They were looking for four things. I didn’t know until I’d made it to the third and last round of interviews, but McKinsey and Company, the strategy consulting firm perennially ranked among the top “dream” employers of MBA students, was looking for four specific qualities in the candidates they hired. By my calculations, McKinsey made offers to less than 3% of candidates who submitted resumes, so the stakes were really high to demonstrate the characteristics they were seeking—on the resume and in the interviews and any other interactions with the firm (e.g., presentations and get-togethers for prospects).
Not surprisingly, the qualities they wanted match the characteristics top business schools are looking for in their applicants. Given that a third or more of students at schools like HBS, Stanford, Wharton, Kellogg, and other elite MBA programs are targeting consulting positions, this makes a lot of sense. And even for those candidates looking for non-consulting careers, the four qualities McKinsey wants reflect the attributes the schools seek.
Starting with this post, I’ll discuss the four qualities McKinsey wants, how I demonstrated them, and how you can show them—and top b-schools—the characteristics they’re looking for. I know the dimensions well because I was on both sides of the interview table at McKinsey: as a prospective hire and then as an interviewer, including for candidates with MBAs. The candidates who made it through generally had high levels of all the qualities, typically with a spike or two.
Let’s take a high-level look at the four qualities:
Problem-solving Skills. I list this one first because it’s the most important one, especially initially. McKinsey consultants are hired, at no small expense, by market-leading corporations to provide advice and solutions that are hard to get anywhere else. So everyone working for the firm had to be adept at solving a range of “problems,” not just in the business world—that’s partly why the interviews used brain teasers along with business case problems to assess intellectual horsepower. And problem-solving skills were the most important quality because many people demonstrate the other qualities (below), but it was harder to find high potential for “thought leadership,” which was an increasingly important skill as consultants rose to managers and partners within McKinsey.
Drive/Ambition. Just applying to McKinsey showed some level of ambition in candidates. But that wasn’t enough. Applicants had to show evidence of longstanding drive for success in their resumes and in the way they came across in the interviews. Had they pushed themselves to succeed well beyond the classroom in college? In business/grad school had they taken on the most challenging courses of study and excelled in these? Did they have an ambitious vision for their career path at McKinsey and beyond? Given that only about 20% of resumes made it through the initial screenings at the firm, evidence of drive was essential.
Interpersonal Impact. McKinsey wasn’t just looking for “brains on a stick.” Yes, there was a preponderance of smart people at the firm, but they had to be dynamic and likable, too (in most cases), largely because almost all the consulting work was done by teams, often quite small teams. It might seem like this quality could only be demonstrated in an interview, but it came across in resumes, as well. Had the candidate gotten involved in clubs, sports, or other socially driven activities? In the interview, did they come across as someone who could both get along with teammates and impress top client executives in meetings? This quality was my spike, and arguably the main reason I got an offer from McKinsey.
Leadership/Management Capabilities. “We’re not just hiring Associates,” the interviewer said to me in the second round. “We’re hiring future engagement managers and partners.” Because there’s such an intense focus to getting an entry-level position at McKinsey, it was easy to forget that the firm had to think ahead when hiring, to who would make the best managers and ultimately partners. That’s why demonstrating general interpersonal impact wasn’t enough: top candidates had to show strong evidence of leadership experience and potential. Had they taken leadership positions in clubs, sports teams, and service organizations? Did they seem like someone that McKinsey and client teams would respect and follow? Did they show evidence of wielding authority with skill and integrity? Leadership was easy to spot on the resume, so a lack of it became an easy way to rule candidates in or out.
Those were the four qualities we looked for, even rating candidates formally on each. B-schools do the same thing, whether formally or not. In the posts to follow, I’ll discuss each of the qualities in depth, including how I demonstrated evidence of them and how you can do the same in your b-school applications.
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By Dr. Sachin Waikar, former McKinsey consultant, published author, and advisor to applicants to business and grad schools. He and the rest of the Accepted Team would be happy to provide the MBA admissions consulting, MBA essay editing, or bschool packages you need to put together the highest-impact application. Purchase by July 31, use coupon code EB10, and save 10% on no-rush MBA services.