The McKinsey PEI (Personal Experience Interview) is one of the most talked-about features today in consulting applications. It differs significantly from the personal fit interview conducted at BCG, Bain, or any other top firm. While the content of the interview has not changed in many years, most candidates are still a bit lost when it comes to preparing for it.
If they try to research on Google, most results present myths or half-truths that unnerve them in the best case and have them prepare irrelevant answers to non-existing questions, missing the actual point of these interviews, in the worst case.
In this article our coach Florian wants to demystify the McKinsey PEI and highlight
- what it really is about
- how you can prepare most effectively for it
- how to answer the questions in the best way possible
For that matter, the article consists of three sections.
First, I will introduce the PEI, its format, and its rationale. Second, I will discuss the different dimensions of the PEI and the type of content that is needed for each. Third, I will teach you how to communicate your stories for maximum effect on the interviewer. I will include several examples to make it more tangible for you.
- 1. The Role of the PEI in Your McKinsey Interview
- 1.1 What is the McKinsey PEI (Personal Experience Interview)?
- 1.2 How is the McKinsey PEI Structured?
- 1.3 How to Succeed in the McKinsey PEI (Personal Experience Interview)
- 2. Drafting the Right Stories for the McKinsey PEI
- 2.1 The PEI Dimensions
- 2.2 General Characteristics of a Good Story
- 2.3 What Stories Should You Select for Your PEI?
- 2.4 How Detailed Should the Stories Be?
- 3. Setting up and Communicating Your Stories the Right Way
- The SCORE Framework
- 4. The McKinsey PEI Checklist
- 5. About the Author
Only 1% of McKinsey applicants receive an offer from the firm. While the case interviews play an important part in the evaluation the PEI is equally important. You can ace 5 cases in a row, yet, if you fail to demonstrate your leadership skills or your ability to influence senior leaders, you will not receive the offer.
I have noticed that many candidates often focus 95% of their preparation efforts on the case and completely neglect the PEI.
This is unfortunate since this is the part of the interview that is easy to prepare for if you know what you are doing. During the interview, you don’t want to remember for the first time or make up stories on the spot, but rather remind yourself of your prepared answers. You want to make sure that these answers are structured, to the point, and exactly hit the dimensions that the questions try to assess.
First, let us look at the role of the McKinsey PEI.
McKinsey interviews are highly standardized across the globe to ensure objectivity and reduce bias. That is why they consist of the same two main components in each office, the problem-solving interview, and the personal experience interview.
At its core, the McKinsey Personal Experience Interview is a behavioral interview, yet it comes with a twist. Instead of asking many rapid-fire questions like in a typical personal fit interview (e.g., what are your strengths, weaknesses, why consulting, why McKinsey, etc.) it revolves around three specific character traits that will be discussed in great detail.
Each Personal Experience Interview focuses on one specific trait at a time and can last up to 20 minutes. In the whole process, you will have to talk about three different traits, more specifically
- Entrepreneurial drive OR Courageous Change
- Inclusive leadership
- Personal impact
For that matter, PEI always start with one question related to one of the three desired traits. For instance, the interviewer might ask a very specific prompt such as “Tell me about a time when you had to influence a senior leader of an organization or a group…”
Based on that question, you need to present your story.
The PEI is highly standardized to help interviewers understand how you behaved in past events to make assumptions on how you would handle daily situations as a McKinsey consultant in the future. The format helps to evaluate and compare candidates on a few objective metrics.
A common misconception is that you need to be superhuman or present superhuman success stories in the PEI to make the cut. This is far from the truth. In reality, you need to present authentic situations that demonstrate how you handled problems, led teams (can be in a university group project setting for instance), and influenced people on certain topics. The stories need to show how you acted in a specific situation, set in a professional environment (e.g. a previous work engagement or internship), a university experience, or extracurricular activity.
To succeed, your role is to tell the right stories, highlighting only the most relevant content, that conveys how you displayed this specific trait in the best way, using the most effective communication.
