What is the Fit Interview - also known as the McKinsey PEI?
Fit interviews are also known as "CV interviews" or "Personal Experience Interviews" - as abbreviated in the well-known McKinsey PEI. However we refer to them, though, fit interview performances are always crucial in consulting hiring decisions.
Contrary to common belief, consulting interviews are not just about case studies and analytic skills. Working consultants need a well-rounded skill set and must constantly draw upon a whole suite of "soft skills" beyond their analytical abilities in order to successfully complete projects.
Consulting firms also suffer the constant loss of junior consultants, who resign either because they cannot stomach the workload or as they always planned to move on to another sector. As such, your interviewers are not only interested in assessing your analytic skills, but also your wider, interpersonal skillset, character and motivation to want to stick with consulting.
Given all of this, the consulting application process will inevitably involve you being asked questions to get a handle on these qualities. This is where fit interviews come in. The McKinsey PEI is just a set of interview questions to assess whether you have the soft skills and the motivation to succeed at that firm.
Bain, BCG, and other consultancies all assess candidates in much the same manner, with their own versions of the fit interview. In practice, the format of all these shades of fit interview is fundamentally very similar. To be in contention for any MBB or comparable role, you'll need to give the same kind of compelling, structured answers and demonstrate the same key qualities to leave your interviewer in no doubt that you are the right person for the job. In this article, we find out how to do just that and deliver the kind of fit interview performance you need to land a top consulting job!
IS THE FIT INTERVIEW really THAT IMPORTANT?
You might be thinking, "surely, being good at cracking cases is what will really make me a good consultant? This fit stuff is just a bonus, right?"
It is certainly tempting to imagine that the more technical, intellectual skills assessed in the case interview will be valued more highly. Similarly, a common misconception is that over-performing in case cracking can somehow compensate for poor performance in a fit interview or McKinsey PEI. Unfortunately, this is not the case - no average is taken between the case and fit interviews, and underperformance in either segment will lead to rejection.
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Just as a consultant who could not crack cases would be no good to anyone, a real consultant who was only good at the technical side of projects would be of just as little use to their firm. The day-to-day work of a consultant relies heavily on a set of "soft skills" which the fit interview is designed to test.
Consulting work requires constant interaction with individuals at all levels of the business hierarchy. Consultants must be able both to work as part of a team and to lead one when required. They must have the confidence to make their voice heard and the initiative to take a creative approach and make their mark on a project.
Of course, there is also the straightforward fact that your interviewer really does want to assess whether you "fit" with the company. A good deal of importance is placed on how well you will bend in with the firm's culture.
At a basic level, this is perfectly understandable - nobody wants to work in a high-pressure environment with someone who is difficult to get along with and your interviewer is certainly not going to give you a job if they dread the idea of working with you. A degree of likability is also essential for day to day success in the job, as consultants must be able to rapidly establish and then maintain good rapport with new clients.
Conveying that you have all these qualities in the fit interview is, in itself, a test of your communication skills - which are assessed throughout the case interview as well. The simple truth to remember is this - having the mental capacity for case cracking is no use if you cannot communicate.
All this might seem obvious, but underperformance in the fit interview ranks consistently as one of the top two causes of rejection, along with lack of structure in case cracking (a reason why we emphasize structuring problems so much).
There is no way around it - if you want to work for McKinsey, you will have to ace their PEI. If you want a role with BCG, you will have to smash your fit interviews there. Nobody will employ you based on case interviews alone.
Before we get down to the nitty-gritty, we should get a handle on what form your fit interview might take. Fit interviews can vary significantly in format depending upon the specific firm to which you are applying, as well as the preferences of your particular interviewers.
Some firms will have a separate fit interview of up to one hour. However, more common is to have fit segments within the same interview as case studies. This has the advantage for firms of having as many different individuals as possible assess you in this area.
Indeed, even if you have a separate fit interview, you should still plan for fit questions within your case interviews - the general rule is that there is "no case without fit". The fact that many candidates go into their case interviews not expecting to also receive any significant fit questions is actually a major driver of rejections, as candidates will be left stumped and end up fluffing questions they have not prepared for.
What about the McKinsey PEI? Is it different?
Many of you will have heard that McKinsey do things differently, and some of you reading this will be prepping explicitly for interviews with McKinsey. As with other aspects of their application process (such as their interviewer-led case studies and the Problem Solving Game), McKinsey has moved towards a slightly more structured approach to their fit questions.
