Tips for a Case Interview from a McKinsey New Hire

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I had my final round interviews with McKinsey last week, and found out I was successful. I'll hopefully be starting later on this year as a Business Analyst in the [Western Europe] office.

I wanted to drop you an email just to say thanks for all the resources you've provided to help people with this - the videos, LOMS, and also the regular emails.

They were invaluable to me, and by far the most useful materials out there when preparing for these kinds of interviews (and I've tried them all)!

What I found most useful was how you not only offered advice on how to approach the cases, but explained why these approaches were recommended.

This enables an otherwise ignorant interviewee to get into the mindset of the interviewer - to understand their priorities, and adapt your approach accordingly.

And you do need to adapt. For myself and for many friends going through the process, it seems that the firms like to throw curve balls at candidates. There are plenty of presentation exercises, role playing scenarios, and the like.

You cannot prepare for everything, but you can hold your own by understanding the underlying rationale behind the process - and your materials really help people to do that.

Having now been through the process and come out the other end, here are three bits of advice I'd emphasize to new candidates.

1. Don't be a framework robot. You get the sense these days that interviewers are even more inundated with identikit case approaches than they were a few years ago (probably because of how much information has diffused online).

Use the frameworks as training wheels during your practices, and always keep them in mind, but try to adapt and build upon them when you're through to your interviews - and certainly the final rounds.

I adapted Victor's materials and others into my own system while doing practices, and had success with this in interviews.

2. Be likeable. As an outsider, it's easy to build up a false impression of what consultants are like, or even what it means to be 'professional' in a consulting context.

My advice is to be yourself, be nice, never be arrogant, and really try and make your interviews as conversational as possible.

The process is set up to be objective, but don't underestimate the importance of getting the interviewer to like you.

3. Don't be intimidated. When I was making my applications, I imagined that all those getting interviews would be Oxbridge engineers who ran triathlons in their spare time.

There were some of those, to be sure, but what struck me going through the process was the sheer diversity of candidates.

My background was unusual, but I wasn't the only one. Don't be afraid of applying just because you're not a 'standard' candidate.

That's all for now.Thanks so much again for your materials, Victor, and I look forward to reading your 'other' email list over the coming months [for first year consultants].

 

My Comments:

I very much agree with the advice this person shared, but what I want to emphasize is just how much I agree with all the points made.... and in the spirit of the comments above, let me explain why I agree with them so much.

Let me start with the framework robot comment. This seems to be a big complaint from many interviewers. I guess there has been a proliferation of case interview prep materials online over the years, to which I have contributed to.

Many candidates have grasped that they need to have a framework, they take the advice literally, and in an interview, mechanically go through the framework without ever thinking critically about the business problem at hand.

This has always been a complaint of interviewers, but the complaints today are much louder and more frequent than in previous years.

Based on this reaction I'm seeing from interviewers, I'm going to infer that much of the case interview prep material is rule-based, rather than rule-of-thumb based.

A rule is, "In X situation, always do Y."

In contrast, a principle is a general rule of thumb that you can take the core of and adapt to a wide variety of circumstances -- including ones that you did not anticipate.

So a rule of thumb is, "In X situation, it often makes sense to do Y... and here's why."

The value of the rule of thumb is not the rule, but rather the explanation of why.

When you understand the why, when you get a situation that is different than what you were expecting, you can determine whether or not it makes sense to proceed with a particular approach because you actually understand it at a deep level.

It is very common for people who use my materials to adapt them to their own approach and style. My way is not the only way, but the underlying rules of thumb behind "my" way, I will argue are timeless.

I mean there are only so many ways one can analytically solve a problem, right?

So this distinction between learning firm rules vs. flexible rules of thumb is an important one.

In hindsight, I think this was the limitation of Case Interview Secrets -- I intended the workshop to convey the rules of thumb (the ones that can be adapted and applied to a variety of situations), but I think many people assumed the key ideas were firm rules, and had difficulty in appreciating the rule of thumb from a conceptual workshop.

One of my motivations for creating Look Over My Shoulder® was to try to address this limitation.

I felt it was important that people be able to see the range of how others were attempting to use the rules of thumb --- and then providing my commentary on why a particular usage was or was not correct.

