Ultimate guide to McKinsey PEI (questions, process and prep)

At McKinsey, all your interviews will start with a Personal Experience Interview (PEI) question. This should be a great opportunity to make a strong start and impress your interviewer. However, many candidates fail to properly prepare for the PEI and it ends up costing them an offer.

To make sure you don’t make that mistake, we’ve laid out everything you need to know below, including the three question types, how to answer them, and the specific steps you need to take to prepare for the interview.

Here’s an outline of what we’ll cover:

1. What is the McKinsey PEI?

McKinsey’s Personal Experience Interview tests for 3 specific characteristics which it calls “personal impact, entrepreneurial drive, and inclusive leadership.” It is conducted during the first 10-15 minutes of each case interview at McKinsey.

McKinsey uses the PEI to get a detailed picture of your personality, your motivations, how you react to people, what you’re passionate about, etc. If you think that makes it sound easy, think again. It’s testing you for essential soft skills, and you’ll need to show that you’ve got them in spades.

This video from McKinsey gives some insights into why you should take the PEI very seriously.

1.1 What’s the process?

You’ll get a PEI question at the start of each case interview (at phone and onsite stages) and each will cover a single topic. In other words, you will spend the full 10 minutes of the PEI discussing ONE particular skill McKinsey wants to test. For example, you might be asked how you demonstrated entrepreneurial drive in the past, and you will discuss that topic with your interviewer for 10-15 minutes.

To be clear, you are not expected to give a 10 minute answer to the initial question your interviewers will ask. They will follow up with other questions as you tell your story to make sure they understand it in enough detail. The key point to understand is that these follow up questions will all be about the initial topic too.

For example, as you give your answer, the interviewer will probe with questions such as “What data did you use to make that decision?”, “How did the client react to this?”, “How was your team involved?”, etc. They do this to drill into the details that interest them and to test the strength of your answer.

1.2 Why does McKinsey do it differently?

At many consulting firms, you will have a standalone 1h resume interview with a different interviewer to the ones you met in your case interviews.

Instead, McKinsey assesses you using BOTH PEI and case questions across multiple interviews, allowing several of its recruiters to form an opinion on your experience and skills. Overall, this helps the firm develop a more informed judgment on candidates’ personal abilities.

1.3 Why is the McKinsey PEI so important?

McKinsey consultants have to work within client organisations in very delicate situations, so strong soft skills are essential.

Of course, skills like problem-solving are extremely important too, and you’ll be tested on these as well. But soft skills are probably the most difficult to teach, so McKinsey wants to know you’ve got them already. For this reason, you won’t be hired if you get a low score on the PEI.

Now that you have some background on McKinsey’s PEI, let’s take a look at the types of questions you’ll face.

2. McKinsey PEI questions

McKinsey PEI questions should hold no surprises. The firm explains on their careers page that any PEI question will fit into one of these three categories:

  • Personal impact
  • Entrepreneurial drive
  • Inclusive leadership
Let’s take a look at each one in a bit more detail. We’ve shared some examples we found on Glassdoor to show you the slightly different ways your interviewer might ask you about these three character traits.

2.1 Personal impact

“Explain a challenging situation you encountered when working with someone with an opposing opinion to yours.”

McKinsey consultants have to be very persuasive. A consultant may spend weeks devising the best strategy to convince a key executive of a certain course of action. The interviewer wants to see that you’re capable of doing the same.

There is also an element of empathy here, and sometimes this question is framed more as "resolving conflict." This is because consultants need to be able to understand the concerns, motivations, and emotions of the people in their team and client organisation. They need to navigate organisational politics and work constructively with people who may react emotionally against them.

Essentially, persuasiveness and empathy go hand-in-hand, and ideally your story should demonstrate both. In any case, you can’t convince someone (that you don't have authority over) to do something if you can’t understand their perspective and their motivations.

Let’s see some examples from Glassdoor of the different ways the question might be framed.

 Personal impact question examples from McKinsey PEI interviews

  • Tell me about a situation when you had to change someone's opinion
  • Tell me about some situation in which you disagreed with someone
  • Tell me a time you changed a group's mind
  • Tell me about a time you had to convince someone of something
  • Tell me about a time when you disagreed with someone on your team
  • Tell me a story about convincing others
  • Tell me about a time you had to resolve a conflict in a team setting

2.2 Entrepreneurial drive

“Talk about a time when you had to work to achieve something in a limited period of time that was outside your comfort zone.”

