How to prepare for the McKinsey Problem Solving Game

The McKinsey Problem Solving Game, formerly known as the McKinsey Digital Assessment, is McKinsey’s new tool to assess candidates before letting them move on to the case interviews. It replaces the well-known Problem Solving Test.

We released a detailed 52-page guide and three videos (which we continuously update) in November 2019 on how to prepare and ace the McKinsey Problem Solving Game. More than 1000 applicants from over 40 nations have now used the guide to ace their tests. For new customers, we still offer a 25% discount. For more details, click here.

Overview and quick facts

  • What it is: A digital gamified assessment by Imbellus creating a simulated world (see screenshots below) with several games you need to ace before moving to the interview process. The PSG has replaced the McKinsey Problem Solving Test
  • Design: Developed with a team of psychologists from UCLA Cresst, game design experts from Imbellus, and McKinsey consultants
  • Length: 60 to 75 minutes, you cannot pause the game but there are untimed tutorials before each scenario
  • Structure: 2 scenarios (previously 3) or worlds, each with different problems that you need to solve
  • Content: The tasks are all about creating a sustainable world or saving a species. You need to create sustainable eco-systems or defend a plant species in a tower-defense like game
  • Tests for: Evaluates how you think, approach problems, and make decisions. In general, each scenario is almost like a life-cycle of a real-world McKinsey study (project). The delivery of the concepts is new and the breadth of information you need to deal with is enormous, just as in a real-life setting. In the end, you have imperfect information and need to be comfortable with making quick decisions based on that
  • Does not test for: No business background or knowledge is needed, to cancel out the effect of your background and cognitive biases. The gaming aspect will be taught in short tutorials before each scenario, yet gaming experience is a definite plus and guarantees higher scores
  • Test setting: The test can be done from your home on your own computer. Check your internet connection and the stability of your system, since the test cannot be repeated or paused when it crashes. Candidates with older computers and laptops reported that their CPU usage was maxed out and the fans were going on full steam. Be aware of that. Before COVID19, some test-takers had to go to the nearest McKinsey office to take the test on a McKinsey computer
  • Test-takers: Mandatory for candidates applying for vacancies in all practices: General, Operations and Implementation, Research & Analytics, Digital, and others
  • Feedback: You will be notified within 14 days about your results, usually much quicker within 2 to 5 working days. Ping HR if you have a more urgent deadline or counter-offer
  • What is the purpose of the game? The purpose of the McKinsey gamified assessment tool is twofold. First, to find new ways to interest people in the Firm in an increasingly diversified market, thereby getting access to a new cohort of people. Second, to create an assessment environment that is agnostic to peoples’ backgrounds
  • What does it measure? The Imbellus assessment measures a broad set of cognitive skills of the applicant in a digital highly gamified assessment and environment, creating an experience that is very different from the case interview or the traditional pen and paper McKinsey Problem Solving Test (McKinsey PST)
  • Product & process scores. After all, the worlds in the game present different challenges and choices. It is not only important what path you choose, but how you reach your solution. This gives McKinsey insights about you beyond the resume or conventional case interview. In fact, the test creates a process score, testing how you approach problems in addition to the product score, which measures the end result.
  • How to prepare? McKinsey highlights that no preparation is needed to go through the Problem Solving Game
  • Why you should prepare! However, we would highly advise preparing for it, in a similar way to the older Problem Solving Test. The feedback we received from candidates that have used our preparation guide points to the fact that you can effectively prepare for all scenarios. Additionally, the preparation also helped them with their case interview performance later on
  • Outscore your peers! While no business knowledge might be required, the thinking processes and problem-solving prowess are still the same, whether its gamified or pen and paper

The consulting landscape is changing. And so is recruiting…

McKinsey now wants you to save the world by building a reef, a mountain ridge, or protect a plant species before getting an offer with the Firm.

In this article, we want to go deeper and tell you a bit more about the novel recruitment tool.

  1. We discuss the rationale that motivated McKinsey to switch to the PSG
  2. We provide you with details on the different types of games
  3. We tell you how to prepare for this new type of assessment in combination with the case interview
  4. We give you some insights into proper test-taking strategies

Be aware that was the first to report in detail on this new type of assessment based on genuine first-hand information. This enabled us to collect accurate and constantly expanding feedback from (currently) 80 recent test-takers.

