The McKinsey Problem Solving Test (or McKinsey PST) sounds scary when you don’t know much about it. After all, it’s a test created by some of the smartest people at one of the most competitive firms in the world. No biggie.
With the right knowledge and practice, however, you can equip yourself with the tools to crush the McKinsey PST. This is important, because once you pass the McKinsey resume screening, the PST is the only thing standing in your way before you can shine in McKinsey interviews.
About the McKinsey PST
The McKinsey PST tests how you approach problem solving and how well you can size up a situation. McKinsey is more interested in how you think rather than what you can memorize, and as a result, no business or prior experience is required to successfully pass the exam – or so they say. Each question is based on real McKinsey work, so it’s a great way to get better insight into what kind of work the company does on a regular basis.
The McKinsey PST is designed to test the following skills:
- Critical and logical reasoning
- Data interpretation
- Math computation
- Time management and prioritization
- Performance under pressure
Of importance to note here: the McKinsey PST is largely used in regions where English is important for business fluency but is not a demanded first language, so the PST also serves as a language computation test.
McKinsey PST Test Format
The McKinsey PST is a 1 hour, 26-multiple-choice-question test that focuses on 3 different business cases. The questions can be divided into math and logic questions and often come with data in the form of graphs, charts, tables, and exhibits.
Throughout the exam, no electronic devices (i.e. calculators, smartphones, or computers) are allowed, so all calculations need to be performed either mentally or on the blank space on the test booklet. No scratch paper is allowed.
What Score Should I Aim For?
The generally understood minimum score to aim for is 70%, meaning you should aim to get at least 18 of the 26 questions correct. However, this is subject to change depending on the office you are applying for and the demand for a particular role.
There’s also some good news. Regardless of which McKinsey office you’re recruiting in, you won’t be graded on a curve. Though there is a cut-off point, as long as you pass the exam, you will be invited to carry on in the interview process. Therefore, you don’t need to worry about outperforming the competition – just focus on doing your best.
Types of Questions
Now that you know about the basics of the McKinsey PST, it’s time to dive deeper into the actual questions you can expect. Broadly speaking, the types of questions tend to be either math word problems or data interpretation questions.
Math word problems are questions that provide information in the form of text that require math to arrive at the right answer. These questions aren’t difficult, but with the limited time, there is plenty of room for error. Do your best to maintain the balance between accuracy and speed. We built a whole mental math course (with drills) to help you do this.
Data interpretation questions consist of McKinsey graphs, McKinsey charts, and text that provide information and require critical reasoning and logic to answer them. The types of answers possible for these questions are ones that are definitively correct, ones that could be correct but not with 100% certainty, and ones that are completely wrong. The answers that will trick candidates the most are the ones that are partially correct but are not completely right. As a result, do your best to first eliminate answers that are definitely wrong, and then among the remaining options, choose answers that you feel are undoubtedly correct.
According to our friends at MConsulting Prep, the types of questions can also be further broken down into the following:
- Reading Facts – 38%
- McKinsey PST Ex: Which of the following values is the best estimate of ABC’s profit in Year 2?
- Fact-based Conclusion – 14%
- Ex: Which of the following is FALSE based on the data presented in Exhibit 2?
- Root-cause Reason – 13%
- McKinsey PST Ex: Which of the following reasons, if TRUE, would best explain the decreasing market share for ABC?
- Client Interpretation – 8%
- McKinsey PST Ex: Which of the following best summarizes the CIO’s top priority?
- Word Problems – 12%
- Ex: Assuming 40 products are sold per day, the retail store is open 6 days per week and all year long, what minimum volume of supply is required?
- Formulae – 5%
- Ex: Which of the following formula calculates the contribution margin produced by ABC?
- Other – 10%
Who Takes the McKinsey PST – and Who Doesn’t?
The McKinsey PST goes in and out of style – just like 80s fashion. Indeed, usage of the test changes from year to year, region to region, and office to office.
