Why Harvard Business School Does NOT Equal McKinsey

MBA Business School Strategy and Management Consulting

The thought has crossed the minds of almost anyone breaking into consulting:  Should I get an MBA first? Or should I do 2~3 years in consulting and then get an MBA? Is an MBA degree even necessary? If I already have an MBA, how can I leverage that? Is consulting a stepping stone to business school, or is business school a stepping stone to consulting?  We’ll cover these questions, and more, in this and upcoming articles.  (Disclaimer:this article is not meant to criticize the value of  MBA programs; rather, the focus is on evaluating fit for MBA programs given one’s goals)

Breaking into consulting with vs. without an MBA

You’re at a crossroads in your life, and you know you want to take the next step. You know that you’re interested in consulting, but you’re not sure if you can break in with your current credentials, and you think an MBA might help.  What do you do?

For 80% of job-seekers, I would offer the following advice: apply to consulting firms right now. Just as some people mistakenly think consulting/finance is usually necessary for an MBA or alternative program like an MBA online, some people mistakenly assume that a top ten MBA is usually necessary for consulting. Most people with a few years of work experience can find some way to explain how their past accomplishments relate in some way to business or consulting.

Get started by doing the following things:

  • Update and perfect your resume and cover letter.
  • Create a list of 20-25 consultancies that you’d love to work for, with notes on each one. You can start with a ranking such as the Vault Top 50 Consulting Firms and researching each firm; but keep in mind that rankings aren’t everything.
  • Create a 3-column table in Word or Excel for brainstorming.  In the left column of the table, create a list of traits that make good consultants (e.g. leadership, teamwork, analytical skill) Then, in the middle column, write out in specific detail 1-3 accomplishments or experiences that demonstrate each trait, including results and what you learned. Finally, in the right column, write down a potential situation you might encounter as a consultant where you could leverage the experiences described in the middle column.  This brainstorming session may help you convince yourself and recruiters that you are already suitable for consulting, even without an MBA.

Moreover, experience in a certain field (e.g. IT or healthcare) means you can try to join the relevant specialized industry practice of a large consulting firm or even a boutique consulting firm specializing in that industry.  If you have a strong academic or analytical background, consider applying for a research analyst position within a consulting firm to get your foot in the door.

Most large consulting firms like McKinsey and Deloitte have dedicated research groups that support client service teams – while this may not be your ideal job, it can be a good transitional role while gaining exposure to how the industry works. Finally, consulting firms hire people mostly for their demonstrated traits and skills, which are more important than past affiliation with any organization. Have you lead teams and demonstrated success in doing so? Have you pursued challenging problems and shown measurable results? You need to be good at telling your story to reflect those traits and skills.

Another key point: many people don’t realize that they can pursue a high-paying and fulfilling job with great training and advancement opportunities outside of McBain Group.  There are great consulting firms out there looking for people with skills and personality traits like yours, especially if you write a great resume and cover letter and ace the interview process.

If you are still obsessed about prestige, consider that 2 years working at a top 50 consulting firm is an excellent springboard for applying to a top 10 consulting firm. This springboard may be even better than an MBA and you will also be over $200,000 richer than if you had gotten an MBA.

Finally, consulting firms often offer MBA-like training.  McKinsey sends many of its non-MBAs to a 3-4 week mini-MBA boot camp to learn the most important tools and concepts. In 1993, 61% of new McKinsey recruits had MBAs, but that number is now down to less than half, which demonstrates that McKinsey believes it quickly train non-MBAs to be consultants. You should research the training opportunities at a firm if that is important for you.

If you are reading this right now, that means you are likely already more motivated and qualified than most to apply to a consulting job.

The conclusion is simple: in most cases, if you are considering a consulting job, it is best to apply now.

The worst thing that could happen is you use up a few dozen hours and end up being much more knowledgeable about consulting firms. The experience can even help you evaluate your true interest in consulting.  Additionally, assuming you didn’t do anything rude or unprofessional, firms will see your commitment if you re-apply later on.

What would be the other 20% of candidates?

In some cases, it actually may be better to get an MBA first if:

1. You have more important long-term goals besides consulting (e.g. starting an international trade company) and your own assessment shows that you need the MBA to serve those long-term goals.  For many people, however, long-term goals are unclear and therefore not factored into consideration much. How to perform such an assessment is outside the scope of this blog.

2. You are extremely passionate about learning the management theory that an MBA has to offer, whether or not you will use it. (i.e. you love learning for learning’s sake even if it’s really expensive) Many MBAs comment that they only apply a portion of what they learned toward their actual consulting jobs.

3. Your previous experience is utterly removed from the corporate world (e.g. you spent 2 years writing a novel about unicorns)

4. You’ve already applied to 15 consulting firms and got rejected from all of them, even after writing a great resume/CL and properly preparing for interviews. (For the vast majority of our readership, I would be surprised if this happened.)

5. You feel that your past experience would qualify you to get into a top 10 business school but not a top 25 consulting firm. (e.g. you spent 2 years successfully fighting AIDS in Africa and you have a 760 GMAT score)

Getting an MBA is really expensive, and real-world experience usually trumps theory, so you should be very sure you need an MBA before you apply.

