McKinsey Case Interview Preparation: the only post you'll need to read

McKinsey interviews are among the hardest job interviews in the world. The questions are difficult, specific to McKinsey, and the interviewer can sometimes seem intimidating.

But the good news is that with the right preparation it can actually become relatively straightforward to succeed at a McKinsey interview. We have put together the ultimate guide to help you maximise your chances of success.

Here's an overview of what we'll cover:

  1. Interview process and timeline
  2. Case structure and examples
  3. Behavioural interview questions (PEI)
  4. Preparation tips
1. Interview process and timeline 
1.1 One in ten interview candidates get a job offer 

First, it is important that you understand the different stages of your interview process with McKinsey and your chances at each step. In most countries, McKinsey uses four filters to select candidates:

  • Resume and cover letter screening
  • McKinsey Problem Solving Test (PST)
  • First round of interviews
  • Second round of interviews

In a recent interview, Dominic Barton, McKinsey’s ex-Global Managing Director, revealed that about 1% of the 200,000 candidates applying to the firm every year receive a job offer.

Assuming a 33% success rate at the four steps of the recruiting process described above, we estimate that McKinsey interviews about 21,000 candidates every year and that they extend a job offer to about 2,200 of them. If you have been invited to a first round interview with McKinsey, you therefore have a 10% chance of getting an offer.

  • Filter 1 / Resume and cover letter: 200,000 candidates
  • Filter 2 / McKinsey PST: ~65,000 candidates
  • Filter 3 / First round of interviews: ~21,000 candidates
  • Filter 4 / Second round of interviews: ~6,800 candidates
  • Job offers: 2,200 candidates

The good news is that the first and second round interviews are really manageable when you know how to prepare. Your interviews will usually last between 45 and 60 minutes and consist of two parts: 

  • Case Interview – for 75% of the interview time
  • Personal Experience Interview (PEI) – for 25% of the interview time

We will cover both types of interview questions in detail below, but let's first briefly discuss the interview timeline you can expect at McKinsey.

1.2 McKinsey interview timeline

When preparing for your McKinsey case interview, it can be difficult to know when to expect each stage of the interview process. To help illustrate a typical timeline, we've created the below overview of McKinsey's recruitment schedule.  As a rule of thumb you can expect the whole process to take 5 to 8 weeks.

Please note: this is meant to give you a general overview, and may not reflect your specific interview timeline. Actual interview timelines depend on a number of factors (e.g. Experience hire vs. University hire). The below is based on the expected recruitment timelines at the University of Chicago (an MBB target school). You can find the original document from the University of Chicago here

McKinsey interview timeline

Now that you have a clear picture of what to expect in terms of recruiting process and timeline, let's turn our attention to the skills that McKinsey will be testing you on during case interviews.

1.3 Skills tested by McKinsey case interviews

McKinsey uses case interviews to test three types of skills that are used by consultants in their daily work:

  • Problem structuring and maths skills
  • Creativity and business sense skills
  • Communication skills

1.3.1 Problem structuring and maths skills

First, McKinsey already started testing your maths skills with its Problem Solving Test. This skill will continue being tested during case interviews and you will be expected to perform mental maths both quickly and accurately.

In addition, your interviewer will ask you to solve the problem in a structured way. In simple terms, that means you will be expected to solve questions with a clear step-by-step approach, that is easy for your interviewer to understand.

1.3.2 Creativity and business sense skills

Second, McKinsey case interviews are designed to evaluate your business sense and creativity. That means your interviewer will assess your ability to come up with a range of ideas that make business sense to solve the client issue at hand. For instance, you could be asked to find innovative ideas for a restaurant to grow sales, or to decrease costs.

An important nuance is that interviewers will not assess your business knowledge per se. In other words, you are not expected to have any knowledge of the industry your case will be about.

For instance, you could get a case about re-insurance and not know anything about the re-insurance industry. This is perfectly normal. In these situations, your interviewer will expect you to ask questions about the industry and will help you understand its specificities.

The only expectation is that you know basic business concepts such as revenues, fixed and variable costs, etc. We have summarised the finance concepts you need to know for consulting interviews here.

1.3.3 Communication skills

Finally, your interviewer will also test your soft skills. This includes how you communicate your ideas and interact with others. As a consultant working with clients, good soft skills will be critical to your success.

