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McKinsey Problem Solving Game

Recruiting 2.0 is here

The McKinsey Problem Solving Game, also known as the McKinsey Digital Assessment, has generated a lot of hype recently, as the firm has rolled out this conservation-themed video game to replace its more familiar business-themed, pen-and-paper PST examination.

The claim from McKinsey as well as the test’s creators Imbellus, is that the Digital Assessment cannot be specifically prepared for. This has obviously caused concern amongst candidates who want to do everything they can to give themselves the best possible chance of an eventual job offer.

While it is true that the “practice” mantra does not apply here, being familiar with a gamified environment and the possible scenario you encounter will put you in a better position to tackle the test.

What's in it for you

We’ll give you an overview of what the test looks like, what it tests for and how. We’ll then dive deeper to help you familiarise with the test and discover to what extent you really can prepare for this test.

Master the Problem Solving Game

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The key to understanding how to prep for the McKinsey Problem Solving Game is to first understand why it exists and what McKinsey are trying to find out about candidates by using it.

Select Reef Species from McKinsey Problem Solving Game

Considering this, will show us that there are multiple effective methods which will allow you to boost performance on the Problem Solving Game. These methods are covered in more exhaustive detail than is possible here in our PDF guide to the Problem Solving Game. However, we will run through some key ones here to get you started.

The fundamentals

First, though, we should understand a little basic background on the Digital Assessment, what is looks like and how McKinsey are using it.

A quick rollout

Whilst interest has ramped up exponentially in recent months, versions of the test have been in use in various geographies since an initial trial with applicants to McKinsey’s London office in 2017. At first, the Digital Assessment was deployed as a supplement to the PST. One more layer of selection to get through before case interviews and – crucially – one more way for McKinsey to narrow down its huge pool of applicants before the costly inconvenience of pulling consultants off projects to administer interviews.

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More recently, though, McKinsey have accelerated the rollout of the Problem Solving Game and increasingly used it to replace the PST entirely. Generally, it has been kept in the same role of screening candidates prior to case interviews, though it has apparently also been used as a supplement to case interviews in some locations.

At the beginning, due to concerns from McKinsey and Imbellus about both confidentiality and possible cheating, candidates had to show up to an office to take the test on McKinsey computers. However, these concerns have been able to be addressed such that versions of the Assessment have increasingly been able to be taken from home. If you are taking the Problem Solving Game, you might have to do it from home or come in to an office, depending on which location you are applying to.

Always ask HR if you have any doubt about whether, and in which format, you will be taking the Problem Solving Game"

One notable takeaway from seeing how the Digital Assessment has been used more widely over time is that we can expect that the score needed to pass is going to steadily go up in future.

In initial trials, McKinsey will likely have been using this new tool only to filter out the least suitable candidates. The main goal will have been to build up data about how Digital Assessment results correlated with PST scores and (crucially) case interview performance. Now McKinsey seem to have gained confidence in the Problem Solving Game – as demonstrated by its rapid rollout – and we can expect it to be used to make at least as harsh a cut in the applicant pool as the PST did. Very likely it will eventually be used to make a harsher cut than the PST, as the Digital Assessment is a much more capable assessment tool.

For you the candidate, this means that you should be focusing not just on passing the Problem Solving Game, but on getting the highest score you can!

How does the Problem Solving Game work?

Format

The Problem Solving Game is a huge departure from pretty much any corporate selection method in taking the form of a fully-rendered video game set in a naturalistic, rather than business, environment.

This “gamified assessment” has been given in formats where you have 60-75 minutes to complete all tasks. Generally, the versions taken at home are the shorter ones, as they include a little less content.

McKinsey Problem Solving Game - a wolf in a mountain

The Assessment itself is usually split into two or three scenarios or games, with you having to perform two or three tasks within each scenario. Often, the first scenario will take longer than the next/others. Despite this partition, though, you have only one “budget” of time and will not be prompted to move between games if you are spending longer than anticipated. This means, for example, that it would be possible (though a really bad idea!) to spend the whole 75 minutes just on the first game.

It is worth noting that candidates have reported finishing games with significant amounts of time to spare and Imbellus has explicitly stated that have avoided building in time pressure for the Digital Assessment, so that they can better assess the target thinking skills McKinsey is interest in, rather than simply candidate’s “processing speed”.