To really understand a rule of thumb, you need to see it applied in a variety of contexts and situations -- so you can infer the boundaries of that rule of thumb -- when and why it applies (or doesn't).

For the sake of clarity, let me explain my point in a different way.

Doing well at a case study interview starts with knowing mechanics.

But ideally, you want to master the mechanics so they become second nature -- and eventually your performance in case interviews is determined by your mechanics + your judgment.

The problem is that mechanics are much easier to teach than judgment.

I mean, how in the heck do you teach judgment?

That was my teaching dilemma.

One way to learn judgment is through personal experience -- make lots of mistakes and eventually you get good judgment. This is very much true.

But the downside is you don't end up with a job offer because you used up all your interview slots in acquiring judgment, rather than demonstrating it.

You can try to teach judgment through a powerpoint presentation -- but that's like teaching a teenager that it's dumb to drink a lot of alcohol and drive a car.

Sure, they get it intellectually and conceptually, but in the real world setting when their friends are doing it... will they make the right decision under real world pressures and circumstances? Some do, some don't.

So the premise behind "Look" Over My Shoulder (LOMS)®, was to allow an aspiring consultant to learn from other people's mistakes.

In LOMS, I recorded a dozen or so case interviews, using cases very similar to the ones I used to give (as a McKinsey Case Interviewer), given to actual candidates interviewing with McKinsey, BCG, Bain, and others.

This style of teaching is basically learning through simulation or synthetic experience.

I have increasingly become a bigger and bigger believer in this approach for two reasons.

First, there is one MBA program that teaches exclusively through the synthetic experience approach. That program is the one at Harvard Business School -- all learning is through simulation. As in, "If you were the CEO of this particular company, what would you do?"

The second nudge in this direction came from Irene van der Zande, founder of KidPower.org -- a non-profit organization devoted to teaching kids how to prevent being kidnapped, abused, or bullied.

(The approach is geared towards teaching children to protect their personal space... which in turn dramatically reduces their risk of things like abuse, without the child ever really knowing about the concept of "bad people" -- at least that is the approach used for the youngest of children.)

What impressed me the most about both Harvard Business School (HBS) and KidPower was the extent to which the skills taught were actually remembered 20 years later.

I have met countless HBS alumni who actually remember what they learned 20 years earlier at Harvard.  Very impressive, considering I can't remember anything I learned in college.

In the case of Kidpower, they have several examples of students who took a Kidpower training and were able to use the skills taught in the real world, 20 years later.

The one example that stuck out in my mind was the story of a woman who took a Kidpower course when she was around nine years old.  The woman, now 29 years old, was out for a walk with her boyfriend.  She didn't know it, but the boyfriend had recently fired someone at work... and the person who was fired followed them on their walk with a baseball bat, intending to attack the boyfriend.

When this attacker charged the couple, the boyfriend stood frozen in shock, and the woman took the attacker down using a skill she learned 20 years earlier -- with no subsequent training, refresher course, or other similar experience.

As someone who very much considers himself a teacher, I was truly astonished at the ability to teach something in such a way that it was retained at a very usable level decades later.

When I asked what the secret was, Irene responded, "It's very easy. We do not teach our students what to do. We teach our students what to do and we make them do it in a safe, practice environment."

Though I serve as an informal adviser to KidPower, in truth, Irene advises me just as much on my teaching methods. This is why I have all these seemingly bizarre suggestions to go through Look Over My Shoulder® while saying out loud the best practice approach to each aspect of the case -- even if you already know the answer.

When you do things out loud, the skill shifts to a physical memory... not just conceptual memory.  This is the key to improving case interview habits, not just accumulating case interview "how to" knowledge.

You do well in cases based on the skills you demonstrate, not the knowledge you possess.

So Look Over My Shoulder® was designed with this particular approach in mind, and the instructions to using LOMS also reflect this approach.

Now let me elaborate even further why mastering the rules of thumb to cases is increasingly important.

Because of the framework robot problem, firms are experimenting with their interview formats to make it impossible for framework robots to pass the interview.

One format in particular comes to mind. Bain is currently testing a written case interview format that involves presenting a candidate with 20 - 40 data exhibits. The candidate then has two hours to go through the material and then must present conclusions to one or more interviewers.

