The McKinsey Personal Experience Interview or PEI is one of the key elements in every McKinsey interview. Only 1% of McKinsey applicants receive an offer. For this decision, the PEI is equally important as the case interview. Yet, it is much easier to prepare for.
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 for the PEI.
This is unfortunate since this is the part of the interview 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.
First, let us look at the role of the McKinsey PEI, or personal fit interview.
If you want to know more about the exact flow of the McKinsey recruiting process, we have written an extensive overview here. In short, candidates first will be screened based on their resume and cover letter, then have to play the McKinsey Problem Solving Game, and lastly, move on to the dreaded interviews.
Each interview is standardized and consists of two main components, the case interview or problem solving interview and the personal experience interview. As described above both parts of the interview have the same weight when deciding about your offer.
In this article we cover four things. After reading it, you should be able to draft your own stories to hit all important points McKinsey wants to hear and also be able to tell your story like a consultant.
- Give an overview of the McKinsey PEI
- Discuss key elements for each dimension of the PEI
- Tell you how to build your personal PEI stories
- Highlight how to tell your stories like a consultant
A behavioral interview – with a twist
The McKinsey Personal Experience Interview is a modification of the classic behavioral interview. It uses a highly standardized interview format that revolves around three specific character traits and the associated stories.
Every PEI starts with one question related to the three desired traits. For instance, the interviewer might ask a very specific prompt such as “Tell me about a time where you demonstrated specific drive and achieved something…”
With this standardized format, 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. The format helps to evaluate and compare candidates on a few objective metrics.
To succeed, your role is to tell stories that convey how you displayed this specific trait.
Before we go deeper into each dimension, here are a few other facts about the PEI
- Each Personal Experience Interview focuses on one specific trait at a time
- In total, you will have to talk about three different traits, more specifically drive & achievement/ entrepreneurship, leadership, and personal impact (one per interview)
- Since you will have more than three interviews, you should prepare two stories per trait because sometimes you will be asked about one trait twice
- You don’t need to be superhuman. Illustrate how you acted in a specific situation, set in a professional environment (e.g. a previous work engagement or internship), a university experience, or extracurricular activity.
- The closer the stories are to the consultant’s typical challenges, the better
- You are expected to tell stories from the more recent past (max last three years back)
The McKinsey PEI dimensions
Learn about the desired traits below and prepare your stories accordingly. We highlight what elements the story should contain to be considered 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, 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.
Drive and achievement/ Entrepreneurship. 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 solution to a difficult problem.
Drafting your PEI stories
Draft your stories in a way that they can be told from different perspectives. 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.).
Since the interviews are so standardized you can easily prepare for them.
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. For instance, do not develop all stories from your university exchange semester but keep some variety in the context.
Lastly, have at least two stories per character trait at hand, as sometimes you have to talk about a particular trait in several interviews. 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).
For instance, looking at the leadership dimensions. Since you should have two stories per dimension anyway (in case a dimension is asked in several interviews), I would suggest that you have one from an official leadership role and a second one where you emerged as a natural leader due to your actions, behavior and the circumstances.
Both stories can be equally strong depending on how you frame it, the impact you created, and your interactions along the way.
What stories should you select for your PEI?
When it comes to the selection of your McKinsey PEI stories, you need to think about three dimensions in the following order:
1. Fit with the actual dimension that is asked. The stories need to fit the criteria set out by McKinsey to match with Entrepreneurial Drive, Leadership, and Personal Impact.
2. Diversity of experience. Your stories should be from different walks of life, e.g., jobs or careers, universities, extracurriculars, etc. Don’t take all stories from one experience.
3. Recency. In general, the more recent the better. Unless you interview for an experienced hire or more senior position, your stories should not date back more than 2-3 years.
How detailed should the stories be?
In the PEI, you should definitely highlight all the important aspects of the story by yourself. As a rule of thumb, the interviewer will only ask questions when something is unclear or you did not hit the relevant talking points that McKinsey wants to hear for a specific dimension.
The more details you leave out, the more drilling questions you will receive.
Try to focus the story around 1-2 specific pivotal moments that were crucial to reach a conclusion. The PEI is all about depth of a story, and not about being broad.
This is also why you should prepare specific stories for each dimension (entrepreneurial drive, personal impact, leadership) and not prepare general stories that you can use for all dimensions.
For these pivotal moments, go very deep, remember the interactions, the discussions, the thinking, etc. This will make a much stronger impact than listing a variety of different talking points, only scratching the surface.
How to answer McKinsey Personal Experience Questions
The PEI assesses two things. First, how you perform in certain situations as we described above, and second, how well you can tell a story.
Management consultants use an effective tool to bring their messages across: Storys. Storytelling is one of the key skills that every strategy consultant at McKinsey, BCG, and Bain needs to master to increase the effectiveness of their recommendations. They use stories to pack their analyses and recommendations into a powerful message and drive change.
That is why the ability to tell good stories is assessed during the case interviews. At StrategyCase.com we have developed the SCORE framework based on our on-the-job experience as well as discussions and coaching with 100s of applicants.
The SCORE framework enables you to best prepare and present compelling top-down stories to your audience.
The SCORE Framework
Setup the story
Whenever you tell a story, start by summarizing it in three key sentences. Every sentence should add value. Refrain from empty words or sentences.
Give each story a poignant headline to create a memorable anchor. 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?
This short introduction provides a background and sets the tone and stage for deeper discussions. You work both for yourself and the listener or interviewer.
You break down the story into individual parts and the listener can ask targeted questions. Depending on the questions, you can highlight certain parts of the story or of your heroic acts 😉
Dive into your story using the SCORE framework
If the interviewer is fine with your short summary and wants to hear more, use the SCORE framework to tell your story.
The SCORE framework is especially useful when you want to prepare and think deeply about all aspects of a situation. It provides an anchor for a natural flow of explanation and thought during an interview.
Let’s look at an example:
Julia 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 Julia 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 the 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 teammate. 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. The SCORE framework is extremely useful in this case. Be aware that McKinsey 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 it 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.
Practice your PEI stories
Finally, rehearse your answers with friends and peers. Let them play an active role and ask tricky questions to simulate a real-life interview situation.
How we can help you further
Now, we know that the McKinsey 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 (providing you also with a McKinsey case study example and a case study template) 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, focusing on the right case habits and not on the reliance on frameworks propagated in books such as Case in Point.