What McKinsey is testing here is how resilient and resourceful you are. As a consultant, you will often be placed in very challenging situations. You will be asked to solve problems in industries you have never worked in, without any prior knowledge, and on top of this you will have to build trust with clients who have spent a very long time in the industry.

McKinsey wants to know how you’d react in this type of situation. Would you be overwhelmed? Your story should show that you put together a plan that responded to that tough situation, and then you executed it relentlessly.

Bear in mind that the PEI wants to test how you’d work as a consultant, where things are very fluid and you’re constantly interacting with different stakeholders. We recommend using an example that fits this, rather than an example where you might have shown great resolve and drive, but you’ve done so alone and without impacting others directly.

Entrepreneurial drive question examples from McKinsey PEI interviews

  • Tell me about a challenging situation with a tight deadline
  • Name the biggest obstacle you've ever had in your career, and how you overcame it.
  • Tell me about a really complex project you worked on
  • Describe a time when you faced a challenge
  • Give me an example of how you handled a crisis
  • Describe a time where you were on a team that failed. How did you navigate that experience, and would you have done anything differently?

2.3 Inclusive leadership

“Share an example of an instance where you effectively worked with people with different backgrounds.”

McKinsey will only want to hire you if it sees you as a potential leader at the firm. In any case, leadership is not only a necessary quality for people in senior positions. A consultant will often need to lead their clients, and they’ll need to do so without having direct authority over them.

With that in mind, it’s worth noting that you don’t need to be the "official leader" in the story you tell to answer this question, as long as you acted like a leader. In fact, if you led without being the designated leader, that’s an even stronger example of leadership.

The "inclusive" aspect can be relevant here too. In client organisations you’ll need to work effectively with people whose backgrounds (ethnicity, expertise, age, etc.) might be very different to yours and to each other's. Consultants also need to know how to get different stakeholders, with contrasting incentives, all on the same page. McKinsey’s website says that "involving and gaining the support of others is critical to success,” so your interviewer will want to see evidence that you’re capable of that.

However, don’t go overboard on the diversity angle. Your answer should focus on what you did as a leader and not how diverse the backgrounds were of the people involved.

Inclusive leadership question examples from McKinsey PEI interviews

  • Tell me about a project that you have led
  • Tell me about a time when you led a team through a difficult situation
  • Describe a situation where you used your leadership skills. What was the situation, what was your role, and how did you impact the situation through your leadership?
  • Tell me about a time when you led a team to overcome an obstacle
  • Tell me about a time when you influenced without authority

You’ll notice that the example questions in each category are virtually identical, so there shouldn’t be any surprise when you get into the interview.

Now that we’re clear on the three types of PEI questions you’ll be facing, let’s move on to looking at the key tips that will help you answer them.

3. How to answer McKinsey PEI questions

There’s no mystery about how to answer PEI questions. You’ll need to prepare several ”stories” or “examples” from your personal and professional experience to demonstrate the 3 question areas we’ve just covered.

How many? McKinsey recommends preparing two examples for each of the three areas, and we agree. You’ll likely have more than three interviews, so it’s probable that two different interviewers will target the same area, and you might not want to repeat the same story in the same round (although interviewers tend not to cross-check).

Also, it’s possible that an interviewer may phrase a question in such a way that one of your examples doesn’t quite fit as well as it should, so it’s good to have two to choose from.

For these reasons, you’ll need to prepare 6 examples to demonstrate the three areas listed above. And you’ll need to be able to go into a lot of depth, as you’ll be talking about it for 10-15 minutes, and the interviewer will ask you specific, searching questions.

Let’s go through our 8 essential tips to help you construct these stories in the strongest way possible.

3.1 Tip #1: use a framework

Using a framework can bring many benefits. It helps you avoid making common mistakes, such as forgetting to explain what the impact of your actions were, or what lessons you learned.

Perhaps counter-intuitively, a framework also can help you be more natural and authentic in the interview. The solid structure means you’re unlikely to lose your thread, so you can be more relaxed about going off on slight tangents if prompted, or if something suddenly comes to mind.

There are different ways to tell your story, but we suggest you keep it relatively simple. The STAR method (Situation, Task, Action, Result) is a popular approach for answering behavioural questions because it’s easy to remember. You may have already heard of it. 

