For many years, the name Problem Solving Test – the famous paper-based assessment – has been synonymous with McKinsey name. However, as the business landscape changes and consulting recruitment becomes increasingly complex, so must the firm testing format adapt itself.
Enter, the all-new McKinsey Problem Solving Game – what is it exactly?
The McKinsey Problem-Solving Game (formerly McKinsey Digital Assessment) is a gamified test designed by Imbellus for McKinsey & Company. The test has been rolling out extensively since 2020. It tests the candidate on critical thinking, decision-making, meta-cognition, situational awareness, and systems thinking, under the format of an ecosystem-building game and a tower-defense game.
Imbellus is an assessment company that builds immersive simulation-based assessments designed to evaluate cognitive processes. They have partnered with McKinsey consultants and psychologists from UCLA CRESST to create a new testing format for the McKinsey recruitment process.
The new format first entered testing on November 13, 2017 with 527 McKinsey & Company candidates based in London, UK candidates as optional besides traditional PST. However, it is expected that all regions will transition to the Digital Assessment within 2020. The test is Mandatory for candidates applying for vacancies in all practices: General, Operations and Implementation, Research & Analytics, Digital, etc. and McKinsey has rolled out in more than 40 countries by now.
1.2. Why did McKinsey change the test?
Keith McNulty, McKinsey’s global director of people analytics and measurement, put it this way:
“Recruiting only knows if candidates got the right answer, not how they approached the question. Plus, there’s a large amount of strategy, preparation, and luck involved in multiple-choice tests, and if you use them in the selection process, it reinforces the status quo—at a time when you are looking to widen the scope of candidates you’re hiring.”
(see McKinsey’s official statements on the game)
2.1. Overall format and flow
Candidates have to solve given tasks with instructions just like playing an online video game. The game requires a stable internet connection and can be done remotely from home. (In some offices, you would be required to take the test at designated location).
The time limit is 60-75 minutes for 2 scenarios and 5 tasks, with no pauses in between; you can freely allocate time between each task.
Here is the reported flow of the game:
First you will be given an email with details of your account for login into your candidate account at Imbellus website.
Starting the game, you will be presented with the introduction. The time you spend reviewing the tutorial is not counted, so take as long as you need to review instructions carefully.
Then you are brought into either of the two scenarios, each with different problems that you need to solve. You’re given indicative time guidance for each task. No calculator is allowed.
- For the first scenario and task 1, it is usually Ecosystem Building.
- For the second scenario and task 2-5, it is usually Organism Protection.
2.2. Scenario & task format
“Imagine yourself in a beautiful, serene forest populated by many kinds of wildlife. As you take in the flora and fauna, you learn about an urgent matter demanding your attention…”
There are two kinds of scenario in McKinsey Problem-Solving Game: Ecosystem-building, and Organism-protection.
1st Scenario: Ecosystem Building
In this scenario, you have to create an ecosystem combining a number of species to build a sustainable food chain and match it with a specific location.
Build a sustainable food chain with 10 species of animals and plant on an island or build a coral reef under the ocean (alternative version).
There would be a couple of measurements including: calories produced and consumed, number of species, etc.
You would be provided with an abundance of data for terrain, different species, etc. in the text, graphical and table format that could overload you.
Each data set can also influence each other (e.g.: each species of plant exude calories while requiring waste from animal who consumed calories).
You work with the data from the in-game table to figure out which species would go together and best suited for survivability in the environment.
Prioritization: Normally, you are suggested 20 mins for this section. Yet our data from real test-takers show that it usually takes 5-10 mins longer due to the sheer scope of data. This means prioritizing and knowing what to look for in advance if you want to complete in time.
Visualization: a lot of data given to you would come in the raw form (i.e: numbers, text, etc.). Yet understanding requires seeing them in terms of relationships. The quickest way to do so is through visualization (e.g: draw a map of the food chain).
Seeing the big picture: Afterall, you are trying to build a harmonious ecosystem. The game offers layered details about subcategories of species and ailments, which can distract you from finding a rough, high-level solution. You would have to be able to see how each data point plays out in the grand scheme of things (see our issue-tree article).
|Similar games||Ecosystem simulations such as Equilinox.|
Screenshots – Ecosystem Building:
2nd Scenario: Organism Protection
In this scenario, you’re asked to protect native plants against invader species in a series of progressively more complex maps divided by grids.
