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What is the McKinsey & Co. personal experience interview (PEI)?

A deep dive on the McKinsey's particular expectations for their version of the fit interview

Kenton Kivestu, ex-Google, ex-BCG, Founder at RocketBlocks
Published: November 17, 2017 | Last updated: March 28, 2024

Overview of the McKinsey PEI

In this post, we're going to get you up to speed on the McKinsey & Co. personal experience interview, often abbreviated as the PEI for short. While the PEI really isn't that different than the fit portions of interviews at other elite consulting firms like BCG or Bain & Co., it does have some unique aspects and true to McKinsey form, they've standardized the delivery of it more than their peer firms have.

We'll cover the following:

Let's jump in!

McKinsey interview process and timeline

McKinsey interviews are considered to be some of the hardest interviews out there. This is because the interviewers know exactly what to look for, the tests are specific, the questions are hard, and the stakes are high. But don’t worry, things aren't as dire as they might seem because you can pass the McKinsey interview if you’re well prepared for it and know what to expect.

Generally the McKinsey interview process looks something like this:

  1. Screening of your resume and cover letter
  2. Problem solving test
  3. First round of interviews
  4. Second round of interviews

Straightforward enough, right? If you get accepted for the first round of interviews, you will have to wait between three to four weeks upon submitting your application to actually get interviewed.

In case you pass the first round of interviews, you will have to wait another two weeks to get to the second round of interviews, and then you’ll have to wait around seven to ten days to receive the results, and hopefully the offer. The whole process can last around 6-7 weeks.

What traits does the McKinsey PEI test?

McKinsey is pretty upfront about what the PEI is designed to test for. In fact, they even have a pretty extensive list of the core traits they want to see demonstrated posted on their careers page, which you can check out. What we'll do in this post is go a step deeper: we'll walk through each of the traits McKinsey calls out and explicitly talk about what they'd like to see demonstrated.

Trait #1: Leadership

McKinsey wants to see that you're capable of, and have a track record of, leading important initiatives and teams. Why? If they hire you, pretty soon you are going to find yourself leading analyses, work streams, client meetings, teams and the list goes on. While it's really tough to assess leadership quality on the spot, asking about leadership is enlightening because McKinsey can see what high pressure environments candidates have put themselves in, and how they were able to lead in those circumstances.

As with most parts of the McKinsey PEI, quality is much more important than quantity. Simply listing off a laundry list of club VP roles or team leadership positions you've held isn't going to yield great results. McKinsey will be much more interested in a deep dive on a specific leadership experience, especially if you can clearly articulate the key challenges you faced in that role, how you approached them and the results that you achieved.

Some of the leadership-related questions you might get asked at your McKinsey interview include:

  • Tell us about a time when you successfully worked with people of different backgrounds
  • Give us an example of a situation in which you led others
  • Have you ever been in a situation when someone on your team was in a conflict that kept you from achieving your team objective? How did you solve it?
  • What are some of your tactics you use to motivate people and boost their morale?

Trait #2: Entrepreneurial drive

Put simply, the life of a consultant isn't easy. Clients approach McKinsey with their toughest challenges -- the ones that are so tough that they've decided it's worth paying $1M or more to get expert counsel on them. As a result, McKinsey looks for candidates who have a strong internal drive that is going to help surmount the myriad challenges they might face.

Thus, McKinsey likes to see evidence of strong drive from candidates in their past educational, extracurricular and professional experiences. Demonstrating drive in an interview scenario can be tough, but two questions can help you identify the right anecdotes. First, which career experiences can you point to where your absence would have yielded a dramatically different (eg worse) outcome? Second, in which of those scenarios did you encounter a series of challenging hurdles that you resolved to drive a positive outcome? If you can find stories with great answers to the aforementioned questions, you'll be in good shape for demonstrating drive.

Some of the entrepreneurial drive questions that your interviewers might ask you include:

  • What was your biggest goal that you managed to achieve?
  • Have you ever had a goal that you couldn’t achieve? How did you handle the situation?
  • Tell us about a time you came out victorious out of a tricky situation.
  • What’s your opinion on failure?