The Digital Assessment is not just scored according to whether you get the right answers – your “product score”. Rather, it tracks every mouse movement and click and passes this through Imbellus’s modelling to generate a “process score”; capturing the quality of your thought processes in getting to those answers.

With this and a lack of overwhelming time pressure, it is probably best to regard the Problem Solving Game as something you should not be hurrying through. It is a test of structured rather than rapid thought.

As a final point on time, note that you cannot pause or stop the clock during gameplay. However, at the start of each game, there will be a tutorial, introducing you to the scenario you are dealing with. This will explain the mechanics, rules, objective and other details of the game you are about to play. This is untimed and the idea is that you make sure you fully understand the setup before you start/restart the countdown and proceed to start playing the games themselves.

Since specific rules and other parameters will potentially be varied between each individual candidate, you really should pay attention here and not simply assume that it is the same as a scenario you read or heard about.

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If you are taking the test in a McKinsey office, you are generally allowed to bring your own pen and paper (and you should!). If you are taking it at home, you use pen and paper, an additional computer screen or whatever you like. We will return below to how to use these resources strategically.

What does it actually look like?

Specifically, candidates are required to undertake conservation themed tasks in either alpine or aquatic ecosystems. You will be dealing with plants, eagles, turtles, fish and coral reefs.

McKinsey and Imbellus have published some screenshots and video clips in their websites. You can see a couple of stills below:

McKinsey have also published a video where they discuss the test and show some images of it.

Imbellus have been clear that they have tried to make their virtual environments as realistic as possible and have tried to avoid having the various animals and plants act in counter-intuitive or “unnatural” ways. Certainly, many of the images we have seen suggest this has been the case, at least in some of the games used as part of the Assessment.

You can see how the game was put together in a talk by Rebecca Kantar, the founder of Imbellus, in the first part of this video.

Scenarios

Imbellus have continued to leverage the same digital assets (they are sticking to the same virtual animals etc. which they have already developed), but have been putting them together into different specific games or scenarios. As noted above, the precise details and even specific rules of each scenario will be randomised and differ between each individual candidate. This means that you will not be able to get as much of an advantage as you might think by speaking to those who have just taken the Assessment for the same office – a solution that worked for them may not work for you!

We discuss the scenarios that have been reported so far in our comprehensive PDF guide. However, the variations on the following have been reported:

Ecosystem Building

Here, you need to construct a stable new ecosystem, picking a suitable site which can sustain a variety of different species and then selecting specific species to occupy spaces in the new food web. Your new ecosystem must be able to function sustainably.

Building a mountain ecosystem

Plant Defence

In this scenario, you are tasked with defending a plant from a damaging invasive species by placing predators and obstacles in a landscape. This is a turn-based game, where you and the invasive species will alternate moves. There are more and more invaders every turn is expected that you will be overrun eventually – however, you will be assessed on how long you hold out for and how good your strategy is in doing so.


Less Common Scenarios

These scenarios featured in earlier versions of the Problem Solving Game and have not been seen more recently. However, new versions of them might be seen in future as Imbellus continue to iterate their games.

Disease Diagnosis

An unknown disease is afflicting members of an animal population. You must work out what the problem is from a large volume of information and then suggest a treatment plan – again based on large amounts of information.

Disaster Indentification

You must work out which natural disaster is killing off members of an animal population. As with the disease above, you must work out what specific kind of disaster has been taking place. You must then pick a new location to move the animals to where they will survive – again based on a large amount of data and much the same as the start of the ecosystem building scenario.

Which skills does the Problem Solving Game test for?

So, what does your ability to guard a plant tell McKinsey about your ability to be a management consultant? McKinsey and Imbellus have been explicit that the Digital Assessment tests for the following five key thinking skills:


  • Critical thinking : making judgements based on the objective analysis of information
  • Decision making : choosing the best course of action, especially under time pressure or with incomplete information
  • Metacognition : deploying appropriate strategies to tackle problems efficiently
  • Situational awareness : the ability to interpret and subsequently predict an environment
  • Systems thinking : understanding the complex causal relationships between the elements of a system

The idea is that these are fundamental cognitive abilities required for consulting work and are the same key skills which were already tested in the PST and case interviews.

