Considerations and advice on entering management consulting

post by Vaidehi Agarwalla (vaidehi_agarwalla), Jakob, Peter4444 (FlagrantBeaver) · 2021-08-11T13:06:12.995Z · EA · GW · 9 comments

Contents

  Key Ideas
  1.1 What do we mean by management consulting?
      Strategy Consulting Firms
      The Big 4 Accounting Firms
      Boutique Consulting Firms
  1.2 Is management consulting the right career path for you?
    Reasons why consulting may be a good choice
    Reasons why other options might be a better choice 
    Do you have a good personal fit for consulting? 
    What are some alternative career paths to consulting?
  1.3 Applying to consulting firms
    When and where to apply
    Getting invited to interviews
  1.4 Preparing for interviews
    Business case 
    Personal experience interview
    Questions for the interviewer
  1.5 Selecting the right consulting firm for you 
None
9 comments

Authors: Vaidehi Agarwalla, Alexandre Lichy & Jakob Grabaak. This post was last edited by the EACN on 19th June 2022.

In this article, we will cover the key considerations when thinking about entering the management consulting career path if you’re trying to maximize the social impact you have in your career. We also outline the steps needed to enter the consulting field and provide some practical advice. 

This article is based on interviews, inputs and feedback from over 15 consultants currently pursuing high impact careers. While we primarily interviewed consultants from top strategy consulting firms, some of the advice may also apply to the Big 4 accounting firms or local boutique consulting firms. We recommend readers do some independent research as well. 

This article is part of a sequence [? · GW] of posts providing career advice on how to maximize your social impact as a consultant. In the following posts, we will discuss how to have an impact during your time in consulting [EA · GW] and what kinds of exit opportunities are available for consultants [EA · GW]. This sequence is a project of the Effective Altruism and Consulting Network (EACN). It does not represent the views of any firms mentioned nor that of all of the contributors. 

Key Ideas

  1. Management consulting firms include strategy consulting, accounting and boutique firms specializing by industry or function. (Read more [EA · GW])
  2. Management consulting may be a good fit for you depending on your cause prioritization, talents and life situation (Read more [EA · GW])
    1. Management consulting offers good learning opportunities and other forms of career capital and direct work, depending on which cause areas you want to work on. (Read more [EA · GW])
    2. Management consulting is very competitive and can be demanding. It may not fit with your skills, lifestyle or life situation (Read more [EA · GW])
    3. There are many promising alternatives to consulting that may be worth considering, even if you are a good fit for top consulting firms (Read more [EA · GW])
  3. When applying to consulting firms:
    1. Try to be strategic about when and where you apply so you can approach each interview in the best conditions (Read more [EA · GW])
    2. Spend time preparing your CV and cover letter; attend recruiting events and try to get strong references (Read more [EA · GW])
  4. When preparing for consulting interviews, dedicate time to practising business cases, personal experience interviews and questions for the interviewer. (Read more [EA · GW])
  5. When you’re selecting between firms, take into consideration the range of opportunities available and your culture fit, but remain flexible. You should talk to current consultants to understand your options (Read more [EA · GW])

1.1 What do we mean by management consulting?

When we refer to management consulting firms, we are talking about 3 main kinds of companies - strategy consulting, accounting, and boutique consulting firms. Below we give a brief overview of each type. 

Strategy Consulting Firms

Strategy consulting firms are known for doing high-level strategy, with some actual implementation work as well. The top firms in this space are widely considered to be McKinsey, the Boston Consulting Group (BCG) and Bain, commonly referred to as MBB. There are also other highly regarded firms in this space that are less prestigious, such as Accenture or Oliver Wyman, LEK Consulting and others. 

Strategy consulting firms, especially MBB, are very competitive (read more [EA · GW]), compensate well and have primarily corporate clients and projects from a broad range of industries. They offer a variety of promising exit opportunities and paths for growth both within and outside of the firm. 

