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Hi there,

Last week I got quite a unique email, quite long, but very interesting. Despite the flood of emails I’ve  gotten these days, this is the one I thought to myself that I HAVE TO REPLY!

If you can spend some time reading through the whole thing, that would be great!

The original email (names sanitized)

Dear Kim,

Thank you for building such a helpful platform. (Btw, I found it via your answer in Quora.)

Being a management consultant in MBB is my career plan in recent 5-10 years. Unfortunately, I do not think I am on the right track. I would greatly appreciate it if you can spare a few minutes to see my case and share your opinion and advice as an insider. I will be very interested if your company also provides career coaching service.

I got my bachelor in Transportation from a non-target university in China and a master in Transportation System and Management from National University of Singapore (NUS). Then I worked as a research consultant in Operation Research in a local consulting firm in Singapore for one year and later joined Arup (a top engineering consulting firm) as a transport planner. After 3 years in Arup, I went to Nanyang Technological University (NTU) to pursue a Ph.D in Maritime Study (concentrated in Supply Chain Management). Now is the end of the first year in my Ph.D program. That’s the brief instruction of my education and career background, I have attached my CV if you would like to know any details.

Last year, I found McKinsey’s Operation Academy (OA) program (https://mckinsey.secure.force.com/EP/job_details?jid=a0xA000000BSHDyIAP) online. I thought that I was a suitable candidate and so did Laura who referred me to Wings Zhang in Shanghai Office. Long story in short, my CV eventually reached Jenny Jin, the recruiter of Asia Operations Practice. Her reply is attached below.

Hi Eric,

Happy New Year. Hope you had a great holiday!

Thanks for the referral, but Eric’ experience is too specific for us and he just started his Ph.D, so it won’t work out. However, thank you again for the referral! 🙂



I replied her regarding the two points she listed, unfortunately I did not get any further replies from her afterward.

I tried to figure out possible obstacles based on my limited understanding of the recruitment philosophy of McKinsey and listed the top three as follows:

  1. My education background: my undergraduate uni ranked around 350-400 globally, although NUS is ranked 25th and NTU ranked 61st by Times, they are not targeting schools. I am afraid that I cannot pass the CV screening.
  2. My major is not closely related to business: although I tried to shift my direction from transportation to supply chain management (SCM), the HR still thinks that my experience is too specific even for the OA program.
  3. My age: I would be 29-30 when I get my Ph.D degree (I was born in Dec 1988). I think it may be a little old to apply for an entry-level position.

There are two possible solutions I can think of for now:

  1. Apply for the SCM program in MIT (http://scm.mit.edu) and do it in parallel with my Ph.D since on average 2-3 out of every batch of their graduates join McKinsey.
  2. Join a good MBA program upon graduation.

I do not want to go for the second one unless it is really necessary.

If you are still reading, I would like to express my sincere gratitude. As an ex-consultant in McKinsey and current professional in management consulting preparation, what advice would you give based on my circumstance please? How should I prepare myself in the following 3-4 years if I want to successfully join MBB upon graduation?

Many thanks in advance!

Warm regards,


My reply:

Hi Eric,

Thank you very much for such an enthusiastic email. Also, thank you for your patience. I  try to reply to every email from my audience as fast as I  can but it’s very hard due to my busy schedule.  …

So anyway, first of all, I do see some consulting traits in your email. That’s  very good news. You are highly determined. You think like a consultant. You approach your own “case” through a consultant’s mindset. You also have a structured communication style: there are 3 things … No.1 is … No.2 is … and No.3 is … Very impressive and very consulting-like!

Now straight to the question you asked. Here’s my summary of your email:

  • You have a burning desire to be an MBB consultant.
  • You have educational background in NUS and NTU (major and the degree doesn’t matter much though).
  • You applied for the McKinsey OA program (which I will explain what it is in more detail (by my own words) below) but didn’t succeed.
  • You listed out some possible root causes.
  • You proposed some

If you took it upon yourselves a consulting-like methodology, I would add my feedback just like this is a real case interview or problem-solving session.

I agree with all of your analyses and insights. But I still have to bomb your case. And the reason is:

You’ve solved the wrong problem!

(Read more about the methodology of consulting problem-solving here)

It states right in the beginning of your email that your objective is clearly to become a consultant! A consultant, not an industry / practice expert!

I can see going into the OA practice is a fine option, but definitely not the ultimate goal for you.

Since you’ve solved the wrong problem, the bad news is: the whole analysis and proposed solutions are irrelevant. All three possible root-causes you listed are NOT going to prevent you in consulting recruitment process. And there’s no need to waste time and effort putting the two proposed solutions to action.

So why have you solved the WRONG PROBLEM?

Partially this is because of McKinsey’s complicated system and vague language.  Having been in the firm for quite a long-time, I still find the OA description on the website so cliché and misleading. So let me try to explain this from an outsider’s (but with deep knowledge of the inside) standpoint.

McKinsey‘s (and BCG & Bain) Org structure can be complicated but to simplify, the whole firm can be broken down into 2 parts or “tracks”: the Consulting track and the Support track.

The consulting track consists of consultants and is mostly considered as the more prestigious track. Normally, when people say something general  like “I want to join MBB”, they refer to this track! This is the face and the core of any consulting firm.

The support track, like its name suggests, is anything that helps the consultants do their work. This ranges from Administration, Translation Team, Visual Graphic Center, etc.

If it stops here, everything is nice and clear. But the complicated thing is that in recent years, McKinsey (and other firms) have been vastly expanding their support arms in terms of both depth and magnitude. There are more and more “support” teams being formed, and these teams are getting more and more involved in the “content” part. For examples: Excel Support, Writing Specialists, Market Research, and even industry and functional experts.

This  aims to make the work of consultants specialized more than ever. Consultants can now focus their energy and brain power more into the actual structuring and solving problems, regardless of industry or function’s knowledge.

The OA program you refer to is a part of the “Operation Practice”. And the “operation practice” is one “support” arm, which specialized in Operation, no more or less. Its purpose is to help consulting teams with whatever expertise needed with regard to “Operation”. It doesn’t matter if I am working on a cement project in Hanoi, a Banking project in London, or a public sector project in Sydney. Should I have any question on “Operation”, I can call experts in the “Operation Practice” for support.

Back to your question, if I understand your desire of becoming a consultant correctly, my short response is to ignore almost everything you mentioned. All of them are irrelevant in the consulting recruiting process. The only thing that matters is how well you perform on Case Interviews (assuming that you can pass the CV and PST round). That’s it!

Good luck with your career and let me know if you have any further questions!

Management Consulting Prep

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