However, we’ve found that candidates often find it difficult to distinguish the difference between steps two and three, or task and action. Some also forget to include lessons learned in the results step, which is especially crucial when discussing past failures.

With that in mind, we’ve tweaked it into the (admittedly less catchy) SPSIL method:

    Situation: start by giving the necessary context

    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: conclude with any lessons you might have learned in the process

Of course, you can use the STAR method if you prefer, but the candidates we’ve worked with have tended to prefer SPSIL, as there’s no overlap between steps and they feel they’re less likely to miss something out.

3.2 Tip #2: choose stories that are highly relevant

When choosing examples of things you can build a story around, think about how relevant they are to the day-to-day work of a consultant.

This doesn’t mean you can only give work-related examples. For example, is “captaining a university football team to a cup final” relevant to what you’d be doing at McKinsey? Actually, it could be very relevant, especially when answering the "inclusive leadership" question. As a captain, you presumably had to show leadership in high pressure situations, react decisively to changing circumstances, and use good communication skills to get the whole team pulling in the same direction.

Conversely, a story about how you nailed a complex and important task during an internship might on the surface seem more relevant, but if you were simply executing what your boss was telling you to do without, say, interacting with different stakeholders, using initiative, or working as part of a team, it probably won’t be an effective story for any of the question areas.

3.3 Tip #3: make your story authentic

McKinsey talks about PEI questions being a chance for you to show them “your best you.” So what example from your past really demonstrates you at your best? If it can be something unique, then great. But more importantly, you need to tell it in a way that’s real, so it doesn’t sound like a copy of the dozen other ones they’ve heard that week.

Part of this will come with practising telling the story until you can do so naturally and relaxed. But this will be hard to do if you don’t have real, true enthusiasm for your story. So take the time to find strong examples from your past that you can really get excited about.

3.4 Tip #4: go deep

Interviews at McKinsey are not supposed to be monologues; they’re two-way discussions. That means that the interviewer will frequently interrupt you as you tell your story to ask further questions and to get you to delve deeper into aspects of it.

These questions can be quite specific, so you need to have a lot of details ready for your stories, more than you’ll be able to use.

Remember, quality is more important than quantity. For instance, you may have been president and captain of various clubs at university, but simply listing them all won’t really show the interviewer that you have strong leadership skills.

You’d be better off taking one example of something you did during your time at university that showed true leadership and develop it into a detailed story with enough depth to stand up to ten minutes of scrutiny.

3.5 Tip #5: give just enough context

A lot of candidates spend too much time setting the context. You should only give the minimum context needed to understand the problem and the solution in your story. Nothing more. A good test here is to make sure you don’t spend more than 30 seconds on this part of your story. Let’s look at an example.

Too much context: “The example I am going to give you dates back to two years ago when I was in my third year of university. I was playing for the football team, and we had just had a fantastic season. At the end of every season there is always a tournament to determine who is going to win the championship in the region where my university is. Not all universities get to go there. Only the best ones do. The first few games we played went really well. Throughout the tournament, we managed to maintain our performance. Finally, after 3 very tough games, we managed to make it to the finals.”

Right amount of context: “Two years ago, I made it to the championship finals with my university football team. The story I am going to tell you relates to that final game which was the most important one in the season.”

Notice how the second example goes straight to the point and only gives the necessary information. A lot of candidates fail to do that in PEI questions, which results in their interviewer asking them to speed up and go to the core of the story.

3.6 Tip #6: focus on YOU

Second, some candidates focus too much on what the team did to solve the problem in general, instead of giving the specifics of what they did. The PEI is about YOU. Your answer should therefore focus on how YOU demonstrated the skill your interviewer is looking for. A good test here is to make sure that you use “I” a lot. When you tell your story, if you hear yourself saying “I did this,” and “I felt that way,” and “I suggested this,” you are very likely to be on the right track.

Using our football example above, your answer should focus on what YOUR contribution was in the final game. Maybe you were the best defender in the team, in which case you should detail the tactics you used to prevent the opposite team from scoring. Or maybe you were the captain in the team and had to talk individually to players to maintain a cohesive group. Whatever your role was, you should tell your interviewer about the specific things YOU did to secure the victory, not what the team did in general.

