The Best of the Best: McKinsey’s Problem Solving Test, Case Interviews, and Life


MCKINSEY & COMPANY

Since we started the site, you’ve asked us thousands of questions – what goes on behind that MBB veil? Our rapid growth pays testimony to your curiosity – over 1M unique visitors a year, each wanting to know everything possible about these world-class firms.

But do you just want the party line? No way – you can swallow a marketing pitch in an info session or jump on their websites for that. So, friends, we’ve decided to give you what you want – in-depth firm profiles, from our insider point-of-view….

Now you can find company overviews on other sites (WetFeet, GlassDoor), but most of them are outdated, cookie-cutter and lame – they don’t give you the skinny on how the firm works, what the firm values, and tips for breaking in.

Just one note about perspective –  we aren’t beholden to being PC, so we can be completely honest – yes, even when it hurts. And if you disagree? Email us – or comment below.

For each firm, we’ll cover:

  • Key Stats
  • History
  • Organization
  • Culture
  • Interviews and Recruiting
  • Articles and Links

Let’s get started.

We’re launching our first firm profile with McKinsey & Co., arguably THE top, most competitive management consulting firm in the industry. Who doesn’t want to work at McKinsey, right? It’s the M in MBB, which stands for a-Mazing. Master. McDaddy. Maestro. The largest and oldest premier firm in the biz has an aura of legacy, power, and prestige.

MCKINSEY & COMPANY KEY STATS

McKinsey & Company Website: www.mckinsey.com
McKinsey & Company Headquarters: New York, NY
McKinsey & Company Employees: 9,000+ consultants
McKinsey & Company Locations: 104 offices, 50+ countries
McKinsey & Company Chief Executive: Dominic Barton (CEO)
McKinsey & Company Revenue: $7.8B
McKinsey & Company Engagement Cost: $500K

MCKINSEY & COMPANY HISTORY

In 1926, James McKinsey (“Mac”) left his career as professor of accounting at University of Chicago to build a firm that provided finance and budgeting services. In 1933 Marvin Bower joined forces with McKinsey. He came with a JD and an MBA from Harvard, setting the tone for the firm’s well-known preference for candidates with impressive academic credentials. Following Mac’s early death, Bower reigned for the next 2 decades, growing the firm into a legitimate force and institutionalizing the management consulting profession. Expansion across the U.S. in the 40s gave way to McKinsey’s first international offices in the 50s, and further globalization and the first McKinsey Quarterly in the 60s. The next leap in numbers for McKinsey occurred in the 90s under Rajat Gupta, the firm’s first non-American-born managing director. It also marked Marvin Bower’s retirement and the establishment of the McKinsey Global Institute. In recent years, the firm has been focusing more on expansion in Asia and developing their public sector and social sector practices.

Early McKinsey leaders like Bower were extremely successful in establishing relationships with C-level executives and convincing business owners of the value of their management consulting services (initially termed management engineering). It’s paid off. Today, the firm boasts the A-list leaders of the largest companies and governments in the world among their clientele.

MCKINSEY & COMPANY ORGANIZATION

McKinsey is a bit like an academic organization. Senior partners are like tenured faculty and new hires are the bright, eager students. The firm has about 100 performance cells that are all autonomous, categorized by geographic office, industry practice, or functional practice. Beyond that, there’s no hierarchical structure that defines reporting lines. Like most management consulting firms, McKinsey operates on an “up or out” basis – consultants must either advance in their careers within a pre-defined timeframe (usually 2 years) or exit the firm.

Practice Areas

McKinsey works in a wide array of industries, just as you’d expect. However, the firm reigns as undisputed king in a few specific areas, like the public sector and education advisory practices.

You can read McKinsey case studies (not interview studies, but project overviews) within each functional practice at their website – we’ve linked to them directly below.

Industries

Here’s a full list of all the industries McKinsey works in…is there anything they don’t cover?!

Office Locations

Like all the MBB firms, McKinsey has offices worldwide, but their presence in Germany, Dubai, and China overpowers their competitors both in numbers and in the range of expertise offered.

map of McKinsey firms

Career Path

If you’re applying as an undergrad or non-MBA, you’ll be competing for a position as a Business Analyst. Only advanced degree professionals can move directly into an Associate role – otherwise, you need to go train up (get your Stanford MBA or Harvard JD). McKinsey sponsors graduate programs for top performers, and they trade year-for-year – 1 year of academic work to 1 year of indentured servitude (paid at really nice salaries – see our Salaries Post for details). After coming back or breaking in from grad school, and then spending 2-3 years at the Associate level, you’ll be evaluated for a promotion to Engagement Manager. Once you’ve proved yourself as Manager and put in 3-5 years of service, you’ll be on your way to Associate Principal and then finally Principal/Partner.

