Thanks for taking the time and effort to set up these resources for aspiring consultants! I wish I’d found the videos before!

Anyway, I noticed you mentioned interviewing APD (applicants with PhD degrees) aspirants a number of times. I was wondering, in your experience, what sets apart successful APD candidates? What does McKinsey look for specifically in APDs vs. MBA candidates?

I have been fortunate enough to be granted a first round interview and realize I have only a fighting chance, so I would be more than grateful for any tips to maximize my chances!

My Response:

What McKinsey looks for in candidates with PhD vs. MBA degrees is largely the same. Super analytical, business judgement/common sense, client skills, etc… This is the usual stuff you see on recruiting websites and it’s accurate.

However, let me add some insider comments that’s NOT typically discussed publicly–not for any particular reason.  One of the big things I’ve noticed is that people from different education backgrounds tend to have different strength/weakness combinations.

For example, nearly all the PhD holder applicants I saw, interviewed, worked with came out of the hard sciences – math, physics, engineering, science, etc…  Needless to say these men and women we’re pretty good a math (certainly more skilled than me).  But with every strength, tends to come certain weaknesses.

To massively over-generalize, a number of PhD holding applicants had difficulty with:

1) common sense judgment (way to mathematically theoretical in some cases)

2) client handling skills (e.g., how to disagree politely with someone, when you know you’re factually right)

3) being practical (e.g., sure we could be mathematically certain about the answer if we interviewed all 2,000,000 customers in the market…. but that would cost $200 million to do… what would you do if you had to get an approximate answer for only $200?)

4) being comfortable with the utter lack of precision that comes with consultant.  As a consultant, it doesn’t matter if gross margins are precisely 17.279%.  If gross margins used to be 60% last year, and this year they’re sorta, kind of, in the ballpark of 15% – 25%, we can confidently say now margins “stink”

Words like “sorta”, “kinda”, “in the ballpark” drive a lot of PhD people absolutely insane… they can’t stand it. It really drives them bonkers.

To some extent, you can practice this a little… but some people are just wired a certain way.  Either you demand precision, or being approximately right is good enough.

On a related note, here are the common biases I’ve noticed from applicants from different education levels:

1) MBA’s tend to be good with the client skills (political survival and success in a pre-mba career sort of demands it), but a surprising number of MBA’s are conceptually driven thinkers and not linear/analytical. As a business operator, I definitely appreciate the need for both kinds of people in a successful company. But, the linear / analytical thinkers make the kind of consultants that clients don’t mind paying for.

MBA’s tend to be good with the jargon, buzzwords, popular frameworks… and the goal is to get through all that and really figure out how they think.  Is it systematic, numbers driven (balanced by common sense), analytical, highly structured.

2) Undergrad Liberal Arts Majors — Tended to be good socially, not always so good at math. So the joke we looked for English Majors that we’re really good at math and physics.

3) Undergrad Science Majors – Tended to be good analytically, not always so in client skills–especially having the skills to manage / interact with someone 2 and 3 times your age.  So the joke was we looked for the scientests who know how to schmooze.

Incidentally, I remember one conversation I had with the person in charge of under grad recruiting who did an analysis of applicants hired 3 years earlier… and did a regression (literal or eyeballed) of their key consulting resume attributes vs. whether or not they progressed years later within the firm.

A few general observations, which I suspect are still relevant:

1) High or perfect Math scores on SAT / standardized tests was a fairly good predictor of analytical skills

2) No difference in performance between those who had a 3.5 GPA vs. 4.0 GPA (for example, my undergrad GPA was around a 3.5 GPA, and I did pretty well at McKinsey.)

3) People with high involvement in extra curricular activities, leadership roles especially, did well (I would speculate it’s a place where one practices skills that will be useful in working with clients)

So the gist was undergrads with near-perfect math scores, 3.5 GPA (slightly above average, but by no means perfect), and leadership roles tended to do well.

Also for what it’s worth, I’ll mention the following. When I entered McKinsey post under grad, the firm hired about 100 people in my hiring “class” for the business analyst position. Two years later, 10 were promoted to Associate directly without the firm encouraging other work experience or an MBA.

Four of those 10 were in my office, and I think the four of us had one thing in common (and I hope some of my former colleagues will forgive the characterization)… In my opinion, we probably had a maturity level that was beyond our biological age (22 years – 23 years old).

I joking called this the “I’m 22 years old going on 40 years old” persona.  As an example, I had one client who was exactly 3 times older than me.  He was 66 years old, he was recently promoted to run a $100M a year divison of a Fortune 500 company, and he asked me for my personal career advice, etc…

I certainly didn’t wear my age on my sleeve and I think he saw me for what I could offer him and came across as much older so that it wasn’t obvious I was only 22 years old.

Hope this gives you some insight into all of this.