McKinsey Interview Question:

My question revolves around the differences between the two rounds in the McKinsey interview process.  I’ve heard mixed stories on this and am hoping for a clear answer.  My first rounds were very structured and the interviewer was primarily driving the case by asking a set of 5-6 specific questions per case.

I’ve heard that the second rounds, though, are primarily driven by the interviewee.

What differences does this entail in terms of preparation?

Does the interviewer ask one broad question at the beginning of the case, and then expect the interviewee to structure an answer while probing them for more information?

My Reply:

The feedback I’m getting from around the world is consistent with your perception that 2nd round will be an interviewee-led case.  The interviewer will basically say the following:

“Your client is a copper mining company. Profits are down about 25% versus last year. How do you help this client turn the company around?”

The interviewer will then shut his or her mouth… and you are expected to take over. The interviewer will only open his or her mouth for one of two reasons — and you should be prepared for both.

a) If you ask a question asking for data, the interviewer will provide it, if it is available.

b) The interviewer will interrupt you and ask you a challenging question… mostly to test your thinking. Sometimes people get distracted by the interruption, forget where they were in the case, and basically get stuck because they got distracted.

I’ve seen this happen a lot to people who assumed that Round #2 interviews would be just like Round #1.  There is a very specific note-taking technique I use to keep track of where you are… it is to take notes entirely in diagram format.

In my Look Over My Shoulder® program, I have five different cases in there with recordings of 13 different candidates. The recordings demonstrate both how to do the cases properly and also provide examples of the most common mistakes — and how people dig themselves into a hole.

When I recently did my mock case interviews for the Look Over My Shoulder® Program, I spent close to 20 hours interviewing people.

I was extremely surprised by how poor the note taking was for the people I interviewed — including the people who ended up getting offers at McKinsey, Bain, etc.

In a 40-minute case, some people took eight pages of notes! This is a big problem, because there’s no way you can possibly remember what you were thinking seven pages ago.

To be clear, I am not discouraging taking notes — but rather to take notes in a very specific way to avoid getting confused by your own notes.

I recommend taking notes on two different sets of paper. One page / set of pages — is focused on the structure of the case. This page should be kept very neat.

It should consist exclusively of issue tree diagrams and your hypotheses (see Cases 2, 4 and 5 — the last examples of each in Look Over My Shoulder® for examples of these).

Notice the very disciplined approach of using a “process of elimination” to work through the case. Using this approach, if you get interrupted 10 times, it doesn’t really matter. It’s very obvious to you and the interviewer (based on your diagram) where you are in the case.

You should not hesitate to show this diagram to your interviewer.

Next, you should have a separate page(s) of paper where you do computations. This is basically a scratch pad to do some math.

You use this page to simply determine whether a particular part of the issue can be eliminated as a possible cause of the problem you’re trying to answer in the case.

IMPORTANT: Once you have answered the question for that branch of the case, you never have to refer back to the scratch pad anymore.  You’ve reached your intermediary conclusion, made the appropriate notation on the issue tree diagram.

This way your calculation notes can be six or seven pages, and it doesn’t matter… because the important information such as your conclusions and structure is in a single easy-to-reference place.

Again, I was very surprised by how many people I interviewed just simply got confused by their own notes. So as of very recently, I’ve decided to emphasize this particular approach to note taking.

For more information on the McKinsey rounds, see McKinsey First Round and McKinsey Final Round on this site.