Case Interview Advice from Another McKinsey New Hire

Field Report:

Just a brief note to say thank you for your emails. I actually didn't use the LOMS program - or your frameworks!

By far, the most valuable thing (for me) was the insight into the mindset of consultants and interviewers, which is what your emails provided.

It affords a real sense of perspective for a candidate like me, so when I walked into the interview, there was nothing intimidating about the guy or girl in front of me.

This allows you to do what is the most important thing, as emphasised in your most recent email: be yourself, be likeable.

So, thank you. And as a fitting way of saying thanks, I will be making a donation to Kidpower (just as soon as the sign-on bonus arrives!).

There are four things that struck me about the process. I thought you might be interested.

1. Easier interviews in London than in New York?

Having just finished all of my consulting interviews, I noticed they were actually much easier than I was led to expect by a lot of U.S.-based resources. Let me explain:

Your emails emphasise that the final round is a different ball game to the earlier rounds - namely, that earlier rounds are interviewer-led and the final rounds are candidate-led.

In addition to this, many of Marc Cosentino's examples are entirely candidate-led, with the interviewer barely saying anything. So I walked into my final rounds expecting a blank canvas.

It simply wasn't like that!

At McKinsey (London), the final round interviews, much like the first round, are all entirely interviewer-led scenarios.

They pretty much followed this format:

1. "Here is the scenario. What are you thinking about?" (i.e. what would be a good way to framework the problem?)

2. "Good. I want you to estimate this particular figure." (regarding a figure somewhere buried inside the case)

3. "Okay. Throw some ideas at me!" (brainstorming)

I was over-prepared! I'm glad I was, but it makes me wonder where all of that "ace the case" talk comes from.

I made my fair share of slip-ups, but I was never "dinged" or ever given the impression that the process was quite like you say it is.

I also noticed that the interviews were of a very similar standard from Round 1 to Round 2.

(Some candidates at the McKinsey final round discovered that their interviewers were using the same exact cases across both rounds!)

It is simply my impression that the level of expectation is a little more relaxed in London than it is in New York or Boston.

 

My Comments:

Based on several emails I've received from others, I do think the McKinsey process in London is easier than in other offices.

McKinsey London seems to be using the interviewer-led interview process in 1st and 2nd round (not sure if there is a 3rd round in London or not).

It appears that all the offices in McKinsey have moved to or are moving to this interview-led format.

Bain Paris seems to be using a similar interviewer-led approach in final round.

BCG in some countries seems to be using a very different format entirely. One of them giving you 30 pages of data, two hours to review, and asking you to create a presentation to present your conclusion to a panel of interviewers.

Back to McKinsey, interviewer-led interviews are easier in that knowing frameworks is not really required, and knowing how to create a custom issue tree is useful, but also not required (barely).

The big difference between the two approaches is that in an interviewer-led interview, there is no need for the candidate to know how to structure an ambiguous problem.

The specific questions asked are within a problem solving structure pre-defined by the interviewer.

So it is much easier.

--- End My Comment ---

 

2. CV/covering letter

By far, the most difficult part of the process, I found, was actually getting the interviews!

My academic profile is perhaps one of the best you can have for consulting [Top 3 global university, very high grades, technical degree].

I was rejected from about 60-70% of all consultancies straight away, including Bain, BCG, Booz and many other great firms.

The problem?

Extra-curriculars. They really do matter!

When I finally got a consultant to have a look at my CV (far too late), he told me that I would simply have lost many marks that are reserved just for extra-curriculars.

He explained that many firms have a marking system with, say, five possible marks for academics, four possible marks for previous work experience, five for extra-curriculars and perhaps one or two for a sound covering letter. And you can't really afford to lose more than four marks in total.

My advice is simple: don't send off any applications until you've got a consultant to assess both your CV and your covering letter. They might even show it to a colleague whose job it is to actually screen applications.

If you can't get in touch with a consultant, I would say: try harder!