3.7 Tip #7: give numbers where possible

Experienced hires should be sure to give some metrics when it comes to the "impact" part of the story in order to demonstrate that their actions had real, measurable impact.

This might be harder to do if you’re a graduate hire and you don’t have that work experience, but you should still try to include some numbers if possible.

For example, if your story is about how you implemented some changes at a summer job, can you say that as a result of your actions, profit went up 10%? Or perhaps you estimate that waste went down 20%? Or you saved 30 minutes each day?

Even in the football team example above, it’s still possible to quantify your actions’ impact with numbers. For instance, you might say that “after the tactical changes I implemented as captain with 20 minutes to go, we had three times as many shots as we’d had in the previous twenty.”

3.8 #Tip 8: pitch your story in 30 seconds

You’ll have several stories to choose from, so choosing the right one to answer the question is crucial. One way of making sure that you don’t pick the wrong story is to pitch a summary of it to the interviewer before you embark on telling it.

For example, “I’d like to tell you about a time I made some significant changes at the struggling bar where I was working to try and increase business. I was just a barman, but I managed to convince the manager and the chef that the changes would be worthwhile. A month after we implemented them, our profit was up by about 20%. Does that sound like it’s what you’re looking for?

If the interviewer is concerned that your example isn’t quite responding to what they’re looking for, they can tell you straight away and you can choose another one.

If you don’t “pitch” like this and launch straight into an ill-chosen story, the interviewer won’t be able to tell you that you’re on the wrong track until a few minutes in, at which point you’ve lost a lot of time.

So, it depends on how confident you are that your chosen story is the right fit.

4. Example answer

To illustrate the framework and tips that we’ve discussed above, we’ve laid out an example answer to one of the real PEI questions that we found on Glassdoor.

Question

“Tell me about a time you had to convince someone of something.”(Personal impact)

Pitch

Candidate: I’d like to tell you about a time at my previous company where I convinced my boss that we should pitch for a contract she thought we had no chance of winning. We didn’t win that contract but, thanks to the relationship we were able to establish with them via the pitching process, we started to do a lot of business with them from that point onwards. Does that sound like the sort of thing you’re looking for?

Interviewer: Yes, sounds interesting. Please go on.

Clock: 30 seconds

1. Situation

Candidate: Okay, well this was during my previous role at an advertising agency, where I was working as an account manager. We were having a disappointing year and pressure was building to win some new clients, or cuts would be inevitable. Through a connection, we were invited to pitch for a contract to make the Christmas TV spot for a well-known chocolate brand, which was a huge deal.

Clock: 1 minute

2. Problem

Interviewer: A big opportunity then?

Candidate: Well, yes and no. The problem was that there were at least six other companies pitching, who all had more experience in TV than us and greater resources. As our budget was already tight, my boss didn’t want to make the necessary investment in pitching, given we had such a slim chance of winning it.

Interviewer: What are the costs involved in pitching for a contract like this?

Candidate: Mainly paying for people’s time. We would have to get a couple of freelancers from TV involved, plus it would mean adding to the load on the in-house creative team who were already busy in their day-to-day.

Interviewer: I see, please continue.

Clock: 2 minutes

3. Solution

Candidate: I knew our lack of profile in this area meant we were unlikely to win the pitch. But I did some research and found that this brand was starting to do a lot of digital advertising campaigns for some of their other snack products: working with influencers on Instagram, user-generated content, etc.

Candidate: This was an area where our agency had a lot of expertise. I made some calls and learned that their digital campaigns were done by various different agencies, rather than one trusted partner. This suggested that they could be open to working with us in this area, and that we could use the Christmas pitch as a “foot-in-the-door.”

Interviewer: And is that a common tactic in the industry?

Candidate: No, at least not at our agency. We were always working with minimal resources, and pitches take up a lot of time. My boss’s policy was only to pitch for things that she felt we had a good chance of winning.

Interviewer: Ok, please continue.

Candidate: On top of that, I knew she hated going in cold to pitches (not knowing the people in the room). So, first I did some research on who was going to be in the pitch meeting. I found that the marketing director was going to be at the same event as my boss in a few weeks' time, so that would give us the chance to establish a relationship. In my own time I built a presentation showing the brand’s digital ad campaigns over the last 6 months and the synergies with our expertise areas.

Candidate: I knew that my boss was extremely concerned about our bottom line, and that she always liked to see the numbers in a presentation. So I included some rough estimations of what these digital campaigns could be worth to us over 3 years, hoping to reinforce how valuable this approach could be for us long-term.

