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How to Ace McKinsey’s Digital Assessment

Imagine that you are immersed in a natural environment populated by different kinds of plants and animals. You learn that some animals are quickly succumbing to an unknown illness. You have to stop this epidemic.

This is McKinsey’s Digital Assessment: the ground-breaking video game that the firm has introduced to assess candidates’ cognitive abilities.

To win the game, you must understand the many factors that affect the outcome (e.g., how the disease is spreading, which disease it is, which animals are affected, and how the herd dynamics feed into this equation). You must develop a solution, test it, and adapt it based on the feedback you receive.

The promise: an unbiased way to identify candidates with strong cognitive abilities

Every year, McKinsey has to sift through over a million applicants and invite those who are most likely to succeed in interviews. 

Screening resumes and looking at academic backgrounds is a good start. But it’s biased towards candidates who are good at memorizing or come from a privileged background, at the expense of less privileged candidates with great problem-solving skills.

In response to these biases, McKinsey has used a Problem Solving Test for several years. Although it does provide useful data points about problem-solving skills, the PST has its own prejudices. It favours candidates with high processing speed and familiarity with the problems being tested, and it can be mastered through practice. 

McKinsey is now introducing the Digital Assessment to assess candidates’ cognitive abilities in an environment free of biases linked to candidates’ socio-economic background, familiarity with business problems, memory, and preparation. 

The assessment was developed by a start-up called Imbellus and was piloted with 520 London candidates in 2017 and by 1,000+ candidates in the Fall of 2018. It is now being rolled out globally. Eventually, this will allow McKinsey to rely less on a candidate’s academic background when gauging their potential. 

Five key cognitive abilities

The Digital Assessment tests five cognitive abilities:

  1. Critical thinking: the ability to form a rational judgement from a set of facts
  2. Decision making: the ability to select the best course of action among several options
  3. Meta-cognition: the ability to use strategies to make learning information and solving problems easier (e.g., testing hypothesis, taking notes)
  4. Situational awareness: the ability to determine the relationships between different factors and to project the outcome of a scenario
  5. Systems thinking: the ability to understand cause & effect relationships involving several factors and feedback loops (e.g., anticipating several orders of consequence)

The game captures all of the candidate’s actions (e.g., every movement of the mouse, hesitations, time spent to do an action) and uses data science to score the five abilities. It’s as much about how close candidates come to the optimal solution as about how they think the problem through.

The most recent candidates have reported that the test does not require making any calculation.

How the test works

You have 60 minutes to go through the tutorial and solve five tasks within two scenarios. The way you divide your time between tasks is not set, so if you spend more time in one area you will have less time for others. The time you spend reviewing the tutorial is not counted, so take as long as you need to review instructions carefully. 

You’re given indicative time guidance for each task. Imbellus aims to reduce testing anxiety by leaving sufficient time. Recent test-takers have reported that the time was a little tight for some of the tasks but that they finished with 5-10 minutes to spare at the end.

They’ve reported 4 types of scenarios:

  • Ecosystem creation – In this scenario, you’re asked to create a stable marine or terrestrial ecosystem. You will choose the location and the species that will inhabit your ecosystem and aim to have as many of them survive. This will test your systems thinking!

    In the example of a reef, you may choose the location based on depth, temperature, salinity, current and clarity of the water. You will then choose species from different categories (e.g., coral, aquatic animals, algae), who present different characteristics (e.g., required environment, place in the food chain, how many calories they need to survive, how many they provide when consumed). At the end of the day, all of your species may not survive – and that’s fine – but you need to come as close as possible to the optimal solution.

    This is a particularly complex exercise. One way to simplify it is to start your selection by the top predators (those who are not eaten by any other species) and work your way down the food chain. Species tend to belong to the same environment as their predators, which makes that part of the equation easier to solve. You then want to pick species that provide the most calories and consume the least – so that they don’t deplete the environment for other species. 
  • Organism protection – In this scenario, you’re asked to protect a native plant against invader species in a series of progressively more complex maps. The invader species plot paths towards your native plant and you’re tasked with using a range of tools (e.g. geographical barriers, introduction of predators) to deplete the invasive species and disrupt its route to your native plant. Your goal is to survive a number of  “turns” per map (six to start with) – in each turn the invasive species takes a step on its path towards the native plant. With each turn, the invasive species is depleted or has to take a longer path depending on the features you have planted. At the same time, new invader species groups can emerge in other parts of the map, at which point you can choose to edit your current plan to ensure the survival of the native plants. If you are into video games, this is similar to Age of Empires – defending a plant instead of a castle.

    In this exercise, you need to experiment and record how each invasive species respond to the features of the terrain and to different combinations of these features. You also need to plan ahead. You can put in preemptive blocks for new invader species that may emerge. Candidates have reported that this exercise is less rushed than the ecosystem creation, so you may want to take your time. 
  • Disaster management – In this scenario, you’re first asked to identify the disaster that is happening (e.g., tsunami, volcanic eruption) based on a set of symptoms (e.g., temperature, atmospheric pressure, rain). You’re then asked to move animals to the location where they are most likely to survive, based on the characteristics of the species and of the locations (e.g., forest density,  predators, rain)
  • Disease management – In this scenario, you’re asked to identify which disease is affecting an animal population based on a set of symptoms. You’re then asked to recommend the best course of treatment based on the disease, the population (e.g., species affected, stage of the disease) and the characteristics of the treatment options. Your goal is to optimize the rate of survival

Our tips to ace the test

Do not try to replicate the solution of other test takers: the digital assessment generates a new, unique scenario for every test taker. Your solution will not be the same as other candidates’!

However, there are a few things you can do:

  • Before the test, familiarize yourself with the five cognitive abilities being assessed; understanding them will help you demonstrate them. 
  • Think big picture. The game offers layered details about subcategories of species and ailments, which can distract you from finding a rough, high-level solution. Try to create an overall strategy without getting bogged down in the bombardment of information and species variety. The best way to achieve this is to quickly identify the relationships between environmental characteristics (e.g. depth, temperature) requirements of the species. 
  • Test your ideas and record the outcomes. You might notice, for instance, that distracting the game in one region allows you to get better results in another.
  • Take good notes of your findings and observations, in a structured way (e.g., important characteristics, relationships between factors, cause & effects). It will save you the time necessary to navigate back to a previous location.
  • Be comfortable making imperfect decisions based on partial information. There is no one answer to the problems. Your goal is to come as close a possible to the optimal solution.
  • Manage your time carefully: do not spend too long on the tutorial, be quick at understanding the situation and identifying the problem you aim to solve, so you can leave time for analysis and decision making. Keep an eye on the progress bar!

A Test Still in Its Infancy

Given that McKinsey is just starting to roll the Digital Assessment out globally, they are unlikely to rely solely on its results to make screening decisions. Instead, they may use the test to eliminate low scorers who otherwise have a strong academic background or to identify top scorers who otherwise do not have a strong academic background.

As a result, the best way to improve your chance of being invited to interview is to put together a great resume. You can get our best advice by signing up to our free Resume Course here.

Once you’ve passed the application screening stage, don’t let all your hard work go to waste. Make sure to prepare for the case and a fit interview. Sign up for our Interview Prep Course on CaseCoach and, to get personalised support, book interview coaching with our former consultants.