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Commentary :: International
So you wanna get a job in Consulting? Well I do!
05 Feb 2005
Perhaps it's the abundance of frequent flyer miles and business-class airline seating. Maybe it's the complimentary laptop, the big bucks and that new three-piece suit you've been eyeing at Brooks Brothers. And the free meals at some of the world's nicest restaurants can be a nice perk. Whatever the reason, you've ( read I’ve) decided that the exciting and professional world of management consulting is a good career match for your cosmopolitan self. The problem is that unless you attended a college with lots of ivy (or the initials MBA mean more to you than My Big Ass), consulting is often a difficult industry to break into. By following a few careful steps, however, you can figure out if consulting is really the right job for you, and how to break into it
Perhaps it's the abundance of frequent flyer miles and business-class airline seating. Maybe it's the complimentary laptop, the big bucks and that new three-piece suit you've been eyeing at Brooks Brothers. And the free meals at some of the world's nicest restaurants can be a nice perk. Whatever the reason, you've ( read I’ve) decided that the exciting and professional world of management consulting is a good career match for your cosmopolitan self. The problem is that unless you attended a college with lots of ivy (or the initials MBA mean more to you than My Big Ass), consulting is often a difficult industry to break into. By following a few careful steps, however, you can figure out if consulting is really the right job for you, and how to break into it.

What Consultants do?

You first need to know a little bit about what it is that a consultant does. Consultants do just as their name suggests - they consult. In other words, consultants are people hired by companies to give advice about how to do stuff. There are many kinds of consultants out there; for instance, "technical consultants" give advice on technological issues and "financial consultants" give advice about money. But the biggest branch of consulting is called "management consulting."

Management consultants are typically organized into teams, specifically chosen for a given project. A "project" is a job that the team is hired for by an external firm. The team is constructed internally by the consulting firm, and it is maximized for efficient human capital composition (whoops . . . we broke into consultant speak there . . . in English, this means that they don't put two recent college graduates on the same project team). The average team consists of three to six people, depending on the job specifications and the clients' needs.

And what exactly are these needs? Well, that can be anything from "Tell me if I should sell my new sneaker in Kalamazoo" to "Evaluate our petroleum operations abroad and tell us where we're losing money and how to fix the situation." You, as a consultant, help find the answer. The clients' problems are all unique, and hence the length of a given assignment varies by project (typical project lengths range from a few weeks to many months).

But how does a consultant go about solving the problem? After all, you just graduated from college, so you only know about how long it takes beer to absorb into your bloodstream. Fear not, for there are all kinds of tasks that the team tackles in order to solve the problem, including:

· employee interviews
· computer analyses and projections
· industry/competitor comparisons
· historical trend research
· market research

and anything else that would allow the team to attack the problem from all angles. If any or all of the above research mechanisms are foreign to you, don't fret. You'll learn how to do all that stuff in orientation, through on-the-job training or just through continuous learning. In other words, technical ability is usually not a pre-requisite for being hired, but we'll get into more of this when we get to later stages of this article.

The Main Consulting Firms

The organization of the consulting industry is notable in and of itself. Most consulting firms are small, one-person operations. We're gonna assume we all are looking for something a bit larger. The Big Five (traditionally accounting and tax firms) consists of:

1. Arthur Andersen
2. Deloitte & Touche
3. Ernst & Young
4. KPMG International
5. PriceWaterhouseCoopers

In addition to management consulting services, these firms provide other services ranging from technology solutions to change management to process improvement. These other branches of consulting deal mainly with helping companies run more smoothly or add on of a new business process. Besides the Big Five, there are a few strict management consulting houses. Firms in this class (McKinsey & Co., Bain & Co, Booz·Allen & Hamilton, The Boston Consulting Group) are considered elite in the management consulting field. Hands down, the largest consulting company is Andersen Consulting (spun off from Arthur Andersen when it became the most profitable branch), with over 65,000 employees in 48 countries. Other consulting houses function as specialty houses, or boutiques, and only handle particular types of work. Recently, this has focused on e-commerce opportunities.

