When you are moving through the McKinsey interview process, or BCG or Bain interview process, it is a significant amount of effort.

It is taking away time from your family and social life and, you may be thinking, “Hey, you know what, this is not worth the effort. I am just going to apply to other firms and I will withdraw from the McKinsey interview process”.

If you are considering withdrawing from the McKinsey interview process, I want to talk you through the trade-offs you need to consider.

I am not going to talk you into staying in the process. That is a decision only you can make. I am, however, going to help you make this decision by thinking about your choices in a very different way.

One of our clients, let’s call him Bruce, was recently in this situation. He had invested a significant amount of time preparing for his McKinsey interviews, and midway through the process he decided to withdraw from the application process.

Bruce had decided he does not want to continue going through the McKinsey interview process because it is taking up too much of his time.

He is also not sure whether he is doing his family any favors by going through this process.

In fact, Bruce had decided that he should prioritize his wife first and he is not spending enough time with her. Bruce also felt he had no social life because he had a full calendar of social activities and he could not spend any time doing them.

Therefore, he had decided to withdraw from the McKinsey interview process.

At face value this seems like a reasonable decision. However, I want to talk you through the kind of discussion I had with Bruce, since I don’t think he is making the right comparison. And with the wrong comparison, he could be making the wrong decision.

I am not saying his decision is wrong. I do not know if it is right or wrong for him. However, I do not think he has thought it through correctly to determine if he has made the right or wrong decision.

The exhibit below summarizes the key points that must be considered to assist in making a well-informed decision on whether to withdraw from the McKinsey interview process.

McKinsey interview


For whom are you withdrawing from the McKinsey interview process?

If you are, like Bruce, and considering to withdraw from the McKinsey interview process, the first question you need to ask yourself is, “For whom am I really doing this?”

It is possible you are making it sound to others, and to yourself, as if you are doing it for the other person, when in fact you are doing it for yourself.

If you are doing it for the other person, let’s say your wife, do you know what your wife wants or are you guessing what she wants?

Do you truly think she wants you to stay at your current job? The current job that is clearly not making you happy as as evidenced by your desire to leave, a job which is unlikely to lead to anything prestigious in the future, and a job that offers lower level of income now and for the years to come.

Does she really want that for you? Does she want that for our children?

I cannot know, but Bruce should know.

In Bruce’s case, I suspect he is doing it for himself. We deduce this since, after making a comment that he is doing it to spend more time with his wife, he immediately follows up with the comment that he also does not have time to go for his dancing lessons and play soccer with his friends.

Those latter reasons have nothing to do with his wife. Those are his personal things that he wants to do. Of course, there is nothing wrong with taking care of your personal needs. However, you need to be ever so careful about projecting your needs on to someone else.

Projecting one’s needs is dangerous. It is like the stereotyped mother who insists her daughter attends the Ivies, becomes a doctor and marries a surgeon. That mother is projecting her desire to reach attain a status in life she can never attain by herself and needs her daughter to accomplish it for her. You cannot force others to live the life you want.

Be particularly clear about whom you are making this decision for. A lot of times we say we are doing things for other people when in reality we are doing it for ourselves.

The trade-offs of withdrawing from a McKinsey interview

Whether you are doing this for another person or for yourself, you have to think about the trade-offs that will result from your decision.

If you spend most of your time in the present undertaking fun activities instead of building your career, you are borrowing from the future.

You are basically saying, “I don’t want to invest in my career now. I want to do it some time in the future”. This means you are borrowing from the future.

Sometime in the future you are going to have to put yourself through a similar situation again to move your career forward. Your career will not move forward by itself.

There is absolutely nothing wrong with doing this provided you understand the trade-off and consciously accept it.

You have to ask yourself, will you have the energy and the time in the future to go through this process if you are struggling to do it now? If you are, as Bruce, now in a situation whereby you just married, with no kids, how are you going to balance having to go through all of this again when you will have more commitments once you have kids?

It will not get any better. Things will get tougher.