Just ask people if they know anyone in consulting. You are bound to find a friend of a friend and that's usually close enough to get some helpful advice.

You can't apply twice in the same year, so don't rush it off, thinking the advantage will be in an early application.

 

My Comment:

I agree with the importance of extra curriculars or work experiences. This may seem odd, but being really smart from a top university is to some extent a "commodity."

It does not distinguish you from the pool of other very smart candidates.

But, just being smart is not enough to do well as a consultant. You very much have to work with clients and be comfortable doing so.  This is where extracurriculars can demonstrate your ability to work with or lead others.

So if you have such experiences, but you don't include them in either your resume/CV or consulting cover letter, I think that is a big mistake.

Also, if you have such experiences, and you include them in your consulting resume, but don't emphasize them in your cover letter, that too is a mistake.

Finally, the part you want to emphasize is your ability to influence others in difficult situations.  Many people ask what firms are looking for in leadership type questions.

Basically, they want you to be a diplomat.

They want you to go to the Middle East and be able to negotiate a peace settlement between Israel and the surrounding Muslim countries (preferably through a fact based analysis... well synthesized of course) and make it happen.

Yes, they want you to be capable of producing world peace.

Okay, I am joking... but only a little.

Here is the problem consulting firms have:

1) To do the analysis, you need data. To get the data, you have to work with clients lower down in the hierarchy.

In some cases, they do not like you. They resent you. They feel threatened by you.

How are you as a consultant going to be able to have a productive relationship with the clients so the overall engagement is not threatened?

If you have never been in and resolved a conflict situation involving others, how can a consulting firm reasonable believe you can handle this kind of situation while working for them?

This is what they are looking for both in the leadership case question, resume and consulting cover letter.

2) Once the analysis is done and the "answer" is discovered, most people outside of consulting assume the work is done. But, internally, this is where the work begins.

Just because you have the right "answer" does not mean the client willembrace it.

If the deliverable is a powerpoint, this is one thing. If the deliverable is getting a client to use what was in the powerpoint, this is something entirely different.

It is quite possible and in some cases likely that a 100% logical powerpoint will be ignored by a client.

Perhaps not by your firm's primary contact, but by others within the client organization -- the board, colleagues who run other divisions of the company, etc...

I find most people with PhD backgrounds can not grasp why this would happen.... to quote a phrase from a popular movie series, Star Trek... "It is illogical".

But, clients are human beings and they are often illogical... or rather, they are logical unless there is a major emotional reason that conflicts with logic.

How else do you explain why Blockbuster has gone bankrupt, largely due to NetFlix... and Blockbuster knew 11 years ago what NetFlix was doing?

The reason is that all the Senior Vice Presidents at Blockbuster have job titles like "SVP, Western U.S. Stores," "SVP, Eastern U.S. Stores," etc.

None of them likely wanted to back a proposal that would voluntarily make stores obsolete... even though the logical conclusion was stores would become obsolete eventually.

The only question is who would make the stores obsolete -- Blockbuster themselves on their terms, or a competitor.

So if you were a consultant to Blockbuster, and you did the analysis to show them their business is in the process of being made obsolete, and they ignored your analysis... then you can either interpret this as "the client is dumb" or "you failed."

Many firms subscribe to the latter.

To pull this off, they need consultants who are as good with people as they are with analysis.

For recent college grads and PhD's in technical fields, experience and success in extra-curricular activities is highly correlated with this behavior on the job.

In a very small sample size, I noticed the following amongst my colleagues:

1) Once a college grad exceeds a 3.5 GPA, there is no difference in on the job performance. Consultants with a 3.5 (out of 4.0) GPA's got promoted at the same rate as those that had a 4.0 GPA.

2) Math standardized test scores need to be really high... that is very correlated with on the job performance (the analytical portion).

I had perfect math scores on all of my standardized test. It is not necessary to be perfect, but pretty close is a favorable sign.