So you'll want to show your interviewers that you can communicate well. You should try to communicate your ideas in a clearly structured way, and to speak confidently and professionally. This will have a big impact on the impression you make.

Take a look at the following excerpt from one of our McKinsey live case interview videos to find out what a good, consistent approach to answering case interview questions sounds like.

As you prepare for your interview, if you'd like to learn more about the type of work and the career path at McKinsey, check out our in-depth blog post about McKinsey Careers.

2. Case structure and examples 
2.1 McKinsey case study structure 

During your McKinsey interviews, you will be presented with a case study about a company facing an issue. For instance, your case could focus on an industrial facility facing a profit challenge, or a company that needs help to make a strategic decision on a new product. Cases are usually a simplified version of real projects your interviewer worked on in the past.

Your interviewer will tell you about the situation the company is facing and will ask you questions about the situation. She may also provide you with documents such as graphs and tables with figures about the company. You will be allowed to use scrap paper to structure your thoughts and perform calculations. However, you will not be allowed to use a calculator.

Most McKinsey case interviews use the following structure:

  • Situation
  • Framework question
  • Quantitative question
  • Creativity question
  • Recommendation

First, your interviewer will introduce you to the company’s situation and business problem. Then, the interviewer will ask you to identify the areas you would look at to solve the problem - this is the framework question. You will then be asked to solve one or more quantitative questions, and afterwards you will be expected to outline some initial conclusions. 

In addition, at some point during your interview, you will be asked a creativity question. These are usually open-ended questions such as “what other areas should the company explore to increase its online sales?”.

Finally, at the end of the case, your interviewer will ask you to make an overall recommendation for the company based on the analysis you have just carried out.

Although the format and order of questions may vary from one case to the next, you will almost invariably come across these types of questions during your McKinsey interviews and should therefore prepare for them. To find out more about the format of case interviews, check out our Free McKinsey Case Prep.

An additional exercise we would recommend doing is to take a look at the different case interviews available on McKinsey's website. As you go through each case, you should try to map each question to the 5 types of questions we have listed above.

2.2 Differences between McKinsey and other cases

All consulting firms use case interviews during their recruiting process. But McKinsey interviews are different in two regards.

First, McKinsey interviewers tend to control the pace of the interview much more than other interviewers. They will have a list of questions about the case they want to go through with you, and will take you from one question to the next. If they feel you spend too much time on one question, they might interrupt you and ask the next question.

Some people call this “interviewer-led” case interviews. At other firms such as Bain or BCG, interviewers give you more control over the pace of the interview. Some people call this “interviewee-led”, or "candidate-led" case interviews. The skills tested in both types of cases are the same, but you should expect slightly different behaviours from your interviewers.

Second, there is a lot of competition to get into McKinsey, and your interviewer will probably challenge the quality and logic of your answers more than at other firms. That being said, interviewers are instructed to always be well intentioned and will not try to “trip you up” or misguide you.

2.3 Differences between 1st and 2nd round interviews

Another important thing to understand is the number of case interviews you will have and how they will differ. Typically, you will have two rounds of interviews. The number of interviews by round may vary but it is usually between 2 and 4. In total, you will therefore have between 4 and 8 interviews before getting a McKinsey job offer.

First and second round interviews are similar in format and difficulty. However, your first round interviewers will usually be more junior than your second round interviewers.

Associates (2+ years of experience) or Engagement Managers (4+ years of experience) usually lead first round interviews, while the second round is led by Partners (10+ years of experience). If you'd like to learn more about the different levels in the consulting hierarchy, check out our post on the consulting career path.

In theory, McKinsey takes into account your performance at both first and second round interviews when making final offer decisions. However, in practice, your performance during the second round carries more weight.

This is simply because Partners will have a stronger voice when the recruiting group discusses your application. It is therefore particularly important that you do well at your second round interviews.

2.4 McKinsey phone case interviews

One aspect of the process that's quite specific to McKinsey is that 1st round interviews are sometimes conducted over the phone, or a video-conferencing software.

There are a few additional things you need to consider, when preparing for a phone case interview. Specifically, you should:

  1. Expect phone interviews earlier in the interview process
  2. Do everything you can to avoid a bad connection
  3. Pay special attention to your communication

We go into greater depth on the 3 points above, in our article about phone case interviews. Now let's go through a few interview question examples you can use in your preparation.