The Big 4 Accounting Firms

The Big 4 accounting firms (PWC, EY, Deloitte & KPMG) are the largest professional service networks that primarily offer accounting, legal and corporate finance services. These firms have also been building up their strategy capabilities, but the work can be more implementation focused rather than high-level strategy, although this can vary by geographic region - in some regions MBB work may be more implementation based and there can be less difference in the scope of work between the Big 4 and MBB. As a result, they can be particularly good for building an operations skillset. 

These firms are less competitive than MBB, and the compensation is good but often significantly lower. They also have primarily corporate clients from many different industries. These firms are particularly good for building operational skills, and can also offer a fairly wide variety of exit opportunities. 

Boutique Consulting Firms

The third kind of management consulting firm is boutique consulting firms. These firms can be industry specialists (e.g. the social sector, healthcare or tech) or functional specialists (e.g. communications, marketing or risk management). Most of these companies model their recruitment and management practices after the major strategy consulting firms and can provide opportunities for working directly on impactful issues that are at least as meaningful as work at the big firms. However, they don’t offer the same exposure to as wide a range of industries and projects, and the exit opportunities can likewise be more limited. 

In terms of competition, some firms can be very competitive since there are fewer jobs, but overall it can be easier to get jobs without as competitive a profile as MBB because boutique consulting firms often look for people with relevant industry or functional experience. This can be valued more than your academic credentials. This also means they are also less likely to hire recent graduates.  Finally, if you’re working at social sector firms in particular, an EA toolkit may be more directly applicable which could enable you to have more impact through the projects that you do. 

Read more about different kinds of consulting firms here

1.2 Is management consulting the right career path for you?

We think consulting can be a promising path for many people, but it really depends on your specific skills and profile, which global problems you care about, what kind of impact you want to have, and the ways you want to contribute. It’s important to carefully consider all your options and possible career paths. 

We recommend reading this career profile and follow-up article from 80,000 Hours, a high-impact career advising organisation, for some considerations for and against consulting. You can also compare it to other career paths. If you’re in the early stages of career planning, we also recommend reading 80,000 Hours’ in-depth Career Planning Guide.

Reasons why consulting may be a good choice

"My motivation to join was that I believe consulting teaches you very fundamental skills to become a productive individual, e.g. effective communication, quickly learning new topics in new environments and problem-solving... this belief is still alive, supporting my motivation to stay in consulting." - Accenture Consultant

“[Some] consulting firms invest actively in your continuous learning (sometimes 5-figure sums), which is more than almost any other job ... So not only It's not only are you learning by doing, but a very significant active teaching component” - McKinsey Consultant

“When I joined BCG I got a four week training before starting my first project including business basics, quantitative modelling, client interaction, communication etc.” - BCG Consultant

Reasons why other options might be a better choice 

“One of the biggest costs, I think, of working in a busy corporate job is the lack of time and crucially headspace to even think about big picture issues like your values, your thoughts on cause prioritisation, and to form your own thoughts ... Chances are, it will be much easier to have that time and motivation to think more deeply about issues you care about in an organisation more aligned with your values.” - Habiba Islam, 80,000 Hours, ex-PWC consultant

Do you have a good personal fit for consulting? 

Your personal fit for a job depends on your preferences, skills and background. Here are some factors that might would affect your personal fit for consulting:

“A director I worked under at Deloitte Consulting started her career as a physiotherapist before pivoting to consulting after doing an MBA. Deloitte brought her in as a senior manager because she had already gained leadership experience in the healthcare sector and she was eventually promoted to director.” - Deloitte Consultant 

What are some alternative career paths to consulting?

Depending on your personal fit and cause prioritisation, there might be even higher-impact options than consulting. And as we discussed earlier, consulting is one of the most competitive options out there, so it’s important to have solid backup options in case you don’t get into your first choice. We suggest developing plans to adapt to make sure you have your top options as well as some you are confident you can land. Below, we provide some alternatives to management consulting that may make sense for you (in no particular order): 

Most of the above options are taken from this 80,000 Hours article, which also provides more thoughts.

