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Joining McKinsey as an experienced hire is not always a step up

Are you an experienced hire, preparing for consulting case interviews? 

If yes, this article may open your eyes to something very important.

My name is Kris Safarova. I was recognized among World’s Top 30 Management Professionals for 2023 along with Tom Peters, Philip Kottler, James Collins, and Gary Hamel.

If you are an experienced hire, you need to keep in mind that when joining McKinsey, BCG, or a similarly top-tier firm, many applicants, especially senior applicants, will take a salary cut. It may not be the majority but it’s a sizable minority.

A CPG (also known as FMCG) SVP coaching client once wanted to apply to McKinsey. She would have joined as a senior associate, and possibly, and this was a stretch, as an engagement manager. 

When we pointed out her likely McKinsey salary, and what she would lose in her stock options, it was a tough pill for her to swallow. 

It was even worse when we showed her, on LinkedIn, the levels at which engagement managers joined her CPG employer. 

They were all at a level below her. 

She was giving up a lot if she left. She needed to be sure of the decision. If she stayed with her CPG employer, she would be a regional product leader on the path to regional SVP within three years. She chose to remain at her employer and use our programs on StrategyTraining.com to talk, think, write, lead, and influence like a consulting partner without working in consulting.

To get sample training from strategytraining.com go to firmsconsulting.com/promo

Good luck with your interviews. Remember you are interviewing the firms just as much as they are interviewing you.

Read the article about Case Interview Prep Myths

Take care,

Kris Safarova

Case Interview Prep Myths

There are ten myths surrounding consulting case interview prep process that are important to recognize. Much of this advice is expanded in The Consulting Offer where we teach participants in more depth why these misconceptions exist and how participants can increase their chances of succeeding in consulting case interviews.

#1 The more unique your profile, the easier it is to network with associates and recruiters from consulting firms.

This is a myth because experienced hires, by definition, have an unusual profile. In a pool of case interview applicants, experienced hires tend to stand out, not only are there fewer of them, but also because they have about seven years of experience. In some instances, there may be case interview applicants who are just one level below that of an executive at a major company. It is logical that candidates with such unique profiles will need adjustments to a typical case interview prep process.

This unique profile can have the opposite of the desired effect because you may not fit the typical mold or template that recruiters are trained to look for. 

First-stage resume reviewers at major consulting firms are usually junior consultants or recruiters and base their decisions on a template. They look for your resume to hit certain points and if it does, you are brought in for an interview. Having a unique profile makes it difficult to hit every mark the resume screeners are looking for, making it that much more difficult to get an interview with major consulting firms. The recruiter is in a low-level position, which does not give them the authority to bring people in for interviews who don’t meet the specific criteria on the template.

Having a unique profile means that you are going to want to avoid junior consultants/recruiters as much as possible as you are networking as part of case interview prep process. 

The junior person does not have the authority to make decisions regarding unique profiles. The key to getting an interview with major consulting firms like McKinsey, BCG, Bain, Deloitte S&O, PwC Consulting and Deals, etc. is to speak with the right people, and in the case of experienced hires, that right person would be a partner. Partners at major consulting firms do not have to prove themselves to anyone, so they don’t mind taking calculated risks on inviting applicants to interview, and are equipped to assess applicants and make personnel decisions even when the resume doesn’t match the template.

#2 An MBA from a great school makes your case interview prep process easy, including automatically getting you an interview and maybe even an offer.

There is a difference between getting an interview with major consulting firms like McKinsey, BCG, Bain, Deloitte S&O, PwC Consulting and Deals, etc. and getting an offer. Being an MBA candidate improves your profile. MBA resumes are the norm, they are more likely to check the boxes and essentially work their way through a conveyor belt leading to interviews. However, an interview with your target consulting firm is not a guaranteed offer. Not even close. That may seem counterintuitive, but an MBA does not change or improve your ability to interview. Impressing your interviewer is what gets you an offer. A good MBA could get you an interview. So your case interview prep process may get a little easier in terms of you being able to get an interview, but you will need to work just as hard and smart to secure an offer.

#3 MBA, PhD, undergraduate and experienced hire case interview prep experiences are the same.

The experience this myth refers to is that the challenges, networking approach, application process, and what the firms are looking for, basically the entire case interview prep process, are all the same. To understand why this is a myth, let’s start by examining a common profile. When thinking of experienced hires, we typically picture someone married, with children and a mortgage: a low-risk candidate. Even though MBAs, PhDs and EMBAs may prepare in similar ways and the content is similar, the knowledge is used differently because of the varying profiles and experiences (this goes back to business judgment).