    2.5 McKinsey interview questions examples

    One of the best things you can do to prepare for your McKinsey case interviews, is to practice with realistic case questions. McKinsey has made several example cases available, which are modeled after real-world consulting scenarios.

    Important note: feel free to open the below practice cases for reference, but open them in a new tab. You'll want to keep this page open, because the sections below will help you be more strategic with your preparation, including your practice with sample cases.

    You can find the available cases from McKinsey below:

    In addition, we've put together the ultimate list of free practice cases, with materials from the world's leading consulting firms. The article includes practice case books from university consulting clubs, like Harvard, MIT, London Business School, and more.

    Next, we'll turn our attention to behavioural interview questions.

    3. Behavioural interview questions (PEI) 

      The PEI part of your interview will last about ten minutes. It is fairly different from a typical “CV interview” mainly because your interviewer will only assess you on a single topic. Interviewers at other firms tend to cover a large range of topics during a “CV interview” but that is not the case at McKinsey.

      The good news is that the topics on which you will be assessed are very predictable. They are made relatively clear on McKinsey’s career website: personal impact, leadership abilities, entrepreneurial drive and problem solving skills.

      For instance you could be asked: “Tell me about a time when you led a group of people through a difficult situation” or “Tell me about a time when you had to solve an extremely difficult problem”. 

      Our recommended approach to prepare for these questions is to craft a story for each of the four skills McKinsey will test you on. You can then use and adapt these stories depending on the exact question your interviewer will ask. There are different structures you could use to tell your story but we recommend keeping it relatively simple:

      • Context: start by giving the necessary context on the example you are using
      • Problem: outline the problem you and your team were facing
      • Solution: explain the solution you came up with to solve the problem outlined
      • Impact: if possible, quantify the impact you had in solving the problem
      • Lessons: finish by any lessons you might have learned in the process

      There are two common mistakes candidates make when answering McKinsey PEI questions. First, a lot of candidates spend too much time on setting the context when telling their story. Second, some candidates forget that the question is about them.

      When responding to PEI questions, focus on what you did, and what your impact was on the situation. This is an important step in presenting your qualifications well. When you craft your four stories you should keep these common pitfalls in mind and try to avoid them.

      For more details and example answers, you should read the following blog post on how to impress your interviewer when answering Personal Experience Interview questions.

      4. Preparation tips

      In this section, we're going to cover four of the most important things you can do in order to prepare for your McKinsey case interviews. Let's begin with maths preparation.

      4.1 Develop confident maths skills

      It is almost impossible to crack case interviews without being able to perform maths calculations quickly and accurately. This is because every case interview at McKinsey includes quantitative questions and you will not be allowed to use a calculator to answer them.

      When you start preparing for case interviews, it is common to have relatively rusty maths skills. However, in our experience, successful candidates start their preparation by refreshing their maths skills and learning a few shortcuts. This initial time investment provides the confidence needed to perform calculations consistently in case interviews.

      We definitely encourage you to make this initial time investment. In fact, this maths preparation is the first step of the McKinsey Case Interview Training Programme we have put together. To help you refresh your maths skills, here are also a few maths shortcuts you should consider using. 

      4.2 Learn a consistent method for case questions

      As mentioned previously, McKinsey case interviews follow a pre-defined set of questions: situation, framework, quantitative, creativity and recommendation questions. It is therefore critical that you learn to quickly recognise these types of questions and that you develop a consistent method of answering them.

      Approaching each question with a pre-defined method will enable you to build strong habits. On the day of your case interview, these habits will make a huge difference as they will reduce your stress and save you a lot of time and mistakes.

      At IGotAnOffer, when we were preparing for case interviews, we were frustrated by the lack of a consistent method for cracking case interviews. In response, we developed a method to consistently answer McKinsey case interview questions.

      After being successful at case interviews, we then set out to share this “IGotAnOffer” method with future consulting candidates through our McKinsey case interview programme.

      Having a consistent method to answer different case interview questions may feel a little mechanical at first. But trust us, if you stick to a pre-defined method you will experience a huge improvement in your performance, which can help you get a job offer at McKinsey.