1.3 Applying to consulting firms

In this section and the next, we won’t spend too long on the specifics of resume writing, or interviews - even though they are incredibly important - because there are plenty of good resources available already. Instead, we’ll focus on the advice that we don’t see discussed frequently, or that the consultants we interviewed wanted to highlight. 

When and where to apply

At strategy consulting firms there are two common entry routes - after a Master’s degree in Europe (excluding the UK) and directly after undergrad in most of the rest of the world; or after 5+ years of experience/post-MBA. Here are some tips on applying: 

 

 

Getting invited to interviews

This is probably the most cryptic part of the process, as firms vary in how explicit they are about their selection criteria. The following suggestions usually hold when applying to entry-level consulting positions (both internship or full-time, with varying levels of competition). 

 

 

1.4 Preparing for interviews

Interviews are typically structured into three blocks, an introduction, the (in)famous business case, and the personal experience interview - questions about your past experiences. You will do multiple rounds of interviews for each firm. 

Tip: if your interview is online, raise your laptop on some books and look straight into the camera (not at the screen) to get ‘eye contact’ in online interviews.

Business case 

The business case is the heart of a consulting interview and you should spend most of your preparation time on it.

Personal experience interview

Many consulting firms also have a personal experience interview (PEI) where they evaluate a candidates’ soft skills by inquiring about past experiences. This requires a lot of preparation, as your interviewer will expect a clear and well-built story, and is the one you can most easily prepare for - you will have a good sense of which question will be asked. 

"I personally made up and used the acronym CARL: Context, Actions, Results, Learning, since that way I could demonstrate my determination to learn and improve. It seemed to work well." - incoming BCG consultant

Questions for the interviewer

At some firms interviewers will spend the last few minutes on a Q&A part, letting the candidate ask any questions. It is important to also prepare for this part of the interview - candidates frequently tend to forget this. This is a great opportunity to strengthen your personal connection with the interviewer, and to stick out by posing genuine and thought-provoking questions. You might also learn something useful about the role you are applying for.

1.5 Selecting the right consulting firm for you 

Consider your culture fit with the organisation. The culture of different organisations can vary quite a lot, with some firms being more competitive or less supportive than others. 

Consider what kind of geographic and client exposure you want to get. The diversity of geographical exposure can range a lot between firms such as firms which are organised rather than nationally. This can let consultants gain valuable contextual knowledge of many different countries which can then be transferred to direct EA work later on. 

“Among the Big 4 firms in Southeast Asia, Deloitte tends to offer their consultants the most regional exposure because the firm is organised regionally rather than nationally...The reason I chose Deloitte was the range of opportunities it offered to work on projects across Southeast Asia, which some of its competitors could not match.” - Deloitte Consultant 

Further, the client portfolio of each firm and local office may be focused around a certain industry or project type - some may be specialized in due diligence for private equity firms while others large scale transformations of industrial operations. This means you will have less options to work on other projects. 

Remain flexible. The goal is to find several options that you are looking forward to, but ensure you have some which are realistic. While you may not land your dream position straight out of school, you may find yourself in a position to move again in a few years.

Learn about the firms from consultants in your network. Reach out to consultants to understand the differences between firms - they’ll be able to give you insights that aren’t available online. You can reach out to our network of 200+ consultants from the EACN to get started.

 


 

Considering how to have an impact with your career? Reach out to the EACN. We offer practice interviews with a broad network of EA aligned consultants from multiple firms. 

