviewer would still be satisfied with your reply if you hit the right keywords and phrases.
Points you could hit are:
- The reputation of the firm
- Culture and the people that you connected with and saw the best fit (this is actually true and should guide your decision on which offer to accept later)
- Specific industry or functional expertise
- Staffing model
- Educational leave or other leave programs offered
- Time-out programs
You get bonus points for mentioning a lead, such as a particular event you participated in or any other contact within the firm you spoke to and that the experience impressed you. Make it clear that you want to work at this firm both because of the firm’s impact and reputation as well as its people.
You might want to talk about the functional and industry focus of the firm or how it compares to the competition. In general, you should have a broad knowledge about the consulting industry landscape in your region, including all major players as well as their functional and industry expertise to provide an educated answer. Try to figure out three bullet points that separate one firm from the others (that is easier for top-tier firms obviously).
Personal fit and culture? This is similar to why this firm?. Every firm wants a successful applicant to fit into its culture. However, some firms (especially higher tier) put great emphasis and interview effort into investigating a candidate’s personal fit. Sometimes, interviewers try to identify this subtly during the interview. At other times, they ask targeted fit questions straight away.
In order to shine under these circumstances, do your homework before the interviews. Ideally, you have already talked to consultants from the firm via mail, phone or have even met them during events. You should be able to talk about what you have witnessed that has impressed you and further encouraged you to apply. Your observations might include the conduct of the consultants with each other or with potential applicants.
It also helps when you have colleagues and friends who are working there and have encouraged you to apply through their experiences and stories.
Strengths and weaknesses? Sometimes this outdated question still pops up. Find humble strengths, which are relevant for the work of a consultant such as creativity, structured problem solving, etc. Strengthen your answers with short stories, in which you exhibited the desired qualities.
Find a true weakness of yours and discuss how you learned about it the hard way and what you have done since then to overcome it. Don’t sweat it, provided you demonstrate that you work on your weaknesses and are otherwise a strong applicant, that is not an issue You are expected to have some flaws…
Alternatively, the question could also be framed as “What are three things your former employer would like you to improve on?”
Rough experiences and crises? What experiences or crises have shaped you? What hardships did you overcome? Some firms or interviewers put an emphasis on these types of questions (hello BCG…). They expect that you have faced some difficulties or adverse events in your life and want to see how you have handled them. Talk about what happened, your role, and the impact it had on you, and what you have learned from it. Keep it strictly related to your professional endeavors.
The question is often framed as “Tell me about a time you made a mistake” or “what makes you uncomfortable?”
Personal satisfaction? What drives you? What gives you personal satisfaction and energy? For a good answer, you want to talk about how you are driven by some sort of challenge that you had to overcome, maybe in a team, putting the team’s success above all. This is also a good opportunity to show how ambitious and dedicated you are when starting a personal initiative.
Biggest challenge? What was your biggest challenge so far? What did you do to overcome it? Talk about your motivation, actions, the outcome, and what you have learned.
A different framing would be “Tell me about an accomplishment you are most proud of.”
Other options? What other options do you have? The answer should have no impact on your success. However, make it clear that you actually have a plan lined up for yourself. You are really eager to work for the firm you are interviewing with and you might have other options.
Concerns? What concerns would you have when working for a consultancy? Stay true to yourself. This can be ethical concerns dealing with certain industries or getting not enough exposure to different environments, etc. Don’t say you are afraid of long hours, clients or the like…
An alternative framing would be: “What do you like the most and least about working in this industry?” or “Where do you see yourself in five years? Ten years?”
3. Skill questions and industry niche questions
Depending on the size of the firm and its business activity, you might expect some questions about particular skills. These questions can range from very general queries about MS Office to more specific ones about data analysis tools or even expert knowledge.
If you apply for the generalist consulting track at larger top-tier firms, you don’t need to expect any of these questions. These firms will put you through intense training anyway to get you up to speed and have experts and specialists in the background to support you.
Should you apply for a specialist role or an expert consulting track, expect technical questions common for your field or job description, and prepare accordingly.
4. Personality traits and personal experience interviews
The last category is relatively specific to top-tier consulting firms such as McKinsey, BCG, and Bain. In their interview process, they want you to tell stories that convey certain skills or traits needed in the daily life of a strategy consultant.
A specific twist to it is the McKinsey Personal Experience Interview, which is a standardized interview format that revolves around 3 specific character traits.
