Authors: Vaidehi Agarwalla, Alexandre Lichy & Jakob Grabaak
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 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 and what kinds of exit opportunities are available for consultants. 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.
- Management consulting firms include strategy consulting, accounting and boutique firms specializing by industry or function. (Read more)
- Management consulting may be a good fit for you depending on your cause prioritization, talents and life situation (Read more)
- 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)
- Management consulting is very competitive and can be demanding. It may not fit with your skills, lifestyle or life situation (Read more)
- 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)
- When applying to consulting firms:
- When preparing for consulting interviews, dedicate time to practising business cases, personal experience interviews and questions for the interviewer. (Read more)
- 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)
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), 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 slightly less competitive than MBB, and the compensation is good but likely not as high. 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 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
- You have a good personal fit for consulting (see below)
- You can develop transferable career capital such as:
- Managing projects with multiple stakeholders, frequent deliverables, sometimes without clear-cut priorities and dynamic scope of work.
- Communicating effectively with various audiences, from shop-floor employees to CEOs and board members.
- Quickly learning about new topics and adapting to new environments
- Thinking in a structured manner and problem-solving.
- You can learn some quantitative skills. For instance, MBB has increasingly introduced hybrid roles that combine management consulting with analytics or machine learning frameworks to help round out your skillset as a data analyst. The Big 4 also offer more technical roles although these may sometimes be more limited in scope.
“[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
- You can build a strong network (including 200+ members of the EACN), lasting relationships, and learn from smart, driven colleagues and clients to improve your chances of securing other competitive positions in the future.
- You can explore a range of professional opportunities, roles, geographies and industries to learn about your relative strengths and preferences before committing to a specific path, which could help you improve and make more informed career choices later on.
- 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 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.
Reasons why other options might be a better choice
- You don’t have a good personal fit for consulting (see below).
- If you want to Earning-to-Give to high impact charities, and other high-earning career paths are a good fit for you. Consulting is a top, but not the top earn-to-give career path. If you have strong quantitative skills then quantitative trading or being a tech startup founder could be better options to pursue instead of - or in addition to - consulting. Most (but not all) consulting firms also do not offer very large employer donation matching opportunities - you may want to consider firms that do. You can learn more about Earning-to-Give at consulting firms here.
- If there are more direct ways to build career capital for causes you want to contribute to. If you’re interested in improving the long-term future, then this article details alternatives specific to problems working to preserve the far future. 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.
- If you want to spend time reflecting on your values, the causes you think are most important to contribute to, or your long-term career plans before taking the next step in your career. Consulting is a demanding career path where you will have less time to think through your career choices and priorities than in slower-paced roles.
“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:
- Your lifestyle preferences. If you have a strong preference for standard 40-hours work weeks (as opposed to 60+ hours which is typical in consulting), or non-competitive and relaxed work environments, consulting may not be a good fit for you.
- Your work preferences. If you prefer working autonomously or independently, or working on the same problem for extended periods of time then consulting may not be a good fit for you.
- Your past achievements and work experience. Consulting can be a very competitive path, the following factors could make you a better fit and improve your odds of landing a job at top consulting firms (as well as for the smaller or less prestigious firms; though you can often get a job with these firms despite lacking some of the points below)
- Elite/top universities, especially in the US & UK. In European countries there are also core recruiting sources such as the top universities as well as international studies, but companies are now increasingly open to hiring people with different backgrounds as well. Some firms care as much about your experiences as your university, and boutique consulting firms often care more about your experiences.
- Excellent grades, or good grades with something else that is particularly impressive on your resume to compensate (see next bullet).
- Past experiences or internships which demonstrate that you can work hard and excel within a given domain. In the corporate domain, this includes working at other highly competitive and prestigious companies such as consulting firms; leading tech or industry players; some leading NGOs and political parties.
- In rare cases, some consulting firms also recruit people who have been at the top of very different fields - like artists, doctors, engineers or athletes - if they have demonstrable skills in relevant topics. Other kinds of impressive experiences include running a student organization or having received awards for any of your past experiences.
“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
- Top consulting firms will also hire from PhD programs, especially in regions where this is common (like Germany) or for roles where this is especially valued (e.g. as a subject matter expert on your PhD topic). The recruitment process is quite similar, and it can be helpful to have demonstrable business knowledge.
- For European-based firms, having studied or worked internationally can help.
What are some alternative career paths to consulting?
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):
- Join a particularly promising startup, especially in the for-profit tech sector, though small and rapidly growing organisations in any sector are worth considering. Look for any organisation with impressive people, and ideally in a role that lets you develop concrete skills (e.g. especially management, operations, entrepreneurial skills, general productivity, generalist research) in a relevant area.
- If you’re interested in public policy, you could work as a research assistant at a top think tank, with the aim specialise in a relevant area, take other entry routes into policy careers, or go to graduate school in public policy or related fields.