The closer the stories are to the consultant’s typical challenges, the better. Also, you are expected to tell stories from the more recent past (max last three years back). Lastly, you will likely have more than three interviews, so you should prepare two stories per trait to have backup stories ready.
In this section I discuss
- The McKinsey PEI dimensions and potential content ideas
- Criteria to select the perfect PEI story from your resume
- The level of depth to prepare for each story
As briefly touched upon above, the PEI revolves around three different types of stories. Below, let’s take a look into each dimension and potential content ideas that make a strong story.
One word of caution, before we dive deeper. Use these as examples to inspire your own story-telling and as examples only. While the format is standardized your stories still need to show authenticity and a large portion of ‘’uniqueness’’. Having overly prepared and rehearsed stories is as bad as having no prepared stories at all as interviewers are trained to spot such crafted stories.
Now, let's get to it.
The interviewer will ask you about a situation where you led a team through a challenging time to achieve a certain goal. For this dimension, you need to show that you ...
- ... can handle a diverse group that accepts you as their leader, with diversity being the result of different backgrounds, cultures, hierarchy levels, etc.
- ... tailor your leadership style to different groups and group members
- ... demonstrate your ability to make the team succeed by helping to structure, divide, and delegate tasks and providing them with work plans, deadlines, and effective communication
- ... motivate your team, improve the team spirit and the working environment for all involved
- ... are interested in the well-being of the team and their own individual development along the way
- ... deal with conflicts between teammates and goals effectively
Overall, showcase that your presence as a team leader had a positive impact on the team and lead to a strong outcome for a particular project or task.
For this dimension, the interviewer will ask you about a situation where you set a goal for yourself and achieved it against all odds. You need to demonstrate
- ambition and dedication by pursuing several goals at the same time
- an intrinsic desire and motivation to achieve this goal
- how you overcame obstacles or faced headwinds along the way by coming up with creative and new ideas or approaches
- how you follow the goals with energy and passion until you reached the desired outcome
For this dimension, you will be asked to tell a story in which you influenced or persuaded an individual or a group of people. This can either be about them adopting a certain idea or plan of yours, helping you with achieving your own goals and driving something together, etc. Focus on stories that showcase how you
- worked with challenging individuals or groups, ideally more senior than your own role
- needed to understand their concerns and reservations first
- were able to convince them by using a mix of the right set of arguments and effective communication
- created a sustainable way of working together or even a solution to a difficult problem
At the time of writing, McKinsey has started to replace the Entrepreneurial Drive dimension with a new dimension called Courageous Change in a couple of countries. What they want you to talk about is a situation where you faced and maneuvered a significant change or an ambiguous situation, adapting to new circumstances. You need to demonstrate that you
- are able to quickly adjust to new situations and change your course of action if needed
- have the resilience to deal with setbacks and stressful environments
- use challenging situations as a learning and step-up opportunity
- can act based on limited or ambiguous information that is available to you
- overcome obstacles or face headwinds along the way by coming up with creative and new ideas or approaches
- remain positive throughout the whole experience
The new dimension is very similar to Entrepreneurial Drive and most of your content elements overlap.
Besides showcasing the relevant traits for each dimension, other characteristics enhance every story. While you don’t need to be superhuman you still need to show peaks in certain traits.
In order to do so
- Think about situations set in really challenging environments. You might have encountered several obstacles or problems, which you decided to overcome with persistence and hard work. Ideally, you have encountered some resistance. The odds were definitely not in your favor, but you came out as a winner in the end.
- Provide brief but exhaustive context to each story and all characters that played an important role in it. For instance, if you describe how you had to influence a certain senior leader, first introduce them, and discuss their character for a bit.
- Focus on your own actions all the time. The interviewer is almost exclusively interested in how your contributions and actions changed the outcome. Everything in the PEI needs to start and end with your own actions.
- Add personal statements of people involved in the situations. Think about what was said during your interactions, how people reacted, etc.
- Create a convincing headline or 3-sentence summary at the beginning of the story that conveys the core message of the story to instantly capture the attention of the interviewer and to make sure that the story won’t be rejected from the start (more on that below).