If you are enrolled in a target undergrad or target MBA program in the U.S., and you are applying through on-campus recruiting, you will rarely be asked to take the McKinsey PST.
Those enrolled in a target undergrad or target MBA program outside the U.S. and are applying through on-campus recruiting, you will only be asked to take the McKinsey PST if the office you are applying to requires it.
If you are enrolled at a non-target undergrad or target MBA program inside or outside the U.S., you will be asked to take the McKinsey PST if your top choice office requires it (for example, many U.S. offices have phased it out but European offices have kept it).
If you are applying as an experienced hire to offices outside the U.S., you will be required to take the McKinsey PST if the office requires it – but again, most U.S. offices will let you get home free.
If you are an ADC, or Advanced Degree Candidate, the McKinsey PST is likely in your future. We are sorry to be the bearer of bad news.
The best way to know if the McKinsey PST is required for your office of choice? Ask when networking or speaking with a local recruiter.
Top 10 Tips When Preparing for and Taking the McKinsey PST
Tip #1 – Manage Your Time
With an unlimited amount of time, the McKinsey PST would not be as feared. An hour will go by extremely quickly, so you’ll need to figure out a good method to manage your time. We recommend establishing a set number of minutes per question that you force yourself not to go over (this takes practice!). Remember that you don’t need to get roughly 70% of the questions correct, so it’s often better to skip or guess on a question if it’s taking up too much time.
Tip #2 – Skim the Answers First
Oftentimes, the McKinsey charts and graphs will be so complex that you could spend an hour extracting all of the insights from each one. To make sure you’re looking at the important parts of the data, skim answers first and then go to the exhibits and text to get an idea of what you should be paying attention to.
Tip #3 – Take the Questions Literally
The McKinsey PST isn’t built to try to trick you with vaguely worded questions that have hidden meanings. While arriving at answers does require critical reasoning, remember that no specific prior experience is required for this test. All questions should be taken at face value.
Tip #4 – Practice Your Math
Even if math is not your strong suit, the good news is that you can practice math enough to be ready for the McKinsey PST. You won’t be tested on anything besides addition, subtraction, multiplication, and division. However, both accuracy and speed are important, which is part of the challenge. The less time you spend on math computations, the more you can spend to actually answer the questions.
Tip #5 – Estimate Your Numbers
When doing your math computations both in practice and during the real McKinsey PST, use estimations. Skim the answer choices first, but usually they will differ widely enough that estimating will still lead to the correct answer. In addition, using easier numbers will make your computations go by faster and help you avoid mistakes.
Tip #6 – Ensure Answers Are Correct Under ALL Scenarios
For data interpretation questions, be sure that the answers you choose are 100% supported by the data. There may be times that some of the multiple choice answer options seem consistent with the data, but are not fully and completely supported. In addition, there may be a conclusion that is supported most of the time but not all of the time. Use this rule to help eliminate the wrong answer choices quickly.
Tip #7 – Speed Read But Slow Down Where Needed
Don’t spend time reading each word extremely carefully throughout the entire test. There will be parts of the McKinsey PST (i.e. some data in the graphs and some text in the exhibits) that will be completely irrelevant to answering the question. As you skim, circle or underline any parts that you think will be relevant to answering the questions. Given the limited time, you should be reading through each line quickly in order to find the areas where you should be slowing down.
Tip #8 – Analyze Data Systematically
Many find the interpretation of the graphs and charts in the McKinsey PST to be the most challenging part. When analyzing data, use a process that works for you. We recommend first determining what the graph or table represents by reading the exhibit title and labels. Then, understand the data by focusing in on the areas that seem different or important. Lastly, get to the insight by figuring out the why behind the exhibit.
Tip #9 – Make Sure to Answer Every Question
The McKinsey PST is graded in a straightforward manner – either your choices are right or wrong. There are no penalties for wrong answers. For each question, if you don’t know that you are 100% correct, eliminate as many incorrect ones as you can and make your best guess. If you find yourself running out of time at the end, random selections are better than leaving any questions blank.
