Associate blog: Winning the McKinsey Solve It consulting competition

This year, upReach were selected to take the role of “client” organisation during the first UK Solve It competition, run by McKinsey & Company. The competition gives university students the chance to develop their teamwork and communication skills as they suggest solutions to challenges facing a non-profit organisation. 8 of the 25 teams who submitted recommendations in the initial round were invited to present solutions to a second topic in person at the final round in London. upReach look forward to welcoming the winning team from the University of Exeter to present their recommendations to the board of trustees in July.

Robbie and Ali, upReach Associates from the winning team, share how taking part in Solve It has developed their skills, built their technical knowledge and confirmed their interest in pursuing a career in consulting.  

Could you describe your journey through the Solve It competition?

Robbie: The process was an interesting one, as it started off with an individual application with your CV and motivation for entering. From this we were then allocated teams of 4 with other students from our university and a McKinsey mentor. Once we were introduced to our teams, the first round was an online submission of a case study focused on upReach’s three year growth strategy to reach their target of supporting 2,500 students per year by 2022. We looked at ways to grow the number of Associates while maintaining the existing high level of support provided, and suggested some new ways on how to improve employability among Associates.

Ali: We talked with Sophie, our first round mentor, who went through our ideas with us and how we should break the problem down as a McKinsey consultant would! We also had some correspondence with the upReach team through Q&A phone calls, to learn more about how it operates and sense whether our ideas were feasible and in line with the charity’s goals.

Robbie: We were really excited to be invited to the final given we had put so much time and effort into our solution for the qualifying round. The final itself was an intense one-day session where we were presented with a new study, and recommended a longer term regional expansion plan which we believed would best enable upReach to reach more students from social mobility cold spots. We had 3 hours to come up with a solution which we then pitched to a panel of McKinsey partners and the upReach CEO John Craven.

Ali: Our mentors at the final, Arthur and Ruby, gave us some great advice on how we should present such as making sure to summarise the problem and solution from the beginning which I think gave some sense of structure for the audience as to how we tackled the problem.

What did you learn from your McKinsey mentors during the competition? 

Ali: Something I learnt which was consistent across all our mentors was the importance of using a solid structured approach to problem-solving, but also being flexible by adapting frameworks to fit the problem the client is facing.

Robbie: I think we all learned a lot from Sophie. She was a brilliant mentor as she helped guide our thoughts and nudge us in the right direction but allowed us to organically generate our own strategy. I was really lucky to have the opportunity to meet her in person and she talked me through her feedback on our ideas and presentation which was incredibly insightful. From that, I learned a lot about how to put a comprehensive consulting presentation together. McKinsey have a particular format and way of approaching challenges which makes total sense once you know it!

A major learning from Arthur and Ruby, our mentors in the final, was that often there’s no right answer. What you have to do is come up with your solution and be able to justify it and defend it. However, the most significant point I learned was to take things at a “high level” – avoid detail until it’s really necessary. We didn’t have time to get into the granular level statistics and data except where absolutely essential for justifying our solution, and the McKinsey mentors were really good at helping us target those big ideas to focus on.

What do you think made you so effective as a team?

Robbie: For round one it was quite difficult to prepare prior to the case. We had an introductory call to introduce ourselves and discuss our strengths and what we wanted to gain from the competition. I think we all naturally complemented each other’s skillsets very well and were quick to identify everyone’s strengths. Throughout round one we kept frequent communication over Whatsapp and also had google docs for relevant research/ideas, general idea-generation and sharing information between us. This meant we could all work on it independently but still be able to keep up to speed with what was going on. We then had semi-regular phone calls with Sophie to talk through our progress and decide on what to do next.

Ali: There were only two opportunities to speak to the upReach team so we made sure to prepare our list of questions extensively to make the most out of the limited time available. Before the final round, we also met up at university to prepare so we could go into the day having a sense of how the team will work and approach the problem. This meant we could delegate the tasks effectively – even under the pressure, we all worked really well in communicating and compiling our ideas, so making the final presentation was a smooth process.

Robbie: I think the fact that we grabbed a coffee together and just had a chat to get to know each other better really helped us gel well when it came to the final. That was more valuable than doing any extra case practice because it meant we could immediately settle down and work comfortably as a team as soon as the competition started on the day of the final. When it came to the presentation, Mariella and I learned from our experience in a previous consulting competition where we got to the final but made some crucial mistakes. We relayed these back to Ali and Hasan and we all agreed on ways to avoid making those same errors.

Following the final round, what were you thinking as the results were being announced? 

Robbie: Honestly, there were a couple of teams that really stood out to me who presented phenomenally well and had some awesome ideas, so when they were listed as “special mention” and runners up, I was not really sure who could have won. Mariella even whispered “it’s definitely not us” in my ear as Colin (the McKinsey partner who oversaw the final) was explaining their rationale for choosing the winners. It took us both by surprise when he then called out our team name! I think we were all a bit in shock for a few minutes after that.

I was blown away by the standard at the final. I suppose upon reflection it makes sense that everyone’s presentations and ideas were excellent, but it still amazed me how brilliant every team was. To be named the winner among such a high quality group of teams is an honour.

What motivated you to enter Solve It? Part of your prize was working with a McKinsey mentor over the next six months – how are you planning to use this to help reach your career aspirations?

Ali: I heard about Solve It through my upReach Programme Coordinator, who suggested it would be a great opportunity to gain some insight into a typical consulting project. I already had an interest in consulting so realised I would gain a lot out of the experience of working in a team, conducting research and presenting in front of a client. What also drew me was the premise of the competition as this was a unique opportunity for students to have an impact for a charity through consulting!

I’m interested in a career in strategy consulting so I’m looking forward to learning more about the work Business Analysts do at McKinsey. I hope to gain more insight into the projects consultants do through speaking with my mentor about their experiences, and hear their advice on how to become a stronger candidate to break into the industry.

Robbie: I had already heard of McKinsey having been to their application workshop day in Bristol in October. They then visited Exeter on campus and after speaking to them they gave me a flier for Solve It. I’ve known for a while I want to go into management consulting and, having done my placement in consulting last year, I thought the competition would be a fun way to put the skills I’d gained to the test. I also thought it would be cool to get the chance to see how McKinsey do things and hopefully meet a few of their consultants.

I am about to graduate from Exeter in Economics and Politics, so I’m hoping that my McKinsey mentor can help guide me as I prepare to begin my career. I am taking a year off to travel and apply to some graduate and master’s programmes which I have always wanted to do. I’m also hoping they can help me to learn how to build my network since I feel this is an area I’m not particularly strong in. My ultimate goal is to have a successful career in management consulting – so hopefully the mentorship sets me up to succeed not just with any applications I make, but also long into the future of my career.

What would you recommend to other students who are exploring their career interests?

Robbie: If you’re at all interested in consulting always take the chance to try it out. Whether it’s an insight programme, spring week, summer internship, or a case competition, they’re all extremely valuable experiences. So absolutely give it a go. It was in fact two spring weeks – one in consulting and one in investment banking – that made me realise I really wanted to go into consulting.

Case competitions in particular are a great way to try your hand at real life cases in a structured environment while getting quick feedback. At Solve It, I surprised myself in getting up and presenting in front of the panel and other teams. I’ve always liked the idea but previously shied away if given the opportunity. Competitions are a lot of fun and who knows – you may just end up winning!

With thanks to Ali and Robbie for sharing their experiences.

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