Generally, the McKinsey PEI will take the form of a ten-minute segment at the start of each case interview you do throughout the recruitment process. As we mentioned above, this approach maximizes the number of interviewers who get to grill you on fit issues.
You will only be questioned on one particular personal quality per interview, being asked one main question and then spending the remainder of the time drilling down into the details of your answer. For example, you might be asked to describe a time where you demonstrated leadership and then be asked several follow-up questions on details of the scenario you describe.
In actuality, this approach from McKinsey to their PEI is just a slightly more formalized (and to some extent predictable) version of what everyone else in the industry is doing. Questions will be pretty much the same as elsewhere, just with a little less variance in format. Ultimately, you will have to prep for the McKinsey PEI in just the same way as you will have to prep to answer fit questions at Bain, BCG or any other consultancy.
Indeed, it should be noted that even the specific way McKinsey approach their fit questions is far from unusual and you can expect any consulting interview to adopt a somewhat similar overall format to the PEI.
The "Typical" Consulting Interview
In general then, across many firms, the "Fit" or "Personal Experience Interview" (PEI) is one of the two components - along with the case study - which make up a typical consulting interview as a whole.
The body of the fit interview will tend to be at the start of the session, though there will often be a second, short fit segment right at the end, where you are expected to ask questions of the interviewer. In total, then, the fit component might last anywhere between 15 and 30 minutes. As above, this is pretty much how McKinsey operates its PEI and is increasingly standard across the industry.
How to prepare for the interview?
By now, you might have gone from complacency to getting rather worried about your fit interviews. However, the fact that so many candidates are rejected due to poor fit performance is actually good news for you reading this! With so many individuals failing to prepare properly for the fit interview is an opportunity for you to excel!
Even better, the fit component is also the most predictable part of the wider interview (as noted, the McKinsey PEI is particularly predictable), meaning that proper preparation requires a bit of time, but is relatively straightforward if approached properly. You don't need to learn any math, at least!
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Good preparation for the fit interview will greatly increase your chances of landing a job. So, how to go about it?
Synergy with your application
Ideally, preparation for your fit interview effectively begins as you put together your initial application - that is, your resume and cover letter. You can think of this almost as "step zero" in your fit interview prep.
Fit interviews are often referred to as "CV interviews" precisely because they draw so heavily on your written application. You can expect that the questions in your fit interview will generally pick up on points from your resume and cover letter. .
As such, we strongly recommend reading our resume and cover letter guides. Even if you have already submitted the relevant documents and received an invitation to interview, those guides' content makes them excellent companion pieces to this article.
In our resume and cover letter guides, we go through the overall consulting skillset which recruiters and interviewers are looking for, as well as explaining how to provide evidence of your skills by linking them to real-world achievements.
We also discuss how to tailor the content of your resume and cover letter to set yourself up for a barnstorming fit interview by placing points in your application intended to act as a springboard into well prepared interview answers.
For example, the "additional information" section of resumes are often filled in as an afterthought, with the assumption that this section doesn't really contain anything important. However, a large proportion of fit questions are either asked about or can draw upon what is written under additional information.
As such - with a little thought - you can turn your mention of, say, organizing a casual soccer team for a local tournament, can lead into a well-prepared, compelling narrative about how you demonstrated effective leadership and conflict resolution skills.
Obviously, if you have already submitted your application, there is no point in worrying right now about whether you could have optimized what you said there (it can't be that bad if you got an interview, anyway). All you can do is work out how to give the best answers you can to questions about the points you have included.
Leaving aside applications, the first step to directly preparing for your fit interview is to acquire a full understanding of the demands of that interview. While case interviews help consultants to test your problem-solving skills, the fit interview is there to determine whether you are sufficiently motivated and ready to generate real impact - that is, to make change happen.
Often, candidates think that the fit interview will just be a standard motivational interview, much as one would expect when applying for any other job. However consulting fit interviews are different: they are a challenging, in-depth assessment of the specific skill set the job requires.
There are two main areas you’ll be tested on in your fit interview:
- Motivation - why you want to be a consultant with that specific firm
- Personal impact - stories of leadership, impact and teamwork
We can think of the fit interview as a sum of these parts. Let's take a look at each in detail, with some examples of the kinds of questions you might be asked:
Motivation and cultural fit
Typical motivation questions are:
- Why Consulting?
