Here’s How to Break Into the Management Consulting Industry

About once every two weeks, I get a request from someone in my network to talk about making a transition to management consulting. I’m always excited to get these emails and to share with others why I think this is a great profession.

After having hundreds of these conversations, participating in recruiting efforts for all sorts of candidates, and being immersed in consulting recruiting as both a candidate and recruiter, I thought it would be helpful to write a primer for those who are interested in breaking into the industry.

My hope is that those who read this can get an understanding of the ways in which someone can enter the consulting industry as well as some actionable steps they can take if they want to continue with their search. 

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Note: I work for a large management consulting firm and am writing this from my experience while working at my firm. While I do believe that there are many commonalities in the industry and between firms, please recognize this is written from my own personal knowledge and research, and may not be reflective of every single person’s experience or every single firms’ recruiting policies. This is a good starting point, but I urge you to conduct follow up research. Oh, and Special Thanks to Nick for his advice and guidance in writing this piece

TLDR: The most common times to join a management consulting firm are out of undergrad and out of business school. If you’re a millennial and missed the boat on this, consider getting as much experience as possible in a specific industry and function give you credibility, and network the hell out the process to find a way in.*

There are 3 main ways to transfer into the management consulting industry**. They are:

  • Join out of Undergrad
  • Join out of Business School
  • Join from Industry

Out of Undergrad

Top Management Consulting firms pluck the best and brightest talent from top colleges and universities across the world. Consulting is based on the leverage model, where more junior staff tend to bill more hours but charge less whereas more senior staff (partners and directors) charge more per hour but bill less hours. The best way to make the leverage model work is to get lots of hard-working and intelligent talent, combine it with more senior and experienced practitioners to fill in the gaps, and deliver quality work to clients at the highest margin possible. As such, young and inexpensive analysts are critical to this, and consulting firms flock to the top colleges and universities to grab it.

One important and note that should be acknowledged: the structure of the leverage-model also feeds an up-or-out performance rating system. This means that most employees are stacked ranked against each other to determine year-end ratings (which drive performance based comp as well as promotions) Traditionally, a certain percentage of employees who rate poorly each year are asked to leave (out) while the ones at the top progress or get promoted (up) 

Where do firms hire?

Generally, most firms will have established relationships with a “core” group of schools that year in and year out they turn to in order to hire top talent. Core schools are strongly entrenched, sometimes from long standing, prestigious hot beds for talent of all types (Ivy League) and sometimes because a school delivers top notch students in a few relevant areas (Information Systems, Accounting, etc.) Most firms hire in batches, and relying on a core group of schools enables a consistent flow of talent***. These core schools have alum who work at the specific firm who help firm recruiters and leadership identify top talent and attract them into the firm. Additionally, consulting firms will also take some resumes from non-core schools – the opportunities for students/candidates from non-core schools are not as abundant as those from core schools, so unfortunately, if you are from a school that is not a core school for a specific consulting firm you are interested in, you’re going to have an uphill but not impossible battle.

Other areas include: prestigious volunteer, non-profit, or social sector programs (ex: Peace Corps, Teach For America)

What Do Firms Look For?

  • Intellectual Horsepower – As an undergrad with no work experience, you won’t know all the answers to problems, but they want to know that you have the ability (and work ethic) to figure out solutions
  • Ability to Learn – As a new hire, you’ll be asked to do a variety of tasks and roles. Furthermore, you can get a multitude of different projects. They want to know that you’re capable of handling whatever they throw you, and that you’re willing to learn and adapt
  • Client Readiness – Firms will put 22-23 year olds in front of clients and senior executives, but only if they feel comfortable with doing so. They’ll evaluate your poise and polish, as well as your ability to develop and manage relationships with leaders who are more senior than you
  • Leadership – You might be tasked with leading a team or in some cases your client. As someone who is younger, they want to know you have the leadership ability to handle this. They’ll examine any leadership experiences you’ve had, whether it’s through a club, business or campus activity.
  • Business Acumen/Interest – Consulting is about solving business problems and identifying business opportunities. As such, they’ll want to know you have some basic understanding of business concepts along with an eager interest in learning more. This does not mean you have to study business formally, but at least be versed and engaged with various relevant topics

Key Steps to Take

  • Identify if you are a core school – If you are an undergraduate student, figure out if your school is a core school for any firm you are interested in. If companies are coming to campus, attend their events, which tend to be meet and greets, sponsored panels, case competitions, and coffee chats.
  • Reach out to Alum – Start connecting with alum, particularly those who are close in age to you and who have recently graduated from your school. They are closest in you to age and can relate to what you are going to, and are used as gatekeepers early on in the recruiting process to help sort through the pile of candidates. Getting on their good side is a favorable thing. LinkedIn will be your best friend (if it is not already) and don’t be afraid to use it to find alum to connect with. If you don’t know how to reach out to network here is a good primer to start
  • Non-Core Hustle – If you go to a school that is a non-core school for a firm and you want to work there, you’re going to have to find another way to get on their radar. The best way to do that is to network and build relationships with people at the firm.

