Learning how to deal with high-pressure situations is one of modern-day management consulting’s biggest challenges.
For any hiring manager, this skill is the most important to gauge in a potential employee.
Behavioral interviews assess this by asking curated questions about workplace history: your experience with demanding scenarios and how you responded. This allows them to calibrate your competitiveness in similar areas of the job.
Of all such interviews, the McKinsey Personal Experience Interview (PEI) is considered by many to be the hardest.
Established in 1926, McKinsey & Co. has been one of the foremost consulting firms for decades. As a prospective applicant, acing the PEI may cause fear or trepidation. However, in this article we will cover everything you need to know to ace the McKinsey PEI.
What is the McKinsey PEI?
There are two sections in a typical consulting interview: case study and behavioral.
The case study questions intend to analyze the problem-solving and communication skills needed for complex situations. In a case study, you will typically spend up to 30 minutes with your interviewer, breaking down a real business problem.
Behavioral questions are used by the interviewer to determine whether you would be a good fit for the firm. To do so, they typically ask questions about your experience and background.
The McKinsey PEI is the behavioral or “fit” section of a McKinsey consulting interview.
About 30-45 minutes are expected for the interview process. Usually, the PEI section occurs at the beginning and lasts about 15-20 minutes. The remaining time is for case study questions.
You can expect up to three interviewers for each round and expect to answer the PEI several times, as it’s an ongoing part of each round and not something that finishes after the first.
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How does it differ from behavioral interviews?
The McKinsey PEI is an ongoing part of each interview process, and almost every interviewer will engage in it.
The main difference in McKinsey PEIs is they prioritize depth over quantity. While other firms tend to look at the quantity of experience or the number of varied workplace situations with which you’ve dealt, McKinsey searches for a deeper understanding of one situation that brought out the best in you and made you an asset.
To do so, they fixate on one story and ask detailed follow-up questions – you can expect about 5-10 of these. They don’t just want to know what you did; they want to know the thought process that led to your actions and how you achieved a commendable result despite obstacles, such as convincing an unwilling client to give you their business. They want to watch your story come alive.
Because of this, McKinsey PEIs are famously known as “mile deep and inch wide”.
What McKinsey is testing for
The McKinsey interview process is testing for four traits: inclusive leadership, entrepreneurial drive, problem solving and personal impact.
Of these, problem-solving is already taken care of in the case study section. So the PEI is testing for the other three.
According to McKinsey, “harnessing the power of diverse thinking to drive results requires the ability to lead people of different backgrounds and create belonging where everyone can be at their best”.
Formerly called leadership, inclusive is the new keyword to concentrate on. It is important because you’ll have to manage more teams with more demanding goals as your career progresses, and it’s important that you can manage teams with varied and diverse backgrounds.
According to McKinsey, “overcoming obstacles and achieving goals requires an innovating mindset, an openness to new approaches, and a continuous quest for learning and growth”.
The problems that you’ll have to tackle as a McKinsey consultant are both challenging and diverse. And there are times that you’ll be navigating unchartered waters; no instructions, no guide.
As a McKinsey consultant, you’ll need to operate in ambiguous environments and figure out how to deliver value to your client.
According to McKinsey, “working with clients on challenging issues requires the involvement and support of many individuals”.
Being modest is great, but this part of the PEI is when you set that aside. Many candidates make the mistake of speaking too much about the steps in their project or even about other teammates’ contributions – don’t do that.
This is your time to shine and prove how valuable an asset YOU can be to McKinsey, so talk about your specific decisions that led the team to victory and how your decisions were unique and impactful.
How to prepare McKinsey PEI responses
How to structure your answer
Structuring your answer to McKinsey PEI questions will keep your stories concise and easy to follow. Structure also helps you focus on the key messages that you want to deliver.
You can use the A-STAR method to structure your answer. A-STAR stands for Answer, Situation, Task, Action, and Result.
- Answer: Provide a one or two sentence answer to the question. This helps the interviewer understand exactly what story you are about to share.
- Situation: Provide a brief overview of the situation and any context that is needed to understand the story better. Try to keep this section as short as possible because it is not as important as the Action and Results sections.
- Task: Describe what you were asked or required to deliver or achieve. Again, try to keep this section concise because it is not as important as the Action and Results sections.
- Action: Explain what steps you took to handle the task or to meet the goal or objective.
- Result: Describe the outcome that your actions had, quantifying the impact and effect you had on the organization. You can also describe your key takeaways from this experience and how it impacted or influenced you as a person.
And here are some tips from a Reddit user who actually run PEI interviews:
Example McKinsey PEI questions
We spoke to current and former McKinsey consultants, as well as online sources, and collated a list of real-world McKinsey PEI questions.
Official McKinsey example PEI questions
- Explain a challenging situation you encountered when working with someone with an opposing opinion (personal impact)
- Talk about a time when you worked to achieve something that was outside your comfort zone (entrepreneurial drive)
- Share an example where you effectively worked with people of different backgrounds
Unofficial example PEI questions
- Describe a situation where you had a disagreement with a team member
- Can you give an example of how you had to deal with a difficult issue/conflict?
- Tell me about a time you influenced someone.
- Tell me about a time you had to work with a team of different people
- Describe a time you’ve had to convince someone of something they didn’t want to do
- Tell me about a situation where you had a tight deadline? What did you do to achieve your goal?