The McKinsey case interview (problem-solving interview)

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The McKinsey Case Interview, also called the Problem Solving Interview by the firm, is arguable the hardest challenge for candidates on the journey to start their McKinsey careers. Forbes ranked McKinsey’s interview process as the most difficult across all firms globally and the case plays a crucial role in that evaluation, besides the Personal Experience Interview.

As former McKinsey consultants and interview experts, we have specialized in helping our candidates to effectively tackle this part of the McKinsey assessment. We found that the information on the McKinsey application process and specifically the case interviews is often wrong, outdated, or assumed to be the same as for every other consulting firm, and written by ‘experts’, who have never conducted an interview at McKinsey or even seen a McKinsey office from the inside.

As a consequence, the advice given can be detrimental to your recruiting success with the firm.

In this article we want to shed some light on this mysterious, often-talked about, even more often misunderstood interview by answering the following questions:

  • What is the McKinsey problem-solving interview?
  • What skills are assessed in the case interview?
  • What is the format of the McKinsey case?
  • What are the questions in a McKinsey case interview?
  • Is the McKinsey interview different from a BCG or Bain interview?
  • How should you prepare for a McKinsey interview?

What is the McKinsey Problem Solving Interview?

The McKinsey Problem Solving Interview is a typical case interview as it is employed by most consulting firms to test the analytical capabilities and communication skills of applicants. However, it comes with a twist. The interview simulates a client situation, where you are tasked to solve a specific business problem that they are facing. You will have to answer a succession of several questions rather than driving the case yourself as would be the case in other consulting firms. Within the interview, which is a dialogue between you and the interviewer, you need to structure problems, propose concrete ideas, gather information, spot insights in data and charts, solve quantitative problems, and communicate in a professional and calm manner.

The case is the hardest part for most candidates since it involves a number of different skills that need to be demonstrated consistently across all questions and across multiple cases in succession. Depending on the office, applicants need to go through four to six case interviews before receiving an offer. They need to convince the interviewers in all cases to start their McKinsey careers.

Lets have a brief look at the different skills and at the format of the interview.

What skills are assessed by McKinsey?

Broadly, there are six skills that are assessed in a case interview and that you need to demonstrate consistently.

  • Structure: Are you able to derive a MECE (mutually exclusive, collectively exhaustive) framework, breaking a problem down into smaller problems, accurately covering all aspects of the problem?
  • Creativity: Do you think about a problem holistically, offering broad, deep, and insightful perspectives. Are you able to come up with different angles to the problem (breadth) and draft rich descriptions that qualify why these areas are important to investigate (depth)?
  • Analytical rigor and logical thinking: Can you link the structure to creative thinking? Are you using a hypothesis-driven approach to your problem solving, i.e. have a clear picture of where you think the solution of the case is buried most likely? Do you qualify your thinking, follow your structure, tackle (likely) high-impact issues first, lead the interviewer, and ask the right questions?
  • Mental math and basic calculus: Are you able to structure quantitative problems and comfortably perform calculations? Can you derive the correct approach to calculate the desired outcome variable? Can you plug in the numbers and perform the calculations, relying on basic pen-and-paper math, shortcuts, and mental math?
  • Business sense and intuition: Are you able to quickly understand the business and the situation of the client? Can you swiftly interpret data, charts, exhibits, and statements made by the interview? Are you asking the right questions? Are you able to make sense of new information quickly and interpret it properly in the context of the case?
  • Communication and maturity. Are you able to communicate like a consultant? Are you following a top-down communication approach similar to the Pyramid Principle taught by Minto? Do all of your statements add value and do you guide the interviewer through your thinking? Are you leading the conversation or are merely getting dragged along by the interviewer? Are you confident and mature? Are you comfortable with silence while taking time to structure your thinking?

Now, these skills are assessed in a very specific interviewing format, which is not natural for most applicants and needs significant practice to become second nature.

What is the format of the McKinsey case?

A typical McKinsey case follows the PEI in a one-hour interview session. It lasts for 25 to 30 minutes in an interviewer-led format, meaning that the interviewer takes the lead and guides you through the case. Your role as the interviewee is to answer the questions asked by the interviewer before they will move on to the next question. While it is the interviewer’s responsibility to provide hints and move you through the different questions, you should take the lead within each question.

Depending on your performance and speed, you will be asked three to six questions. Only receiving three questions is actually a positive sign since the interviewer was happy with your answers to each question. Going above three questions usually happens when the interviewer wants to dig deeper into a specific question type to see if the quality of a previous answer to a similar question was just an outlier or can be confirmed with a second question. Most candidates need more than three questions to convince the interviewer, so don’t be scared when your case gets a little bit longer and consists of more than three questions.

Some offices also offer a McKinsey phone case interview as a first screening device, which follows the same structure as an in-person interview.

What questions are asked in a McKinsey interview? Let’s have a look!

What are the questions of a McKinsey case interview?

In the McKinsey interview you will have to answer three different questions types – broadly speaking:

  • Structuring
  • Exhibit Interpretation
  • Math

A case interview structure is used to break the problem you are trying to solve for the client down into smaller problems or components. It is the roadmap you establish at the beginning of the interview that will guide your problem-solving approach throughout the case. Read more about case interview structure and frameworks here.

