The Ultimate Guide to Acing the McKinsey Case Interview (Problem-Solving Interview)

the image is the cover for the mckinsey case interview or problem solving interview article

Last Updated on September 13, 2023

The McKinsey case interview, also called the Problem-Solving Interview by the firm, is a crucial and defining element of the consulting recruitment process for one of the world’s most prestigious management consulting firms. This unique type of interview assesses a candidate’s analytical, problem-solving, and communication skills, as well as their ability to think critically under pressure. With a reputation for being challenging and rigorous, the McKinsey case interview is often seen as a significant hurdle for aspiring consultants to overcome. 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.

Recognizing the importance of thorough preparation, this article aims to become the go-to resource for candidates worldwide who are seeking to excel in the McKinsey case interview and want to kickstart their McKinsey careers. By providing comprehensive insights, practical tips, and concrete examples, our goal is to equip you with the knowledge and confidence required to stand out in the competitive world of management consulting.

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We found that the information on the McKinsey application process and specifically the case interviews is often wrong, outdated, or assumed to be the same as for every other consulting firm, and written by ‘experts’, who have never conducted an interview at McKinsey or even seen a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.

McKinsey’s Interview Process

Overview of the recruitment process

The McKinsey recruitment process typically consists of the following stages:

  1. Application submission: Candidates submit their resume, cover letter, and academic transcripts online.
  2. Online assessments: Selected candidates may be invited to complete an online assessment, the McKinsey Solve Game (previously known as the Imbellus test, or Problem Solving Game/PSG)
  3. First-round interviews: Successful candidates progress to first-round interviews, which typically involve two separate interviews, each consisting of a Personal Experience Interview (PEI) and a case interview.
  4. Final-round interviews: Candidates who excel in the first round are invited to final-round interviews, which usually consist of two to three separate interviews with more senior McKinsey consultants or partners, again featuring a PEI and a case interview in each session.
  5. Offer decision: Following the final round, the firm makes a decision on whether to extend an offer to the candidate.
the image provides an overview of the mckinsey interview process
Overview of the McKinsey Interview Process

The Personal Experience Interview (PEI)

The Personal Experience Interview (PEI) is a critical component of McKinsey’s interview process. During the PEI, the interviewer will ask the candidate to share a specific example from their past experiences that demonstrates one of McKinsey’s core values, such as leadership, personal impact, or the ability to deal with change. Candidates should prepare concise and compelling stories that highlight their achievements, challenges faced, and the lessons learned. The PEI aims to assess the candidate’s interpersonal skills, self-awareness, and overall fit with McKinsey’s culture.

The Case Interview (Problem-Solving Interview)

The case interview is the centerpiece of McKinsey’s interview process. In this interview, the candidate is presented with a real-life or hypothetical business problem, which they must analyze and solve. The interviewer will assess the candidate’s ability to structure the problem, analyze data, generate insights, and communicate recommendations effectively. During the case interview, candidates should exhibit strong problem-solving, analytical, and communication skills, as well as the ability to think critically under pressure. Preparing for the case interview involves practicing a variety of cases, developing essential skills, and understanding the McKinsey case interview framework (more on that below).

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Understanding the McKinsey Case Interview

What is a case interview?

A case interview is a unique type of job interview that tests a candidate’s ability to analyze, solve, and communicate complex business problems. During a case interview, the interviewer presents a real-life or hypothetical business scenario, and the candidate is expected to analyze the situation, identify the key issues, and propose a strategic solution. The case interview format allows the interviewer to evaluate a candidate’s problem-solving, analytical, and interpersonal skills, which are essential for a successful career in management consulting.

Why does McKinsey use case interviews?

McKinsey & Company uses case interviews as a key component of its recruitment process for several reasons. First, the case interview format closely simulates the work environment and tasks that consultants face daily, providing the firm with a more accurate assessment of a candidate’s potential performance. Second, case interviews allow McKinsey to evaluate a candidate’s ability to think critically, structure complex problems, and communicate effectively under pressure—skills that are crucial for consultants who must deliver high-quality solutions to clients. Lastly, case interviews serve as a consistent and objective measure of a candidate’s capabilities, enabling the firm to compare candidates from diverse backgrounds fairly and accurately.

What is different in McKinsey’s interview format?

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.

Types of cases you may encounter

During a McKinsey case interview, candidates may encounter a variety of case types that cover different industries, functions, and challenges. The following is just a selection of potential case problems that you would need to solve.

  1. Market entry: Evaluating the attractiveness of entering a new market or launching a new product or service.
  2. Growth strategy: Identifying opportunities for a company to grow its revenue, market share, or profitability.
  3. Mergers and acquisitions: Assessing the feasibility and potential value of merging with or acquiring another company.
  4. Cost reduction: Identifying areas for cost savings and efficiency improvements in a company’s operations or supply chain.
  5. Pricing strategy: Determining the optimal pricing structure for a product or service to maximize revenue or profit.
  6. Organizational restructuring: Evaluating changes to a company’s organizational structure or management processes to improve performance.
  7. Operational improvements: Figure out and improve operational issues.