Trait #3: Personal impact

Personal impact is the most cryptic of the four traits McKinsey lists. While it's not cryptic in isolation, it's fair to wonder what exactly McKinsey means by personal impact that is distinct from leadership, drive or problem solving. While we'd agree this isn't quite MECE (to use another of McKinsey's favorite concepts), they're looking insights into how you might have a large impact in McKinsey-like scenarios.

What exactly are those scenarios? McKinsey consultants do a lot of analysis, but even more importantly, they have to sell their analysis to their clients and convince them that they're right. This often takes sales skills, talent in navigating organizational politics and finding ways to affect change in large organizations that can sometimes be quite resistant to it. Thus, when McKinsey says personal impact, they're looking to see how a candidate has uniquely driven change within a challenging environment.

Questions related to personal impact that your McKinsey interviewers might ask you include:

  • Was there a time you had to convince someone to change their mind, especially a time when it was something important to the person?
  • Was there a time you had to rely on your communication skills to get out of a difficult situation?
  • Is there something you want to be remembered for? What would you do to achieve that?

Trait #4: Problem solving

Problem solving is a classic consulting trait and it's one of the "no brainer" ones that McKinsey will assess all candidates on. While this often gets tested extensively in the case portion of the interviews, McKinsey can and will probe for anecdotes of how you've problem solved in work environments as well.

Here, it's important to not only demonstrate how you've solved challenging problems in the past, but also how you've collaborated with various teams to do so. Consulting is a team sport and on the job, McKinsey will expect you be a strong collaborator with your manager, partners, teammates and clients. Thus, while the case portion of the interview is ideal for showing your individual problem solving skills, the PEI portion can be ideal for demonstrating how you can problem solve collaboratively as well.

Some problem solving-related questions you can expect from your McKinsey interviewer include:

  • Were you ever in a situation where your team got into a conflict?
  • Tell us about a situation in which you personally had to be the one to overcome a problem and explain what you learned from it.

Got an MBB interview?

"I recommend RocketBlocks to everyone at Wharton who asks. Our 1st years just had a great recruiting season thanks to RocketBlocks and it helped me land my McKinsey internship." -- Morgan Cummings Gray, McKinsey Engagement Manager

Insights from a former McKinsey Engagement Manager on the PEI

In the previous section, we walked through the four key traits McKinsey calls out on its career page. That's a great start to understanding this type of interview, but to take it a step further, we sat down with Amar Shibli, a former McKinsey Engagement Manager who spent time in the McKinsey SF and NYC offices, to get additional context.

Shibli reiterated the four key traits McKinsey wants to see but highlighted two key points that are critical for candidates to understand about the PEI.

McKinsey wants to see your "best self"

Although the questions might feel tricky at the time, Shibli notes that McKinsey isn't actively trying to trip up candidates. What the firm really wants to understand is what the candidate is like at his/her best. As a result, McKinsey interviewers will often probe and ask a lot of follow up questions to really understand what actions the candidate took in any given situation, what the candidate was thinking and how those actions directly led to a positive result. Finally, due to the focus on "best self," Shibli stresses that it's unlikely for McKinsey to ask about career failures.

Applied insight makes for the best anecdotes

Finally, Shibli notes that applied insights make for the best PEI anecdotes. He defines applied insight as a situation where the candidate has worked to uncovered true insight and then navigated the complicated internal politics and/or roadblocks of an organization to get it applied for a positive result. Often times, candidates can get tripped up thinking that they need to share stories about the most analytically intensive work they've ever done, but that's not accurate. As Shibli points out, a really great Excel model with twenty-eight different tabs isn't that impressive if it isn’t used as a tool to drive real change and make real impact at your place of work. Simply creating a great analytical model isn't enough, McKinsey wants to hear about the details of how you put the insights from that to work.

You can find the full interview on the demonstrating impact in the McKinsey PEI with Shibli below:

Sample McKinsey PEI questions

The number of questions a McKinsey interviewer could ask you in the PEI interview is seemingly endless. But, now that you've covered what traits they're looking for and understand what they really mean, you've got a deep foundation to base your responses on.