Out of Graduate School

Almost all Management Consulting firms pluck talent from the Top MBA Programs around the world. Recent MBAs are a great way for these firms to replace the former undergrad hires who move on after 2-4 years to pursue their own MBAs or other opportunities. These two streams of campus hires are the backbone that allows the firms’ leverage models to keep chugging along. Consulting favors those who are willing to accelerate their career and MBA programs are some of the best environments to find these types of people. Often times, people go to business school, work for a consulting firm for a few years, and use that as a launching point into a higher level job with an organization that might have taken much longer had they not gotten advanced degree/worked in consulting. This is an oversimplification of how it works in reality (a post for a different day) but for many this at is the ideal dream.

There is a formal process that most firms follow when they recruit top MBA students to their firms, and if you’re in business school you probably are familiar with this. For those of you who are a few years into your professional career and are looking to make a change to management consulting, getting an MBA and transitioning into consulting is a very popular and well-worn path (nothing is guaranteed, but many have and will continue to do this) Consulting firms hire MBA’s for their generalist business acumen, work ethic, propensity for career acceleration, and their willingness to pick up and learn. In some cases, a firm will hire you because of your past experience in a particular industry or function if you demonstrate significant acumen in that field, but it is not always necessary.

Consulting firms like diversity of thought, and do look to other Master’s programs to hire, such as JD’s, MD’s, etc. If you are in one of these programs, know that consulting is an option, but it probably will not be as high abundance of opportunities as other jobs in your given Master’s program.

 What do Firms look for?

  • Analytical Horsepower – They’ll look at your ability to analyze data and information and solve complex problems while being able to articulate the solutions in a confident and concise manner
  • Demonstrated Business Acumen – They look for people who have a well-rounded business knowledge about various functions and disciplines. You can be put on a myriad of projects solving different business problems so they’ll look for people who are comfortable talking to various business issues and functions
  • Leadership – Consulting is a team sport, and they’ll want to know you have the ability to lead in times of struggle and in times of prosperity, as well as your ability to lead and influence when you have formal power and when you don’t
  • Client Readiness – Building and managing relationships is a critical skillset for consultants. They’ll want to feel confident that they can put you in front of clients
  • Previous Experience – Any knowledge or skills from your previous work experience that could be relevant and helpful to your time as a consultant

An Important Note: Like any thoughtful individual or organization, consulting firms like to de-risk and increase the chances of success when at all possible. One way to do this is to hire people who have multiple markers of past success/credibility that lead the firm to believe they will be successful as a consultant. For example, if you have a degree (and did well) in a very hard/quantitative field of study, that is a marker of success. If you have significant industry or functional experience (ex: Healthcare, Supply Chain/Operations) that could be considered a marker of success. The point of sharing this is that many people who attend business school assume that anyone can make the transition from whatever they did into consulting, and while this does happen for some people, it is not as simple as going from a musician to a management consultant (sorry musicians, still love you.)

Key Steps to Take

  • MBA Students – Follow the recruiting process that your school has outlined.
  • Potential Grad School/MBA Aspirants – In addition to determining if getting a graduate degree is right for you, start looking out for and networking with people who have A) worked in consulting B) have an advanced degree and C) did something similar before business school to what you are doing. Talk to them about how they were able to make the transition and get a sense of what their process looked like. Also, read some primers on the basics of consulting. Here’s a good place to start. Finally, do some due diligence on schools. Figure out what schools are a fit for you, but then, figure out how those schools fare in placing MBA students at firms you desire to work for. You’ll want to make sure you end up at a school that will give you a shot at those companies you are targeting. Poets and Quants has a lot of great material

Industry Hire

A great consulting team leverages the collective intelligence of its team. Everyone brings something to the table, and everyone has skills and expertise that is valuable. Hiring people from “industry,” and who have a specific area of expertise, deep experience in a particular field****, or just those who are incredibly knowledgeable on a topic or issue is critical to the success of a consulting team. Furthermore, since most firms tend to organize themselves in some way by “industry” or “sector” it makes sense to hire experienced practitioners in those given industries and sectors.

