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Non-Target School

About 2 months ago we were contacted by a very pleasant young man who had obtained an interview with one of McKinsey’s toughest offices. He had previously been dinged at Bain and BCG without an interview and saw this as his last chance to get in. The first time we speak to someone, we can tell with 75% accuracy if they will place or not. How can we do that, when our screening calls contain no case questions? Surely case questions are the main decider? No, they are not.

That is a myth people need to get over. When I spoke to this young man, I will call him Gary; he was very polite, professional and struck me as someone who had merely being given bad advice. He graduated near the top of his class but had worked at no major companies at all. He had not networked at all and here he was! On this point, contrary to popular belief, networking has ZERO effect on your getting the offer. We encourage people to network to learn more about the industry and secure an interview. But it will not help you get through the interviews.

Surely case questions are the main decider? No, they are not.

If you read his résumé, you would not recognize his employers, and frankly, I did not immediately recognize the school. In fact, Gary told me, when asked, that he had never considered Wharton or Harvard for an undergraduate because he had never really heard of them! On top of that, I found his general knowledge to be very weak.

Imagine if you had this profile and asked a forum for advice. Pretty much 100% of the people would say you should forget it and lower your sights. In Gary’s case we took a hard look at him and thought that this guy speaks like a consultant, acts like a consultant and creates the reassuring vibe of the top consultants with whom we have worked. Most importantly, all of Gary’s so called deficits could be fixed in our opinion:

Weak general knowledge – that can be fixed with both reading and learning a more structured problem solving technique

Non-target schools that have poor ranking – we do not read too much into this. Rankings mean little to us. Gary had close to a perfect GPA and that counted more than the school he attended. In fact, candidates usually shoot themselves in the foot by thinking their school is weak. It is the combination of GPA and school which counts. You need exceptional grades to compensate for a weaker school – possibly top 5% or top 1%.

In Gary’s case we took a hard look at him and thought that this guy speaks like a consultant, acts like a consultant and creates the reassuring vibe of the top consultants with whom we have worked.

Unknown employers – they may be unknown but this guy had worked himself up from a very junior level to the point where he was reporting to the CEO of a medium-size company. That was an important trait.

The main reason we took him? He had close to zero attitude and ego. Here was a guy who was genuinely interested in learning and finding out more about consulting. We decided to help him.

In our first call we wanted to create a better profile for him. We probably spent 15 minutes asking for his hobbies and he kept saying he had none. Eventually, after much stalling, he did say he had one thing he liked doing outside of work. It turned out to be this really interesting sports related hobby of visiting all the major NFL stadiums in the USA. Now that is a hobby we could help him place. Especially, after we delved into his obsession with NFL statistics and showed him how to use that to show his numeracy. Given his attitude and aptitude he absorbed the techniques we taught him very quickly. Gary only had about 8 hours of training and he got through. There were no days and days of intense preparation with friends, family and other students. He did not have the time. Watching him grow and succeed allowed me to draw some parallels with why so many candidates fail to get him. Here they are in no particular order.

There were no days and days of intense preparation with friends, family and other students. He did not have the time.

Bad advice hurts your wallet and ego. Think about how many really talented people have not gone to Harvard and have been told that since they did their undergraduate degree at a school outside the top 10 they have a zero percent chance. It is important to get good advice before writing off your chances.

Quality versus quantity. You do not need to do 30 hours of cases to prepare. You can choose to do so if you have the time and are really improving. Focus on the quality of the training and avoid people who will not give you tough feedback.

Your ego can kill you. Do not confuse having an ego for being confident. No one wants to hire an egotistical jerk and we really do not want to work with them.

Get good quality advice. Reach out to people who really know how to get in: whether that is professional recruiters or so on. Do not go to your career counsellor if your school has never placed a person at BCG. How would they know to do something they never did?

Take advice from the right people. When you meet the right people, take their advice. Do not ignore them or worse, change your tactics without informing them.

If you take the advice on forums from people who may not necessarily know better, all you are doing is making yourself more and more average.

Do not want it too badly. It shows and no one wants a desperate person. Your attitude must be, if this does not work, other opportunities are on the cards.

Stop trending to the mean. If you take the advice on forums from people who may not necessarily know better, all you are doing is making yourself more and more average. You have to be unique and you need to stop taking every piece of contradictory advice and trying to jam it into your résumé and cover letter. All you are left with is a compromise. Who hires a compromise?

Never, ever say “I really, really want to get in”. Gary never did this. He just showed us.

I believe Gary will be one of McKinsey’s most successful partners ever, and likely a star in corporate as well. I really look forward to watching this young man do great things.

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