Tip #10 – Don’t Forget to Breathe and Relax
Controlling your mental game throughout the McKinsey is half the battle. Try to stay calm and collected throughout the test and keep things in perspective. You put in a lot of work and energy into practicing, so all that’s left is to do your best. Life doesn’t begin or end with the McKinsey PST!
How to Use McKinsey’s Practice PSTs
One of the most important resources in preparing for the McKinsey PST are the practice tests on the company’s website. We recommend the following tips when using them:
- Practice under real conditions. As there are only three official recent practice tests, treat each one with care. Remember that calculators and scratch paper are not allowed and to set a timer. Work in a quiet space where you’re sure no one will bother you and turn off all other possible distractions so you can practice with 100% effort.
- Set the timer for 55 minutes (instead of 60 minutes). Based on experience from candidates who previously took the test, the actual McKinsey PST reportedly tends to have a lot more reading. Therefore, when taking the practice tests below, aim to complete them with a few minutes left to spare.
- Thoroughly review your results – both the bad AND the good. Mistakes are the best teacher, but it’s also important to see where you went right. Review your results even if you just skim the questions you answered correctly. Build on your strengths and learn from your errors.
- Cram the practice tests in the 2-3 weeks before the real one. We’re not saying to go through all of the practice tests hours before the real thing. However, because there are so few official practice tests available, you want to keep the lessons you learned from each of them as fresh in your mind as possible.
For your convenience, here are practice tests and resources from McKinsey:
- McKinsey Problem Solving Test 1 (from McKinsey Website)
- McKinsey Problem Solving Test 2 (from McKinsey Website)
- McKinsey Problem Solving Test 3 (from McKinsey Website)
- McKinsey PST 2011 version (by McKinsey)
- McKinsey PST 2001 version (by McKinsey)
- McKinsey Problem Solving Test Coaching Guide (from McKinsey Website)
Additional Ways to Prepare
There are three additional ways to practice for the McKinsey PST.
First, practice your math computations. Even with engineering backgrounds, quantitative majors, and PhDs, previous McKinsey PST test takers have reportedly run out of time. Practicing your mental math is like working out a muscle at the gym – if you don’t put in the time, your math skills may bring you down.
We recommend using our Mental Math for Consulting training to get yourself prepared for the McKinsey PST in addition to other management consulting cases. This tool will help you improve your math accuracy and speed, both of which will be important to the test.
Second, practice data interpretation through other exams such as the GRE or GMAT. The word problems and data interpretation questions in the GRE tend to be easier and less complex than the ones in the McKinsey PST. Therefore, we recommend starting off with these questions to build your skills before using the practice tests provided by McKinsey.
For some free GRE data interpretation questions, take a look at these from Magoosh. If you happen to have any friends who have taken the GRE, ask for their math prep books and look in the word problem and data interpretation sections to practice. Of course, you can always buy used GRE or GMAT books on Amazon as well for pretty cheap.
Third, practicing verbal cases with exhibits help hone your answer-first and analytical skills for McKinsey. It may seem like putting the cart before the horse, but in reality getting good at solving cases for the interview will satisfy two requirements: you build basic business acumen and your answer-first process, but you also build speed of analysis.
We mentioned before that specific experience isn’t required. You don’t have to enroll in an MBA to pass the McKinsey PST. However, knowing enough business knowledge to pass a future case interview will be helpful.
We hope this guide has helped unveil the mysteries surrounding the McKinsey PST. If you take the test, regardless of the outcome, we know you will learn a lot and can leave the test room proud of making it that far. Very few make it all the way to a McKinsey offer regardless of their backgrounds – but you do have the chance to make it. Once you’ve aced the McKinsey PST, your next step is to get ready for the McKinsey case interview.