Now let’s assume that it is 20 years into the future.

After withdrawing from the McKinsey interview process, you spent quality time with your wife. Yet, your career has not moved at the rate you thought it would. This is not a surprise since management consulting opens many doors for you that you not likely would find by yourself.

You are at a different point in your life, with many responsibilities and children. Your energy level is lower and you are battling a couple of health issues – age will do that to you. And, your family income is not at the point you want it to be.

Will you be able to afford all of those things you want to provide for your wife and kids?

By withdrawing from the McKinsey interview process now you are basically saying, “I will make the commitment to build a career I want at some point in the future“. But if you start this process in the distant future, it means you haven’t reaped the rewards of making the commitment now, which means you don’t have the income you would have earned.

While that income may not buy happiness it can certainly rent a lot of it.

So yes, you spend more time with your kids now, but does that mean you are going to make a trade-off by sending them to a weaker/cheaper school with fewer opportunities or sending them to a great school and taking on a huge loan?

What if you cannot afford the loan? Do they attend a cheaper or public school?

Those are real trade-offs you are making when you withdraw from any major opportunity. Be it McKinsey, getting an education, joining a bank etc.

Of course, there are benefits of withdrawing from the McKinsey interview.

You get to spend more time with your wife and your loved ones.

Moreover, you get to spend more time rounding out your experiences like traveling, dancing, playing sports, etc. Your memory bank of experiences dramatically increases.

What is that memory bank worth to you?

Imagine you are 45 years old and you are a mid-level employee at your firm. You are quite angry about your career. You don’t like working for someone else. Well, who likes working for someone else? But you don’t have adequate skills to move on.

Are all those things you did when you were younger: spending time with your wife, going dancing, playing soccer with your friends etc., going to compensate for the dissatisfaction you are likely to have in the future?

Is that trade-off worth it? This is the question you have to ask yourself.

Will you regret an act of omission (not trying and not knowing what would have happened) or an act of commission (trying, succeeding and dealing with the fallout) more?

Are your kids going to respect the fact that you spent all this time with them when they were young, but later on in life they have insufficient financial support from you to obtain adequate educational opportunities?

We would like unconditional love for our children to create balanced, confident and independent people, but it does not always work that way. Resentment can occur. Resentment does not occur.

You can see it any way you want, you may have been a loving father and you may have imparted on them the right values, but not having money when you are growing up most often does leave you at a disadvantage later on in life.

I am not saying there is the right answer here. But what I am saying is that when you have fun in the present, you are basically borrowing from the future. When you make sacrifices in the present, you invest in the future.

Ultimately, you are picking one of these two strategies here, unless you are lucky enough to be born into a wealthy family or to be amazingly productive so that you pick up things immediately and you can invest in the future while still having a balanced life.

But only a minority of people are in one or both of those two categories.

An extreme example of sacrificing now for the future

I will give you an example of a client whom I consider to be an extreme example of sacrificing now to build for the future. It’s a female client. I like this client. She reminds me of a young me.

She works at McKinsey and she spends most of her free time focusing on improving her skills in corporate strategy and corporate finance, so that she can get to where she wants to go in the future. She is always skilling up for the next big thing.

She has a lot of energy and motivation to work, learn and travel for work. Vacation is a forced idea for her to please her family.

And yes, she misses out on certain things. These are memories she will never ever have.

She does not know how to swim and she does not know how to ride a bicycle. But the question she has to ask herself is whether the destination she is trying to get to worthy of the sacrifices she is making in the short-term and medium-term. There is no right general answer.

There is only the right answer for her unique situation and only she can determine what this answer is.

If you are really doing it for your spouse

If you want to withdraw from the McKinsey interview process for your wife or husband, you should ask them what they want. Ask them before making a decision.

Moreover, don’t just ask them what they want. Explain the trade-offs.

If you ask someone what they want without providing them with sufficient information to make an informed decision than they will give you an extremely misinformed answer. Not because they have not thought it through, but because they don’t have all the facts.