Every information found on a different site is either taken directly from our articles or ripped-off from our guide book.

The new McKinsey recruiting strategy

The old, traditional McKinsey application funnel was:

Screening > Problem Solving Test > Interviews Round 1 > Interviews Round 2

With the introduction of the Problem Solving Game (PSG), the Problem Solving Test (PST) is on its way out. Why would McKinsey get rid of a battle-tested tool, which has been used to screen hundreds of thousands of applicants over the years and more importantly, replace it with a computer game?

McKinsey describes one scenario of the Problem Solving Game in the following way:

“Imagine yourself in a beautiful, serene forest populated by many kinds of wildlife. As you take in the flora and fauna, you learn about an urgent matter demanding your attention: the animals are quickly succumbing to an unknown illness. It’s up to you to figure out what to do—and then act quickly to protect what you can.”

Why all this? The answer is quite simple:

  1. To attract new talent and new types of consultants
  2. To have an assessment tool at hand that is agnostic (in theory) of people’s backgrounds
  3. To have a lower-cost program (in the long run) to assess a greater amount of candidates

The Firm is employing this Imbellus digitized game to take into account the changes in its client base and its own evolution through organic growth and acquisitions. New problems of clients require a new type of consulting workforce.

Hence, McKinsey is investing heavily in the recruitment of new types of talent, including data scientists, implementation practitioners, IT experts, product and digital designers, as well as software developers in addition to their generalist consulting roles. A digital test is only logical when hiring digital natives.

At the same time, due to the gamified nature of the test, set in an environmental context, McKinsey stresses that there is no knowledge needed or advantageous when taking the test (contrary to the PST), which is obviously wrong.

Currently, the Firm is gradually rolling out the McKinsey Problem Solving Game to different regions and types of applicants, set to assess a greater amount of people with more precise metrics.

A full global roll-out is to be expected for the recruiting season of 2020 while many key markets already launched in January and February. Candidates are immersed in a digital, scenario-based assessment designed to understand and measure how they approach and solve problems, basically putting them in situations that McKinsey consultants face every day.

The target demographic of the McKinsey Problem Solving Game

First things first. Currently, the tool is being rolled out across offices and geographies while being fine-tuned along the way and everyone is invited! 🙂

The test is mandatory for candidates applying for vacancies in all practices: Generalist consulting roles, Operations and Implementation, Research & Analytics, Digital, and others.

If you pass the resume and cover letter screening successfully, you will receive an email with a link to the digitized assessment. You can choose the most convenient time for the test – as long as you do it within 7 calendar days after receiving the link. 

In some offices and geographies, you will be notified earlier (up to one month) about your deadline for the test or get a specific date on which you have to go to the office to take the test.

In any case, you should start to prepare as soon as possible to learn and internalize the specific skills tested in the Imbellus assessment.

Note that some locations still employ the PST or the SHL, however, it is expected that all regions will transition to the Problem Solving Game within 2020 as the number of people that have to take the gamified assessment will grow “significantly over time,” as stated by McKinsey.

While testing 5000 candidates in 20 countries over the last 18 months with the Imbellus assessment in addition to the PST, our internal customer data shows that McKinsey rolled it out to more than 30 countries by now (officially). Our customer statistics indicate that is closer to 40 or even above 40 geographies.

Similar to the Problem Solving Test (PST), some countries such as Germany might never adopt the new digital assessment and stick to pure interview-based assessments.

Differences to the Problem Solving Test

The McKinsey Problem Solving Test is a well-known testing format that tests business problem-solving skills and logical abilities. You can prepare for it with the help of various manuals and training resources.

Bias-free candidate evaluation

The Imbellus replaces the McKinsey Problem Solving Test (which has been discontinued in several offices such as Germany and Austria already years ago due to the bias it introduced – business majors usually got much higher scores).

The PST is a 60-minute pen and paper multiple-choice test in which the candidate has to circle the correct answer.

While the PST is useful to gather information about a candidate’s problem-solving skills, it introduces a bias towards candidates that are familiar with business problems. Since it favors business major backgrounds it is not in line with McKinsey looking to expand its hiring base.

Also, the PST does not allow for understanding how the candidate arrived at a particular solution.