- Why Firm XYZ and not a competitor?
- What are the pros and cons of consulting in your view?
- Why aren’t you applying to tech/finance/...?
- Consulting is extremely challenging and can be exhausting at times. How would you cope with such a demanding lifestyle?
Posed this kind of question, it might be tempting to rattle off a very general, predictable reply. You want to be a consultant because of the varied, exciting work, perhaps...
What your interviewer does not want to hear is the same empty platitudes they have just heard rehearsed by all the other clients before you. Even leaving aside whether or not these commonly held ideas are actually true (many are not), parroting clichés is always a quick way to lose attention.
Interviewers have very good reason to want to gauge your motivation. Life as a consultant with an MBB firm is intense and only a particular kind of character will survive and thrive. Many new consultants do not stick with the profession for very long and might have dropped out within a year. Bearing this in mind, firms want to be sure that you are genuinely motivated to enter the profession in general and their company in particular.
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To be successful, you should demonstrate both that you know what you are getting into and that consulting really is where you belong.. You will need a compelling narrative that demonstrates why consulting is the logical next step for you at this point in your career.
This is especially important if you are coming from a non-standard background - for example, if you are moving from another industry or have an unusual academic background.
When asked to discuss what attracts you to consulting in general or to that firm in particular, you need to be specific and show that you actually know what you are talking about. Go the extra mile and do some serious research on your potential employers.
In general, always remember: you should be enthusiastic about a career in consulting - remember to show it!
Let's say we are in a McKinsey PEI and receive the standard motivation question:"So why do you want to work at McKinsey?"
An example of an answer following the advice here would be:
"For me, the primary reason to join McKinsey is that, in our country, it is the leader in the financial sector I am so much passionate about since working at ABC Bank."
"In addition, I've worked a lot with McKinsey as a client, and I was impressed with the solutions, quality standards and business ethic that you delivered. Your recommendations have significantly improved the process flow in our branches."
"Last, but not the least, I have many friends working in your office! By the way, I heard about your tradition of morning runs and will be more than happy to join."
With the first point here, the candidate opens with a true, well-researched fact that shows they are genuinely familiar with McKinsey and know what they are talking about in general. They also show that they want to specialize in banking - which in itself shows some understanding of how consulting works (many candidates do not appreciate that they will eventually specialize in a particular area).
In the second point, our candidate recalls the personal experience of working with McKinsey, including details and an example.
Finally, the candidate provides non-business reasons for wanting to work at McKinsey. This shows that they have gone the extra mile in their research, even getting to know about office traditions and cultural demands.
The fact that they already know people in the office helps to suggest that they will fit with the team and - crucially - that they know what they are getting into in terms of the general demands of life at McKinsey. All of this being so specific to McKinsey also helps to show commitment to wanting to work for that firm in particular, rather than a competitor.
Personal impact questions
Typically, you will be asked to talk about a specific experience that reflects how you demonstrate a particular consulting-relevant trait like leadership. The story could either start from an achievement on your resume, like “how did you manage to convince sponsors to provide $500 of funding for your club?” or could be a more open-ended question, like “tell me about a time when you…”. The ultimate purpose of these questions is to assess your capacity to affect change - to make an impact.
You should be able to provide stories about how you made a positive difference in a way that clearly demonstrates whichever quality the interviewer has asked about. For example, if asked about leadership, you need a story about how you took command of a situation and guided a team to a positive outcome.
Stories can be drawn from any aspect of your life, whether professional, academic or personal. Relatively mundane situations are still perfectly relevant, so long as they demonstrate the qualities the interviewers are looking for.
Not every story needs to be one of conquering Everest without oxygen or founding an international charity in your spare time. For one thing, top consulting firms are stuffed full of high achievers, so it would take a lot to impress (and a lot of people climb Everest these days). In this respect, you might say it is the "moral of the story" that matters, rather than the specific content.
Fundamentally, consultants are always interested in results. Bear in mind that, just because you held some role does not mean you were actually good at it. We all meet people who are not very competent at their jobs. Just because you were in charge of a project, captained a team, or ran a charity event does not mean that you were successful at all.
