July 15, 2019

The Bain Online Test: How to Prepare (2019 update)

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When you apply to Bain, you might be asked to complete one or more online tests before you are invited to interview. Note that whether this is required and the precise format of any tests will vary depending on the office and the precise position you are applying for.

Here, we'll quickly run through what exactly the Bain Online Test is before giving some pointers on how you can best prepare to pass with flying colours and move one step closer to landing that dream job!

Parallel assessments

As a general note, the Bain Online Test is similar in both form and function to both the McKinsey PST and the BCG Potential Test. The similarities mean that much of the same general preparation methods and materials can be applied to the Bain assessment as to these equivalent tests. In particular, our longer article on preparing for the PST is a great general resource here and is a great companion to this post.

Why an online test at all?

The first step in your prep is to understand why Bain is asking you to complete this test at all. In fact, the MBB firms are increasingly implementing similar tests as a step between initial application and case interview.

The reason for this is simple: MBB firms receive a frankly absurd number of applicants for every position. Even after aggressive filtering of more than 50% of the pool at the application stage (see our articles on resumes and cover letters for how to make it through), there are still a very large number of candidates left.

Prep the right way

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Now, the case interviews which are the most well-known aspect of consulting selection require consultants take time away from work. As such, they are expensive and inconvenient for the company to eliminate applicants. Written (like the PST) and online (like the BCG Potential Test) tests offer firms a quick and effective way to whittle down candidates according to a subset of the skillset assessed by a case interview, minimising the number of consultant-hours lost on that activity.

One very direct way all of this matters for you the candidate is that, generally, you must pass your online test to hope to be progressed to receiving an interview and eventually landing a job. You can't make up for poor test performance elsewhere - passing is a pre-requisite. Bearing this in mind, proper preparation is crucial and a major driver of whether you will get hired or not!

What is being tested?

It is important to remember that the Bain online test is designed to test your skills rather than your knowledge. The test measures your analytic and problem solving abilities across questions of varying complexity, as well as your capacity for logical and critical thinking. Crucially, the test requires you to deploy these abilities under extreme time pressure.

What To Expect

Now, let's take a closer look at the typical format of the test - though note that this might vary between locations. Usually, the test is separated into two parts. The first includes critical reasoning and - most important - problem-solving. This component is often compared to aspects of the GMAT, which you might be familiar with. Here, the key to success will be working on improving the sheer speed with which you can get through the questions.

The second part of the test is a business case with multiple-choice questions. In this section, the focus is on the ability to analyze and interpret data. The style of questions here closely parallels the McKinsey PST, such that prep material designed for that test is useful here as well.

In terms of practicalities, the test will be conducted fully on a computer rather than paper. Often, you will be able to do these tests remotely, though you might be required to show up in person. Generally, you should prepare for not being allowed to use a calculator.



Structuring your prep

Diligent, structured preparation is essential if you want to do well on the Bain Online Test. A common error is the assumption that since "skills rather than knowledge" are being assessed means that these tests operate something like an IQ test - if you are clever, you will do well regardless of whether you prepare or not. However, this is a huge misconception. Even great candidates will fail the Online Test where they fail to properly prepare. A more helpful analogy would be preparing for a math exam. Sure, you need to be clever to do well, but even the most gifted student needs to have studied and practised the basics in order to pass.

So, proper preparation is crucial. Now, let's see how you should go about your prep. First, we'll look at the overarching structure of your prep, before zooming in on some specific issues around the content of the test and strategies for tackling it effectively.

1. Plan

Whether preparing for case interview or assessments like Bain's Online Test one of the primary underlying drivers of poor performance is the failure of candidates to plan their prep properly. Consulting applicants are hard workers and their instinct is often to jump straight in and get down to business. However, an unplanned prep will yield patchy results, where you fail to cover some areas adequately. You will also use time inefficiently, spending too long on areas where you are already strong.

As such, your first task should be to sit down and plan your prep. This is not just a matter of timetabling, but should include gathering the information and resources which you will require. Some points are particularly important:

Reach out to HR

To plan effectively, you first need the best idea possible about what you will be up against. We'll give more detail below in the section on content, but you should also get as much information from Bain as you can. This is especially important as your target office might do things differently.

You should find out what assessments the test includes and, where possible, which assessment company will be providing the tests. This will give you a better indication of the question style and time frame you will have to answer those questions.

Marshall all the resources you need

Bain's own website will always be a good start and there are lots of relevant general resources for skill building which we will point to below. You will soon realise that a major bottleneck to your prep is the availability of testing material (especially free material). However, our prep method here helps you work around that issue.

Save time and merge with case study prep

Given the overlap in skills tested by the Bain Online Test and subsequent case interviews and written case studies, it makes sense to integrate your prep for these different steps in the selection process. We have some general guidance on how to run test and case interview preps simultaneously in our PST article.

