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Part Zero: McKinsey Rejection and Case Prep

Max is an aspiring consultant who is looking to secure an analyst role with one of the top consulting firms for the upcoming recruitment cycle. His interest in management consulting was sparked by a McKinsey rejection last year.

In this series of blogs, he will be sharing his background, case prep process, useful resources, and any breakthroughs or setbacks that he experiences.


“How to solve case interviews” was the search term that I typed into Google a day before my McKinsey first round interview. I was a 4th year mechanical engineering student from a top Canadian university, and knew very little about the field of management consulting.

The only reason I even applied to McKinsey was because my undergraduate adviser had sent out a mass e-mail encouraging students in the department to give it a shot. “BCG”, “Bain”, “MECE”, and “Elevator Pitch” were names and terms which I had never heard before.

This interview opportunity came about after a long process that started a few weeks earlier.

The McKinsey recruitment process

The McKinsey recruitment process had started with an on-campus information session held by a few analysts, consultants and engagement managers. Unfortunately, I was unable to attend this session due to other obligations, and had to settle for the WebEx virtual meeting the company held several days later.

During this meeting, the McKinsey people quickly went over what their company was about, and how a job there will catapult our careers. To my amazement, every single person who had a question during the Q & A period asked something along the lines of “How much do you guys work?”, “What is the starting salary” and “How important is face-time?”. You may disagree with me on this, but I felt that those are pretty bad questions to be asking during an information session for two reasons:

1) They’re very superficial and don’t really demonstrate an interest in the field.

2) Its not really a firm-specific question.

I think it’s no secret that management consultants work a substantial amount, and they get paid well – so I decided to ask some different questions such as:

1) How is an engagement team put together?

2) Is there a standard problem solving approach that everyone uses?

3) What are the core values of the firm?

Now, those may not be the best questions either, but at least they demonstrate that you’re interested in the field, and not just making money while not working too much. My resume at the time was not formatted to the consulting-style you typically see, and I think that having the recruitment team remember that I was the only person who asked some interesting questions played a big part in getting the interview.

The next step in the process involved a written test. You basically had to be able to do three things well:

1) Mental math

2) Extract both qualitative and quantitative data quickly from a mountain of information

3) Make conclusions based on the information you have (kind of like GMAT data sufficiency)

Since the test was multiple-choice, the recruiters responded fairly quickly. I got a phone call the next day inviting me for a “case workshop” at the local McKinsey office. Interestingly, one of my classmates who also wrote the test did not get invited, and did not hear the bad news until 2 weeks after writing the test.

The McKinsey office was absolutely stunning. It had a very modern design, and it seemed that they spared no expense in making the place look nice. This also made the office seem a bit intimidating for me. Next, the entire group of candidates was split up and given an introduction to the company by one of the partners.

The gentleman giving the speech for my group had four degrees, and you can tell he’s extremely intelligent by the way he speaks and answers questions. By comparison, I was one of two people in my group who only had an undergraduate degree.

After the quick talk, the group was further segmented into smaller crowds of four to five people, and given some sample cases from the McKinsey website.

Since the McKinsey cases are fairly structured, we each took turns at analyzing the various portions of the case. These cases usually required the candidate to present an upfront structure to analyze the problem, and then they will choose a particular branch of analysis to do a deep dive on.

Of course, market sizing and making recommendations are crammed in there as well. The directors, managers and consultants also circulated between the groups to listen and give advice. After this case prep session was over, I knew that I was in trouble.

My case prep vs. other applicants

Many of the other candidates already had significant exposure to case interviews, and had known they wanted to be a management consultant for quite some time. On the other end of the spectrum was me. I had a total of zero hours of case prep, and was still unsure if I wanted to go into management consulting.

Furthermore, I had my 4th year design presentation two days before my McKinsey first round interview. All of this resulted in me putting a total of two hours of case prep time in before my first round interview and you can probably guess how that went. I still remember the cases I did during the interview.

Looking back on it now I feel that I did touch on all of the key points, and arrived at the right conclusion. However, the way I proceeded with the case was extremely unstructured, and seemingly random. I would jump from question to question without giving a solid upfront structure, or any justification as to why I needed the data.

An unstructured approach does not inspire confidence in the interviewer that you have a repeatable process, and that is one of the most important things they look for.

My poor structure and nervousness were due to my severe under preparation, and I highly encourage anyone who’s serious about management consulting to start case prep NOW.

My case prep plans

Even though this first encounter with case interviews resulted in me being “dinged”, it uncovered an interest I have for management consulting. Since I had only applied to McKinsey, and the application cycle is basically over for all the other consulting firms, I knew I would most likely have to wait until the next cycle to get a shot. This was fine because it provided me with plenty of time for case prep.

The story above happened in 2010, and I would like to invite you along for the ride as I go through the case interview preparation process. The reason that I am writing this series of blogs is because I want to give people an idea of the amount of preparation that is required, as well as share any insights and case prep resources I find useful along the way.

There will be another two or three posts about what I did in terms of networking, case prep, and information gathering in the prior months before you are up to speed with where I am now. My goal is to go for the upcoming recruitment cycle in September 2011, and I hope that my last post in this series will be a “success story” post.

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Image from Jon Herbert under cc.

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