Getting rejected and then landing my dream job at McKinsey & Company

“Unfortunately, we regret that we are unable to extend an interview to you at this time”

I only learned about consulting two months before being rejected by McKinsey. In the middle of my summer internship, my manager started telling me about consulting. That night I went home and lost several hours reading anything I could find about the consulting industry. I was filled with excitement. Getting to learn about different topics in a fast-paced way surrounded by great people? I knew this is what I wanted to do.

At the time, I had no idea how much time students at schools like Harvard, and Stanford had spent preparing just to get an interview. One friend who I later met at McKinsey told me he knew he wanted to work in consulting as a senior high school!

Given that none of my friends knew anything about consulting — I was preparing by practicing case studies in the mirror. When it came time to apply, I chose the brute force method. I found Vault’s Top 100 list of the best consulting firms and applied to every single one.

100+ rejections later, I ended up going back to work at GE. I had underestimated how much work and preparation it took.

I saved the rejection letter I got in 2006 from McKinsey.

Dear Paul,

Thank you for your interest in McKinsey & Company and your patience in awaiting our reply.

Unfortunately, we regret that we are unable to extend an interview to you at this time. Our team’s decision was a difficult one given the strength of our applicant pool and the limited number of positions available. In the event that our hiring needs change, we will get in touch with you directly.

On behalf of McKinsey & Company’s recruiting team, we wish you every success in your career.

All the best,

Recruiting Manager

McKinsey & Company

Rejection sucked — but it only added fuel to my determination. I didn’t see the rejection as an indication of my abilities, only as an obstacle to overcome. I kept reading and learning more about consulting and after working at my first job for almost a year, I started re-applying.

One day I was browsing jobs at my apartment when I stumbled upon a Manufacturing Research Analyst role on of all places (yes, really). As I read the job description I got more and more excited — I had a lot of the experience they were looking for from my time working in manufacturing in college. Holy crap, did they write this for me?

Later, I would find out that I had another moment of luck. The analyst who was hiring her replacement had recently been doing in-depth research on GE’s Six Sigma program when she came across my resume. Over the past year I had volunteered for multiple Six Sigma projects knowing that this might eventually help me land a job at a consulting firm.

Four months later, I walked into the McKinsey office and my life would never be the same.

When I walked into McKinsey in June 2008, I was on top of the world. I would later realize that I had, in fact, landed my dream job…

Me, in 2008

The two years I spent at McKinsey helped shape the person I am today and the leader I aspire to be. My time there was a period of unconstrained growth. McKinsey raised my expectations of what was possible for modern organizations. It made me realize that high-performing organizations were not only achievable but worth all the time and investment they took to sustain.

When I reflect back to my time — six fundamental things contributed to making this my “dream job”:

1. I gained an understanding of what “high performance” really meant: I had always been proud of the work I had done in the past but working at McKinsey changed the way I thought about creating something great. Through a healthy obsession (though some may argue otherwise) with logic, structure, and communication combined with iteration in teams of great people, I was always impressed with the result of the work I did at McKinsey. It was far better than anything I had done before. It has raised the bar for my own work and has raised my expectations of what is possible in the working world. (see related article: Decoding High-Performance At McKinsey)

2. I was surrounded by peers who did not see limits but saw tough problems to be solved: As I’ve gotten older, I have noticed that people in the business world seem to be very good at identifying why something cannot be done. To me, this is not an impressive skill. There are always 100 reasons why something cannot be done. While at McKinsey, I was surrounded by people that were hopeful and saw the world as something they wanted to help improve. When faced with a tough problem, I was surrounded by peers who would endlessly problem solve new ways of thinking about a problem or new ways to look at information. This may have been a factor of the relatively low age of most people, but I think it is inherent to the culture of the firm as well. It was fun.

3. I wasn’t the smartest person in the room, but I still held my own: I remember one project where I was working with a Rhodes Scholar who was a consultant and also happened to be a practicing surgeon on the side of consulting (not joking!). To say there were some impressive people would be an understatement. But there are also many more people who are not the next world leaders (and I mean that in the best way). While there, I found people did not pay much attention to where you went to school or what you did in your past. Everyone was treated as an equal and judged based on the quality of their ideas and thoughtfulness you brought to problem-solving. There is a cultural value of “the obligation to dissent” which I found to be terrifying at first (when Partners are asking you what you think on your first week), but wildly impressive after (I have not had many jobs where the leaders consistently ask ”what do you think?” and expect an honest answer.

4. Great mentors who believed in me: I had three different managers and a research team leader that was absolutely incredible. Whether they were a product of a system that knows how to develop people or they were just inspiring leaders (I think a bit of both) — the best thing they all did was give me space to learn, make mistakes, ask questions and develop. Looking back, my work product wasn’t the best, but they trusted me 100% and helped me build an incredible amount of confidence. I’ve realized that this is 90% of leading — finding good people and trusting them. I owe a lot to these people and was lucky to have these experiences

5. I knew I was lucky: While I was at McKinsey, I searched Harvard in the internal database and found 1000 employees that had some affiliation with the school. I searched the University of Connecticut (my school) and found six. This made me incredibly grateful to have the opportunity to work there. As with every job — there were things to complain about. Given my perspective — I was able to look at these things with rose-colored glasses.

6. ”NAKC”: I worked at NAKC aka the North American Knowledge Center. Mckinsey started really investing in its knowledge network (much earlier than most other companies) and had an open and collaborative space in Boston. It was a collection of a lot of young (and all young at heart) researchers who also came from schools that didn’t typically have a shot working at McKinsey in the past. That office and the collection of inspiring people is by far the best environment I have ever been a part of.

I’ve turned my 10 years of experience in strategy consulting into a course. Curious to learn the “secrets of strategy consulting? Come join me at StrategyU.

About Paul Millerd

Paul is a writer, creator, and curious human that is passionate about how people can reimagine their relationship with work to do things that matter. He published The Pathless Path in 2022.