Sounds easy, right? It’s not that simple! Even current CEO Dominic Barton didn’t get there in a straight shot. It took him 3 tries before he was elected as Partner!

Here’s the progression in table form:

If you got our free MC Consulting Roadmap when you subscribed, then this might look familiar to you–we included MBB career paths in our section on job categories. (If you want the FREE Consulting Roadmap, subscribe now!) Of course, we’ll be expanding on what’s in the roadmap in these Firm Profile posts as we cover each of the firms in turn.

Exit Opportunities

What are your prospects when you leave McKinsey? Infinite! With a McKinsey background, you’re bound to be successful landing a traditional job as an analyst at traditional firms – in fact, you’ll be highly desirable. You’ll leave the firm with an amazing analytical toolset, an unparalleled perspective on business, and access to a vast global network.

In addition, you can start your own business – like Kevin Gao, our founder, or hundreds of other impressive McKinsey alums in different sectors.

Notable Alumni

We thought it would be fun to include a list of famous McKinsey alum–to give you an idea of what’s in store for you. Some of the most prominent include:

  • Sheryl Sandberg, COO at Facebook
  • Jane Fraser, CEO of Citi’s Global Private Bank
  • Jonathan Schwartz, former CEO of Sun Microsystems
  • Kevin Sharer, CEO of Amgen
  • Tom Leppert, President and COO of Kaplan
  • Harvey Golub, former CEO of American Express and former Chairman of American International Group
  • Louis V. Gerstner, Jr., former chairman and CEO of IBM and chairman of The Carlyle Group
  • James P. Gorman, President and CEO of Morgan Stanley
  • Stephen Green, Chairman of HSBC
  • Bobby Jindal, current Governor of Louisiana
  • James McNerney, Chairman and CEO of Boeing
  • Helmut Panke, former Chairman and CEO of BMW AG
  • Chelsea Clinton

MCKINSEY & COMPANY CULTURE

There’s no doubt you’ll be surrounded by intelligent, interesting people at McKinsey. Read any blog and you’ll see people rave about their “incredibly smart colleagues” and “very smart people all around.” As a young professional just out of school you’ll enjoy unparalleled exposure to business processes and resources, high-impact client projects, and diverse industries. You’ll have the opportunity to travel a LOT if you want to, and your social calendar will fill up quickly with happy hours, retreats, and the like. You’ll have access to some of the best training and development opportunities in the consulting industry, as well as perks that will make your friends drool.

Sounds amazing, right? Is there anything not fabulously great about McKinsey? Depends. Like any top consulting firm, you’re going to be working long hours, so that isn’t really a differentiator. The projects you’re assigned to aren’t always the most interesting things out there, but again, you can run into that anywhere, and most likely will at some point in your career no matter where you work. But what makes people choose Bain over McKinsey, for instance? Or BCG over McKinsey?

You’ll find that McKinsey consultants are very smart and business-like, but they’re not very collegial. They’re known for engaging in long legacy client relationships (including some in-house strategy offices) and completing even longer final reports that are very academic, weigh a ton, and gather dust on CEO bookshelves. In general, McKinsey plays it safe – they don’t work for the same profile of private equity firms that Bain does, and aren’t known for being as creative as BCG.

We’ll put it this way – you’ll never regret going to McKinsey, but as a consultant you’ll have more fun at Bain!

One thing you can count on in any McKinsey consultant – they’re trained to attack a problem in a certain way. The firm is diligent about preserving a certain set of values and code of behavior among consultants – it’s like an underlying software program they’ve all downloaded into their brains. It’s what defines the culture at McKinsey. It’s also what consultants like former McKinsey & Co. partner Betsy Ziegler-turned-Kellogg Dean of Students say they miss the most when when they leave.

McKinsey boasts that their consultants excel in 4 main areas. We’ve listed them below, and included our take on what each means.

Problem solving – You can break any problem into its component parts (read: structure-freaks), including and not limited to everything from how to restructure Delta Airlines to which vacuum you should buy. On the job, you rely on lots and lots of best practice work (the same report, but for a different company/industry) to get the job done.

Achieving – If you compete, you win. If you run, you are elected. If you start a company, you succeed. You’re polished, Type A and highly accomplished. 

Personal impact – You make your mark. You’re a world changer – the next Bill Clinton, Bill Gates, or Oprah – and you usually have a variety of interests that mean that you are uniquely you.