      4.3 Practice out loud

      Another key element to succeeding at case interviews, is practicing in real conditions. If you can practice case interviews with a partner you should definitely do so, that will help you progress faster.

      However, when you practice by yourself there still is something you can do to create case interview conditions: practicing out loud. While this may sound a little awkward at first, in our experience, candidates who have forced themselves to use this technique have progressed much faster than others.

      When you practice out loud, you should both play the role of the interviewer and the interviewee. You should ask yourself the questions your interviewer would ask you and then answer these questions out loud as if you were in the interview.

      The reason this technique works so well is that it forces you to practice communicating your answer to your interviewer. As mentioned previously, communicating in a structured and simple way is a key skill assessed by McKinsey. Developing this skill will make a big difference on the day of the interview.

      4.4 Learn from every case

      The best candidates learn as many things as possible from every case they do. In our experience, it is much better to train on 20 case interviews and to learn a lot from them, than to train on 40 and not learn much. 

      To ensure you make the most of each case you practice on, we recommend that at the end of each case, you write down what you have learned as well as the main mistakes you have made. After a few days you should then do the case again. This approach will enable you to make sure that you apply what you have learned and to ensure you are making progress.

      Conclusion

      McKinsey interviews are challenging because there is a lot of competition for the job. Interviewers can be a little intimidating, and there is quite a lot of ground to cover in your preparation. However, if you follow the tips listed above it is completely feasible to get a job at McKinsey.

      In addition, we have put together a McKinsey Case Interview Training Programme to help you land the job. Since we launched the programme at the beginning of 2016, more than 80% of candidates who used it landed a job at McKinsey. We know this because we give 50% of their money back to people who do not get an offer. 

      If you would like to learn a method to consistently crack case interviews, you can get started below:

      McKinsey Case Interview Training Programme

      Article update: Differences for specialist roles

      After we published this article we've received comments from multiple readers asking whether the different tips we give here apply for other positions than general consulting at McKinsey (e.g. McKinsey Digital Labs, Implementation Consultant, Data Scientist, etc.).

      Below, we've summarised our general guidance which will help you understand the differences at a high-level view. If you are currently in the interview process, your HR contact should be able to provide the details for your specific interview track.

      McKinsey Digital Labs

      Broadly speaking, there are two types of roles at McKinsey Digital Labs: consulting roles and specialist roles (e.g.: software developer).

      • Consulting roles: if you're applying for an Analyst or Associate role, the interview process will follow the normal consultant interview track. You should therefore prepare for McKinsey-style case interviews, as well as McKinsey PEI questions. In some cases you will also be asked to take the McKinsey PST.
      • Specialist roles: specialists have function-specific interviews. For instance, software engineers / data scientists typically have a mix of technical questions (coding), and personal experience interview questions. Some of the data scientists we've worked with were also asked to solve a case in later rounds of interviews.

      One of our coaches is a former consultant from McKinsey Digital Labs. We have interviewed him in the following blog post, which you can read if you want to learn more about the interview process at McKinsey Digital Labs.

      Implementation Consultant

      Implementation Consultant is a consulting role. As a result, McKinsey interviewers will test the same skills as for other consultants, including problem solving, leadership and communication skills. This is done primarily through case interviews, which is what our McKinsey Case Interview Programme is designed to train for.

      In addition, it's likely that McKinsey interviewers will also test specific implementation skills, such as the lean and six-sigma methods. They may cover it with a PEI question, by asking you to provide an example of how you led the implementation of a six-sigma project. Or, they may cover it during a case interview, by asking you to solve an implementation-related case.

      Research Analyst and Data Scientist

      In our experience, the interview process for Research Analyst is quite similar to the one for Consultant. Candidates for Research Analyst roles regularly prepare with our training programme.

      For a Data Scientist role, the interview process is probably quite different, including coding interviews with statistics and computer science questions.

      For any of these specialised roles at McKinsey, we would also encourage you to double check with your HR contact to understand the exact format.

      Any questions about McKinsey case interviews?

      If you have any questions about McKinsey case interviews, do not hesitate to ask them below and we will be more than happy to answer them. All questions are good questions, so go ahead!

      The IGotAnOffer team

      Photo: Ed Gregory / Stokpic