Interesting... standardized test scores on verbal were not important as high or low, they did not correlate with on the job performance and likelihood of promotion.

3) Strong leadership background, highly correlated with job success (the client skills portion).

I remember a conversation I had with the MIT recruiting team. They were extremely impressed with the grades and standardized test scores of the applicants... so many brilliant people.

Then after they came back from Round 1 interviews, they rejected 90%+ in Round 1 (not normally that high)... and were sorely disappointed. Lots of math genius super nerds that could not have a conversation with a client.

So genius is a commodity. Being a genius with people skills... Well, that's an entirely different story.

Bottom line - communicate your people skills, conflict resolution skills, leadership skills anyway you can -- extra curriculars, work experiences, special projects.

--- End My Comments ----

3. Conquering nerves

In my first interview, I was a nervous wreck. I actually froze up for around five seconds near the beginning. It was incredibly awkward and, as expected, I didn't get through.

I thought to myself, "Am I even cut out to be a consultant? I'm supposed to be presenting myself to CEOs and I can't even talk to the interviewer."

I was very demoralised about the whole process, and actually doubted my own worth (within the context of careers).

Now, I know someone who did the same thing in his Bain interview. He only applied to Bain, McKinsey and BCG (because he decided he thought that if he didn't get into one of these, he would take an offer he had for a bank).

Meanwhile, I applied for around 30 consultancies and got around eight applications through to the first round of interviews.

So while I bombed out of an interview that, in the grand scheme of things, didn't end up mattering much, he bombed out of the only interview he had.

By my second set of interviews (a first round with a different company), I felt just as nervous. But I got through the first one and rolled into the next interview with a little more confidence.

By the end, I had broken down the nerves barrier. It's not to say I never got nervous again, but it certainly stopped being a problem in the interview.

So I recommend applying to loads of places just for the practise - even if you would be unlikely to accept the offer.

My Comment:

I agree with this for several reasons. Some people only apply to MBB - McKinsey, Bain, BCG.  While these are certainly the top firms, not everyone who wants to get into these companies will get in.

There are other very well respected firms that offer very comparable career benefits as working at MBB that should not be overlooked.

I had lots of friends who worked at other firms - LEK, Mercer, Monitor, etc.. many years later if you look at where they are, you can not guess who worked at which firms.

The career of the ex-Mercer guy does not look any different than the ex-Bain guy, etc...

In addition, interviewing with a broader range of firms also gives you the chance to improve your skills at a faster rate.

I've mentioned on previous occasions that I got seven consulting job offers.

These offer included McKinsey, Bain, AT Kearney, LEK, Mercer, Monitor (since acquired by Deloitte), Strategic Decisions Group - and I got a final round at Booz, but ended up deciding not to go.

In total, I did around 60 case interviews with actual employers.  With that much experience, you tend to get much better by the end than when you started.

So a fair amount of my "practice" was actual interviews.

In hindsight, with the exception of Strategic Decisions Group (which has a very specialized consulting approach which was very impressive but not what I wanted to do personally), I would have been happy working at any of the firms I got offers from (which was why I applied to them).

I had no idea I would get offers from all of them, and you just never really know how good you are until you try.

It is also much less stressful knowing you have interviews with many firms... it allows you to relax, knowing that even if you don't pass this interview, there are others.

For example, I did not pass my BCG Round 1 interview. I thought my case was pretty good (it was an estimation question) but I might have offended the interviewer with one of my questions.

Who knows.

But when I got rejected, if I only had McKinsey and Bain left, I would have felt more pressure.

But after I got my BCG rejection, I knew that I had interviews lined up with seven other firms. So while disappointing, it was not the end of the world in either fact or emotional perception.

For this alone, it is worth applying to more than one firm.

And if I had not gotten into McKinsey or Bain, I would have gone to one of the others and been just as happy with the decision... and with years of perspective, I doubt it would have made much of a difference in my post McKinsey career if I had gone to a different firm.