Now that you know what content is desirable for the McKinsey PEI, let’s look into how you can actually select the right stories from your resume and experience.
When you go through your resume to select your McKinsey PEI stories, you need to think about three dimensions in the following order:
1. Fit with the actual dimension that is asked. The stories need to fit the criteria set out by McKinsey to match with Entrepreneurial Drive, Inclusive Leadership, and Personal Impact. See above for potential content ideas.
2. Diversity of experience. Your stories should be from different walks of life, e.g., jobs or careers, universities, extracurriculars, etc. Don’t take all stories from one experience or context.
3. Recency. In general, the more recent the better. Unless you interview for an experienced hire or more senior position, your stories should not date back more than 2-3 years.
Select and develop 6 stories based on the criteria from above you should have at least two stories per character trait at hand, as sometimes you have to talk about a particular trait in several interviews. Duplicates are not allowed in most offices, meaning you can’t tell the same story twice in different interviews. In some cases, you even must tell two stories about the same trait in one interview (this is usually the case when the interviewer was not particularly satisfied with your first story, and should not happen if you follow the advice of this article).
In the McKinsey PEI, you should highlight all the important aspects of the story by yourself. As a rule of thumb, the interviewer will ask more questions when something is unclear when you don’t volunteer the important aspects of the story and your actions, as well as when you do not hit the relevant talking points that McKinsey wants to hear for a specific dimension.
The more details you leave out, the more drilling questions you will receive.
When you introduce the story, keep the context brief, and focus the most talking points (80%) on your actions and behaviors. Interviewers want to understand what YOU did to remedy the situation and how YOUR actions led to a successful outcome.
For the latter, focus your stories on a few specific pivotal moments that were crucial to reach a conclusion or outcome. The PEI is all about the depth of a story (2-3 concrete actions discussed in great detail), and not about being broad (discussing a lot of contexts and touching many small actions on a surface level). For these pivotal moments, go very deep, and remember the interactions, the discussions, and your thoughts. Add statements of people involved to give the stories more flavor. This will make a much stronger impact than listing a variety of different talking points, only scratching the surface.
This is also why you should prepare specific stories for each dimension and not create ‘’summary’’ stories that you can use for all dimensions.
Apart from drafting the right stories with the right content, you need to be able to tell each story the right way. Storytelling is one of the key tools for successful management consultants to bring their messages across and increase buy-in within the team and in the organization, they are consulting. Stories are used to pack analyses and recommendations into powerful messages and drive change.
That is why for the PEI it is also essential to communicate stories effectively. A tool you can use for that matter is the SCORE framework I have developed.
It enables you to best prepare and presents compelling top-down stories to your audience.
Setting up the story
The interviewer will ask you to introduce the story to make sure that it covers the right elements before prompting you to dive deeper into it. Therefore, it is important to start with a poignant headline to create a memorable anchor and already convey the core of the story within one sentence. For instance, when asked about leadership, don’t start with something like this:
‘’I was working for a company last year and we had a project to increase the sales of our online platform by 10%. My boss asked me to be part of this effort….’’
The first sentence needs to make clear that the story is appropriate for the leadership dimension. Hence, say something along the lines of:
‘’I was leading a team last year at Company X to increase online sales by 10%’’
If you want to add more details, add three sentences, each answering one of the following questions:
- Situation – what was the situation like?
- Complication – what issues did you face?
- Resolution – how did you overcome them?
Every sentence should add value. Refrain from empty words or sentences. This short introduction provides background and sets the tone and stage for deeper discussions. You work both for yourself and the interviewer.
Now that you have introduced what story you want to talk about, the interviewer will ask you to provide some context and dive deeper into the story. If your summary is appropriate for the dimension, the story will not be rejected.
Dive into your story using the SCORE framework
You can use the SCORE framework to discuss your story in more detail.
The SCORE framework is especially useful when you want to prepare and think deeply about all aspects of a situation. It provides an anchor for a natural flow of explanation and thought during an interview, and I have created it after reviewing tens of PEI stories and implemented it since then with great success.