I think that when you make career decisions you have to involve your spouse. This is not a decision you can make by yourself. If you do, while you may get away with this for the first few years, yet all kinds of tensions and problems will arise in the long-term.

If your spouse married you on the assumption you where both career-oriented and ambitious, changing your goals materially changes the implicit agreement you both have. He/she has a right to be part of renegotiating that contract.

So firstly decide for whom you are making this decision. Then, lay out the picture to your spouse.

Something like this could work, but obviously introduced more delicately:

“I’m thinking of withdrawing now, but what it means is I will most likely stay in this job. All other things being equal, my career progression will be slow. I will have fewer opportunities in this job and I am not sure what this means for my long-term goals. My salary may be diminished but I will be happier and can spend more time with you. It means we can live more fulfilling life and do things together like dinner, travel and hobbies.

Alternatively, we can make sacrifices now, knowing that when we are older and when we want more options in life we will probably have that. But it also means in the short-term we will make some big sacrifices. We will not be able to do things other couples can do.”

The secret to success in life

Most people, even the ones who look like they are just sailing through life, are working extremely hard to get where they are.

And, even if they look like they are sailing through life relative to you, they are probably unhappy because they are not comparing themselves to you, they are comparing themselves to someone else who is probably more successful than they are.

Of course, the degree and type of sacrifice you want to take is up to you.

The example of the female McKinsey consultant who is learning corporate finance and corporate strategy all in her spare time and sacrificing most of her personal life is one extreme.

Withdrawing from the McKinsey interview process completely, as Bruce wants to do, and just enjoying himself now is the other extreme.

You can get some balance.

But I think you have to keep in mind that true work-life balance and professional success is not an easily obtainable combination. It is a myth to sell romantic comedies to women and beer to men. In fact, the secret to success in life is to take an extreme position of differentiation and constantly drive your resources throughout that extreme position.

This also happens to be the secret to success for companies.

I have always advised clients to build yourself as an asset for the future. My personal philosophy is that you sacrifice short-term gains for long-term success. That is how I personally make decisions.

Make the sacrifices now because, let me tell you, you never will have the same energy and time when you are 38 or 45 or have kids. Your options will be automatically limited later in life. You will likely not be the guy/could be the guy/want to be the guy working on Christmas day to see through a merger.

Moreover, it is not only about whether you will have the energy. It is also about whether the world will see you as a viable option. Just because you think you can reinvent yourself at the age of 40 does not mean the world agrees with you and will give you the chance to do so.

And when you are turning 40 or 45, and you are stuck in an unhappy or even dead-end job, if you don’t have the resume and an adequate skill-set, you will have few opportunities.

In fact, forget about the resume. An adequate skill-set is more important. You can end up joining McKinsey at 40 and just gain zero traction, get counseled out and still go nowhere in life. That happens.

But assuming you went to McKinsey and picked up all the right skills – you have options. And, that is something that is very hard to understand when you are young since when you are young, you don’t understand the challenges you will face as you get older.

As soon as you are married, automatically your options are dramatically limited. When you have kids, your options are limited to even greater extent.

And I understand these things because we work with many senior people who are trying to break into McKinsey. I was also making these decisions since I entered management consulting at the age of 21. I could see what happened to those who joined at the age of 30, 35 or even 40. We also work with ex-McKinsey people who left for corporate and they work with us to get back into McKinsey. So we completely understand the challenges involved.

The fact that a ex-McKinsey person, or ex-BCG person or ex-Bain person, who worked at those firms previously, needs to then work with us to get back into the firm should tell you it is difficult to make this transition when you are older.

It is enormously complicated.

Ultimately, only you know what is right for you

The question the client who wanted to withdraw from the McKinsey interview process needs to ask himself is, “Are the benefits and the experiences I will get in the short-term worthy of the disadvantages I am most likely to have in the future?”.

There is no right answer. It’s about what he wants. It’s about how he values his life. But those are the things that he, and you, need to think about.