--- End My Comment ---

4. Two-way conversation

Always, always, always encourage two-way conversation. It is unsustainable to just take what they give you and run with it (a la 'Case In Point').

The talking ratio should be around the 60:40 area and not 90:10. This is, at least, how my interviews played out.

So, don't be afraid to ask the interviewer questions before the allotted "any questions?" bit at the end. It's all about being human.

If the interviewer says something that triggers a question - ask it! The interviewer's opening introduction of him/herself can be used to build rapport.

Finally, interviewers often asked me questions where the correct answer was not to answer, but to discuss. This isn't always obvious when the question is phrased in a way that demands a hard answer.

Specifically, there was a pricing question that boiled down to the interviewer saying, "Set a profit margin that our client should aim for on this event."

I went, "Let's say 25%."

He responds, "Why?"

I stop, think about it and then admit: "I have no idea!"

He says, "Why not 80%?"

"Well, then, why not more?"

"You tell me!"

The answer is that there are a few things to consider (alternative uses of resources, competitive-based pricing, objectives other than profit) and we ended up accepting a 0% profit margin for promotional reasons (but only after I defended this against his criticisms).

So I guess I saved it. But the point is that it was a two-way discussion.

In hindsight, the interviewer intended the question as an exercise to a) get me brainstorming, b) defending my arguments and c) probably catch me off-guard.

 

My Comment:

This is an interesting point worth elaborating on.

In an interviewer-led case, expect the interview to be much more conversational.

In a candidate-led case, the amount of conversation will depend a lot on which interviewer you get and how well you are doing on a case.

Some really good interviewers will make it very conversational, regardless of how you perform.  They will smile a lot.

They will engage conversationally to make you feel at ease, help you relax, and to see how you perform when relaxed (which is when people tend to do their best).

The talking ratio with this kind of interviewer in a candidate-led case might be at most 70/30.

Other interviewers, like the one I got at Bain final round (her name was Theresia Gouw Ranzetta, and she is now one of the 50 most powerful women in Silicon Valley) was the total opposite.

I later learned her deliberate style is to play the role of skeptical client - of which you will eventually see on the job.

Even though in real life she is not this way, in my interview she was deliberately cold, expressionless. It turns out I nailed the case she gave, but I could not tell by her response during the interview.

No smiles. No nodding of the head. No remarks like, "that's right". Later I discovered that the Bain recruiting team has a nickname for her -- "The Ice Queen"... cold as ice in an interview.

So the range of conversation you might get can vary quite widely.  In my interview with Theresia, it was a 90/10 me vs. her talking ratio. (This is definitely on the extreme side... more commonly in a candidate-led case, it's probably closer to 80/20 or 70/30 if the interviewer has a very conversational style.)

The other thing to keep in mind is that often that amount of conversation increases the better you are doing in the interview.

I know as an interviewer I tend to do this, and let me explain why.

If you are totally bombing a case, as an interviewer it feels awfully rude and aggressive to intellectually attack your argument and reasoning.

Some candidates are just out right terrible.  I know I'm not going to pass them, but do I really want to rip apart the candidate's totally flawed logic?  What's the point? All they're going to do is feel bad.

But, if a candidate is clearly very sharp and is doing well... then I will aggressively challenge the logic, point out alternatives to see how flexible they are in their thinking, see how they respond at a people skill level tosomeone who disagrees with them (will they be stubborn and persist, or be diplomatic in terms of how they handle the conflict?).

Sometimes this is associated with a posture shift in the interviewer. Maybe they start the interview (their 8th of the day) kind of reclined, and then you say a few insightful things, they might shift their posture forward to be more engaged.

What really gets an interviewer engaged is when you point out an insight that was really interesting, but one they hadn't thought of.  Keep in mind, most cases are based off real client work the consultant has worked on for 3 - 6 months (names and data altered).