The stories you need to tell should convey one or more specific character trait of yours. Interviewers want to understand how you behaved in past events to make assumptions on how you would handle daily situations as a consultant in the future.
- Behavioral questions focus on one specific story at a time
- You don’t need to be superhuman. Illustrate how you acted in a specific life situation, which is assumed to be quite common for the typical consulting applicant
- Tell a story from the more recent past
- The stories can be set in a professional environment (e.g. a previous work engagement or internship), a university experience or extracurricular activities
Below are specific traits you need to convey through stories. Learn about them and prepare accordingly. The first three are specifically asked during the McKinsey Personal Experience Interview.
We present the traits and the elements the story should contain to be considered as strong. Tailor it to your own experiences!
Leadership. Show that you can handle a group that accepts you as their leader, with each member looking up to you. Tailor your leadership style for different groups. Demonstrate that you can structure, divide, and delegate tasks. Motivate your team and improve the team spirit and the working environment. Coach team members in their areas of weakness. Mediate conflicts between team-mates and goals; meet goals. Be a trustworthy authority that people can learn from. Summing up, let your presence have a positive impact on the team and lead to a strong outcome of a particular project or task.
Ambition, drive, and achievement. Show ambition and dedication by pursuing several goals at the same time. Ideally, you are intrinsically motivated and not pushed by external factors. To achieve your desired outcome you overcome some obstacles or face headwinds. Follow the goals with energy and passion under time pressure, surpassing even your own expectations in the end.
Personal impact. Persuade a group or individual to adopt a certain idea or plan of yours (this does not imply that they necessarily have to like you). The idea can be unpopular but lead to a necessary decision or recommendation. Get people on your side or on the same page to enable a constructive working environment. By getting everyone on board, you create a sustainable way of working or even a definite solution to a difficult problem.
Team-player. As a team-player, you show that you rank your own goals below the team’s targets. You are willing to make sacrifices for the greater good of the team. You are an integral part of a team and well respected in what you do. Your contributions are highly valued by all members of the team as well as potential outsiders you are dealing with.
Initiative. Start something from scratch for which you have a passion or participate in something that already exists furthering its cause by adding a lot of added value and impact. Talk about why you wanted to do it (e.g. ‘felt the need for something but there was no supply of it so far’) and the obstacles you had to overcome.
Draft your stories in a way that they can be told from different perspectives so you can convey different personality traits with one story if needed. The different dimensions are all interrelated and hardly ever are displayed individually (e.g. as a strong leader you had impact when you initiate something you work with ambition, etc.).
Even if you don’t need to be superhuman you still need to show peaks in certain traits. In order to do so, think about situations set in really challenging environments. You might have encountered several obstacles or problems, which you decided to overcome with persistence and hard work. Ideally, you have encountered some resistance. The odds were definitely not in your favor but you came out as a winner in the end.
Also, keep in mind to talk about experiences from different contexts. Do not tell all your stories from your university exchange semester.
Lastly, have at least two stories per character trait at hand, as sometimes you have to talk about a particular trait in several interviews in a row. Duplicates are not allowed. In some cases, you even have to tell two stories about the same trait in one interview (this is usually the case when the interviewer was not particularly satisfied with your first story).
How you should answer experience questions in consulting interviews
First, tease your story
When being asked to talk about a certain situation where you have demonstrated a particular character trait, start out by summarizing the story in three key sentences. Every sentence in this part of the interview should add some value to your case. Stay away from empty words or sentences.
Give each story a poignant headline, so both you and the interviewer can remember it easily. The interviewer will have a memorable anchor to link with your face. Then convey the key message in three sentences:
- Situation – what was the situation like?
- Complication – what issues did you face?
- Resolution – how did you overcome them?
When you provide a concise overview of your key message without rambling on and on, you allow the interviewer to state preferences regarding your story. He or she might want to dig deeper into your story or not. This is important because some stories might not fit or the interviewer thinks that they are not interesting enough. In these cases, he or she can ask you about a different experience without you wasting too much time.
This short introduction of the situation provides background and sets the tone and stage for deeper discussion. You work both for yourself and the interviewer as you make it easier for you to talk about the individual sections of your story and easier for him or her to ask you targeted questions. Depending on how the questions come at you, you will then be able to highlight certain parts of the stories or focus on the specific traits the interviewer wants to hear.