If you're interested in the business, you're assumedly going to want to toss your resume into the stacks of every firm you can reach. But in case you're a more discriminating customer and don't want to waste time, here's a bit of info about a few of the more popular houses:

McKinsey & Company:
Hands down, the most selectively elite firm in the field and possibly across any given industry. The lore is that they accept less than 1% of their 50,000 annual applicants. However, they pride themselves on their diversity, so if you have an advanced professional degree or if you've spent the past few years working in Nepal for a mountain climbing Web start-up, you may have an edge at landing an interview.

Booz·Allen & Hamilton:
This firm describes itself as a "management and technology consulting firm focused on business strategy and transformation." This means that they do other consulting besides strictly strategy work. Booz tends to be a bit more mature than some of the other firms, with most of its incoming recruits holding MBAs rather than bachelor's degrees. This does allow for post-undergrads to stand out inside the firm, though.

Bain & Company:
Bain is a global strategy consulting firm (are you seeing the similarities between these firms manifest themselves yet?). They tend focus on strategy work and are a younger-oriented firm than Booz·Allen. They hire a lot of recruits with both MBAs and bachelor's degrees.

The Boston Consulting Group:
BCG is similar to Bain in many ways, notably the similar age of recent-hires. BCG brands itself as a bit more creatively-minded, however. Eccentrics can stand out here, as long as they have some structure and precedent for backing up their crazy ideas.

Andersen Consulting:
Being the biggest firm in the industry brings with it a lot of structure and training and Andersen has often been lambasted for overtraining (brainwashing) its employees (droids) with the company's ways of handling given issues and problems. Whether or not you subscribe to the criticism, the company offers some of its youngest consultants the option of sticking around for a few years beyond the typical consultant's two-year pre-MBA stint.

PWC is one of the largest firms in the field, but management consulting is only one part of their service and industry offerings. The firm is similar in many ways to the Andersen experience (both firms have similar background), but different in many ways as well. PWC offers excellent perks (nice restaurants, the best hotels, a slave-like service where for a few dollars an hour, you can have someone sit in your house and wait for the cable man), but the salary is at the low end of the spectrum for the industry (low 40Ks).

Phew. OK, now that we're through with the logistics of the industry and assuming that you're still interested (you're still reading, aren't you?), we can get started on the career path to the Wonderful Land of Consulting. Consulting can be an end to itself in some larger firms (like Andersen), where depending on your individual development, you can move up the ladder and eventually be a partner. In other firms (for post-undergraduates), it is more widely assumed that you'll take off after a couple of years to get your MBA or to gain industry experience. Talented veteran partners at McKinsey & Company often slip into CEO positions in Fortune 500 firms. The current trend among many younger consultants is to be drawn toward Internet start-ups with nothing more than a few stock options and a dream. With a well-established firm already on their resumes, many may say, "Why not?" and take the risk, sometimes reaping great benefits (hint: dollars). Whichever industry you'd eventually like to enter, consulting can function as a grad school of sorts for the professional managers of tomorrow.

Assess Your Qualifications

Now that you're as excited as can be about consulting, let's review that ol' education of yours and see what you're up against. If you're coming from business school, an Ivy League college or other comparable institution, your chances of landing the job just got a hell of a lot easier. Consulting firms often recruit top individuals from these institutions, so they may actually come to you. Now for the rest - are you just dead in the water? Absolutely not.

Consultants love to tell stories about the guy who was flinging burgers and went on to become a top partner, making a six-figure salary. The encouraging thing is that somewhere in between the burger guy and the business school grad, there's a lot of room for you. It doesn't matter what school you attended.

Grades do matter, however. Firms often make initial cuts for interviews based solely on poor GPAs. Something around a 3.5 GPA should suffice to keep you afloat, but if yours isn't quite that high, you have other options, such as work experience. Perhaps you've become quite the expert on Web marketing in that recent internship or temp stint. That kind of experience can really make you stand out to recruiters.