By changing this part of the recruiting process to an abstracted digital assessment, McKinsey hopes to gauge applicants’ cognitive abilities in a bias-free environment.

In sum, the Imbellus Assessment allows McKinsey to get both a product score, evaluating how good your solution is and a process score, providing insights into your problem-solving prowess.

At its very core, the Problem Solving Game is still based on a standard case. You need to identify a problem, collect and analyze data, make a decision in a limited time and without complete information, and then formulate recommendations.

For that matter, McKinsey Problem Solving Game evaluates problem-solving skills, but online, using a variety of algorithms and based on tasks of a different level. This is a more advanced format with the idea that you can’t prepare for this test, predict the scenario, or find the correct answer in advance.

We tell you in a second why this is wrong and why you actually CAN prepare to raise your scores and improve your outcomes.

The predictive power of the game

Initial test data suggest that a candidate’s performance on the Imbellus problem-solving simulation is a good indicator of whether he or she will land an offer after the case interviews. The predictive power is said to be higher than the one of the PST.

Median Construct Percentile through McKinsey & Company Recruiting Pipeline (Source: Imbellus)

However, the skills that the test assesses are known and we have compiled ways on how to train them in our guide and refined with feedback from experts and recent test-takers.

The digital assessment analyzes the skills of candidates in conditions that are closer to real-life situations: what approaches do they use to find a solution, how creatively they approach the task, how they perceive the world and think. In particular, the test helps to evaluate:

  • the ability to correctly identify the problem and the problem that needs to be solved
  • analyze available information from various sources
  • find the right approach to solve the problem, including formulating and testing strategically hypotheses
  • draw the right conclusions and make the necessary decision
  • quickly react to changes in a situation or its boundary conditions

At the same time, taking an online test is much more convenient as it can be done remotely in many geographies.

In order to do this, McKinsey and Imbellus calculate a

  • Product Score: What was the quality of the outcome you reached? Did you manage to ”win” the games and create a sustainable eco-system or protected the plants successfully (more on these in a second)
  • Process Score: How did you reach that outcome? Remember that every click is recorded in addition to 100+ other variables as you play the games. Were you nervous when clicking around? Did you execute an observable, rational plan?

Tasks of the McKinsey Problem Solving Game

The McKinsey Problem Solving Game lasts 60 to 75 minutes (+ untimed tutorials) depending on the geography. In most offices, the test is 60 minutes long. It includes two individual scenarios revolving around environmental issues. Before each scenario, there are untimed tutorials. The game itself cannot be paused!

Before starting the Problem Solving Game you will receive a detailed briefing. This tutorial/ trial has been expanded to better explain the different games during COVID19 since every candidate is going through the assessment from home.

Be aware that the scenarios could be rotated for individual candidates as the Firm experiments and tries to adjust along the way. However, we have not received any feedback on different games within the last 8 months!

In general, you will encounter two distinct worlds, which are visually depicted.

McKinsey Problem Solving Game Scenarios

Ecosystem creation

The first is a mountain ridge or coral reef, where you have to create an ecosystem combining a number of species to build a sustainable food chain and match it with a specific location.

You will be confronted with an overload of different data points (similar to the McKinsey Problem Solving Test, yet not business-related). An alternate version of the same game is set in the ocean, where you would need to build a coral reef.

The goal is to select a suitable spot and then build a food chain consisting of 8 different species. You need to optimize and match the location to the species as well as the species among each other.

Screenshot from the McKinsey PSG (Source: Imbellus)

Tower defense

In the second scenario, you need to defend a plant species from invaders using several tools at your disposal in a static, round-based tower defense style game. The tools consist of barriers that slow down invaders and predators that damage and eradicate them.

Previously, candidates have reported scenarios related to different environmental disasters you need to remediate. First, you need to figure out what has happened, second, you need to plan a course of action to remedy the disaster and achieve a positive outcome.

Screenshot from the McKinsey PSG (Source: Imbellus)

All games are set in an ecological context to be accessible to all backgrounds. At the same time, no two test-takers will have the same experience as there are tens of thousands of possible variations of the same game, all with the same level of difficulty.

Artificial intelligence should ensure that the virtual environments and animals look are indistinguishable from reality to put candidates in a flow state and full immersion when playing the game.