9 comments

Comments sorted by top scores.

comment by Jona · 2021-08-11T17:16:41.106Z · EA(p) · GW(p)

Thank you so much! If you are unsure whether you should apply for consulting, you can also reach out to Jan-Willem van Putten, who does a fantastic job in giving insights to students on behalf of the EACN

comment by FGH · 2021-08-11T16:56:52.202Z · EA(p) · GW(p)

Thanks for putting this together! A few additional points and highlights that may be especially relevant to people with Science backgrounds, based on my experience

  • If one of your key reasons for going into consulting is skill building, be deliberate about what you learn. Articulate your reflections on the bigger picture around your projects, seriously focus when defining your learning goals, make re-usable templates for yourself, and refine all of the above regularly. It's easy to forget this in the hustle of a 60-hour week, so set yourself a reminder.
  • MBB are super excited about hiring people with science backgrounds (PhDs), even with zero prior business experience, if they come from good universities and are otherwise impressive. Don't think you don't stand a chance without an MBA if you think you are a good fit.
  • Yes, the business case studies are important - it may seem stupid but you do need to practice those. Take them seriously! Prepping min 2 weeks full time is totally reasonable.
comment by jchen1 · 2021-08-12T16:02:57.215Z · EA(p) · GW(p)

Thanks for this write-up! A few questions, some of which you may already be planning to address in future posts:

  1. How long do you think it takes to pick up the  vast majority (say >80%) of the transferable skills mentioned? I.e. is it likely that an optimal strategy may be to go into a top consulting firm for 1-2 years and then use the skills, brand and connections to do something more directly impactful? Roughly what proportion of consultants you interviewed/in the EA and Consulting Network are pursuing this strategy vs those who think they can maximise the impact of their career by staying in consulting longer term?
  2. Do you have a sense of what proportion of EAs end up staying in consulting longer than planned /than would be optimal from an impact perspective due to value drift? More concretely, I'm thinking of how the temptation to maintain a high salary or pursue the next promotion or the lack of time to spend considering other options might delay people's exit longer than is optimal.
  3. Any successful case studies to support this: "You could potentially shift the project portfolio of your consulting firm towards more impactful opportunities (especially in a senior role like partner), and influence existing projects to be more effective"?
  4. You wrote, "You can develop expertise in a specific area or industry early in your career, even when you don’t have a background into the topic through on-the-job learning, training opportunities, direct exposure to experts". You also said that "Management consulting firms expect new consultants to spend time working across various industries before specializing, which could delay the start date for you to focus on your areas of interest by a few years." Are you saying (1) it is possible to develop expertise in a specific area but only after a few years; (2) even in the first few years you can develop some level of expertise on each of your projects, but it's more broad than deep; (3) something else? 
Replies from: vaidehi_agarwalla
comment by Vaidehi Agarwalla (vaidehi_agarwalla) · 2021-08-12T23:01:24.248Z · EA(p) · GW(p)

Hi jchen1, thanks for this detailed comment!

Note: I reference our second & third posts a lot, which will be published in a few days! 

How long do you think it takes to pick up the  vast majority (say >80%) of the transferable skills mentioned? I.e. is it likely that an optimal strategy may be to go into a top consulting firm for 1-2 years and then use the skills, brand and connections to do something more directly impactful?

  • Gain some of the transferrable skills could take a 1-2 years, although 1 year seems on the low end to me. As you progress in your consulting career you will get different kinds of responsibiities (e.g. directly interfacing with senior clients). We talk a little more abou this on our next posts. 
  • This 80% rule woudn't apply the connections you make. As you progress in your consulting career you're going to make more connections, and often more important connections (e.g. to senior-level partners and clients). We talk about this in our third post
  • We think the industry experience you gain is more valuable (we cover getting stafffed on relevant projects in our second post), but it take longer to get (in most cases >2 years to be staffed on specific topics).
  • We cover some considerations about if/when to leave consulting in our third post and "% of transferrable skills acquired" is one part of the considerations for leaving. 


Roughly what proportion of consultants you interviewed/in the EA and Consulting Network are pursuing this strategy vs those who think they can maximise the impact of their career by staying in consulting longer term?

We don't have exact numbers. Most of the consultants we interviewed were still in consulting, but we expect our sample was biased because people in the EACN are more likely to be consultants. The decision to pursue one strategy over another is very dependent on how you want to have an impact - what cause areas you want to contribute to, and what career path you aspire to follow. 