Now the focus of each PEI story should be on the R, the remedial actions. The situation, complication, and outcome expectation should only make up 10-20% of your story. What the interviewer cares about is how you solved the situation with your actions.
Let’s look at an example:
Julia is asked by her interviewer to talk about a specific situation where she demonstrated leadership skills.
She answers: ‘’I led a diverse team in a last-minute effort to create a board-level presentation when my boss got sick, and the team was not sure what to do (HEADLINE). At my previous employer, we had to present a strategy document in front of the board (SITUATION). My boss got sick the day before and was not able to direct and structure the work for us, which could have resulted in a bad situation for my department (COMPLICATION). I took over from her, guided the team, and prepared a stellar presentation for the board on the next day (RESOLUTION).’’
The interviewer will be intrigued by this short prompt and ask for more details. Now, Julia can go into the SCORE framework. The focus should be on her role and what she did to solve the situation, the remedial action!
She says: ‘’We had an important bi-annual board meeting scheduled, which my boss was driving. I had one workstream to prepare, as did all 5 other country managers from 5 different countries on the team (SITUATION).
The crucial day before the meeting, my boss got sick, which initially put our work to a grinding halt. She structured and coordinated our work, helped with problem-solving, and integrated all our workstreams into a final presentation (COMPLICATION). If we would have stopped at this stage, we would have presented a non-aligned 80% version, leaving out crucial details of our progress and success. This would have reflected negatively on our team and each of us individually. The result would have been budget cuts in our department for next year (OUTCOME EXPECTED).
So, I had to step in and fill the role of my boss. In this situation, I had to overcome 6 crucial challenges. First, I had to calm down the team, one person, Martin, a 27-year junior associate on the team, specifically freaked out. I remember how he was saying that this will have a bad impact on all of us if it does not go well. I wanted to quickly resolve this negative energy and held a short pep talk to improve everyone’s mood and motivate the team. I was highlighting how in the past our team rose up to every challenge and it always worked out in our favor. I reminded them that we were known in the company as the team that can get everything done. Second, I took 30 minutes in private to devise a strategy. I met the team to re-delegate tasks with me basically taking over the role of my boss, whereas I distributed the final tasks of my workstream to two other colleagues. I kept checking up on them if the new task distribution made sense and if they were contemptuous of their workload over the next day. Third, during the course of the day, I was the single go-to person for each member of the team. Specifically, Armin struggled a bit with his tasks since he was not used to working under pressure. I sat down with him and broke his work into more manageable smaller chunks to give him some more direction. Fourth, as the team progressed, I scheduled two problem-solving sessions to align during the day and the next morning. They were definitely happy that someone took the lead and stepped up in this situation. Fifth, one colleague, Sarah was kind of confrontational. She was already with the company for more than 10 years and disagreed with John on several content points in the presentation. When I found out I had to pull her into a 1-on-1 to discuss her concerns. I found out that the reason was more of personal animosity between the two rather than valid content-related points. I asked them both in a room to highlight the fact that at this stage, there is no space for any kind of fighting on the team and that I’d be happy to go to dinner with them once this was all sorted. That fixed the problem. Sixth, I integrated all aspects of the presentation throughout the day as I was receiving each individual’s input and wrote speaker notes for each of them. (REMEDIAL ACTION).
On the next day, the team had a stellar presentation in front of the board and was able to answer all questions and challenges we received. The budget for next year was actually increased. We were all super happy and I took the team out for drinks in the evening. When my boss returned from her sick leave she congratulated me on my efforts and the end result as she said, she knew I had it in me but had hoped that I would have been able to demonstrate it in a less stressful situation (END RESULT).’’
The story above is an end-to-end monologue. In a real interview, you won’t get very far without the interviewer trying to interrupt and steer the story in a particular direction. While you should be able to discuss the story without any directional hints or questions, be flexible enough to highlight certain elements or go deeper into certain aspects based on the specific questions of the interviewer. The SCORE framework is extremely useful in this case. McKinsey interviewers will go very deep into each situation and ask very specific questions such as “What did this person say?”, “How did this make you feel?”, etc. Be prepared to talk about all aspects of a situation.