Leadership – Put a McKinsey person in any room of people, and they’ll become a de-facto leader within the hour. Leadership through ideas is emphasized at McKinsey – solve the problem to lead the way – but interpersonal finesse is also critical.

All firms have their buzzwords. McKinsey’s are structure, credibility, and credentials – the McKinsey badge is a badge of honor, and McKinsey’s structured communication style is almost cult-ish.

Long hours and early mornings are part of the package when you sign on with McKinsey, but there are also some really cool opportunities that you’ll have access to like pro bono work, office transfers, dynamic externships, and amazing mentorships. Bain has the best creative options to keep folks engaged, but because of McKinsey’s staffing model, the world is at your fingertips – so if you want to move to be with an SO (significant other), or make a life change, you have lots of options within the firm.

Speaking of staffing, McKinsey staffs globally, which means that you’ll work on project engagements with 5-6 member teams pulled from locations around the world. As such, sign up for your favorite frequent flyer programs and expect to travel 100% – even if a client doesn’t demand your presence on-site, you’ll need to fly to connect with your team.

And yes, McKinsey people are fun and dynamic, but definitely not in a fraternal way – the firm is more structured and formal than its counterparts. It’s definitely a work hard, work hard culture with a little play thrown in.

As mentioned before, if you join the firm as an undergrad, you’ll be expected to get your MBA after ~2 years. McKinsey is a big feeder into HBS, one of the most prestigious MBA programs available. If you stay with the company for 2 years afterwards, you could get your 2 years of higher education paid for – but you do have to work your butt off for 2 more years upon return.

MCKINSEY & COMPANY INTERVIEWS AND RECRUITING

Who does McKinsey like to hire? They love new grads from the Ivies, of course, as well as Teach for America alum and Rhodes and Fulbright scholars. They’re also a strong recruiter of candidates with APDs (advanced professional degrees) – JD, Ph.D., MD, etc. – the top amongst the MBB firms.

For those of you wondering how to break in, we have a few key suggestions.

1. Even if you’re from a target school, don’t ignore the power of networking – McKinsey still only takes the best of Harvard’s best, so just being from Harvard is not good enough. If you’re not from a target school, you can still break in, but your chances are significantly higher if you have a sponsor – the more senior, the better – to flag your application and coach you through the office selection and case interview process. For everything you need to know, check out our Networking Bible.

2. Perfect your resume, cover letter and essay. Or, you could make the mistake of thinking that good is good enough. A McKinsey partner, in his sales pitch, is famous for saying that “most firms have pools of mediocrity surrounded by pockets of excellence. But at McKinsey, we just do excellence.” If you haven’t prepared an absurdly excellent application, DO NOT waste your time applying. For more tips, check out our Resume/Cover Letter Editing service.

3. Get in the door early. For example, if you’re a healthcare professional, apply to attend McKinsey’s Insight weekend – a swanky, 2-day informational conference for hot target prospective consultants, held at a Ritz-Carlton near you. Interested candidates submit a rigorous application and have a chance to get up close and personal with the McKinsey community. And if you’re a student, don’t wait for info sessions to network – connect with McKinsey folk 4-6 months before your target resume drop date (networking how-to).

The selection process at McKinsey is highly competitive, which is why networking and a 100% perfect resume, personalized cover letter and compelling leadership essay (where required) are really critical. Under 10% of those who submit applications are invited to interviews. Compound that with the low percentage of interview candidates who receive an offer, and you get an idea of what your chances are for landing a position with The Firm (yes, capital “F”). They allow employees to endorse applicants, so making a good impression is really important.

The McKinsey interview process is held in 3 phases:

  • MC Round 0 (McKinsey Round 1) – PST and 1-2 group interviews and/or 1-case phone screen
  • MC Round 1 (McKinsey Round 2) – 1-2 1:1 case interviews with ~5 minutes of fit
  • MC Round 2 (McKinsey Round 3) – 2 1:1 case interviews with ~15 minutes of fit and 1 1:1 deep-dive fit interview

McKinsey differentiated their recruiting process when they introduced the McKinsey PST – a 26-question numerical and business reasoning test that they give you a fast-paced hour to crush. (By the way, BCG claims that McKinsey stole the idea from them – but consultants always “borrow” best practices, so it’s tough to say what the real story is.) They offer practice tests and even sometimes optional workshops prior to taking the PST. We have more practice tests in our Case Bank, in case you’re wondering.

McKinsey also offers 1-2 group cases in the first round – you should be more prepared for them than they suggest, because even though they are “non-evaluative,” you can certainly make a bad impression. Why do you think they don’t share your PST scores?