The expectations that partners have of experienced hires is different from what they expect from an MBA or PhD. As an experienced hire, avoid looking online at the recruitment process for MBA case interview applicants. You would be preparing for the wrong type of consulting case interview. You wouldn’t prepare for a United States visa interview by reading about the German visa interview process. Even the ways in which MBAs and experienced hires approach relationships are different. MBAs can be much more transactional, whereas experienced-hires need to nurture and cultivate their relationships.

PhDs are, sadly and incorrectly, stereotyped as lacking teamwork and general problem solving skills. They are assumed to have weaker business knowledge and firms test for this. They want to see an interest in business or an ability to use the PhD training to solve business problems. Undergraduate students go through the most typical consulting case interview application and interview processes.

#4 The most important grade on your resume is your MBA grade point average (GPA).

On your consulting resume, you will list three different grades: your undergraduate GPA, your MBA GPA (some schools have them, others don’t), and your GMAT/GRE score. Of all these grades, your undergraduate GPA is by far the most important. Most consulting firms will not hire anyone with an undergraduate GPA under 3.6. The reason it is so important is because it opens a window into who you are, your life, and your ability to be consistent over three to four years. This grade indicates to a firm whether you will strive for excellence and whether you are committed to your studies.

The MBA GPA is different. Most who are in business school have returned to make a career change or transition. They aren’t in school to get the highest grade, but to learn as much as they can, prepare for what comes next, and open a door for the best possible opportunities. Because of this, MBA GPAs don’t matter as much during the hiring process, though graduating with a distinction will help. However, if your undergraduate GPA indicates a lack of trying, that definitely can inhibit your chances. An undergraduate GPA is measured over three to four years. In the minds of interviewers they will wonder why you allowed such low grades for such a long period.

#5 An exceptional MBA erases a poor undergraduate degree.

This myth is deeply connected to the fourth myth discussed above. In most instances, an exceptional MBA GPA does not change a firm’s perception of you if you had a poor undergraduate GPA. There are exceptions to every rule. For example, let’s say you graduated with a 2.4 GPA from a community college and then got into Yale or Harvard. If the grades at Darden and Harvard are exceptional (top 1% of your class), we may rethink a poor undergraduate GPA. This indicates a huge change in you or your circumstance. Something has shifted, making you capable of being more accountable for your studies. So the MBA grades have to be truly exceptional, versus just exceptional.

#6 The best way to allocate study time in your consulting case interview preparation is 90% on cases, 8% on FIT, and 2% on communication.

In preparing for a consulting case interview, remember that communication is the most important aspect to focus on. You may have all of the answers, but that does not matter unless you are able to effectively communicate them. People rely on you to have the information and understanding necessary to be effective in your rol, so it’s important to communicate information in a way that conveys confidence in understanding. Distinguish between content (cases, fit stories etc.) and your delivery and presence (communication). You will need to be equally good at both.

#7 Networking during case interview prep process is about getting referrals.

Many articles advise consulting case interview applicants to have objectives and to work to get something out of your network, but that isn’t the only, or even the best, way to network with partners. Networking at a senior level requires that you go back to the basics of human connection. It is for this reason that your objective while networking is not to get a referral but to build relationships. Sticking to a prepared list of questions, being robotic, or pushing for the conversations you think you are supposed to have is ineffective. By being sincere and showing interest in not just the firm, but also the people, you are much more likely to learn about the organization and gain a better understanding of the people who work there.

At many firms, referrals no longer lead to a mandatory interview as they once did. However, another component is that recruiters and partners are the ones who have final say on who ends up getting an interview, and partners have the final say on who ends up receiving an offer. They have the authority to do more, and if they like you, then your chances of an interview and being hired are much greater, making it important for those with unusual profiles to focus on partners. 

#8 Leadership within context of consulting case interviews is about having a leadership role or title.

Many people take roles in their respective organizations because they are trying to show leadership experience. This can make some partners hesitant to hire you because it can make you come across as someone who only wants the title as a way to bolster your consulting resume. 

Irrespective of the title you have, if you can show the following, you are a leader:

  • You had to solve a problem with a team.
  • You identified the critical path and assigned roles to your team.
  • A team member running a critical path role was not delivering. You tried to get them to improve and it was hard, necessitating several conversations. Eventually, you convinced them to improve without alienating them. 

This is what firms are looking for in terms of leadership. These are the stories and examples you must prepare.

#9 Downloading several case books and practicing cases right away is an effective way to ace your consulting interviews.