For chart or data interpretation, you are tasked to find the key insights of 1-2 Powerpoint slides and relate them back to the case question and the client situation at hand. Read more about exhibit interpretation here.

Case math questions have you analyze a problem mathematically before qualitatively investigating the particular reason for the numerical result or deriving specific recommendations from the outcome. Read more on how to ace case math here.

Now for structure and exhibit interpretation, there is no right or wrong answer in a McKinsey interview. Some answers are better than others because they are

  • deep
  • broad
  • insightful
  • hypothesis-driven
  • follow a strong communication (MECE, top-down, signposted)

That being said, there is no 100% that you can reach or the one-and-only solution/ answer. It is important that your answers display the characteristics specified above and supported well with arguments.

As for math questions, usually, there are answers which are correct (not always 100% the same since some candidates simplify or round differently – which is ok), and others that are wrong, either due to the

  • calculation approach
  • calculation itself

Now, for the interviewer, the overall picture counts. Mistakes in one area need to be balanced by a strong performance in other areas. McKinsey wants to see spikes in performance in certain areas and a good enough performance in other areas.

The most common example we see almost every day: You can be strong in structure and exhibit, yet make a small mistake in the math section – overall as you might consider 80% – and still pass on to the next round.

Be aware that in 99% of cases, there is no recommendation question in the end. The case just ends with the last case question. This is something many candidates are surprised by when they get out of their McKinsey interviews.

Is the McKinsey case interview different from a BCG or Bain interview?

While there are many similarities in McKinsey interviews and interviews with other firms, McKinsey interviews are interviewer-led, while other firms employ a candidate-led format.

McKinsey, BCG, and Bain cases have certain things in common:

  • The elements of the cases are the same. You will have to structure problems, interpret exhibits, and work through some calculations, come up with recommendations or implications, etc.
  • The skills that are assessed are the same. You need to exhibit strong problem-solving skills, creativity, ability to work under pressure, top-down communication, etc.

However, there is one key difference:

  • In interviewer-led cases, you take ownership of every question and go into greater detail here, while the interviewer guides you from question to question. In the interviewee-led case, you drive the whole case and have to move along, get the correct information to work with by asking the right questions, and analyze the problem to then deduct a recommendation

In a McKinsey case, the interviewer will guide you through a series of connected questions that you need to answer, synthesize, and develop recommendations from. There are clear directions and a flow of questions, which you need to answer with a hypothesis-driven mindset. These are arguably easier to prepare for and to go through since the flow and types of questions will always be the same.

For McKinsey case interview examples, check the available interviewer-led cases here.

In a candidate-led BCG case interview or Bain case interview, due to the nature of your role as an investigator, it is much easier to get lost, walk down a wrong branch of the issue tree, and waste a ton of time. While the interviewers will try to influence you to move in the right direction (pay attention to their hints), it is still up to you what elements of the problem you would like to analyze. Each answer should lead to a new question (hypothesis-driven) on your quest to find the root cause of the problem to come up with a recommendation on how to overcome it.

How should I prepare for a McKinsey case interview?

Most candidates prepare using generic frameworks. Alternatively, they are looking for a McKinsey case book PDF or a case study interview questions and answers PDF with the hope that the cases will be the same across interviewers and interviews.

Do not learn case-specific frameworks by heart, expecting them to work for every case you will encounter. There is no specific McKinsey case study framework or McKinsey case study book. It is much more important to learn the right approach that will help you tackle all types of cases. This is even more relevant for McKinsey interviews.

What you need to do is to study each individual question type and the associated skills in a case interview and learn how to approach it, regardless of the client situation, the context of the case, the industry, or function.

Many candidates ask if there is a specific McKinsey implementation case interview, McKinsey operation case interview, or McKinsey digital case interview. In fact, the cases are usually a mix of cases in a domain-relevant context as well as cases set in a completely different context to the role you are applying for.

Be aware that frameworks were applicable in the 2000 years, the era of Victor Cheng and Case in Point. McKinsey has long caught up on this and the cases you will get during the interviews are tailored in a way to test your creativity and ability to generate insights on the spot, not remember specific frameworks.

In fact, it will hurt you when you try to use a framework on a case that calls for a completely different approach. Also, it gives a false sense of security that will translate to stress once you figure out how your approach won’t work during the real interview – We have seen this way too often…

Your goal should be to learn how to build issue trees, interpret charts, and perform math no matter the context, industry, or function of the case and follow our McKinsey case interview tips.

Lastly, be aware that for generalist consulting roles you do not have to expect any McKinsey technical interview questions.

How we can help you ace the McKinsey interview

We have developed a system specifically for McKinsey cases that teaches you the correct approach for all questions of the case interview and the PEI. Following this system will make your case interview prep both more efficient and more effective.

If you want to learn in great detail how to ace the McKinsey interviews, check out our 40-part Ready-for-McKinsey interview academy, which includes a McKinsey-specific example of a case study and all dimensions and stories of the PEI, or our individual and private coaching sessions. This is the most comprehensive McKinsey case interview training programme out there. 9 out of 10 candidates who go through our 1-on-1 Ready-for-McKinsey interview coaching get the offer.

Since most candidates struggle with consulting math, we also offer a McKinsey case interview math practice.

We are consistently ranked as the best McKinsey and MBB coaches on PrepLounge.

 

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