2. Practice

Obviously, working through practice questions is going to be a major part of any preparation. However, it is important that when you practice, you should do your best to simulate the real test conditions as closely as possible. In particular, since time pressure is a major component of what makes the Bain Online test so challenging, when you are practising, you should be attempting to get through the test in the allotted time - just like on test day.

As an additional note, don't be tempted to print questions out when you are practising. Annotating documents is a great time saver and a crucial part of test strategy for paper tests like the McKinsey PST. However, with a fully-online test, you will need to get used to making notes on a separate piece of paper and generally not being able to underline or circle anything on your test. It sounds simple, but developing effective strategies to work under test circumstances here will be a major component of success.

Closely simulating test conditions will mean that you are as comfortable as possible on test day. Importantly, though, closely simulating real conditions is the only way to expose where you really need to make improvements.  Most of the questions in the Online Test are pretty easy with unlimited time - you need to find out what you can and cannot get done fast enough.

3. Work on your weak points

Now, the problem with most candidates' preps for the Bain Online Test is that they start and end with simply practising questions. However, you will not master this or any similar assessment simply by working through example questions. Think about it - you wouldn't try to learn to read Japanese from scratch simply by staring at Japanese newspapers all day. This might teach you a little, but you would really need to build your basic skills in the language before attempting to translate whole blocks of complex text. Precisely the same is true for these tests.

Ideally, you will not only test yourself, but also spend time on directly developing your relevant skills. In particular, when you practice, you should be paying attention to the areas where you are falling down and then working on these issues separately. For example, if you consistently struggle to get through math fast enough, then you need to spend some time simply improving your math skills (our mental math article and practice tool will help here) before you go back to more practice questions.

Error log

A good way to focus on improving your weak points in these kinds of tests is to keep an error log. Precisely what form this takes is up to you, but you should be noting the questions you are getting wrong in practice as well as how they should be solved. We discuss error logs in more detail in our article on PST prep.

Now, whilst you should be focussing on them, you shouldn't only be working on your weak areas. If they are neglected, formerly-strong skills will quickly fall behind and become problematic in themselves.

4. Iterate

These steps of testing your abilities and then working to build skills in your weak areas should not be applied as a linear process but as an iterating cycle. After you have worked on your identified areas for improvement, you should test yourself again to see how you have improved. Then go away and work on whichever skill-areas are now your weakest. An error log will help with this process.

This relentless targeting of your current problem areas is not only the quickest way to bring up your test performance, but is also the most efficient use of the resources you have available. Importantly, access to test material is always going to be limited as there are only going to be so many example tests to be had (especially where test formats etc vary). Practising skills (which you will have resources to do indefinitely) in between testing will be the most effective way to yield as much progress as possible for each test you have to work with.

Specifics

Now that we have covered the general format of your prep, we should deal with some more specific points on how to prepare for the demands of the test itself. We'll run through some important notes on how to prepare for the particular kinds of questions which you will be up against, before moving on to discuss more pragmatic considerations around optimising test strategy for an assessment conducted under extreme time pressure.

1. Content

Whilst time is important in the Online Test, you cannot afford to sacrifice quality for speed. There is no sense in rushing to finish all the questions if you have gotten them all wrong. You will eventually need to learn to work fast, but you must first learn to work accurately. Only once you have a solid grasp on how to answer questions correctly can you start to work on getting to those answers faster. Let's take a look at some of the basics in making sure you get to these correct answers:

Dealing in Numbers

Mental math is the single most important skill to master for the Online Test, with many of the questions requiring you to make calculations very quickly and without a calculator. Practice doing the calculations as well as then improving your speed. Always focus on obtaining the correct results and then move onto getting those correct results quicker. Pay attention to the basics like simple multiplication tables, as well as calculating with percentages. Your ability to read charts effectively will also be crucial.

Our extensive article on mental math is a great start here for all aspects of the math you will need. You can practice the techniques you learn there with our free mental math practice tool. Whilst this is a great way to begin, the single best resource to learn mental math for consulting is the video lessons in the MCC Academy (which we discuss below).

Understand the Questions!

This is crucial! In order to find the correct solution, you have to understand the question. It is important that you pay attention to the details and descriptions that accompany each question. You would be surprised to find just how much information the questions and explanations included. One function of this information, noted below, is in saving precious time by helping you narrow down which parts of any supporting documents are actually relevant.

Scan vs Reading

There is a lot of text to get through in a very short amount of time. Realistically, it will be impossible to read everything in fully methodical fashion. However, there are a couple of ways to work around this fact.

First, the Online Test will require you to know when to read and when to scan. For each question, you will have to work out what text you have to read fully and what you can simply skim through. It is crucial here that you properly understand the question as we outline above. You must always read the question in a close, methodical manner. The information there will then often allow you to select only a subset of the supporting documents to read fully - rapidly skimming through them to identify only the data you need. In short, reading the question properly typically allows you to skim supporting documents.