Many consulting case interview candidates spend their time downloading complex cases and attempting them as a way to prepare. As a candidate, you don’t want to practice cases until you have learned the basics first. If you jump in and practice without the correct foundation, you are likely to learn incorrectly and create the wrong habits. 

One of the biggest mistakes you can make is going to a McKinsey or BCG, or Deloitte S&O consultant and say you want to practice a case. This, to them, implies that you have done some cases. What you really want to do is learn how to do the cases before you practice cases. 

You must honor the time of the person helping you practice. If you ask to practice with a person from McKinsey and they realize you don’t know what you are doing, they are going to feel that they have wasted their time, which may hurt your chances at that firm.

#10 You get to choose your “spike.”

A spike is not just something you’re good at. It’s something that is memorable and narrow. Spikes within context of consulting case interview prep are something that help you get noticed and remembered. Be aware, a spike absolutely doesn’t have to be boring or business-related. It needs to be something pleasant, or neutral, and positive for the person reviewing your resume. Keeping your spike short and simple is key. It is a bite-sized piece of information about you that is easy to digest but makes you appealing to anyone reviewing your resume. Here are some examples, including my own spike:

Master classical concert pianist and national ambassador who toured Europe as a teenager. 

Volleyball olympian.

Math olympiad winner at age 12.

Managed the Mars Rover team.

First in family and town to attend high school.

When it comes to experienced hires, your spike is most likely going to come from your industry experience or personal life. Maybe you worked for Airbus or Boeing and you have been managing big problems to create planes that fly. Your spike is that you know how to get things done across big teams. Every person has different life and work experience which allows for spikes to be incredibly specific and individualized. Use that to your advantage.

This is an excerpt from our Case Interviews guide book. If you are interested in increasing your chances dramatically, we highly recommend our books and our training programs on StrategyTraining.com.

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Consulting Interview Questions (FIT)

Consulting interview questions include two broad types, FIT and case questions. FIT questions, also called personal experience interview or behavioral interview questions, test your fit with the firm. Case questions are generally sanitized versions of real client problems. They are usually 20 to 40 minutes in length and test your ability to solve problems, come up with insights, and think critically and creatively.

They also test your business judgement. Solving the problem is not as important as the rigor of the process of solving the problem.

For firms, consulting interview questions related to FIT are as important as case questions. You may be a phenomenal problem solver but if the interviewer will conclude your profile, personality, and/or communication style will not work well with clients, you will not be hired.

FIT is actually the primary reason candidates get declined, in our experience. Moreover, candidates usually, to a large degree, ignore preparing for consulting interview questions related to FIT and instead spend most of their efforts preparing for cases. Both are important and neither of them should be neglected.

The skills firms will test for when asking questions related to FIT are communications skills, leadership / ability to influence people, ability to work under pressure and deal with conflict and ambiguity, are you a high performer, ability to solve problems under pressure etc.

Below, let’s take a look at some common consulting interview questions and some thoughts on how to approach answering them.

Consulting interview questions that help create an overview of your profile

  1. Take me through your resume.
  2. Tell me about yourself.
  3. What is the most important thing not on your resume?
  4. How would you describe yourself? How would your close friends describe you?
  5. What has been your favorite class? Your least favorite? Why?
  6. What are your greatest strengths and weaknesses?
  7. Where do you see yourself in 3 years? 5 years? 10 years?
  8. Why should we hire you?
  9. What makes you a more interesting candidate than anyone else I interviewed today?
  10. What do you do for fun?
  11. What did you do last summer?

One thing you need to keep in mind when answering any of consulting interview question is the interviewer is evaluating how you will look in front of a client.

You will need to come across as poised, confident but not arrogant, attentive and someone they would want to work with and socialize with.

Consulting interview questions that test your ability to lead and influence / seeking evidence of demonstrated leadership

  1. What accomplishment(s) makes you the most proud? Why?
  2. Tell me about a professional situation in which you impacted your peers. 
  3. Describe the best/worst manager you have ever worked for.
  4. Tell me about a time you had an impact.
  5. What kind of leader are you?
  6. Tell me about a time when you exhibited leadership.

This type of question is usually not this direct but this is what they will be testing for. So if it sounds like they are testing for evidence of demonstrate leadership/influence, make sure you cover it.

For example, if you are asked, “I see here you started a consulting club. Tell me about it.” Your job is not to discuss all the difficulties of starting a consulting club. Instead focus on one person you had to convince that was instrumental for the success of your new club.

Consulting interview questions that evaluate your problem-solving abilities and initiative

  1. Describe a situation in the past where you had to analyze and solve a problem.
  2. Tell me about a time when you had to solve a problem.