2) Do you have a sense of what proportion of EAs end up staying in consulting longer than planned /than would be optimal from an impact perspective due to value drift? More concretely, I'm thinking of how the temptation to maintain a high salary or pursue the next promotion or the lack of time to spend considering other options might delay people's exit longer than is optimal.


We did not explicity ask this, and I think it would be hard to gauge without doing a much more in-depth survey. 

I would say that "value drift" implies that your values change, I think "lifestyle drift" might be more accurate (see this post for more [EA · GW]) RE: salary / promotion. There are other reasons as well, such as status quo bias, risk aversion, or being too distracted to think about your values (see Habiba's quote above). I wouldn't consder these "value drift" per se. Ancedotally, 1 ex-consultant said they wished they'd left earlier, though I wouldn't consider them having value drifted since they were incredibly engaged in EA before they joined consulting, and are now working at EA-aligned organisations.

The above reasons would be true for jobs in tech, finance etc. and aren't unique to consulting. 

3) Any successful case studies to support this: "You could potentially shift the project portfolio of your consulting firm towards more impactful opportunities (especially in a senior role like partner), and influence existing projects to be more effective"?

This is covered in our second post. 

4. You wrote, "You can develop expertise in a specific area or industry early in your career, even when you don’t have a background into the topic through on-the-job learning, training opportunities, direct exposure to experts". You also said that "Management consulting firms expect new consultants to spend time working across various industries before specializing, which could delay the start date for you to focus on your areas of interest by a few years." Are you saying (1) it is possible to develop expertise in a specific area but only after a few years; (2) even in the first few years you can develop some level of expertise on each of your projects, but it's more broad than deep; (3) something else?


In most cases we think 1) is true. However, it is possible for some people to start working on your specific topics in your first year, but this is relatively rare. We cover this in-depth in our staffing section in our second post.  

Replies from: Jona, vaidehi_agarwalla, jchen1
comment by Jona · 2021-08-17T07:28:21.158Z · EA(p) · GW(p)

Re 2): I  believe that the lack of time to inform oneself about other career options is definitely one reason why consultants don't leave earlier. This is something we are trying to solve with the EACN.

comment by Vaidehi Agarwalla (vaidehi_agarwalla) · 2021-08-17T01:14:54.982Z · EA(p) · GW(p)

Small update: the sequence is complete so all the posts referenced above are available now!

comment by jchen1 · 2021-08-27T14:13:05.844Z · EA(p) · GW(p)

Thanks for the thorough reply, and I've now read the second post which suggested more potential for direct impact than I had initially thought. On (2), I agree value drift wasn't a great term for what I had in mind. Thanks for bringing out the nuance there

comment by jared_m · 2021-08-11T22:24:26.206Z · EA(p) · GW(p)

This is a great and comprehensive write-up!

My interview experience is ~13 years old at this point, but would briefly+1 that Case in Point was invaluable. I'm certain I would not have received a job offer if I hadn't bought a copy.

Replies from: FlagrantBeaver
comment by Peter4444 (FlagrantBeaver) · 2022-04-11T13:23:17.193Z · EA(p) · GW(p)

In my experience (interviewed 2020/21), Case In Point is no longer useful, except perhaps to skim through for some ideas.

My understanding is that, when consulting firms started using case interviews, they could get away with using a handful of standardised formats (profitability diagnosis, M&A, etc.). Case In Point provides rigid frameworks to apply to those standardised formats. But the firms have got wise to this. They used these frameworks to test thinking but got 'framework monkeys' using canned frameworks, so now they often give cases that don't fit those frameworks and/or expect candidates to produce better / more specific insights.

I think the most helpful resources are those that focus on developing the skills being tested in case interviews. In my opinion, improving at the actual skills firms look for is a robust way to do well, is more fun, and is more useful for consulting and life.

I'd recommend the free course and articles from craftingcases.com, as well as casecoach.com. (BCG London gave all interviewees free CaseCoach access.)