McKinsey Problem Solving Game – Guide 2021

Games-based assessments are being used by a number of the top strategy consulting firms now. BCG has partnered with Pymetrics, Arctic Shores is working with Strategy& (via PwC) and McKinsey launched their problem-solving game developed with Imbellus in 2019.​

The game replaces the in-person, pen, and paper test that McKinsey has used for many years up until now (the McKinsey PST). It has been used to test 15,000 McKinsey applicants in more than 30 countries since it went live and this is set to increase as every cohort passes through and McKinsey rolls it out to the rest of its firm network.​

Overall games-based assessments are gaining popularity for the ability to filter down the candidate pool in an intuitive, unbiased way that tests both quantitative and logical reasoning skills. The McKinsey digital assessment is used for exactly that purpose.

Traits They Are Testing in the McKinsey Digital Assessment​

The McKinsey digital assessment provides a way of testing candidates thinking ability and personality traits that are harder to revise for and therefore provide a way of testing that does not reward those that prepare more extensively. It also provides a safe environment to test how comfortable candidates are making decisions with imperfect information, a skill particularly important for strategy consultants.​

McKinsey prides itself on being a firm with some of the leading thinkers in the world and has been described as the ‘CEO factory’ for its alumni list that includes Cheryl Sandberg (COO of Facebook), Sundar Pichai (CEO of Alphabet and Google), James Gorman (CEO of Morgan Stanley) and many more. For this reason, it is unsurprising that their games based assessment focuses on testing thinking over personality traits.​

The five skills that McKinsey specifically look to test with their digital assessment are:​

1. Critical Thinking

Critical thinking is the conceptualizing, analyzing, and synthesizing of information based on observation, experience, reflection, or reasoning. For strategy consultants, such as McKinsey this is an important skill as client problems are often unique and complex, to reach clear and concise recommendations or conclusions, strategy consultants must practice strong critical thinking skills in order to reduce the noise down to the critical points only.​

2. Decision-making

Decision-making based on fragmented, imperfect information McKinsey advises some of the world’s largest companies. The discipline of strategy consulting brings structure and logic to some of the most important decisions CEOs will make in their tenure and so McKinsey expects all their consultants to be competent and comfortable making decisive decisions.​

3. Metacognition

Metacognition is the ability to assess your own thinking and learning. Throughout a client engagement, a consultant’s knowledge and information base will increase and perhaps change the previous opinions put forward. The ability to critique and change thinking and logical reasoning based on the emergence of new information is important to reach the best possible outcome for the client.​

4. Situational Awareness

Situational awareness has historically been tested using situational judgment tests and is the decision-making of an individual in a social-based scenario, such as the workplace. As consulting is a project-based, client-facing profession the ability to make sound, appropriate decisions are important to building and maintaining working relationships.​

5. Systems thinking

Systems thinking is the holistic approach to analysis that considers the whole system, its individual parts, and how they interact with each other. Organizations and business models can all be conceptualized using systems thinking and it is also a strategy consultants preferred way to isolate issues and present recommendations as it makes it easy for clients to understand their thinking and where it fits in the wider picture.

Look And Feel of the McKinsey Digital Assessment

The McKinsey digital assessment is played on a desktop rather than a smartphone as the Arctic Shores and Pymetrics games are. It looks and feels like a PC game similar to those that were popular 15 years ago such as SIMs and is highly intuitive for the user to navigate.

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Structure of the McKinsey Digital Assessment

In the McKinsey digital assessment, candidates have 60 minutes to complete 1-3 scenarios with 4-5 tasks in each scenario and every candidate will be tasked with completing a different combination of tasks making it hard to prepare or work together with a friend. This works out at approximately 5 minutes per task.​

The four possible scenarios in the digital assessment that have been published by McKinsey include:​

  1. Species protection

  2. Disaster aversion

  3. Disease management

  4. Ecosystem development


Scenario 1 In the Digital Assessment: Species Protection

Objective: To protect an endangered species of plant or animal from an incoming invader​

The route of an invader(s) is shown on a 10x10 grid. Using the combination of a limited number of options, block path, or re-direct, the user must prevent the species in danger from being reached by the invader.​


Scenario 2 In the Digital Assessment: Disaster Aversion

Objective: To identify an incoming natural disaster and take necessary evasive action for a group of animals.​

Symptoms of a natural disaster are presented to the candidate such as wind speed, precipitation, and air temperature. Using this information the natural disaster must be identified. Each natural disaster has a different expected impact on the island where a group of animals is located.​

Knowing this the candidate must choose where to relocate the group of animals whilst ensuring they will be protected, sheltered, fed, and watered sustainably in the new location.