It’s not as if you can say, “Hey, you know what, I will have some fun now and everything will work out later“. Life does not work that way.

The decision you make, have fun now and try to reinvent yourself in the future, or reinvent yourself now and then build an asset base to have fun with in the future is your decision.

But be very aware of the trade-offs you are making. And be very aware of the impact it’s going to have on those around you since it is going have a pretty big impact and you need to be very cognizant of this.

Ultimately there is no right answer. But there is an answer which is right for you and you will have to figure out what it is.

I have pointed out the implications for you. You need to look at the options and decide which option makes sense in your unique situation. But just make sure you know what you are signing up for and make sure you are comfortable with trade-offs.

Prior to deciding on whether or not to withdraw from the McKinsey interview process, take time to understand whom you are making this decision for and carefully examine the trade-offs. Give adequate consideration to the opportunity and responsibility you face. The insights you will gain, coupled with considering what you value most in life, will help you make an informed decision.

QUESTION(S) OF THE DAY: What do you think Bruce decided based on what you know about him and the trade-offs discussion I had with him? Please let us know in the comments.

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16 responses to Withdraw from the McKinsey interview process?

  1. You are most welcome Matthias. Michael

  2. Hi Michael,

    great article! I love this point in particular; really resonates with my beliefs.

    “In fact, the secret to success in life is to take an extreme position of differentiation and constantly drive your resources throughout that extreme position.”

  3. Thanks Zander,

    McKinsey and BCG are not essential to success in life. Good people will always succeed no matter where they go.


  4. Anvi and Michael, thank you for your comments. It can be difficult to find the right balance of perspectives. Femi’s thoughts on cost and value are a good way to analyze the issue when you include non-quantifiable components, and will also help address the issue AB raises when you go past first-order cost and value terms. For example, the direct value of preparing for McKinsey interviews is the improved chance of getting an offer, but the skills you learn (e.g. networking, case interviews) can be useful regardless of the outcome. I’m not arguing that it’s always worth it, but that it’s important to think through the indirect side effects and implications of your choices.

  5. Hi AB,

    The article may be a little biased because it takes a viewpoint, but in the big picture if we where really biased we would not have published this in the first place. This at least starts a discussion.

    That, at the very least, is very useful.


  6. Hi Michael,

    I feel the article is slightly biased towards following through with the preparation. It fails to stress enough the possibility that all that short-term sacrifice will not deliver in the long term. However much we want to believe so, suffering will not necessarily be compensated for.

    It might very well be that Bruce does decide to go through with his efforts to get into McKinsey but does not get an offer. Or that he does receive the offer but gets no traction and is soon invited to leave the firm, even while being young and energetic. Or that his wife, tired of the sacrifices during the preparation and even more so of not seeing his consultant husband four days a week, decides to call it a day. So Bruce is left with no wife, no consulting job and no “memory bank”. It might sound overly pessimistic but he certainly needs to take this into account. The investment might pay off, it might not.

    On the other hand, for all the opportunities McKinsey might offer, it does not mean he cannot be successful somewhere else as you seem to suggest.


  7. Hi Femi,

    You are correct and this is a great example.

    You are are correct that one should examine value versus costs.

    Keep in mind that value is not always financial. Value is what you are care about and it may very well be non-financial and non-quantifiable in nature.

    I really like that quote at the end. It is a great piece – assuming one wants to have children.


  8. Thanks Avni – great qoute.

  9. @Zander – We have regrets at every point in life. But are they really “regrets” or just one of many unfulfilled wishes? He was only able to say that because he was probably not leaving behind any responsibilities on his son’s shoulders. He could have said something like “I regret not giving you the best education and your mother everything she ever wanted.” He did what was important and proved to be a great father/husband.

    I have a favorite quote about regrets –
    “There are two types of pain you will go through in life, the pain of discipline and the pain of regret. Discipline weighs ounces while regret weighs tonnes.”

  10. In the third paragraph, I meant to say:

    “Most activities that have short-term value do have long-term consequences…”

    and not

    “Most activities that have short-term value do not have long-term consequences…”

  11. Hi Michael,

    Another awesome article! So many talking points.