From what I can gather, the interviewers are not asking the candidate to structure the case. They are not asking for a hypothesis. They are not explicitly asking for anything I've mentioned in the Case Interview Secrets videos, except for synthesis.

But, it is not possible to deliver the correct synthesis without using a structure and without using a hypothesis and without analyzing data correctly.

So this is a twist on the process.  I have received emails from LOMS members pointing out that they have passed these interviews. The commonality amongst those who did, even though the format was very different, was that they grasped the rules of thumb that I teach... and were able to adapt those rules to the particular situation at hand.

The same is true for those who have used LOMS -- and grasped the rules of thumb (mainly by going through the program multiple times) and were able to do well in McKinsey Round 1. McKinsey Round 1 is an interviewer-led format that has a very abrupt Question & Answer style to it.

The McKinsey Round 1 approach tests the same skills as the more traditional candidate-led interview that is the core of LOMS, but it does so in a much more punctuated and different way.

Those that used LOMS, and were able to grasp the rules of thumb, recognized the similarity between what the McKinsey Round 1 interview format was asking them and what they already knew... and they were able to adapt accordingly.

Those who went through LOMS one time in a very passive way (as opposed to going through multiple times and actively engaging with the material in a synthetic experience kind of way, as recommended) and were looking for firm rules, did not do as well.

And to the reader who wrote in this original point, it really is impossible to be prepared for every possible situation.

This is why I think it's impractical to try to master a dozen or more frameworks. Because even if you do, it doesn't cover 100% of the scenarios.

This is why I personally used, and encourage others to use, really two primary frameworks (Profitability and Business Situation) and the custom issue tree -- between the three, you have enough tools in your toolkit to solve most any case.

So the goal behind LOMS was to transfer the ability to be flexible and adaptable... by seeing others do it... comparing those who did it poorly vs. those who did it extremely well.. understanding why one performance was only good, but another was great...

And then be so immersed and engaged in these examples that you "internalize" the rules of thumb until they are second nature habits... and are able to use the best practice skills in your own interviews.

Moving on to the two others points -- "being likeable" (a.k.a., be yourself) and "don't be intimidated" are both very much true.

Consulting is first and foremost a relationship business. If you are arrogant, defensive, or rude to an interviewer, the assumption is you will act the same way towards a client -- jeopardizing that firm's relationship with the client.

If you are just yourself, but slightly more formal than you would be with friends (no swearing; no talking down about others, including your employer, colleagues, etc. even if the other person does), that's "client friendly".

Also, as I've mentioned on previous occasions, one of the biggest lessons I took away from my time at McKinsey was to stop being intimidated by people with great power, or more impressive credentials, or people who have a lot more money than you do (I had a client that was a billionaire).

What I ultimately learned is that what these people (who I used to be intimidated by) all have in common is that they are all human beings.  And human beings are not perfect.

And I find, somewhat counter-intuitively, the more impressive a person's background, in many cases, the more prone they are to making big mistakes.

This happens for the simple reason that when they do make a little mistake, nobody around them is willing to point it out because they assume, given the credentials, that the person must be right -- even if the facts say otherwise.

And oftentimes that little mistake compounds until it is a big mistake, and momentum takes over. This is why some clients with very impressive backgrounds can still make a big mistake.

And for people who have been following my emails for some time, they will notice just how many mistakes I make in math computations in my emails -- again nobody is perfect, myself included (and my wife will most definitely corroborate that point).

The key idea you just need to believe to be true, even if at an emotional level you do not feel that way, is this:

If you've gotten past the first round interview, you are qualified enough to work at the firm.  Logically, why would a firm bother interviewing someone who wasn't in the realm of being qualified, right?

The only decision is whether the firm hires you vs. someone else who has gotten just as far.  Keep in mind you are not competing against the interviewer whom you have met. You are competing against other candidates whom you have not met.

So resist any temptation to compete against an imaginary foe and get thrown off your game based on what you think the other candidate is or is not doing.

The only reliable factual data you have to go on is that you got the interview... and that says something positive about you.

The rest is just conjecture -- so do not assume too much about your competition and let yourself get beaten by a competitor that never even existed.

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