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To convince your interviewer that you really have the skills and qualities they are looking for, you should always provide some kind of evidence that you performed well in whatever role you are describing. Where possible, it is helpful to quantify your success in some way - especially where this is in terms of key business metrics such as revenue or profitability.
Thus, you might say that you led a project to streamline a department's working methods, cutting costs by 23%, or that you contributed key material to a marketing campaign that increased revenue by 15%. Alternatively, you might have raised $5,000 for a charity or led your sports team to their best league placing in eight years.
As well as adding some authority to what you are saying, numbers tend to stick in the mind and will help your interviewer to remember you and your answers after a whole day of grilling other candidates.
Be sure to read our resume guide for a much more comprehensive treatment on how to use achievements as evidence of key consulting skills. In particular, there we give detailed advice on what kind of achievement can be used to demonstrate specific skills. Ideally, building a repertoire of achievements to draw upon is something that straddles both your written application and interview preparation.
Your personal impact stories will tend to be about demonstrating one of a defined set of key attributes required by the firm. Whether you are facing McKinsey's PEI or a fit interview with another consultancy, you will be asked about essentially the same set of attributes - in effect the non-analytic subset of the general consulting skill set we discuss in our resume article and elsewhere.
Interview questions that assess your leadership
Some typical leadership questions include the following:
- Please describe your most important leadership experience and the impact that you had as a leader
- Tell me about a time when you had to lead a team
- How do you lead others?
- Tell me about a time when you had to align multiple stakeholders
- Tell me about a time when you were faced with a stressful situation that demonstrated your coping skills
Answers might recount how you headed up a project at work, were captain of a sports team, ran a student club, or managed a voluntary activity - perhaps despite difficult individuals or internal politics.
Potential impact on the job
Questions on impact can be varied, but could include any of the following:
- Tell me about a time when you had to persuade an uncooperative stakeholder
- How would you deal with an uncooperative client in order to get the data you need?
- Describe a client relationship that was challenging
- What is your typical way of dealing with conflict? Give me an example
- Tell me about a recent crisis you handled
- Tell me about a time when you had to come up with a mutually beneficial solution for conflicting stakeholders
- Describe a project that challenged you. How did you cope?
- Tell me about a time when you had too many things to do and you were required to prioritize tasks
Your answers here might refer to any number of different kinds of scenarios, but you should be able to demonstrate your effectiveness and show that you can balance multiple difficult tasks.
Candidates and teamwork
Some standard teamwork questions are as follows:
- Tell me a time when you were a team player
- Give me an example of a time you influenced or persuaded a team
- Tell me about a time when you had to come up with a win-win solution in a team
- Tell me about a time when you had to mediate in a team
This can be interpreted broadly to include pretty well any activity where you have worked productively with others. Examples you can draw on will include any team project work in both education and the workplace as well as sporting and voluntary work. As with leadership, teamwork will be more impressive where you have negotiated difficult personalities or other sub-optimal circumstances to reach a positive outcome.
Typical achievement questions are as follows:
- What accomplishments have given you the greatest satisfaction?
- What do you consider your top three achievements to date?
- Tell me about a time you took the initiative to start something
- Tell me about a time you had to adopt a new approach/think laterally about something
- Have you ever failed at anything?
- What have been your three biggest setbacks?
- Describe a situation where you failed. What did you learn about yourself and how did you change as a result?
- Tell me about a project that didn’t go well and why and what you would do differently next time?
- What experiences/skills do you feel are particularly transferable to our organization?
Really, all of your personal impact stories should recount some kind of achievement to provide supporting evidence of the qualities you are claiming to have. However, with these questions, the achievements themselves take center stage and the lessons above apply doubly.
You should have prepared at least two stories that demonstrate each of these qualities - do not just rely on one. Of course, you can have a particular story that you prefer to use, but if it is simply not relevant to the question you are asked, then you should have another you can seamlessly switch to (you should definitely avoid trying to make a story that isn't really relevant fit the interviewer's question).
Telling compelling stories in your interviews
As we have seen, telling stories about your own personal achievements is a large portion of the fit interview (McKinsey's PEI is a Personal Experience Interview, after all). However, just because you are telling your own anecdote does not mean that you can't get it wrong.
A well-told story of a relatively minor achievement will be a lot better for your job prospects than a poorly related story of some monumental deed. Like jokes, your interview stories are all in the telling.