At the end of testing, the system will inform the recruiter of the candidate’s result – a specific assessment of the skills. Depending on the points scored, the candidate goes to the next stage of the interview or receives a ban to re-apply (1 year for an internship, 2 years for all other roles).

Getting high scores in the Game

The software by Imbellus captures and analyzes every keystroke and mouse movement a candidate makes. In the end, you will be evaluated based on a product score and a process score. The game not only evaluates the outcomes you generated but also the cognitive dynamic responsible for how you got there. For instance, it is important for McKinsey to understand how you made the choices or when you made errors, how you corrected them.

To win the game, you must understand the multitude of factors that affect the outcome you are pursuing and for each scenario at hand, either save a particular plant species from predators or build an ecosystem.

The 6 core skills that are tested

This gamified process tests key skills, as explicitly stated by Imbellus in a research paper on a conference on the topic of gamified assessment centers and educational data mining:

  1. Critical thinking: the ability to form a rational judgment from a set of facts
  2. Decision making: the ability to select the best course of action among several options
  3. Meta-cognition: the ability to use strategies to make learning information and solving problems easier (e.g., testing hypothesis, taking notes)
  4. Situational awareness: the ability to determine the relationships between different factors and to project the outcome of a scenario
  5. Systems thinking: the ability to understand cause & effect relationships involving several factors and feedback loops (e.g., anticipating several orders of consequence)
  6. Adaptability: the ability to change and adjust your actions and approach to a task in order to suit a new situation or boundary conditions
McKinsey Problem Solving Game Skills

All of a candidate’s actions – even the movement of the mouse – are tracked by the game and then assessed using data science to score the six abilities.

The digital assessment gives many more insights into candidates’ skills since McKinsey is able to collect the test results of thousands of applicants over time.

The firm then applies people analytics on this fast-growing data set to evaluate a candidate’s creativity, and the ability to gather information and generate ideas.

Additionally, the test looks into problem-solving skills, focusing mainly on the ability to work with multifactorial data as well as the candidates’ problem-solving approach dividing methodology vs. intuition.

Consequently, it is as important to show how you solve the problem vs. to arrive at a feasible solution.

If you are taking the test from home: before starting the test, the system will automatically check the Internet connection, but still, make sure that your computer is charged and the internet signal is stable. Be aware that older computers could struggle a bit with the workload. The test cannot be repeated. Make sure that this all checks out before!

Prepare for the McKinsey Problem Solving Game

McKinsey tells candidates that preparation is not needed and not possible. However, the feedback we have collected from candidates point to the fact that you can actually prepare really well for the different scenarios.

For that matter, we have analyzed the test, talked to game design experts and test-takers, and turned to science-backed methods to create a very detailed guide for the game and its mechanics.

Below, we have compiled some higher-level tips for the game:

  • Do not try to replicate results or solutions since every test taker will face a uniquely generated scenario. Focus on the process instead and replicate strategies (we have devised in or guide)
  • As with the Problem Solving Test – Keep an eye on the time! It is easy to get lost in the details and the sheer complexity of information overload the test presents. However, make sure to go swiftly through the tutorial, keep track of the time, and roughly stick to the 20 minutes for each scenario. The progress bar shows the remaining time, however, there is no clock or explicit mention of the time left
  • Look into the key skills that are being assessed by Imbellus. Playing logic games and answering GMAT questions can be beneficial to train these areas specifically. Figure out what your weaknesses are and tailor your preparation with specific problems to solve. Additionally, this preparation will benefit you during the actual case interview
  • Get ready to make 80/20 decisions based on incomplete information. Likely you won’t reach the best answer within 60 minutes, however, you should reach a good answer, demonstrating a clever problem-solving strategy along the way. Be careful not to get bogged down by the details and losing yourself in the several subcategories the game provides. Similarly, test your ideas and write down the different outcomes
  • Just as in the actual case interview, make proper note-taking a habit. Write down your observations on the mechanics of each scenario. It will help you structure your thoughts and reach a solution quicker. As Imbellus states, so far, the notes have been collected after the test. However, it is unlikely that they will be taken into consideration for the screening decision. The game itself provides more than enough data points to automatically analyze
  • Get comfortable with pen and paper math. That way you will be able to calculate and compare the expected outcomes of several options. After all, that is the same skill that was already needed for the McKinsey PST and is still needed for the McKinsey case interviews that follow the digital assessment

How and when will you know if you have passed?