- You could also go to grad school in a subject which has a good balance of personal fit, relevance, and backup options. 80,000 Hours suggests economics and machine learning as possible options if you have strong quantitative skills. You could also pursue further studies in subjects directly relevant to causes you care about.
- If you might be able to do something with significant positive impact in the next five years such as founding a new non-profit or working for an impactful organisation, that could be an impressive experience and also give you connections and skills that are highly relevant to social impact.
- Take any option where you might be able to have unusually impressive achievements or that you are uniquely positioned to take which could benefit the cause area you are interested in or the effective altruism movement more broadly.
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 - directly after undergrad in the U.S. or a Master’s degree in Europe; or after 5+ years of experience/post-MBA. Here are some tips on applying:
- Decide when to start your job hunt. A serious job search process requires significant upfront preparation. For consulting, the interview processes at top consulting firms require significant preparation - from a couple of weeks to a couple of months. You may hear stories of people acing their interviews after only a night of preparation, but that represents a small minority of lucky applicants.
- Apply to several consulting firms. Recruiting processes at the top consulting firms are very competitive. You may not get your preferred choice, and it is wise to hedge your bets. Moreover, you will become a better candidate after a few interviews. If possible, keeping firms you are most interested in entering towards the end will ensure you are ready for these critical interviews - and vice versa. You can fail the interview process mostly due to bad luck despite having the right qualifications and having prepared thoroughly, given the stiff competition - several members of the EACN working at MBB were rejected by other consulting firms.
- If possible, space interviews enough to take in feedback but still stay in “interview mode”. Try to keep about a week between important interviews so you can work on any weak spots and recover in between interviews. You don’t want to wait longer so that you stay in “interview mode” and to get offers around the same time.
- Try to get offers around the same time. You will then be able to choose the best offer for you, and, depending on the firm, may be able to negotiate a better salary (though there is often little room for negotiating at entry level as a junior consultant). If you get an offer from one firm before completing the application process at another, you may be able to expedite the process. If you’re not able to do this and accept the offer, you can still keep interviewing - it is possible to switch to another firm, although you may burn bridges at the original firm.
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).
- Prepare a good CV/resume and cover letter. For most firms, your resume will matter about ~5x more than a cover letter, so we suggest putting more effort into your resume. Best practices for how to structure your resume may vary by geography and there are many high-quality articles available online (e.g. the Harvard resume template).
- Attend recruiting events. Some consulting firms offer regular recruiting events - ranging from 1-hour sessions to multi-day workshops, and they are a great opportunity to get to know a company’s culture and talk to some employees. The company will also get to know you, and might directly approach you for interviews without following the standard application process (one of our interviewees was hired this way)
- Get strong referrals. Don’t just go through online portals, which are reviewed by HR, but also through referrals for the firm you want to work for whenever possible. Getting a good referral - not simply passing on the resume, but from someone who can testify that you’re good - can open doors to an interview even if the resume is not perfect. Preferably you connected for a (virtual) coffee with an employee from the firm.
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.
The business case is the heart of a consulting interview and you should spend most of your preparation time on it.
- Practice, practice, practice. Use websites like PrepLounge, work with other candidates (possibly through your university’s consulting club), and do practice cases with current consultants as well. Consultants we asked prepared between 10 to 20 cases each over about 2-6 weeks. Candidates are often not prepared to:
- Structure issues clearly: Complex business problems can be broken down into smaller, more manageable key issues and problems. Practice identifying these smaller issues and how to solve those. There are many practice cases that walk you through structuring your answers in an organized and logical way.
- Do quick maths: A consultant needs a reliable calculator in their head to make quick sense of numbers. Practice a lot of mental calculations to get comfortable with the process - you can use examples from everyday life.
- Read up on resources such as Case in Point, Case Interview Secrets, Management Consulted, but don’t dwell on them - applying what you know is about five times more important.
- If you know who your interviewer will be, read about their sector expertise in the final round. Partners usually have certain expertise and it is best to know before you enter the interview.
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.
- List down at least 10 remarkable events or experiences. Don’t censor yourself at this point - think through your past work experiences, associative engagements, studies and personal projects for strong, defining moments. Don’t stop before you reach ten such experiences - be thorough in your search!
- Try to tie each of these to the skills your interviewer will be probing for. Focus ons stories you can tie back to key skills; you might have to carve out a small piece of a longer story, because the rest is not directly relevant.
- Build your stories. Once you have 1-2 experiences for each skill, write down 3-5 minutes stories. Be very focused on the role you played personally (rather than the team), and only focus on the most relevant information (don’t get caught up in unnecessary object-level details), and follow time-tested structures like the STAR framework.
- Practice, practice, practice. Unsurprisingly, you need to tell your story a couple of times to refine it and become comfortable with it.
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.