There is one thing that is extraordinarily important to remember: your qualifications are only as good as you present them. The resume, cover-letter and phone correspondence should be flawless if you want to make a good impression (and not have your materials end up in the trash). And don't try that old trick where you insert the firm's name in your cover letter after some generic words of praise (caught ya, huh?). Firms would rather hear why you actually think that you'd be a good match for their particular group. This means - yep, the R word - Research. Do it. On the Web, with your friends, through brochures - wherever you find materials on the firm you're applying to, make sure you devour it and spit it back out in a specific, praising, yet not sugar coated way. Talk about how their office is a good fit for your personality and skill set. You can't go wrong.

Ace The Interview

If we've done our job correctly, then you've just landed an interview with the consulting company (or companies) of your dreams. Now it's easy, right? Well, think again. Because the consulting industry is one of the most competitive industries for recent college graduates, the interview is constructed specifically to separate the wimps from the killers. "Oh no! That means the business school kids are gonna walk away with all the jobs!" Calm down. Consulting firms hire English majors, religious studies majors, math majors and philosophy majors alike. They are typically not overly concerned with your knowledge of decision trees and CAP-M models (nonsensical business terms). First and foremost, they are concerned with your thinking ability.
The typical consulting interview has three to four parts. Each interview is little different. So before you enter your interview, see if you can grab a friend who has already interviewed with the company and ask him/her what it was like.

1. The first 5 minutes:

This is what's known as the "getting-to-know-you" part of the interview, and it may be your only opportunity to casually mention that you won the Nobel Peace Prize last year. The interviewer (who will be a consultant or partner with the firm) will have your resume in hand and may ask you a few softball questions about your job or education experience. Expect the interviewer to ask you about these areas, and have your terrific answers ready (like how your part-time job at The Gap taught you the benefits of teamwork and cost accounting). Your answers should sound casual, however, and not too forced. The interviewer will probably introduce him/herself as well, so be sure to stay awake at this point, and pay attention to his/her experiences, because these will be important later. It also kinda torpedoes your chances for landing a job if you forget his/her name halfway through.

2. The next 5-10 minutes:

The next part of a consulting interview often consists of a simple estimation question. It may or may not be immediately obvious whether or not the interviewer is asking you an estimation question, so if you're unsure at any point, casually ask, "Would you like me to work out actual numbers for this question or should I just approach the issue theoretically? Well, You've just shown your propensity for clarification. Assuming the person is looking for actual numbers, don't do this:

Interviewer: "How many miniature golf pencils are in Wales?"
You/me : "Oh, around 46,000."

Don't call us, we'll call you. Reaching the number is important, but it is not the first part to tackling the question, even if you're 100% confident that you know the answer (don't worry, you won't). Rather, you should approach the question from a demand point of view (250 million people in the U.K., a certain percentage of whom are in Wales, a certain percentage of whom play mini-golf, which leads to a number of courses, etc.) or a supply point of view, which works from the reverse angle. Whichever side you start with, be sure to work your way down from the largest possible number to the most streamlined end point. Be sure to evaluate your answer to make sure it's realistic (you wouldn't want to announce that you thought there were 5 trillion pencils when you meant 5 million). And that's it. Simple and logical. Again, the interviewer won't care how close you are to the right answer . . . he/she is rather analyzing your thinking process, and what factors you'll consider when you make your calculations.

3. The next 15 minutes:

Assuming that you're still composed and not sweating or crying, then it's time for the case interview. This is the most complained-about part of the interview process, but it also gives a glimpse into what consulting is actually like. The question will typically be long, involved, and number-heavy, but you can ace it by following these tips:

o Use a sheet of paper, jot down the story, and ask the interviewer to repeat anything that you miss.

o When the interviewer is done telling the story and presenting the question, take a couple of seconds to review your notes and recap aloud the information that the interviewer told you, as well as the problem they want you to solve. "Just to clarify," you assure them. More brownie points, baby.

o The most important thing to remember during the case is to be structured. So before you go down a path, make sure you know where you're going. There's nothing that spells disaster during a case interview more than just shouting out a series of ideas. Ask a lot of questions and ask follow-up questions. Write the useful answers down to construct a map for your solution.

o If you get stuck, just reiterate what you have discovered so far and where you're going. It's a stalling technique, but it's very much accepted and can often help you get back on track.

o Listen to what the interviewer tells you. If he/she says something is "not important," then throw it out (it's not going to be a trick question). Back up and try a different path. The key thing to remember is to just clear your head and think as if you were the manager facing the problem. What kind of information would you want to know and how will that information help you make a decision? Do this and you're well on your way toward success.