So if you find something they missed, they silently say to themselves, "Geez... that was a good point, I should have thought of that two months ago."  And their perception of you shifts from candidate to future colleague/team member... this is a good thing, of course.

I noticed this in one of my final round McKinsey Los Angeles interviews.  I noticed the interviewer clearly perked up after I mentioned a key insight (which I presume many other candidates missed). Then rather than being passive, shestarted grilling me... what about this? What about that? Had you considered this?

The conversation had a back and forth reparte similar to the example mentioned above by the reader who sent in the email to me.

I did not know what to make of it at the time, but in hindsight realized it was a sign of the interviewer showing interest.

Also I definitely encourage you to ask the interviewer questions. If something is unclear, ask.  If you weren't sure what they were looking for, ask for clarification.

There is a right way to ask a question.

Don't ask the interviewer to solve the case for you. Instead, say something like, "I know you want to know X... I interpret that it means you are looking for A or for B."

"What did you mean by that, question A or B?"

In other words, ask a question in a multiple choice format.

This way you get credit for what you were considering doing.

If you ask only an open-ended question, sometimes the interviewer will be reluctant to answer because the answer itself is something they were hoping you would be able to notice.

Now if you ask an open-ended question, they give you the answer and then you say, "Yeah, that's exactly what I was thinking..." it's not a very credible answer.

So ask a question in the multiple choice format, and you will be more likely to get an answer.

 

Closing Thoughts:

I hope you found the advice provided by this reader and my comments helpful.  One thing I will point out that I think is important to realize is there are many ways to be right in consulting and in case interviews.

I wanted to include an excerpt from a different individual who is still in the middle of the interview process with McKinsey.

*** Excerpt ***

"Being too prepared and framework-driven can come across as too artificial (and actually drove me into a ditch during my initial coaching session with a former McKinsey employee).

As a non-MBA experienced professional candidate, though, I think I had to ramp up quickly on the various approaches to understand what the hell I was even supposed to do.

Now, however, I've almost forgotten the frameworks on purpose (or at least, they are very far at the back of my mind where I can use them when I need to) so that I can attack any given case with a fresh perspective and a tailored analysis."

*** End Excerpt ***

The point I want to emphasize is the last sentence "I've almost forgotten the frameworks..."

I found this to be very true of my own experience. Let me explain why.

When I first started learning case interviews, I basically forgot my own business intuition and instincts in terms of how to solve a case while learning this whole framework approach.

I would try to force every case into a framework that I already knew.

Never force a case into a framework if it does not fit.

I found the frameworks a very unnatural way to solve a business problem, so it took my full focus to get used to the general approach.

As I got better at the frameworks and confident that I could use them (if I wanted to), it allowed me to become much more flexible in my thinking.

I allowed my natural business problem solving instincts to come back into my consciousness... and I actually started to think in the cases... focusing on this particular case and what makes it unusual.

The evolution of my problem structuring went from "mastering a few key frameworks" ---> "mastering the issue tree process" (which may or may not involve a formal framework).

So by the end, I found I only used a formal framework perhaps 50% of the time, 20% of the time I only one piece of a framework (e.g., only the competitor section of the business situation framework) or two frameworks combined, and 30% of the time a custom issue tree driven by a hypothesis I had developed (from my business instincts).

I do get a number of comments from people who use LOMS, are wild fans, but end up using their own frameworks in the actual interviews.

The value in LOMS is to understand the thought process behind using a structured problem-solving approach and with sufficient practice, integrate those skills into what you tend to do naturally anyways.

The best way I can describe the process is to "learn the rules, so you know how (and when) to break the rules."

LOMS is very useful in that evolutionary process.  As an example, in my client work today, other than the profitability framework, I don't really use a framework anymore.

I will often use just one branch of the Business Situation Framework, but will rarely use the whole thing with a client -- because often a client's #1 issue is in only one branch of the framework.

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