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Your set of stories should be worked out and practiced well in advance of the interview and - just as with all consulting communication - should be clear and structured. Remember, your communication skills are always under scrutiny.
The STAR approach is often suggested for telling fit interview/PEI stories. Organize your stories in terms of the following four steps:
Task: describe your role and what you were supposed to do
Action you took: describe what you did to go the extra mile
Results: outline how your action had an impact on the initial situation
It will take planning and practice to properly organize your stories into this structure and to get used to telling them in a natural, easy manner. The STAR approach could fill a whole article. You might like to take a look at some more general sources on the method here and here.
Otherwise, here are some additional points to think about when using the STAR approach:
- Give a brief overview of the Situation and focus more on Task, Action, and Result, outlining how you made a difference
- Be structured, organized, and to the point
- Be specific: explain the specific problem you faced and the steps you took, focusing on the behavioral/impact side
- Try to keep your initial overview succinct: avoid adjectives (much, very, incredible, huge…) and adverbs
- Do not be technical: focus on why the issue was important, not on technical details about the situation
After you tell a story, expect your interviewers to drill down into the details quite a bit, asking you for other people’s reactions, team dynamics, conflicts, and the like. This helps them learn more about you. A good reason to use true, unembroidered stories (beyond basic honesty) is that consultants are used to pulling things apart and will notice inconsistencies and elements that do not make sense.
You need to be ready to explain every single step in a specific situation. Most importantly, you need to be able to explain the rationale behind each of your own decisions. This is a reason that the McKinsey PEI and fit interviews at other firms will often focus on just one story per interview - so that the interviewer has time to get down to the nitty-gritty.
Let's put all of this together with example of a personal impact story . Say the interviewer poses a question like the following:"Describe a challenge which you have overcome. How did you do so?"
A well-prepared candidate might reply with something like this:
“When I was launching my startup, the biggest challenge was to identify and serve the first 50 customers, so I decided to leverage this opportunity and finally improve my skills.
“Firstly, I developed a sales strategy, prioritizing all clients by the size of the opportunity and the feasibility of sale. I created a funnel and decided to track my progress in converting those clients. To improve my selling skills, I took sales classes led by a well-known coach who gave me valuable feedback.
Additionally, I recorded all meetings and went through them again with my coach. Along the road, I got some great lessons - being passionate about the product, keeping momentum, increasing exposure, and building trusted relationships with customers.
I achieved my greatest progress when I decided to hire an intern and started coaching myself. Coaching helped me to structure what I learned and brought my expertise to an entirely new level.
Thus, I managed to build a $200k company that served more than 50 customers. More important, though, is that I developed my selling skills - an important component of any c-level skill set.”
The candidate here selects an excellent scenario to focus on, makes use of the STAR structure, and does not go into unnecessary detail in terms of contextual information. The narrative shows the candidate pursuing a sensible strategy to develop important skills.
In doing so, they demonstrate self-reflection and openness to feedback - two key traits of successful consultants. The whole story is very clear and specific as to important details - importantly, the candidate's achievement is quantified.
Asking your own questions
At the end of the interview, you will likely be asked if you have any questions. Candidates will generally fail to prepare for this section and might simply brush aside the request. However, these questions are a great opportunity to demonstrate intellectual capacity and build rapport with your interviewer. Ideally, your questions should be quite specific, demonstrating good knowledge of the specific company and/or role you are applying for.
These final questions can also be a good way to demonstrate your commitment to the current firm in particular by asking very specific questions about it - demonstrating both your interest and diligence in research.
In our cover letter guide, we explain how to generate this kind of specific content and much of what we say there can be readily applied to asking questions of your interviewer. For instance, we note that one of the best ways to come up with specific remarks that genuinely ring true is to network with current or former staff from the firm (or, ideally, the specific office) to which you are applying.
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Beyond simply allowing you to name drop (which can be useful in itself), these individuals will be able to tell you precisely what is really different or special about the firm or individual office you are applying to. Referencing these factors in your questions to the interviewer will set you apart from a field of candidates repeating the same clichés and common misconceptions.
Don't underestimate the power of something relatively mundane here to show interest in the specific firm whilst also building rapport. Thus, you might have been told about a before-work staff running club by a former employee at the office.