Understanding the question also means that you start scanning the documents with an objective in mind. Being focused and knowing what you are looking means you can scan, rather than read the documents for the information, which saves you valuable time.

Otherwise, you should work on improving your reading speed and practice your ability to scan for information. There are a number of relevant resources that you can apply here, many available for free. Take some time to practice various speed reading exercises. You will also find a number of speed-reading smartphone apps that you can add to your list of test preparation resources.

2. Time/Test Strategy

Pretty much everyone who sits the Bain Online Test comes away with the same comments - the questions themselves are not actually that hard, but that the overall test is made hard by the extreme time pressure those questions have to be answered under. Often, in certain sections, candidates will have to rattle through questions in little more than one minute each!

This time pressure means that, whatever the intentions of their creators, the Bain Online Test and tests like it become assessments of test-taking ability as much as anything else. An otherwise great candidate will easily fail if they do not approach the test with a solid strategy. However, with good prep and strategy relatively "average" candidates can soon be brought up to a level where they reliably pass by applying sound test strategies.

Time per question

One common cause of failure is for candidates to get bogged down on harder questions and miss out on answering easier ones which are worth the same number of marks.

To avoid this happening to you, you must keep an eagle eye on how much time you are putting into each question. Note how much time is allotted for the test as a whole or the particular section and divide that up according to the number of questions and their relative value. Even if working this out takes you a few seconds in itself, it is an essential in optimising your performance.

For example, if you have 20 minutes to get through 10 questions, all with the same value, then you should make sure that you are not spending more than two minutes per question. If you hit the two minute mark on a question and are not ready to wrap it up, simply cut your losses and move to the next. You should only come back to spend more time on a recalcitrant question if you have finished all the others (though this is very unlikely to happen in the Bain Online Test, as many candidates struggle to finish).

Guessing

Now, one thing you might be wondering, if you run out of time on a question, is whether you should make a guess at the answer or not. A major difference between the Bain Online Test and the PST is that "negative marking" can apply for Bain's assessment. For the McKinsey PST, it makes sense to guess where you aren't sure about a question as you won't lose anything if you are wrong. However, for the Bain equivalent, you will often be penalised for wrong answers.

The intention is to deter applicants from randomly just choosing answers for the sake of answering the questions. Accordingly, negative marking has a definite impact on how you optimise your approach to the test, generally shifting an optimal strategy towards quality rather than quantity. Where negative marking is not in play, always have a guess, where it is, be more careful! If you can't get an answer, simply skip it and move on (before you waste too much time!) without guessing.

Given all this, it is absolutely critical that you pay attention to guidance as to how the test as a whole, or certain sections, will be marked. Don't just ignore introductory text and skip ahead to the questions. Instead, make sure you understand the scoring system.

Next Steps: Case Interview

Now, if you follow the advice here and put in the time and effort to prep effectively, you will be in a great position to pass the online test and be invited to the live stages of the selection process.

These next stages will be based around case interviews of an effectively identical format to those at other consulting firms. As well as case interviews, though, Bain is notable fo also making use of written case studies. These will obviously be a rather different experience to in-person case interviews and something you should simulate as part of your prep.

However, written cases will really test the same fundamental skillset as case interview and the meat of your preparation for them will be identical. Fundamentally, whether done in live interview or written assessment, you are going to need to learn to solve case studies effectively.

Solving case studies

Here, many candidates resort to a framework-based case system like Case in Point. These resources sell the idea that one of 10 or 12 generic frameworks will be able to solve any business case thrown at you. In practice, however, this is simply untrue. The cases you are given will be based on real projects your interviewers have worked on recently. As such, these will be precisely the kind of business case which is sufficiently unique and complex to defy any generic solution and thus justify paying the many thousands required to bring in consultants. The result is that frameworks are fundamentally unreliable and candidates will often be stumped by a case that defies force fitting into one of the generic schemes they have diligently rote learnt.

By contrast, at MyConsultingCoach, we teach you to tackle cases using the same flexible approach used by working consultants. That is, by employing fundamental skills to analyse each new case on its own merits, developing a bespoke solution to deal with all the relevant complexities - just the kind of solution a real client would expect. This is our Problem Driven Structure approach.

We have lots of free articles on this site dealing with all aspects of case studies, as well as more general consulting skills and concepts. Start with our introduction to case interviews and go from there. However, the best place to learn everything you need to know to prepare for both case and fit interviews is our MCC Academy.

In MCC Academy, we teach you all the skills and fundamental knowledge you need, as well as how to deploy those assets to solve case studies using our Problem Driven Structure approach. Teaching is delivered via high quality, fully animated videos (with several available to preview here) and is supplemented by exercises to make sure you are ready to make use of the skills you learn.