How Much does Background Affect Your Consulting Career?

What backgrounds do management consulting firms look for?

Consulting is a prestigious job opportunity, but is it only cut out for high profile candidates? Management consulting backgrounds are diverse across many industries and majors. This article will answer the most commonly asked questions on actual backgrounds of management consultants and the implications of one’s background on the consultant career path.

Management consultants backgrounds

Consultants are all high-achieving individuals, that is also a Cquality looked for in any candidate. Outstanding accomplishments are required for consultant applicants to be considered in the screening round. Let’s take a look at the academic and professional background of top firms’ management consultants.

Do I need business-related degrees to be a consultant?

No business major is needed for management consulting. Although many consultants are from business-related backgrounds (finance, economics, statistics) it is not a hard requirement. In management consulting, there is no limitation to candidates’ academic fields. At McKinsey, approximately half of consultants come from non-business backgrounds, including engineering, arts, psychology, and other sciences.

Also, top consulting firms are likely to diversify the backgrounds of their hires. The diversification of consultant backgrounds provides a multi-disciplinary perspective on a single problem, which is essential for “problem-solving service” companies.

Do I have to come from target schools to get into consulting?

Target-school backgrounds are not required to get into top consulting firms. Although target-school students (from Ivy League schools and top business schools at each locality) have significant advantages in networking and resume screening; however, these can be offset by networking and preparation efforts. Past the resume round, target and non-target candidates have equal chances of landing an offer.

As a non-target school student, being active is really important. Top consulting firm recruitment information is less likely to be directed to your school. Thus, you need to reach out by yourself. Network with top firm consultants, ask your peers from target schools for recruitment information, while at the same time try to enhance skills and knowledge needed for a consultant through extensive learning and preparation. The consulting club at each school (or any club where MBB consultants are active, in case your school does not have a consulting club) is a good place to start.

Refer to this article to learn more about Consulting target schools.

Is academic performance important in applying for consulting?

Academic records are an important factor in consulting resume screening, usually reflected by the screeners’ preference for candidates with high GPA (3.5 or more) and/or target-school backgrounds. Nonetheless, candidates with less-than-excellent academic performance can still compensate by networking, standardized tests, competition and awards, work experience, and tailored resume-writing.

Most consultants have excellent academic backgrounds with GPAs at least 3.5-3.6 (this in and of itself generates controversies, mostly about the reliability of GPA as a performance predictor). All said and done, whether you like it or not, having a >3.6 GPA means your chance to be passed for the resume screening round is much higher.

What if you have low GPAs? Luckily, GPA is only one performance indicator. What you might lack in GPA, you can make up with other academic achievements such as prizes, awards, scholarships, etc.. If candidates can show their strength in other aspects of their learning and working experience, they are as qualified as any other academically high-performing students. In the GPA Cut-off Article, we identify acceptance opportunities and preparation needed for each GPA level.

Remember that your background only matters in the screening round. For subsequent tests and case interviews, GPA and academic achievements are irrelevant.

Do I need a lot of work experience to get into consulting?

Extensive work experience is not required to apply in top consulting firms. Having consulting traits and qualifications (leadership abilities, problem-solving capacity, and achieving mindset) is considered more important – work experience is merely one way to display those qualities. In fact, for junior positions (consulting intern or junior consultant), having too much full-time experience is considered negative.

It does not matter how many years of experience you have or which firms you have worked for, as long as you prove your potential as a consultant, you have a chance. Thus, the job title on your resume is not as important as the bullet points, subtly communicating your competence and achievement.

Top firms like McKinsey, BCG or Bain would hire people straight out of colleges. In these firms, a large proportion of consultants are fresher and quite new to the business world. Only around a third of top firms’ hires for the consulting tracks are experienced professionals.

What opportunities do experienced professionals have in consulting firms?

Typically, experienced professionals can join consulting firms either as industry experts (supporting track) or as senior consultants. In the former case, professionals only join projects of specific fields, assigned by the leading partner. In the latter case, experienced professionals can vastly increase their chances with an MBA degree from a reputable business school (such as Ivy League schools).

Among experienced workers deciding on joining the consulting career, the majority of them come from business-related fields like auditing and banking. There are also many people joining the consulting track from backgrounds completely unrelated to business like art or engineering. Consulting firms welcome people from any industry, thus considered a career “reset button” for professionals looking for a fresh start in their career. Many use consulting as a stepping stone to broaden or switch their career.

In general, people from any background can join consulting as long as they possess essential traits top consulting firms look for: personal impact, entrepreneurial drive, inclusive leadership and problem solving skills.


Backgrounds’ implication for consultant career path

Implication for preparation process

The recruitment of top consulting firms is demanding. Thus, whatever background you come from, careful and extensive preparation is necessary to guarantee a position.

Non-business background does not mean you are at a disadvantage. However, you can expect the effort put in is slightly more than peers from a business background. Studying or working in a non-business major means the outreach to recruitment information is limited. Also, these candidates do not have a network of alumni and peers aspiring to a consulting career like a business school graduate has. Thus, to prepare a convincing resume and cover letter, you have to be active to reach out for networking and information.

After passing the screening round, your background is not a judging criterion anymore and it all depends on the tests and interviews performance. The interview process is tough. Although case interviews are designed to test candidates’ structured and logical thinking, basic understanding of business is necessary. Getting a grasp on basic business concepts for case interviews through our Case Interview Starter Guide for Non-business candidates.

Implication for career path

There are only two entry levels, separate for MBA graduates and undergraduates. With a background as an undergrad, your entry level is Junior Consultant or Business Analyst. Main tasks at this level are to handle small workstreams or support senior consultants in larger, more important workstreams. MBA graduates enter top firms at a higher level, Senior Consultant or Associate. Normally consulting firms do not hire at manager levels.

Once entering the firm, the career path is basically the same for everyone regardless of their backgrounds. Read the article about Career Path at Top Consulting firms to see what lies ahead for a consultant career path.

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