Scenario 3 In the Digital Assessment: Disease Management

Objective: Identify a mysterious disease spreading through a population and recommend an appropriate course of action to maximize the survival rate.​

An animal population is showing symptoms of a disease. Based on the symptoms detected the candidate must conclude what disease has entered the population, the types of animals affected, the number of animals affected and the severity of the infection.​

Once an assessment of the disease has been made, the next step is to recommend an appropriate course of action. Each action has different rates of efficacy depending on the severity of the disease and the animals infected so the candidate must choose the action that maximizes survival.

Scenario 4 In the Digital Assessment: Ecosystem Development

Objective: To build a self-sustaining natural habitat such as coral reef or jungle

A selection of different animals and plants requires varying amounts of space and nutrients. The candidate must assess the benefits of each and select an optimal combination that will ensure a sustainable ecosystem.​

The more prosperous the ecosystem is, the higher score the candidate is awarded.

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Top Tips For the McKinsey Digital Assessment

To help you take the McKinsey digital assessment there are 3 top tips to ensure you are prepared:​

1. Take them in a quiet environment – The games take approximately 60 minutes but you have an hour to complete them. Ensuring you are taking the test in a quiet environment without distractions will ensure optimal performance in each of the games.​

2. Complete them in the morning – It is proven that people’s cognitive ability is higher in the morning when they are most awake and alert. For tasks requiring focus and attention this is particularly important and so taking the games in the morning will increase performance.​

3. Play video games – The games are similar to other strategy-based games that require users to build an ‘empire’ or to defend a ‘kingdom’. These games will be different in their appearance but the concept of having to make trade-offs between different strategic choices is exactly what the McKinsey games are recreating.

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How to succeed?

No one really knows how to “win” in the game just yet, but one thing not to do is to try and replicate the actions of someone who has taken the assessment before. The game has enough variability to prevent any attempt of cheating. Every user sees a unique version of the scenarios.

It is especially important to read the instructions carefully and take the time in the tutorials. There are a lot of details that can feel overwhelming. Think 80/20 and get comfortable with making decisions in conditions of ambiguity, and partial information, while always rooting the decisions in the facts.

How to prepare?

One of the reasons for switching to Imbellus is that candidates can prepare for the PST. Multiple previous and mock tests available online can get you in order for the old 1 hour, 26 questions test. McKinsey found a strong bias towards applicants with the time and resources to purchase mock tests and practice for the PST.

The Digital Assessment is meant to be a novel scenario for applicants, which is still evolving and changing between recruitment cycles. In theory, the game should prevent candidates with exact sciences backgrounds from having an advantage. Instead, it tests logic, decision-making, and clarity of thought.

If you are into video games, you are in luck! If not, it might be a time to start. Candidates report that the Imbellus assessment reminds them of the popular category of “tower defense” games, in particular, Kingdom Rush and Planet Zoo. Worst case, this is another, potentially useful way to spend time during the quarantine.

Make sure to check out this Consulting Q&A thread about the McKinsey Problem Solving Game to receive insights from former management consultants as well as candidates who have passed the Imbellus test!

By now you have learned a lot about how to master the McKinsey Problem Solving Game. With all the information from the article and further preparation material from our case interview experts, you will be perfectly prepared to ace the Imbellus test and make it to the first round of the McKinsey interview!

As soon as you receive the invitation to the interview, don't forget to read through the article on the McKinsey Problem Solving Interview as well as the article on how to master the McKinsey Personal Experience Interview (PEI). Those will give you guidance for your further case interview preparation and will help you land the job at McKinsey!