What McKinsey Seeks In MBA Hires

Brian Rolfes, a McKinsey partner and global lead of recruiting

Brian Rolfes, a McKinsey partner and global lead of recruiting

It isn’t easy being number one. The competition is always gunning for you. And your critics never stop assailing you. And being on top of the prestige consulting game has been McKinsey & Company’s burden going on seven decades now. Everyone seemingly has an opinion about McKinsey. To do that, they must be doing something extraordinary.


So what’s behind the admiration and the envy? Let’s start with McKinsey’s sheer size. According to Brian Rolfes, a McKinsey partner and global lead of recruiting, McKinsey employs over 9,000 consultants at 107 sites in 63 countries who speak 130 languages. They cover nearly every conceivable industry sector and business specialty. When it comes to annual revenue, they generate nearly as much as The Boston Consulting Group and Bain & Company combined.

It’s also the largest single recruiter of MBA graduates, hiring more newly minted MBAs in a given year than any other organization on earth. The standard package: $135,000 to start, with a $25,000 signing bonus, for first-year total compensation of at least $160,000 is a pretty neat package. At many of the world’s most prestigious business schools, from Harvard to INSEAD, McKinsey tops all other companies in hiring the most graduates. Last year, for example, McKinsey was easily the No. 1 employers at Chicago Booth, Kellogg, and Columbia Business School. The firm employed 40 MBAs from Booth, 29 from Kellogg, and 51, including sponsored students, from Columbia. In 2013, McKinsey hired 108 members of the graduating class at INSEAD, including 45 sponsored MBAs.

Even having a prestige MBA is no guarantee of hire. The firm is among the most selective organizations in the world. Financial journalist Duff McDonald estimates that McKinsey hires just 1% of the 225,000 applicants who apply each year. And among McKinsey’s 30,000 alumni, you’ll find a who’s who of business and politics, including Facebook COO Sheryl Sandberg, Morgan Stanley CEO James Gorman, Boeing Chairman James McNerney, Louisiana Governor Bobby Jindal, authors Jim Collins and Tom Peters, and even Chelsea Clinton (to name a few).

And when it comes to McKinsey’s influence, it’s hard to know where to start. Analysts estimate that the firm partners with 80 to 90% of the world’s top 100 firms, with a roster that reportedly includes AT&T, General Electric, General Motors, and Johnson & Johnson (not to mention the NBA and the World Bank). Basically, McKinsey is where leaders turn to navigate treacherous, long-term transitions.

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Founded in 1926, McKinsey is ranked as the most prestigious consulting firm. For some, a stint at McKinsey is the equivalent to earning another graduate degree. For others, it is the gateway to the c-suite, with a recent survey pegging nearly 15 percent of Fortune 500 CEOs as McKinsey alums.


Despite its size and influence, McKinsey maintains a low profile, with its commitment to confidentiality often mistaken for aloofness. As a result, the firm is constantly battling public misconceptions. For one, McKinsey isn’t comprised exclusively of MBAs. In fact, only half of its people are MBAs – and Dominic Barton, McKinsey’s global managing director, holds a BA and Masters in Economics. Despite being founded by an accounting professor from the University of Chicago’s Booth School of Business, McKinsey actually doesn’t maintain a global headquarters, with Barton, a Canadian, actually working out of London.

And don’t buy into those “up-or-out” horror stories, either, notes Rolfes. Boasting that “we’re not your grandmother’s McKinsey,” Rolfes, a 20-year McKinsey veteran who holds law degrees from Oxford and Cambridge, touts his firm’s flexibility. He points to McKinsey’s Pace program, which reduces the pressure to progress at breakneck speed. “[It] provides the option for consultants to stay in their current role longer, while continuing to develop and be challenged professionally.”

At the same time, Rolfes debunks the myth that consulting consists of never-ending travel away from loved ones. “We use a local office-driven staffing model where staffing people on projects with local leadership is the default.” He credits McKinsey’s size for this environment. “Our scale makes it so that we can staff people according to what fits them best, helps them grow and aligns with their priorities.”

Recently, Rolfes replied to Poets&Quants’ questions about McKinsey’s hiring practices and expectations for MBAs. And the answers may not be what you necessarily expect. Check out Rolfes’ thoughts on how to get an edge in McKinsey’s hiring process.

What is McKinsey’s hiring philosophy? What do you look for in applicants first and foremost?

Two qualities we look for as we recruit are problem solving and the ability to work well in teams.  These are at the core of what our consultants do every day and how we serve clients, so we look to hire people who are extraordinary problem solvers and enjoy collaborating with colleagues and clients.

In terms of skills, we look for analytical people who want to create positive results for clients in the private, public and social sectors and have demonstrated leadership skills and experience.  Leadership might be demonstrated through work experience or school activities like serving as the lead for grad school projects or managing a school group or club.

