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. 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, when an action is taken) 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.

How The Test Works

You have 60 minutes to go through the tutorial and solve three problems. The way you divide your time between the tutorial and each problem is not set, so if you spend more time in one area you will have less time for the others.

Test-takers have reported 3 types of problems:

  • 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
  • Ecosystem creation - In this scenario, you're asked to create a stable coral ecosystem. You can choose the location of the reef based on its characteristics (e.g., depth, temperature, salinity) and the species that will inhabit the reef. There is a significant number of species to chose from. They’re broken down into different categories (e.g., coral, aquatic animals, algae), with several characteristics (e.g., required environment, place in the food chain, how many calories they need to survive, how many they provide when consumed). Your goal is to make sure the food chain does not collapse and the species survive. This will test your systems thinking!

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.
  • 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. Time is not mentioned explicitly; keep an eye on the progress bar.
  • Be comfortable making imperfect decisions based on partial information. There is no one answer to the problems. Your goal is only to come as close a possible to the optimal solutions.
  • 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.
  • 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.
  • 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.
  • Do not hesitate to calculate. Finding the optimal solution might require you to calculate the expected outcome of several options.

A Tool Still Being Tested

The assessment is still in its test phase. It was piloted with 520 London candidates in 2017 and by 1,000+ candidates in the Fall of 2018.

Until the effectiveness of the tool is proven, McKinsey is unlikely to take the tests results into account to make screening decisions.

For now, the best way for candidates to continue to improve their chance of being invited to interview is to put together a great resume and prepare for the Problem Solving Test.

When the test is used to select candidates, it is likely to be to:

  • Eliminate low scorers who otherwise have a strong academic background
  • Identify top scorers who otherwise do not have a strong academic background

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 online course on CaseCoach.com and, to get personalised support, book interview coaching with our former consultants.