In general, the notification whether or not you passed the test and move on to the interviews will take between 2 and 14 days depending on the office and the number of candidates. If you want to expedite the process because you have another offer and need to know, just call HR and they will likely help you out.

Our candidates have told us that they know whether or not they passed the first part of the assessment, the ecosystem creation because you can test for the sustainability of the food chain. The tower defense game is much more chaotic and it is not entirely clear whether or not you score high enough for McKinsey standards.

In general, we expect the pass rate to be similar to the earlier days of the PST. McKinsey has run beta tests with a significant number of applicants and internal staff to calibrate the Imbellus assessment. Over time, we expect score inflation as people learn more about the test and preparation increases.

If you have taken the Imbellus McKinsey Problem Solving Game and want to share your experience or have further questions, please let us know in the comment section below!

How our guide boosts your score

If you want to improve your score and increase your chances to pass the test, check out our 52-page guide (including 3 videos on the interface and the gameplay strategies of both games) with a detailed look of each scenario, proven strategies on how to prepare for the Imbellus game, as well as examples, tips, and tricks on how to take the test. Our guide is the gold standard in McKinsey PSG preparation for a few reasons

Most experience with the PSG

  1. We were the first and the only ones to offer a guide based on genuine, first-hand information. We started out by interviewing trial test-takers, game design, and assessment experts in November 2019.
  2. We continuously interview our customers and now have a database of more than 90 first-hand experience reports and feedback
  3. Their feedback has helped us to reach more than 1000 test-takers in more than 40 countries and continuously improve the guide and adjust it to the latest changes McKinsey is introducing
  4. As former McKinsey consultants and interviewers, who left the firm recently, we have a deep understanding of how McKinsey thinks and evaluates candidates. Benefit from our specific insights you will not find on generic case websites
  5. We go into more detail about the interface and the gameplay strategies in a 3-part video commentary in addition to the guide

Battle-tested approach for high scores

Our preparation strategy is based on 4 pillars:

  1. We help you understand the rationale of McKinsey’s testing efforts
  2. We teach you in great detail how the scenarios and different games look like (user interface, gameplay mechanics) as well as what you need to do (objectives, core problems)
  3. We discuss the core skills that are assessed by McKinsey and how you can train them with actionable advice and links to external resources
  4. We provide you with test-taking strategies on how to really approach the eco-system game and the plant defense. We collected them through our interviews by correlating candidate approaches with their successful outcomes.

Additionally, you get access to our McKinsey applicants’ inner circle where we will provide answers to all your consulting interview questions within 24 hours.


6 Responses

  1. Luiz says:

    I heard that there are also other games that could be part of the PSG like predicting and preventing an environmental disaster. Are you sure that there are ‘only’ the 2 two games you describe?

    • StrategyCase says:

      Hi Luiz, we talk briefly about these potential other scenarios in our Problem Solving Game Guide. Be aware that they were used during the trial stages in 2018/19 only and none of our more than 700 customers has reported on them pro-actively. From the 80+ customers we interviewed since November 2019, all went solely through the ecosystem game and the tower defense-like game. In the ecosystem game, recent candidates report having done the mountain ridge scenario and not the reef (even though this has no impact on the actual gameplay).

  2. Patrícia says:

    Hi, how do I know if I passed the ecosystem simulation task?

    • StrategyCase says:

      Hi Patricia, on an aggregate level the game looks at both your product score (did you produce a good outcome?) and your process score (did you perform well under stress while working towards the outcome?).

      In order to pass the ecosystem simulation, ideally, you reach the threshold McKinsey set for both scores (which is unknown). For the product score, you should be able to test your hypotheses during the game and see if your food chain is actually sustainable and works out. However, for the process score, you can only take a guess. McKinsey and Imbellus record every movement of your mouse, every click, as well as how long you pause, go back and forth in the menus, etc. In short, the more you have worked in a calm and collected manner towards selecting your food chain, the higher the chances to reach a solid process score.

  3. Federico Minotti says:

    Hi, I have one question, Is McKinsey problem-solving game material included in Mc Kinsey program?

    • StrategyCase says:

      Hi Federico, do you mean the Video Academy or the Interview coaching?

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