Problem-solving is primarily evaluated during the case portion but some FIT questions may focus on this skill as well. Keep your answer succinct and give a lot of facts (dates, names, details).

Often this type of question is primarily testing evidence of demonstrated leadership / ability to influence (see above).

Consulting interview questions that test how you deal with conflict and ambiguity

  1. Tell me about a time when you failed OR
  2. Describe an experience where you failed. What did you learn from this?
  3. Tell me about a time when you had a conflict with a classmate or a co-worker.
  4. Tell me about a time you had ethical dilemma. What it was and how you handled it?

Use the absolute top standard for values and demonstrate them across the board when answering any questions related to conflict resolution and, of course, in general.

In fact, I recommend reading The key to a sustainable advantage in your career before you go any further.

Consulting interview questions that test if you are a high performer

  1. Have you been satisfied with your grades?
  2. What is your GPA? Your GMAT score? Your SAT’s? 
  3. What is your greatest accomplishment?
  4. What would you say your biggest weakness is?
  5. What are your long-term goals?
  6. How will you know when you have become a success?
  7. Tell me about a significant accomplishment?

As you may know, many consulting firms have an up or out policy. This policy basically means if you are not moving up, you are out. So being a high performer among high performers is required to succeed at firms like McKinsey, BCG, Bain etc.

If you don’t have an impeccable record of academic and professional accomplishments, be ready to explain it, but never defend poor grades. There is no defense that will work. Moreover, in such case you may need to accomplish more before applying to improve your profile.

For example, if your undergraduate grades are lower than what is expected you may need to do another degree, like an MBA, and demonstrate academic excellence before applying, to improve your chances to get an interview and, ultimately, to obtain an offer.

Consulting interview questions that test how serious you are about consulting and about their particular firm

  1. Why do you think you would make a good consultant?
  2. Why do you want to be a consultant?
  3. What are your geographic/industry preferences?
  4. What are your criteria for selecting a firm? How would you choose from multiple offers?
  5. Why do you want to work at our firm? Why us instead of another consulting firm?
  6. Where else are you applying and why?
  7. If you were offered the job right now, would you take it?
  8. Why firm X? Why city Y?
  9. Why consulting?

When answering why McKinsey, why BCG etc, focus on what firms consider to be unique to them. For Bain it is their culture, for McKinsey it is the leadership factory and international reach, for BCG it is thought leadership.

If you are planning to join McKinsey or BCG we recommend reading Bill Matassoni’s memoir Marketing Saves the World. Don’t let the title confuse you. The book is about strategy, with a capital S. Bill is a former McKinsey and BCG senior partner and we have never seen anyone who could better explain the differences between the firms than Bill did in his memoir.

Consulting interview questions asked at the end

At the end you will be asked something along the lines of “Do you have any questions you would like to ask me?” Be ready to ask 2-3 intelligent questions. Don’t ask something you could find out from reading a company website.

Some good questions to ask include questions about firm’s strategy or focus, the background of the interviewer while connecting it to your background. For example, “I noticed you have engineering background, same as me, what was the most challenging part of transitioning to consulting.”

You can ask about a career path at the firm. You can also address an issue about the firm in the press but tread carefully. Never ever make any accusations or make the interviewer uncomfortable.

General advice on answering consulting interview questions

We will finish with some general tips to help you do well when answering consulting interview questions:

  • Make sure you smile
  • Maintain eye contact
  • Be succinct, honest and respectful, but not desperate. Desperation does not work in consulting
  • Do not complain about anything
  • Do not repeat company slogans and do not use buzzwords
  • When answering talk specifics and address the details. Use a lot of facts: dates, names, details etc.
  • Be enthusiastic
  • You have to come across as if you are having fun
  • Make this a pleasant experience for the interviewer
  • Show something unique. In consulting we call it a spike. For example, your spike can be that you used to be a concert pianist before consulting. What is the one thing they will remember about you?
  • Ask good questions if you have them. They take notice

Where can you watch real candidates being trained how to answer consulting interview questions? Both FIT and case questions?

If you would like to fast track your case interview preparation and maximize your chances of getting an offer from McKinsey, BCG, Bain, Deloitte etc, we welcome you to train with us. The Consulting Offer program, which is a part of the Premium membership, was designed specifically for this purpose.

There is nowhere else in the world where you can see real candidates being trained by former partners from major consulting firms. You will see the candidate’s progression through each step of the case interview preparation process. And you will see candidates getting real offers from McKinsey, BCG, Bain, Deloitte etc.


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Any other consulting interview questions you think should be included above?

If there are any other consulting interview questions that you think are worthwhile for the FC community to be included on this page please let us know in the comments.