The most salient difference between the Digital Assessment and the PST is that the Digital Assessment tests these skills outside of a business context. This means that otherwise talented candidates coming into consulting from non-business professional or academic backgrounds will not be at a constant disadvantage relative to MBA holders and others with a firm business grounding. Replacing market sizing and valuations with turtles and coral reefs evens the playing field in terms of prior knowledge.

The famous island from the McKinsey Problem Solving Game

The specific setting in the natural world is also supposed to control for broader cultural and experiential differences between candidates. The rationale set out by Imbellus is that the generic ecosystems they make use of are ones that every candidate can be expected to have some familiarity with. By contrast, if the game was set in, for example, a European city, this might have disadvantaged or alienated those from other geographies. This is supposed to allow McKinsey to reliably find the best talent from right around the globe.

A further crucial qualitative difference (and a very impressive innovation from Imbellus) beyond the PST and other traditional tests is that the Problem Solving Game produces a “Process Score” as well as a “Product Score”. This means that you are not just being tested on whether you produce the correct answer, but in how rational and efficient your method for getting to that answer was.

To do this, the Digital Assessment tracks every mouse click and movement you make as you play the games. Feeding this data through their models allows Imbellus to tell McKinsey if you were proceeding in a structured, thoughtful manner or if you were panicking and operating in a chaotic way.

By producing a process score in this way, the Problem Solving Game can be thought of as more similar to an automated case interview than to the old PST it replaces. Imbellus seem to have succeeded in replacing the judgement of the interviewer in assessing how you go about solving the problems you are given.

The takeaway for you the candidate is that just arriving at a good solution will not be itself and will not get you through to interviews!

How to Prepare for the Problem Solving Game

Why McKinsey replaced the PST

We can understand a great deal about the nature of the Digital Assessment and how we might prepare for it by understanding why McKinsey felt the need to commission Imbellus to produce a new test at all.

As a direct simulation of consulting work with the subtlety of a human interrogator, the case interview is the single best tool McKinsey have to assess candidates. However, McKinsey and other major consulting firms are inundated with far more applicants than they can hope to give interviews. This is doubly so because case interviews are expensive and inconvenient for the firms to organise.

As such, a screening test is required. The old PST tested same five key consulting thinking skills set out above, but within a business context. However, the PST was unsatisfactory for several reasons. Notably:

No insight into process

There was no way of telling if a correct PST answer was nonetheless the result of poor reasoning or even a lucky guess. McKinsey wanted insight into candidates’ process.

Too easy to game

The PST had been around long enough and was predictable enough that a well-prepared candidate could easily beat a genuinely-gifted one. Prep material was relatively easy to make and was widely available. Something less easy to prepare for and to simulate was required.

Selecting the wrong candidates for the modern consulting industry

As clients have been coming to consultancies in recent years with more and more specific, technically involved problems, those consultancies need to recruit staff with genuine, sector-specific expertise (read more here) if they are going to be able to keep delivering solutions. Since top level programmers or engineers might not come with the kind of business background the PST presupposed, that test would work to eliminate highly desirable applicants. Thus, testing outside a business context was required.

Overall, then, we can clearly see that the Digital Assessment exists in the specific form it does as a direct response to pressing, pragmatic needs from McKinsey. It is simply another tool for McKinsey to select candidates based in the same fundamental skills. In this light, the Problem Solving Game seems a lot less off-the-wall and a lot more like something we can tackle effectively…

Can the Problem Solving Game be prepared for?

It is not hard to find sources online which say the Problem Solving Game cannot be meaningfully prepared for at all . In fact, it has become common to discuss the Assessment almost like an IQ or similar raw intelligence test, in that it apparently assesses innate skills and preparation won’t boost your scores. The best you can hope for, goes the reasoning, is just to get ready for the format so as to minimise anxiety.

However, this is simply incorrect. The skills which McKinsey and Imbellus have clearly stated they are measuring are technically “higher order thinking skills”. These are well established to be largely acquired via education and experience.