4. The final 5 minutes:

This is the part where the interviewer congratulates you on a job well done with the case (they are excellent liars, so it's gonna be difficult to tell if you've done well or wasted his/her time) and asks you if you have any questions before leaving. If you say no, that's the same as shooting yourself in the foot. Have questions, and make them interesting. Consider asking about the case you just answered; it's most likely based on a real project on which the interviewer worked, so ask what the consultants found out, what their recommendations were, and how it all turned out. You can also ask questions about the interviewer's experiences at the firm. He/she was in your shoes a few years ago and was just as concerned about the same things that you are now. No question is a stupid one, unless you ask it stupidly:

Interviewer: "Do you have any questions for me?"
You/me : "Yeah, so how much do you pull in during a year at this joint?"

Be respectful and conversational and you'll make even the most seasoned interviewer proud.

Accept The Best Deal

So got an offer? Well, good but before you sign anything, though, you have to appropriately evaluate each offer you get and make sure it's right for you. When you get your first offer, the firm is going to shower you with gifts and compliments, so never lose sight of the following important factors:

· Salary:
The average starting salary for a junior-level consultant is in the $45,000 range. This number may fluctuate according to the size and location of the firm, the size of a bonus check (average is around $5,000) and other benefits. Of course, one should be concerned with receiving the typical benefits package and inquire as to when the insurance kicks in (if it's not until six months down the line, there's a possibility that you may not even be with the firm anymore). Inquire about end-of-year bonuses, signing bonuses, and shop around to get the best offer. You're worth it, so am I.

· Travel:
Yes, with today's global economy, consulting brings with it the opportunity to fly all over the world in business class (while you rack up the frequent flyer points), stay in the nicest hotels, and eat and drink at the finest restaurants. And the bad part is? Travel is often the most complained-about part of the job for young consultants who don't know what they're getting into. Most consultants work on remote assignments, typically flying out on Monday mornings and returning on Thursday evenings. In other words, you'll be spending the majority of your time in a strange city with strange people. It's all flashy and new going in, but after a few weeks of jet lag, it can grow tiresome. If you are intent on traveling, then not to worry - just whisper this into anyone's ear when you arrive at the firm and they'll have you off to Kuala Lumpur in no time. If you'd prefer a more moderate travel schedule, though, many firms are now accommodating this lifestyle preference with more regional staffing models. The glamour of travel quickly wears off when you're constantly away from home and friends, so it's important that you accept the good with the bad when you make your decision.

· Hours:
While you don't have to worry too much about working investment-banking-120-hour weeks, you will be seeing quite a bit more of the office (and other offices) than the 40-hour-a-week desk jockey. Most consultants work about 60-80 hours a week, depending on which point of the project they're currently at.

· Work environment:
Even though you'll be traveling a lot, you'll still have a main office - an office that functions as your home base. So make sure you visit the place and look around - see if people appear happy. Faces don't lie.
So now we're prepared to tackle the world with our new job, power suit, bankroll, Palm Pilot and mind for solving complex issues. Break out that resume, log onto the Internet and start recruiting some information of your own. And who knows? You may be a CEO before you know it. Just rock the boat.

I just hope McKinsey & Company is listening me.

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Re: So you wanna get a job in Consulting? Well I do!
05 Feb 2005
Excellent informative article, thanks himadri,
Re: So you wanna get a job in Consulting? Well I do!
07 Feb 2005
great stuff.