Consulting firms are structured and operate in very opaque ways, especially when you are an outsider looking in. It will make more sense when you are on the inside (I guarantee it will still be confusing) As such, it’s critical to have some inside help. The more you can tap into your network of people you know who already work at specific firms you are targeting, or, if you can build relationships with people at those firms, the better your chances are. Since industry hires tend to be at higher levels and also targeting those with more experience, the postings and roles are generally speaking, on average more targeted and specific as opposed to the more generalist approaches that firms take with undergrad and graduate recruiting. This means that you’ll want to make sure you are applying to roles that are a good fit for your background (ex: if you’ve worked 10 years in healthcare, apply to roles in the healthcare practice at a firm instead of the retail practice)

What are some examples of good experience/expertise?

  • Functional Expertise – Ex: 20 years in Supply Chain and Operations
  • Industry Expertise – 15 Years in the healthcare industry
  • Capability/Topic Expertise – 10 years of IT Security work along with industry certifications

What Do Firms Look For?

  • Deep Industry or Functional or Capability Expertise – They’ll look for deep knowledge and expertise, ideally in an industry or function from your past work experience
  • Familiarity with Consulting/Client Service Engagement Model – If you work in consulting, this should not be an issue, but if you don’t work in consulting they’ll want to see that you are familiar with the kinds of engagements/projects and the way that consulting firms work, which tends to be a bit different than working in “industry.”
  • Leadership and Project Management – Industry hires tend to be more experienced and thus closer towards manager type roles. As a result, they’ll look for you to have capabilities and experience in leading and managing teams and projects and engagements
  • Sales and Business Development – Consulting boils down to two things: Selling projects and delivering on those projects. As a result, they’ll look for people who have experience or knowledge of business development, relationship management, proposal/pursuit/RFP experience

Key Steps to Take

  • Know Your Experience – Determine what your expertise is and what you bring to the table. Is it industry, capability, functional, or something else?
  • Due Diligence – Start researching firms that are aligned to your area of expertise, and start looking for open postings
  • Network – Reach out to your network to find people who work at specific companies you are interested in. Most firms give some sort of referral bonus for referring employees, so if you can end up somewhere you can also help a friend in the process.

Conclusion

There are three main ways to break into consulting (as discussed above) but as always, your mileage may vary. While the bulk of the recruiting goes through these channels there will always be alternative ways into firms. Consulting is a relationships-based business and that applies to recruiting and identifying talent. If you believe you have the capabilities, experiences and competencies to be a consultant at a management consulting firm, doing your homework, hustling, and building the right relationships can put you on the right path to future career opportunities.

Resources

General

MBA

Footnotes

*For my millennial friends, I realize you may be wanting to make a career switch – my recommendation is to start by using your industry or function and determining on a scale of 1-10 how much expertise you have in that particular industry or function. From there, I would look for firms that are hiring for your specific industry or function. The reality is that while you are good at your job, you are going to be competing against people who have double or triple the experience as you do. This does not mean you cannot make the move, it does make it a bit more competitive and thus you’ll have to work a little bit harder to find some opportunities.

**One exception to some of these rules is for those who are interested in various forms of Technology and IT consulting. If you have experience in these fields and especially in hot skillsets (Salesforce, various coding languages, etc.) there are going to be lots of opportunities for you in various forms of technology consulting.

***Goldman Sachs recently decided to do modify how it recruits and expand beyond just its core schools for it’s summer analyst recruiting. They realized that there was no correlation between their students from core schools and long term success at the firm. As such, their first round interviews will be conducted via video interview, which will enable a wider talent pool from them to hire from and more students from non-core schools who would normally not had the chance to interview with Goldman a shot at a summer internship. Prestigious companies in consulting and banking are known to be fast followers so this is early stages but I would expect others to follow suit within the next few years. This should mean that more students will have a shot at an internship at Goldman Sachs, which I think is a good thing for all parties involved

****I use the term “deep experience” in this section. While I don’t think it would be fair for me to put a number on the years of experience, I would say, generally speaking, it’s usually on the side of more rather than less. As a result, my millennial friends with anywhere from 2-6 years’ experience you may find it a bit tougher to find opportunities than perhaps some of your more experienced peers. This does not mean you cannot find roles that fit your background (there are some) nor does it mean you can’t transition into consulting, it just means it’s a bit harder to do. As a consultant, you are the sum of your knowledge and your experiences, and when you have less age you just have less experience.

 

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