Second, dive into your story using the SCORE framework
If the interviewer is fine with your short summary and wants to hear more, he or she might ask you more specific questions. In this case, use the SCORE framework to tell your story.
We developed and recommend our trainees the SCORE approach. It is especially useful when you want to prepare and think deeply about all aspects of a situation to make sure not to forget anything. The SCORE framework provides an anchor for a natural flow of explanation and thought during the interview.
Let’s look at an example:
Susan is asked by her interviewer to talk about a specific situation where she demonstrated leadership skills.
She answers: At my previous employer we had to present a strategy document in front of the board (SITUATION). My boss got sick the day before and was not able to direct and structure the work for us, which could have resulted in a bad situation for my department (COMPLICATION). I took over from her, guided the team and we prepared a stellar presentation for the board on the next day (RESOLUTION).
The interviewer will be intrigued by this short prompt and ask for details. Now Susan can go into the SCORE framework. The focus should be on her role and what she did to solve the situation, the remedial action!
She says: We had an important bi-annual board meeting scheduled, which my boss was driving. I had one work stream to prepare, as did all 5 other product managers on the team (SITUATION).
The crucial day before the meeting, my boss got sick, which initially put our work to a grinding halt. She structured and coordinated our work, helped with problem-solving and integrated all our workstreams into a final presentation (COMPLICATION).
If we would have stopped at this stage, we would have presented a non-aligned 80% version, leaving out crucial details of our progress and success. This would have reflected negatively on our team and each of us individually. The result would have been budget cuts in our department for next year (OUTCOME EXPECTED).
So I had to step in and fill the role of my boss. First, I had to calm down the team, one person specifically who freaked out. I held a short pep talk to improve everyone’s mood and motivate the team. Then I took 30 minutes in private to devise a strategy. I met the team to redelegate tasks with me basically taking over the role of my boss, whereas I distributed the final tasks of my workstream to two other colleagues. Lastly, I scheduled two problem-solving sessions to align during the day and next morning. They were happy that someone took the lead and stepped up. One colleague was kind of confrontational, so I had to pull him in a 1-on-1 to discuss his concerns and mediate a conflict with another team mate. I integrated all aspects of the presentation throughout the day as I was receiving each individual’s input and wrote speaker notes for each of them. At the end of the day, I had to coach one colleague on my model so she could get the right output (REMEDIAL ACTION).
On the next day, the team had a stellar presentation in front of the board and was able to answer all questions and challenges we received. The budget for next year was actually increased. We were all super happy and I took the team out for drinks in the evening (END RESULT).
The interviewer will tell you quite soon in which direction your story should go and what parts you should focus on in the interest of time. The SCORE is extremely useful in this case! Be aware that at firms like McKinsey and during the Personal Experience Interview, interviewers will go very deep into each situation and ask very specific questions such as “What did this person say?”, “How did this make you feel?”, etc. Be prepared to talk about all aspects of a specific situation.
If you have prepared just a few sentences or bullet points per item, you are well prepared for even the most daunting and specific personal interview questions. You will know what you are going to say at the right time without sounding rehearsed.
A good tool to prepare your individual stories in an organized manner would be the following matrix. Draft it in Excel to collect and prepare your stories.
Finally, rehearse your answers with friends and peers. Let them play an active role and ask for tricky questions to simulate a real-life interview situation.
How we can help you ace your Personal Experience Interview
Now, we know that consulting interviews are daunting. However, since they are so standardized you can prepare well for each individual element. That is why we (2 former McKinsey consultants and interviewers) developed the Ready-for-McKinsey Program, which guides you in a series of 40 videos on how to tackle each element of the McKinsey interviews, both the case interview and the Personal Experience Interview.
In this program, we use our 9 years of combined tenure, the latest McKinsey insights, and our experience of coaching 100s of candidates to receive an offer. For the Personal Experience Interview, we to tell you exactly what to say and how to say it, using real-life examples of interview performances.
9 out of 10 candidates we coach receive their desired offer. If you are interested, check out our private 1-on-1 coaching program. We offer both a structured 6-hour coaching program as well as individual coaching sessions or smaller packages.
Florian spent 5 years with McKinsey as a senior consultant. He is an experienced consulting interviewer and problem-solving coach, having interviewed 100s of candidates in real and mock interviews. He started StrategyCase.com with the goal to make McKinsey more accessible for top-talent, using tailored and up-to-date know-how about its recruiting.