A great question would then be something like, "Joe Blogs told me about your early morning running club when he was based here. I would love to join in!". This demonstrates your cultural fit and interest in the job whilst also getting in a possibly familiar name and engaging with your interviewer in a rather more personal manner.
Alternatively, if you have not been able to network extensively, you can base these questions on your own research using publicly available sources. For example, you might ask about a specific recent project the firm has undertaken or about distinct working practices. This might link back to (and thus tacitly highlight) some of your own impressive background experiences or achievements.
For example, if you had an academic or professional background in automotive engineering or the car industry, you might enquire as to a recent project with a car manufacturer. This would show both enthusiasm for and real engagement with the work of your target firm.
Again, our cover letter guide is an excellent resource for a more detailed treatment of how to come up with specific points that will help to set you aside from the pack - definitely worth a read, even if your cover letter is long since submitted!
Parting impressions are major determinants of lasting opinions and you do not want the last thing your interviewer hears from you to leave a bad taste in their mouth. In this light, it can be just as important not to mess up these closing questions as it is to make a positively good job of them. After all, imagine how awful it would be to get all the way to the end of a successful interview - having shone in the first fit segment of questions to you and nailed your case study - and then saying something stupid to get yourself rejected at the last.
In particular, one of the worst things you can do with these questions is to signal any kind of doubt as to whether you can meet the demands of consulting. Generally, you should not be asking any question of the form "X isn't as bad as I hear, is it?".
As we have stated, a primary reason for fit interviews is to assess your level of motivation to work in consulting - to be sure that you will have the determination required to deal with the high demands of the job. Now, if you were to finish up a McKinsey PEI by asking something like "how many hours per week do you work? Is it as much as I hear?" or "do you find you get used to traveling constantly?", it will be a pretty clear way of telling your interviewer that you yourself are not even sure you are cut out for life at the firm. Why should they then think you are suitable? In short, keep your questions positive and enthusiastic.
Standing out from the crowd - "spikes"
Throughout all segments of the fit interview or PEI, you should keep in mind how your responses and your own questions help you to stand out from the field of other applicants. Following our advice up to this point is enough to place you head and shoulders above the average candidate in the fit interview. However, you should always bear in mind just how many applicants you are up against.
Your interviewer might be seeing up to five candidates that day. For each job available, the company will have any number of bright, capable applicants. You must work hard, not only to stand out as the best in a field of excellent candidates, but also just make sure that you are actually remembered.
Consultants will often talk about "spikes". These are specific skills or qualities which set one person apart from the pack. Your spikes are unique to you, and it might take you a while to figure out what they are. Ask yourself, what makes you different from everyone else your interviewer will meet that day?
Perhaps you are coming from an engineering PhD and have next-level analytical and technical skills. Perhaps you have excellent interpersonal or negotiation skills. Whatever it is, you effectively need to figure out your USP.
Once you have worked out what your spikes are, you should work to make sure that they are woven throughout your responses in the fit interview. The narrative you provide in response to a motivation question should show that your unique qualities are what make you so well suited for consulting. Similarly, your stories should ideally mention your individual spikes as having helped you manifest whichever traits the interviewer asks about.
Beyond your spikes, if you are coming from a non-standard background, you should think of this, not as something to be ashamed of and to explain away, but ideally as something which you can positively leverage to set you apart from competitors.
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In general, being a better-than-average interview candidate is a good start but, to actually get the job, you need to be the one name that is selected from the whole pool of applicants. For this to happen, you need to differentiate yourself from the pack and ensure that you are memorable.
Takeaway and your next steps...
Whilst you don't need to learn any maths or finance theory to prepare for your fit interview or McKinsey PEI, you need to take preparation seriously if you want to get a job in consulting. Being good at cases is not enough. You need to have planned your fit interview responses well in advance (ideally starting whilst drafting your resume), constantly keeping in mind how what you say will set you apart from the crowd of other applicants.
This piece gives you a great starting point. However, there is only so much a single article can convey. If you want to give yourself the best possible chance of success, then you should check out our Fit Interview Course and consider having a session with one of our ex-MBB consultants - nobody else will be able to point out where you need to improve as quickly.
Some of our other articles aimed at case interview preparation are also relevant for the fit component. In particular, the articles on CEO-level Communication and the Pyramid Principle will help you communicate more efficiently in the same way the STAR method aims to.