While the specifics of each case may differ, the core skills required to tackle these cases—such as structuring, data analysis, and problem-solving—remain consistent across all case types.

On top of that, McKinsey cases have become much more creative over the last couple of years, hence, using memorized and established frameworks will never serve you well. Rather it is important to approach every McKinsey case from a first-principles approach.

For instance, consider the following real McKinsey case example.

You are working with an operator of a specific type of machines. They break down at different rates at different locations. What factors can you think of why that would happen?

Example of a McKinsey Case Interview Structure Questions

There is not a single memorized framework bucket that would work here. Let us look at an example answer for this prompt.

Example Framework McKinsey Case Interview

Less than 1% of candidates make it through the recruiting filters of McKinsey. You want to provide insights that the interviewer has not heard before and not be just like the other 99% that fail to impress.

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.

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 the 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.

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 (includes creating frameworks and brainstorming questions)
  • Exhibit Interpretation
  • Math

Structuring

Structuring includes both the framework creation at the beginning of a case as well as answering brainstorming questions (usually at a later stage of the case).

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. A strong initial structure should cover all elements of the situation AND allow you to understand where the problem is coming from. Read more about case interview structure and frameworks here.

A common question would be:

What factors would you look at to understand the problem better?

McKinsey framework question

Brainstorming has you come up with specific ideas around a certain topic (in a structured manner). Read more about brainstorming here.

A common question would be:

What ideas do you have that could decrease customer check-out time?

McKinsey brainstorming question

Data interpretation

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.

Math

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 strong communication (MECE, top-down, signposted)

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

Mastering the McKinsey Case Interview Framework

In the sequence of questions that you receive, you need to demonstrate that you are able to

  • identify the ask;
  • structure the problem to investigate it;
  • analyze data related to it;
  • generate insight and recommendations;
  • communicate effectively.

Problem identification

The first step in tackling a McKinsey case interview is to identify the core problem or question that needs to be addressed. Carefully listen to the case prompt and take notes, ensuring that you understand the client’s objectives, the scope of the problem, and any constraints. Clarify any uncertainties with the interviewer before moving forward.

Structuring the problem

Once you have identified the problem, develop a structured approach to address it. Break down the problem into smaller, more manageable components using logical frameworks. Tailor the chosen framework to the specific case, incorporating any unique factors or considerations. Present your structure to the interviewer, explaining your rationale and seeking their input or approval.

Data analysis and interpretation

As you proceed with your structured approach, you may be provided with additional data or information by the interviewer. Analyze the data, using quantitative techniques, such as calculating growth rates, market shares, or breakeven points, to draw meaningful insights. Be prepared to make assumptions or estimates if necessary but ensure they are reasonable and well-justified.

Generating insights and recommendations

Based on your data analysis, develop actionable insights and recommendations that address the client’s objectives. Consider the potential impact, feasibility, and risks associated with each recommendation. Think creatively and strategically, incorporating both qualitative and quantitative factors into your decision-making process.

Synthesis and communication

Finally, synthesize your findings and recommendations into a clear and concise conclusion. Use the “top-down” communication style, starting with your main recommendation, followed by the supporting evidence and insights. Demonstrate strong communication skills by articulating your thought process and recommendations persuasively and confidently. Be prepared to answer any follow-up questions from the interviewer and engage in a discussion to defend or refine your conclusions.

In this format, McKinsey assesses in a case interview six skills that you need to demonstrate consistently in every case interview.

What skills are assessed by McKinsey?

  • Problem-solving: Are you able to derive a MECE (mutually exclusive, collectively exhaustive) framework, breaking a problem down into smaller problems, and accurately covering all aspects of the problem?
  • 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?
  • 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)?
  • Communication: 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?
  • Maturity and presence: 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?
  • 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?

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.

the image shows a case interview evaluation sheet
Example of a case interview scoring sheet

Key Strategies to Excel in a McKinsey Case Interview

Using the MECE principle

MECE (Mutually Exclusive, Collectively Exhaustive) is a problem-solving principle that helps ensure your analysis is both comprehensive and well-organized. Apply the MECE principle when structuring your approach to a case by breaking down the problem into distinct, non-overlapping components while ensuring that all relevant aspects are covered. This method allows you to maintain a clear and logical structure throughout the case and reduces the likelihood of overlooking critical factors.

Applying the 80/20 rule

The 80/20 rule, also known as the Pareto Principle, suggests that 80% of the effects come from 20% of the causes. In the context of a case interview, this means focusing on the most critical issues or factors that will have the most significant impact on the client’s objectives. By prioritizing your analysis and recommendations, you can work more efficiently and effectively, demonstrating your ability to identify and address the most pressing concerns for the client.

Hypothesis-driven approach

Using a hypothesis-driven approach means forming an initial hypothesis or educated guess about the potential solution to the problem and then testing it using data and analysis. By starting with a hypothesis, you can guide your problem-solving process more efficiently, focusing your efforts on collecting evidence that supports or refutes your hypothesis. Throughout the case, be prepared to revise or refine your hypothesis as new information emerges.