As you're preparing for your McKinsey PEI interviews, or even BCG or Bain fit interviews, here are some common questions you can keep in mind and practice on.

Common McKinsey & Co. PEI questions

  • Tell me about your biggest career achievement to date
  • Tell me about a time you overcame a significant challenge at work
  • Tell me about a time where you resolved an important disagreement with a colleague
  • Tell me about a time when you demonstrated exceptional leadership
  • Tell me about when you convinced a colleague to adopt a different viewpoint from one they initially held

The best way to answer questions in the McKinsey Personal Experience Interview

If you want to ace your McKinsey interview, you should use the A STAR(E) method (an alternative to the original STAR framework) for developing stories. This answering framework allows you to tell a powerful story and provide your interviewer with an answer they’ll remember even after they’ve met all other candidates.

To apply the A STAR(E) framework, you should use the following structure:

  1. A–Answer; Give your interviewer a one-sentence answer to their question that should clearly state your position on the given topic.
  2. S–Situation; Describe the situation you were in and give your interviewer details on when, where, and why did the events in the story you’re telling happen. Tell them who was involved, how did you end up there, etc.
  3. T–Tension; Explain how it came to the conflict.
  4. A–Action; Tell your interviewer what actions did you take to resolve the said tension.
  5. R–Result; Explain the results of your action and tell your interviewer what contributed the most to them.
  6. (E)–Effect; Although this is not essential to every story, you should still try to explain to your interviewer everything you learned from the situation. This will let them know that you’re not someone who goes through situations brainlessly, but instead that you’re someone who can learn from their own actions.

When using the A STAR(E) framework to develop stories, you have to remember not to over exaggerate the results. Using this framework is enough to convince your interviewer that you’re great, so quantifying your results and lying about them won’t do anyone good.

You should also ensure that you speak about your team as well, and not only yourself. Credit your team members, explain how you cooperated with them, and show that you’re a team guy. No one likes people who take all the credit for themselves.

Commong things that mess up candidates on their McKinsey Personal Expeirence Interview

Sometimes even the best of us make mistakes, after all, we’re only human. But there are certain things that candidates often mess up on their McKinsey personal interviews. These situations include:

  • Interviewers asking you to discuss a completely different story
  • Repeating a story to more than one interviewer

Interviewers asking you to discuss a completely different story

We know for a fact that McKinsey interviewers are always on the lookout for evidence suggesting that a candidate is lying about a trait they’ve been appointed to examine. That’s why they’ll sometimes ask you to discuss a completely different story than the one you’re telling them at the given moment. For example, if you’re discussing your problem solving skills, they might ask you to demonstrate your leadership skills through another story.

This can easily throw someone off, especially if they’re in the middle of the storytelling. That’s why you need to be cool at all times and that they’re either trying to test whether you’re lying, or whether you have the trait they’re assessing you for. Just relax, start over, and have multiple stories prepared before you arrive at the interview.

Repeating a story to more than one interviewer

Before conducting interviews, McKinsey interviewers are instructed to ask the candidates not to repeat the same story to multiple interviewers. If they ask you and then find out that you did repeat the story, you will get bad marks because you didn’t follow the instructions.

If you don’t want this to happen to you, make sure you’ve got one story prepared for each of the traits the interviewers will assess in you. This way, you’ll have multiple stories for multiple interviewers.

One final piece of advice

That said, when preparing for the McKinsey PEI, many candidates mistakenly think they'll need ten or more different anecdotes so they'll have a different anecdote they can share in each interview. Preparing that many anecdotes can be a lot of work - and it's not even really necessary for two key reasons.

  • First, interviewers don't keep track of which anecdotes you've already shared.
  • Second, creating a massive roster of anecdotes to share is counter to displaying your "best" self. After all, by definition, ‘best’ is about your key, defining achievements, so don't water down the efficacy of your anecdotes by picking less impressive ones just to ensure each is unique.

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