Learn what it takes to land a job with the trusted advisor to many of the world's most influential businesses and institutions.
It ranks among the unquestioned laws of big business over the last half century: If you want to be taken seriously, you hire McKinsey & Company. The job seeker’s corollary: If you want a career in big business, you seriously hope that McKinsey & Company will hire you. A perennial top-place finisher in rankings of the most coveted employers, McKinsey is also among the most selective. Last year, the consulting powerhouse received 225,000 job applications. It made offers to a mere one percent—or 2,200—of them.
That’s the bad news. The good news is that the days when McKinsey only hired Harvard MBAs are long gone. As recently as 1978, HBS graduates accounted for more than 25% of McKinsey consultants, but in 2013, less than half of the firm’s new hires even had an MBA. An increasing percentage of McKinsey hires have advanced professional degrees instead—PhDs, law degrees, and others. The firm employs several hundred MDs, some of which don’t even work in its healthcare practice.
As the firm’s focus has expanded well beyond its historical franchises of strategy and organizational structure, so, too, has the expertise it seeks in new recruits. Today, almost half of the firm’s client work has to do with risk, marketing, business technology, or operations, and, if you can bring any of that to the table, you don’t necessarily need an MBA (of course, it wouldn’t hurt if you did…from Harvard).
So, how do you get a job at McKinsey? Start by listening to what they tell you. The firm’s website is chock-full of advice on how to present your “best self” to the firm. While theirs is a grueling interview process, even for those who succeed, those who don’t can hardly claim that they didn’t know what was coming. For such a notoriously secretive enterprise, McKinsey could hardly be more open about the types of people it seeks to hire and the process by which it will evaluate them.
If you’re smart, you’ll have done a few thousand—I’m kidding, you can stop at a few hundred—practice versions of the firm’s famous case studies (I’m kidding again. You can stop at 10 or 20.). You can find them on their own website or in the endless number of books promising to unlock case-study secrets. However, there is no secret to solving case studies. There’s only this simple fact: You’ll be judged less on specific answers to case questions than on the method by which you arrived at them. In other words, you’ll be judged on how you think.
McKinsey has separated itself from the competition for the better part of a century in large part by its relentless commitment to recruiting and developing its talent, the always-evolving aspects of which I chronicle in my new book, The Firm: The Story of McKinsey and Its Secret Influence on American Business. Due to the very nature of their business, problem-solving capabilities will always be foremost on McKinsey’s list of required traits, but the firm devotes an equal amount of effort to evaluating applicants’ interpersonal skills and emotional quotient -- or EQ.
McKinsey has a well-earned reputation as a launching pad for plum corporate, government, and non-profit roles almost anywhere in the world—the firm has more than 100 offices in 60 countries. And, the reason that people hire people who used to work at McKinsey is the same reason that clients hire McKinsey itself—its consultants are the world’s best at combining an intellectual approach to problem solving with practical advice on how to put the chosen solution in place.
You’re not going to get anywhere in a McKinsey interview if you don’t blow them away with your natural curiosity and creativity. These people are the philosopher kings of business, after all. But you’re also not going to get anywhere if you fail to wrap it all up with a recommended course of action. With that in mind, the best advice I can offer anyone seeking a job at McKinsey is to remember what it is that their clients need from them. Real impact comes not just from having a compelling “answer” to a question but also grounded and explicit thoughts on how to “implement” that answer once you’ve got it. So, get excited about finding an answer to your case-study question. But, don't forget to get equally excited about what you’re going to do with it.
Duff McDonald is the author of The Firm: The Story of McKinsey and Its Secret Influence on American Business (Simon & Schuster, September 2013). A contributing editor at Fortune and The New York Observer, he has also written for The New Yorker, Vanity Fair, New York magazine, and Esquire, among others. He lives in Brooklyn.