    Actually, I had a similar conversation with a friend yesterday. He wanted to go back to school for a 1-year MSc (here in the US) to acquire some skills ahead of his application to clinical residency next year and some of his other friends tried to talk him out of it. He’s a foreign MD. His friends looked at the cost of another education, as if that is the only lens through which to interact with such issue. Different situation compared to Bruce’s but the underlying issues are similar. Bruce was merely looking at the cost!

    Looking at my friend’s situation and what I told him last night and now Bruce’s situation, I believe we can take at least two approaches. First, we can look at this issue from a cost/value perspective and often such issues come down to this. The time you do not spend with your family (wife/children) now and also to pursue some of life’s social pleasures or the financial cost of the MSc and the forgone potential income etc. are essentially COST. And in strategy (whether career or organizational), cost is NOTHING (Michael, please correct me here). Cost is only an issue if it outweighs the value we can extract from engaging the said activity. Therefore, even though the COST of an activity is very high, that should not be a deterrent. The true deterrent should be how the cost relates to the potential VALUE we can derive from the exercise. And this leads to the second issue which I think most people do not realize often: we are always choosing between short-term cost and long-term value vs. long-term cost and short-term value. We need to examine every career/family decision in this light. Most activities that have short-term value do not have long-term consequences and since the future is where we want to spend the rest of our lives, shouldn’t we be bothered about how we live it? Also, painting the picture to our spouses, sells them on the big picture and probably encourages them to make the needed sacrifice and to also reach any necessary compromises. This was how I had the conversation with my friend and I believe you captured my thoughts beautiful well in this article. I am going to copy this and send to my friend.

    Thanks once again.


    P.S.: I believe we need to be careful in how we make career choices because of family! No one should get me wrong, family is great and is probably the most important entity in my life but balance is critical. An old professor of mine once said, “if you sacrifice your dreams because of your children, where will you find the courage to tell your children to pursue their own dreams.” This has stayed with me since.

  12. Hi Markus & Zander,

    Very good point, but there is another way to look at it.

    You could say the sacrifices his father made allowed his son to go backpacking without a care in the world. If his father, and hence the family was poor, this would not be a real option.

    The father made the sacrifices for his son – which is somewhat just one of the options.

    The son need not do the same, but will his son then have the luxury to go backpacking?


  13. Hi Jared,

    That is definitely a good topic for a future article.

    Thanks – Michael

  14. Michael, it seems Bruce had the support of his wife entering the McKinsey interview process. Therefore, my guess is that he would recognize he is making the decision for himself, but be willing to reconsider depending on what his wife really wants. Since there is no mention of her changing her mind or asking hime to quit, I’d say he stuck it out.

    Markus, you raise an important point about health. I once met a young man who had been planning to go to a good college, immediately get a job, start a career, establish a home, etc. But I met him backpacking, spending his time travelling just for travelling’s sake with no agenda for an entire summer, and no immediate plans to go back to school. He had been dissuaded from his original plan by his father, who spoke to him from his death bed after a lifetime of hard work dedicated to building a career to support his family. The father told his son he regretted not taking time for himself to have adventures and chase other dreams when he was young and able.

  15. I think it’s a) important to consider uncertainty in terms of present vs. future priorities (“Will what I think what will be important in X years still be important?”) b) necessary to keep in mind that borrowing from the future only works if you actually get to experience your later life as a reasonably healthy person. Same here again, a difficult factor to include in decision making. It’s a bit extreme, but I for example am regularly asking myself whether I would be happy with the “borrowing” choices I’ve made if my personal situation would change in a substantial negative way.

  16. Michael — Just read your article and couldn’t help but think that the really hard part about all of this is “considering what you value most in life” now _and in the future_ — so that you know how to act (apply to McKinsey or withdraw) once you understand the tradeoffs.

    Do you have any suggestions for how folks do this?

    Maybe fodder for a future article?

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