Interviewer: So how favourable did the estimations look? Could you go into some more detail on the numbers?

Candidate: Sure. So based on my experience in the industry, I estimated that the budget to produce 12 months of digital content for one of their snack products would be in the region of 300K, and typically the agency fee would be 20% of this. If we did a good job, we could be confident of gaining another similar contract with them by year 2 and another in year 3.

Candidate: So my ball park projection was that working this brand could be worth 360K profit in 3 years - extremely significant given that last year we had made around 140K profit. In the presentation, I compared that estimate against how much this initial pitch investment would cost us - around 3K.

Interviewer: Thanks, those numbers certainly sound significant. Please continue.

Candidate: So first I showed the presentation to one of our most experienced account managers to get her onboard, and then together we took it to my boss. She was interested, but she was still concerned about the reaction of our creative director, who might be unhappy about his team having to work late generating TV spot ideas that would probably never be executed. However, I made it clear that I was happy to be the one coordinating with him and essentially be the "fall guy" on this to take the heat over extra hours worked, acting as a buffer between him and my boss.

Interviewer: Right, so did the plan work?

Clock: 5 minutes

4. Impact

Candidate: It did! We worked like crazy for ten days to create a strong presentation. The pitch went really well. As expected we didn’t win, but we were able to present some very creative ideas and steer the conversation towards our terrain: digital. Afterwards I was able to have a long conversation with their marketing head about digital opportunities. Within weeks we were in regular contact with him.

Two months later, we ran our first digital campaign for them, and soon they became one of our regular clients. The next year 15% of our revenue came from that client.

Clock: 6 minutes

5. Lessons

Interviewer: Great result. Anything else you’d like to add?

Candidate: Yes, some lessons I learned.  The creative director, as feared, was pretty unhappy about it at first and resisted taking on the additional work. When he saw how hard I was working on the project, he softened up a bit, and he put in a great performance on the day, but I wish I made more of an effort to win him over earlier. I think I learned the value of getting all the main stakeholders behind the process, not just the ones who have the final say.

Interviewer: Ok, and how could you have done this?

Candidate: In the creative director’s case, probably by showing him the creative opportunities that would become available if and when we were able to start working with the brand on their digital campaigns. And I should have explained that pitching to a room full of well-connected executives was a great professional opportunity for him in itself, which I think he realised eventually.

Clock: 7 minutes

Interviewer: Okay, that’s been really interesting, thank you. I suggest we now move on to the case interview.

5. How to prepare for PEI questions

Now that we’ve covered everything you need to know about PEI questions and how to answer them, let’s take a look at the steps you should take to prepare.

5.1 Find and research your stories

As discussed earlier, you’ll need around six detailed stories up your sleeve. We recommend outlining ten and then gradually cutting the weaker ones as you start to fill in the details.

If you’re having trouble finding enough stories that work, talk to old colleagues or classmates and see if they remember anything you did. Something relatively small that you’ve forgotten about can sometimes be fleshed out into a really strong story.

In fact, even when it’s something that you remember well, it can be useful to talk to someone else who was involved, as they’ll likely have a new perspective on it that could be useful.

5.2 Practise on your own

We recommend writing your answers down on paper within the structure of our SPSIL framework. This will help you see which parts of your story need editing down to be more concise, which parts need more detail, etc.

When you’re happy with them on paper, start practising telling them out loud on your own. You’ll find that the more you do this, the more convincingly you’ll tell them.

It’s also helpful to try answering different questions with the same story. For example, the marketing agency story in the previous section might be relevant to a variety of questions about working with stakeholders, managing disagreements, leadership, etc. If you practise delivering your story in a variety of ways, you’ll be more comfortable responding to questions during your real interview.

5.3 Practise with others

Once you’re confident telling the stories on your own, you’ll want to practise with friends or family who can give some useful feedback. You could also sign up to our peer-to-peer platform, where you can practise with other candidates.

However, if you really want the best possible preparation for personal experience interview questions, you'll also want to work with ex-consultants  who have experience running interviews at McKinsey. If you know anyone who fits that description, great! Otherwise, we can connect you with our coaches.

Additional resources

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 the case you can get started below:

McKinsey Case Interview Training Programme

The IGotAnOffer team

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