Incorporating creativity and business intuition

While frameworks and structured approaches are essential, it’s also crucial to demonstrate creativity and business intuition during a McKinsey case interview. This means thinking beyond the standard frameworks and considering innovative solutions or unique factors that may be relevant to the specific case. Use your knowledge of industry trends, best practices, and real-world business challenges to inform your analysis and recommendations. By combining structured thinking with creative problem-solving, you can showcase your ability to deliver well-rounded, impactful solutions for clients.

Preparing for the 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. 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.

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…

Developing the right mindset

Success in the McKinsey case interview starts with cultivating the right mindset. Being mentally prepared involves:

  1. Embracing a growth mindset: Recognize that your skills can improve with consistent practice and effort. Stay open to feedback and learn from your mistakes.
  2. Building resilience: Understand that case interviews are challenging, and you may face setbacks during your preparation. Stay persistent and maintain a positive attitude.
  3. Adopting a client-first perspective: Approach each case as if you were a consultant working on a real client engagement, focusing on delivering value and actionable insights.

Learning the essential skills

To excel in the McKinsey case interview, it’s crucial to develop the following skills:

  1. Problem structuring: Break down complex problems into smaller, more manageable components using frameworks and logical structures.
  2. Qualitative and quantitative analysis: Interpret and analyze data to draw meaningful insights and make informed decisions.
  3. Hypothesis-driven thinking: Develop and test hypotheses to guide your problem-solving approach efficiently.
  4. Communication: Clearly articulate your thought process, insights, and recommendations in a concise and persuasive manner.

Studying relevant materials and resources

Leverage various resources to enhance your understanding of case interviews and management consulting:

  1. Books: The most effective and exhaustive case interview preparation book is The 1%: Conquer Your Consulting Case Interview (shameless plug). It goes much deeper than the usual suspects which are outdated and provide faulty advice on case interviews.
  2. Websites and blogs: Websites like StrategyCase.com offer the latest case interview tips, practice cases, and industry insights. You can check out more free articles covering consulting applications and interviews here.
  3. Online courses: Enroll in case interview preparation courses to gain structured guidance and access to a wealth of practice materials. We have created several high-quality courses for all elements of the McKinsey interview (see below)

We are the highest ranked and most successful case coaches on the web and have helped 100s of candidates break into McKinsey. As former McKinsey consultants and interview experts, we have specialized in getting our candidates into the firm. We can help you by

Reach out to us if you have any questions! We are happy to help and offer a tailored program.

Practicing with case partners

Regular practice with case partners is essential for honing your case interview skills:

  1. Find practice partners: Connect with fellow candidates through online forums, social media groups, or local consulting clubs.
  2. Set a practice schedule: Aim to practice at least a few cases per week, gradually increasing the difficulty and variety of cases.
  3. Seek feedback: After each practice case, discuss your performance with your partner, and identify areas for improvement.
  4. Alternate roles: Take turns playing the role of the interviewer and the interviewee to develop a deeper understanding of the case interview process.

Common Pitfalls and How to Avoid Them

Common mistakes

  1. Insufficient structure: Failing to break down the problem into manageable components can lead to a disorganized analysis and an inability to identify key issues.
  2. Overlooking the big picture: Becoming too focused on the details and losing sight of the overall objective or client’s needs can hinder the development of effective recommendations.
  3. Ignoring qualitative factors: Relying solely on quantitative data without considering qualitative aspects may result in an incomplete understanding of the problem.
  4. Ineffective communication: Struggling to articulate your thought process, insights, or recommendations in a clear and persuasive manner can undermine the value of your analysis.
  5. Failing to adapt: Sticking to a preconceived framework or hypothesis despite conflicting evidence may indicate a lack of flexibility and critical thinking.

Tips to prevent these mistakes

  1. Practice structuring: Develop your ability to structure problems effectively by practicing with a wide range of cases and familiarizing yourself with common frameworks.
  2. Stay focused on the objective: Periodically remind yourself of the client’s goals and priorities, ensuring that your analysis remains aligned with their needs.
  3. Balance quantitative and qualitative factors: Recognize the importance of both quantitative data and qualitative insights in forming a well-rounded understanding of the problem.
  4. Hone your communication skills: Practice speaking clearly, concisely, and persuasively, ensuring that your message is easily understood and well-received.
  5. Embrace adaptability: Be open to revising your approach, framework, or hypothesis in response to new information or feedback, demonstrating your ability to think critically and flexibly.

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Conclusion

In summary, acing the McKinsey case interview requires a deep understanding of the interview process, mastery of essential skills, and the ability to apply effective problem-solving strategies. By embracing the MECE principle, applying the 80/20 rule, adopting a hypothesis-driven approach, and incorporating creativity and business intuition, you will be well-equipped to tackle any case interview challenge.

Remember to invest time in preparing for both the Personal Experience Interview and the case interview itself, using the wealth of resources and practice materials available. Focus on developing a structured approach, honing your analytical and communication skills, and staying adaptable throughout the interview process.

As you embark on your McKinsey case interview journey, stay confident and persistent in your efforts. By applying the tips and strategies shared in this article, you will be one step closer to achieving your consulting career aspirations. We wish you the best of luck in your journey toward success at McKinsey.

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