Survive beyond a number of turns (start with 6). If you failed before reaching the requirement for advancing to the next task, the test would end.
Each turn, invader species (e.g.: mice) plot paths towards your native plant. As you plan your defense, new invader species groups can emerge in other parts of the map requiring you to adapt.
Geographical barriers, introduction of predators, tools to deplete the invasive species and disrupt its route to your native plant.
Respond: You need to experiment and record how each invasive species responds to the features of the terrain and use different combinations of these tools accordingly.
Predict: After a certain number of turns, you won’t be allowed to build anymore. You can put in preemptive blocks for new invader species that may emerge.
Tower-defense games such as Kingdom Rush.
Screenshots – Organism Protection:
3. Scoring & Assessment
Ending each scenario, you would get a brief summary of your result. At the end of testing, the system will inform the recruiter of your specific skill assessment.
The software captures and analyzes every keystroke and mouse movement. You will be evaluated based on a product score and a process score. The game not only evaluates the outcomes you generated but also the cognitive dynamic responsible for how you got there. Then AI and analytics will compare your profile with that of McKinsey consultants to see whether you fit within the firm standards.
Depending on the points scored, you would go to the next stage of the interview or receive a ban (1 year for an internship, 2 years for all other roles).
The key assessment dimensions are:
- Critical thinking: the ability to form a rational judgement from a set of facts
- Decision-making: the ability to select the best course of action among several options
- Meta-cognition: the ability to use strategies to make learning information and solving problems easier (e.g., testing hypothesis, taking notes)
- Situational awareness: the ability to determine the relationships between different factors and to project the outcome of a scenario
- Systems thinking: the ability to understand cause & effect relationships involving several factors and feedback loops (e.g., anticipating several orders of consequence)
4.1. Imbellus Game vs Problem-Solving Test
No business background or knowledge is needed.
Require fundamental business knowledge.
Open-ended simulation requires good problem identification, data processing, decision making in a limited time and without complete information.
Online format, 60 to 75 minutes, 2 simulated scenario, 5 tasks.
Paper-based, 60 minutes, 26 questions, 3 business cases from real-life consultant project.
Done at proctored sites.
All of the candidate’s actions: every movement of the mouse, hesitations, time spent to do an action.
Focus on your thinking process (comparison of profile).
Every right answer based on the materials.
Focus on your absolute score (70% cut-off rate).
4.2. Impact on preparation
There is one key thing to note in mind: while the format might be different, the problem-solving process is essentially the same with traditional PST. You should already have a good base of data analysis and structural thinking.
In general, each scenario is almost like a cycle of a real-world McKinsey study (project). The delivery of the concepts is new and the breadth of information you need to deal with is enormous, just as in a real-life setting. In the end, you have imperfect information and need to be comfortable with making quick decisions based on that. The skills that you have practiced with the PST will still be valuable given the nature of the problem.
However, if you really want to take it to the next level, keep reading our article for the crucial insights from real test-takers!
5.1. What is considered a good score?
There is no exact answer to this since each version of the test would be different. Yet, from what we do know there does exist a scoring metric. It is as important to show how you solve the problem vs. to arrive at a feasible solution. This gives McKinsey insights about you beyond the resume or conventional case interview.
Throughout the test, there are some indications whether or not you did perform well based on our interviews with those who have already taken the Imbellus:
- You could know whether or not they passed the first part of the assessment, the ecosystem creation because you can test for the sustainability of the food chain.
- The tower defense game is much more chaotic yet usually candidates who pass are the one who advanced through all the four tasks.
However, as the test utilizes analytics and AI to judge your profile, relying on just these information will not be enough. You really would have to get into the nitty-gritty heart of the problem.
5.2. Insights from real test-takers
|Beating the content||Beating the time|
6. Bottom Line
With all that said, how do you actually best prepare yourself for the test?
Worry not, because for the first time ever, with all the insights gathered from our pool of real candidates who have taken the Imbellus test, we are releasing a new article – Problem-Solving Game Strategy Guide in 2021!
Check out for even more insights on this exciting recruitment game!
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