Essentially, we hire people who are passionate about making positive change in the world and can excel at doing so because of their analytical and people skills.  That is the heart of consulting at McKinsey.

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What Bain & Co. Seeks In MBA Hires

What Deloitte Consulting Seeks in MBA Hires

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  • Xthinker

    You said that McKinsey makes almost as much than Bain and BCG but according to Wikipedia, McKinsey has 9,000 consultants; BCG has 4,500 and Bain has 4,000 consultants -> McKinsey might not be doing so well after all…

  • Marchin’ Lootin’ King

    The article is like Karl Marx telling us how successful and happy the Soviet Union is. No one can be bothered.

  • MckinseyAssociate-14

    Unfortunately, I have to agree.

  • sad

    lol, you need to walk around an english classroom

  • RedRiser

    Poetsandquants already did that for us:

    MBB at #2, Bain at #4, BCG at #6

  • ivyelite30

    why do u dont walk around the ivies or in the valley or nyc and see if anyone’s jaw drops that you got an MBB offer

  • RedRiser

    Sounds like someone’s a little bitter…

  • JohnnyGorgeous

    Yes. Recruiters do a quick phone screen and then schedule a interview for you with the company.

  • MBBplease

    What do you mean by “job invites”? Like opportunities to interview?

  • JohnnyGorgeous

    Actually ivyelite30, MBB is good for all of those things. I was at Bain this last summer, and my team ran 100% of the product launch for a Fortune 50 pharma firm. I was the one making the phone calls to low level vendors. I was in the room helping negotiate deals. I know friends at McKinsey operations who completely redid supply chains. Because of the breadth and depth of the projects offered, you DO get to do all of those things.

    Three other major things come to mind.

    a) Filter – MBB is a pedigree, just like a Harvard or MIT. And recruiters use it. Comparing what my Linkedin activity was like PRE-Bain and POST-Bain, it’s like night and day. I get 3-4 job invites a week now (Amazon, Mastercard, Whirlpool, Redbox, small consulting boutiques this month alone) whereas before I’d be lucky to get 3-4 job invites in like 6 months.
    a) An accelerator for your career. Using Kellogg as a example, if you look at alumni, people who went to MBB then into industry are almost always at a higher level than people who just started in industry.
    c) White Shoe Finance – Like top investment banks, MBB is a stepping stone for private equity, hedge fund, and VC. It’d be much much harder to get in from other ways. VC is the exception through top level jobs in startups and bigtech.

  • ivyelite30

    actually MBB is not some super star route
    Do you learn to run a biz at MBB? No
    Do you launch a prouct at MBB? No
    Do you have P&L responsibilty? No
    Do you manage a team of normal people – egineers/designers/avg joe’s ? No
    MBB was great in the 1980’s/90’s before the tech revolution
    Noone at any ivy school or in the valley/nyc is awed with a MBB job these days, lets be honest! Its a good job, dont get me wrong, but not the prestige it once had

  • Yup

    MBB is a good place to go if you’re still undecided on what to do with your career as there’s a ton of option value. But I will agree that the amount of value they’re actually creating is pretty limited given the amount of resources they utilize. It’s similar to why so many exiting consultants need to go into strategy roles vs. actual operating roles – giving advice is completely different from actually running a company.

  • ivyelite30

    who cares of MBB prestige ! Most founders of silicon valley start ups are not MBB. This is not 1985!
    Can you code and run a company? Thats all the matters today
    most MBB have never run a business! only presentation decks

  • Anon

    Great article! Very thorough but also insightful because it goes beyond just facts and figures.

  • MBBplease

    Good company, obviously, but I haven’t loved a lot of the people I’ve met who work there or who recruit on my campus. Some were cool, but others just seemed arrogant and annoyed to be doing recruiting stuff. Also seems like they really work you hard. All consulting is hard and long hours, but just got the sense the Bain and BCG care more about their people in terms of making sure you’re having a good experience, trying not to burn you out, etc. The global staffing thing is tough too. People I’ve met from McKinsey are flying all over the country or world for projects. While that sounds cool, I think it would get old fast. If I had an offer from McKinsey, Bain, and BCG, I’m just not sure the extra bit of “prestige” would outweigh some of the culture benefits of Bain and BCG. But, maybe others disagree.

  • HSWpleaseletmein

    Great article. I can see why management consulting firms attract so much talent from other fields. I’ve heard of everything from brain surgeons to rocket scientists going into consulting after otherwise successful careers.

  • Flareups

    Shocked at how little interest this article has generated. Is McKinsey just boring now?

  • Qiuyidio

    Lots of smart people here.

  • Mr. Wannabe Entrepreneur

    Thanks Jeff and Brian! Great article and great insights into McKinsey! I know sometimes people say that MBA recruiting is a black box but this is great explanation about the process and what McKinsey is looking for. You can see why McKinsey has been able to maintain its prestige while expanding so globally. I only hope that I have the opportunity to join one day!