Prepare your stories accordingly using just a few sentences or bullet points per item of the SCORE framework. This will help you to have a clear structure and content yet, you will be flexible enough to move through the story without it sounding rehearsed.
Finally, rehearse your answers with friends and case partners. Let them play an active role and ask tricky questions to simulate a real-life McKinsey interview situation.
Now that you know how to prepare for the PEI, follow the checklist below to make sure your stories are polished for the interview day, and you are ready to go.
1. Learn about the PEI dimensions
Below are the three dimensions plus some ideas on what to include:
a. Entrepreneurial Drive
- Set a goal for yourself and pursue it relentlessly against all odds
- The focus here should be on overcoming obstacles, showing ambition and dedication as well as ingenuity
b. Personal Impact
- Persuade a group or individual to adopt a certain idea or plan of yours
- The focus should really be on the influencing tactics you used to reach your desired outcome
c. Inclusive leadership
- Show that you can manage a diverse team, leading it to a successful outcome
- The focus here should be on all traits that make a great leader (e.g., inclusiveness, mentor, mediator, go-to person, people person,...)
d. Courageous Change
- Demonstrate that you can adjust quickly to changing situations or new challenges
- The focus should be on your grit, persistence, and the actions you take to react to something unexpected
2. Select the right stories with the right content
When it comes to the selection of your McKinsey PEI stories, you need to think about three dimensions in the following order:
a. Fit with the actual dimension that is asked. The stories need to fit the criteria set out by McKinsey to match with Entrepreneurial Drive, Leadership, and Personal Impact. For content ideas see above.
b. Diversity of experience. Your stories should be from different walks of life, e.g., jobs or careers, universities, extracurriculars, etc. Don’t take all stories from one experience.
c. Recency. In general, the more recent the better. Unless you interview for an experienced hire or more senior position, your stories should not date back more than 2-3 years.
Make sure that
- you draft two stories each to always have a backup story in case the interviewer rejects the first story
- you are aware that the interviewer might interrupt you a lot to ask detailed questions, which means your stories need to go very deep as you should be ready to answer very focused questions such as ''what did you say at that moment?'', ''How did he react'', etc.
- create catchy headlines for each story that already convey the main message
- you create content for each story to be able to talk freely for around 10 minutes
3. Learn how to communicate them most effectively
Communication is key in the interview. Speak like a consultant, follow a logical, top-down structure, and make sure to
- focus on yourself and your own role all the time
- keep the context brief and really focus on your own actions (context 2 minutes, your actions 8 minutes)
- practice your stories with peers and friends
4. Shortcut get it right quickly
Book a session with a coach that knows these dimensions inside out to make sure that
- they contain the right content
- they are communicated in the most McKinsey-like way
- you can anticipate and prepare for the detailed drill-down questions the interviewers will ask
You have reached the end of this amazing article and have collected a lot of valuable information on how to crack the McKinsey PEI. If you still have questions after that, feel free to ask them in our Consulting Q&A. Our experienced coaches are happy to share their personal experiences and have valuable tips for you at hand! Alternatively, you can browse through all the existing questions about the McKinsey PEI in our forum to find out what other candidates struggled with, with valuable tips from our case coaches.
#1 rated McKinsey Case and PEI Coach | 5 years at McKinsey | Mentorship Approach | 120+ McK offers in 18 month
- Professional Experience: Bitpanda, StrategyCase, McKinsey & Company, Kearney, Lufthansa
- Languages: English, German
- Location: Austria
Florian became the #1 McKinsey coach (based on recommendation rate) within the first month of starting on PrepLounge. With 5 years at McKinsey, he knows the recruiting process inside out. He can help you ace the case interview and the PEI exactly like McKinsey wants you to succeed. His coachees continuously receive feedback from McKinsey interviewers that they seem to be much better prepared than other candidates. Interviewing and coaching 100s of candidates, he has developed a system to tackle every McKinsey case and question type successfully, regardless of the context, industry, or functional expertise. You will learn how to think like a McKinsey consultant and not rely on pre-learned frameworks that would only hurt your performance in the real case.
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