It’s imperative to prepare extensively for rounds 2 and 3 – you should plan to do 30-60 practice cases, and at least 5-10 with a professional or current consultant. Practice case studies from McKinsey’s website to give you an intro into the type of work you’ll be expected to do. Especially as an APD, and once you’ve passed the PST, most folks are given a “McKinsey Buddy” – someone to help you through the process and even do a practice case with you. Hint: they won’t directly weigh into your interview assessment, but you shouldn’t bomb this practice – it should be a final test to confirm you’re prepared before your interview.

Historically, case interviews at the firm were more candidate led, but in recent years McKinsey offices are moving towards a standard interviewer-led system with firm-produced and vetted cases and a standardized 4-point scoring system. Interviewees that practice both styles of interviews (interviewer- and interviewee-led) are generally the most successful, because even in interviewer-led cases, your assessor wants to see leadership and initiative. The final round of interviews at McKinsey usually includes a full formal fit interview (30-45 minutes) with a deep-dive into your personal experience. Lots of McKinsey candidates get tripped up here because they don’t prepare as well for the fit interview as they do for the case interview – see our Consulting Bible for 52 questions you can use to prepare.

McKinsey First Round and McKinsey Final Round cases are similar – but Final Round cases can be longer, more creative, and trend toward interviewee-led options. Some are completely open-ended (1 question, no background, go) and others are pressure-tests with the interviewer playing devil’s advocate to whatever you say. As with all of the top firms, teams of McKinsey interviewers may take on good-cop, bad-cop roleplays to test you in different situations.

McKinsey & Company Salaries

Are you an undergrad, MBA or intern who’s interested in working at McKinsey, but you don’t know how much you’ll make? Check out our latest Management Consulting Salaries post to find out!

Target Schools

McKinsey does most of its U.S. recruiting out of top schools.

Undergrad Level:

  • Brown
  • Northwestern
  • Columbia
  • Dartmouth
  • Duke
  • Harvard
  • Penn
  • Princeton
  • Stanford
  • UC Berkeley
  • UVA
  • Yale

Post Graduate Level:

  • Chicago Booth
  • Harvard
  • Michigan Ross
  • MIT Sloan
  • Northwestern Kellogg
  • Stanford GSB
  • UC Berkeley’s Haas
  • UVA Darden
  • Wharton (Penn)

If you’re not sure whether or not you’re at a McKinsey target school (or if you’re curious about international target schools), check their website here.

McKinsey offers informational sessions at many of these schools – key opportunities for networking (see our post on networking at info sessions) – but don’t put all your eggs in that basket. If you go (and we’d recommend that you do), go prepared, armed with some great questions to ask (not lame ones, but personal questions about someone’s experience). Consultants hate info sessions, so make your questions engaging and you’ll be memorable.

Diversity Programs

In addition, Diversity Groups are a great way to engage with McKinsey consultants. Here are a few:

MCKINSEY & COMPANY LINKS

MC Links

Reading

McKinsey Way McKinsey Mind
McKinsey Engagement McKinsey Quarterly
Built to Last Good to Great
Great by Choice How the Mighty Fall
Valuation

Social Media

Presentations

Have more dirt on McKinsey? Add it below, and we’ll incorporate it into the post.

Are there more topics you’re interested in hearing about in our firm profiles? Have some insider perspective that you’d like to share? Add a comment below or email us!

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  • CS

    What other firms will you be covering? Can you provide a list?

  • DM

    Disagree on the Germany point – McK and BCG are pretty even there. Otherwise, pretty spot on.

  • AM

    One mistake: McK doesn’t recruit at UChicago undergrad, but they do at Northwestern undergrad (not listed).

  • Anonymous.

    Duke Fuqua is definitely on their list as well, post-graduate.

  • Amy

    Hi Jenny! While we heard of all these *challenges* *branding* *top Universities* *Top Business School* to break into MBB. But sometime I came across LinkedIn profiles of Working for McKinsey London right after graduate school, MA Drama & Literature, University of Never-heard-of, Poland. And all the educations, backgrounds that make me scraching my head, maybe some job from MBB just sometime drop from heaven for the sake of *diversity*, it’s really like the movie “The Internship” that Google actually bother to interview someone who graduated from University of Phoenix. Fairy tale does happen, then what about the money spent on top business school… ouch.

  • J

    McK recruits heavily at UT Austin for undergrad positions

  • D

    At the MBA level, Yale School of Management is a core school for McKinsey. They recruit heavily there and it is the largest employer of the graduating MBA class.