To make the distinction clear, if intelligence is the horsepower of a racing car, thinking skills are how the driver uses that car to actually win races around different tracks. In the same way as a great car with a terrible driver will not win anything, so McKinsey have no use for very intelligent individuals who do not have the clear, crisp, insightful way of thinking needed for their work. An engine won’t get more powerful the more you use it, but a driver had better practice if they want to become good enough to win races.

In short then, the Problem Solving Game is not an intelligence test, but assesses skills which can be built over time – and which you should be working on if you want to do well!

Now that we know that that Digital Assessment can, in principle be prepared for, our attention immediately turns to the question of how?. There is a lot you can and should be doing. We cover this in exhaustive detail in our full-length PDF guide.

A preparation strategy

Here, we can give a quick outline of the main areas to work on:


Learn to think like a consultant

The consulting mindset that embodies the five key skills above has been explicitly written about and discussed a great deal. We have excellent articles on this site on key concepts like the MECE Rule and the Hypothesis Driven Approach to get you started, though all of this is covered in most detail in our MCC Academy course .


Learn to solve problems like a consultant

You should ideally already have started preparing for case interview by the time you are preparing for the Problem Solving Game. These preparations will be hugely synergistic as both rely on the same fundamental consulting skillset. However, the specific case cracking method we teach at MCC is even more useful in that it also generalises outside the business context and can be applied to the games in the Problem Solving Game.

You can read about our Problem Driven Structure method in the articles on this site, though the best place to learn how to use it in depth is our MCC Academy course . We show how that method translates to the demands of the Digital Assessment in our PDF guide .


Build Specific Thinking Skills

Learning about consulting thinking and case cracking will build all five key skills at once. However, it is also possible to train each of these in isolation. We cover this in huge detail in our PDF Guide, with specific, practical advice and resources to train everything from critical thinking to metacognition.


Preparing for an Ecology-Themed Video Game

You are being asked to complete an ecology themed video game. As such, you will benefit from getting used to gaming of you are not already (especially as certain commercial games map quite neatly onto Assessment scenarios) and from gaining some rudimentary knowledge of the kind of ecosystems you will be asked to intervene in and build. We discuss how to go about both in detail in our PDF Guide.


Test Day Strategy

As with any test, you should be aiming to optimise factors like time management on the day itself. In the PDF Guide , we discuss this, as well as how you can optimally leverage your notepad etc in both the at-home and on-location version of the game.

The most comprehensive guide to Problem Solving Game

Our team of McKinsey consultants, educational experts and top-performing test-takers have put together a fully comprehensive, downloadable PDF guide to give you the best possible shot of passing. A total of 44 pages packed with all the information you need. Part I focuses on providing an in-depth understanding of the test, Part II on preparation strategies and Part III on resources, both internal and external, you can use to practice.

Does it make sense to invest in a guide?

Short answer: yes. If you just think about the financials, a job a McKinsey is worth millions in the long run. If you factor in experience, personal growth and exit opportunites, the investment is a no-brainer.

How our guide can help you ace the test

Don't expect some magic tricks to game the system (because you can't), but rather an in-depth analysis of 3 macro areas that is guaranteed to boost your score.

  1. Familiarise with the test environment

    The guide covers in detail all scenarios you will have to face. While specific rules change, the overall setting remains the same. Being familiar with the game rules, mechanics and graphics in advance will reduce the amount of information you have to elaborate, allowing you to focus on the specific problems at hand. If you had to play treasure hunt, you would do it in a place you are familiar with, wouldn't you?

  2. Develop the right skillset

    Despite the innovative environment, the Problem Solving Game tests candidates for the same skills evaluated in case interviews, albeit on a more abstract level. Our guide breaks these down and suggests exercises and activities to develop them. We focus on skills and not test strategies.

  3. Prepare efficiently

    A clear plan on how to prepare for the test is instrumental for success. Our guide includes a detailed preparation strategy which spans from old-fashioned GMAT exercises to playing videogames! We have worked with a number of educational experts to gather all the activities you need to hone the cognitive skills needed for the Problem Solving Game. Who knew all those hours spent in front of Fornite could help you get into McKinsey?

I felt very uncomfortable with this new format, I don't really play computer games. The insights and preparation tips in the guide helped me build confidence and pass the test. Thanks MyConsultingCoach!
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