MBA admissions and consulting

OK, so let’s say you are still set on getting an MBA. Some people think of the relationship between the top business schools and the top consulting firms as a revolving door, i.e. people from McKinsey get into Harvard Business School, and people from HBS get into McKinsey.  Well, that’s true to an extent, but it’s not quite that simple.

Although business schools see consulting as great work experience, schools also try extremely hard to achieve a balanced, diversified student body.  This means that, even if hypothetically a third of a school’s applicants are consultants, there is no way the school is going to let a third of their study body be ex-consultants, which implies a lower acceptance rate than average applicants for consultants in this situation.

INSEAD (which sends roughly one-fifth of its students into McKinsey, BCG, and Bain every year) has once stated “We’re hoping the [number of students from consulting backgrounds] does not increase any further.” That even a consulting talent powerhouse like INSEAD wants to limit their consulting students shows just how much business schools value diversity.  (As a side note, you can see from the placement statistics that INSEAD and other schools may actually be a better choice than Harvard for breaking into consulting.)

This produces the paradoxical situation of consultants wishing they had some “unique work experiences” and non-consultants wishing they had consulting experience when applying to b-school.  What should you do? Easy: stop worrying.  Focus your time on improving your application and telling your life story better instead of spending time worrying about whether or not you have consulting experience.

It is impossible, and also pointless, to estimate just how many consultants are applying to a school on a given year.  If you are a not a consultant, focus on business experiences and explain how an MBA combined with your past experiences can make you a great business leader in the future.   If you are a consultant, focus on why you are more accomplished and more well-rounded than other consultants.

I’m currently a student with little or no work experience, and I’m interested in consulting.  Is it too early to apply to MBA programs?

The short answer is yes.  It will be extremely hard to get into an MBA program with little work experience (except for the unique Harvard 2+2 program) and you may not have the experience necessary to judge if you really need an MBA. In almost all cases it’s better to get some actual work experience first, whether it’s consulting or not.  If your grades, major, or school reputation makes it hard to enter consulting, try to accumulate specialized knowledge in another field while taking on business responsibilities (like team leadership).

How much of what you learn in business school actually helps in consulting?

This depends a lot on the school/curriculum you choose. Each firm will train you anyway with the management frameworks and tools that you will need, and that training will be more directly relevant.  That being said, if you choose your school and curriculum well, you could develop new perspectives to approaching business problems, and you can also improve your general teamwork/leadership skills, which always helps.  More on this in the next post.

I’m already a consultant. Do I still need an MBA?

If you want to return to your current firm, this answer depends on the firm.  For many firms, no.  How can sitting in a classroom and talking about business problems teach you more than working on those problems directly?  For other firms, an MBA is recommended for most consultants aspiring to more senior positions, since they will benefit from an expanded network and enhanced perspectives on business problems. You should observe the system of promotions in your firm and talk to your colleagues who have done an MBA before. As an example, CapGemini and Booz & Co. promote non-MBAs more readily than Bain and BCG. The answer also varies by region; for example, the Japan and Germany offices of global consultancies tend to have less MBAs among the top ranks.

If you want to change to another consulting firm, an MBA may make sense if you are targeting a firm that is much more selective than your current firm or a firm that places heavy emphasis on MBAs.  Given your previous consulting background, an MBA is usually unnecessary unless you are dead-set on a small number of certain firms.

In our next post, we’ll address how to choose the most suitable MBA program for a consulting career, as well as provide advice for current MBAs to maximize their educational experience and chances of landing the ideal management or strategy consulting job.

About the Author:

The author of this article is a long-time team member of Management Consulted and has extensive experience in consulting and at bulge-bracket investment banks, including interviewing MBA applicants. He has requested anonymity to protect his employer.

We offer resume editing and interview prep. Through one-on-one sessions, we’ll help you stand out from 1000′s of other applicants and land consulting jobs now!

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  • Joel D’Souza

    Simply Amazing!!!

  • rg

    woah. and i thought this site was dying…
    thanks for the article, and keep it coming!

  • Jeff G.

    This was advice was purely tremendous and has answered many of the questions I had regarding my own personal crossroad. Thank you very much…look for my resume coming soon!!

  • Monitorite

    slight correction: Monitor does not have an in house research group to support client service teams. There is a related separate business, Grail Research, that operates from india though.

  • Rahul

    Why was there such a gap in writing the article>? Anyways better late than never…..Btw, are you planning to update the Consulting Bible. Do you have resume and covering letter services?

    Thanks
    Rahul

  • Samerron

    An excellent post and as mentioned it resolves many questions readers have. Plus it tackles many options and is resourceful in information.
    I just would like to know the sources of the information.
    Keep it up guys… looking forward for the next post!

  • MC

    Hi Rahul,

    We take our time in planning and writing articles to ensure the best quality for the site; hope you understand. We are working on the Consulting Bible, but we have no release date as of yet for the next version. We are still receiving orders for resume, cover letter, and interview services every day.

  • MC

    Hi Samerron,

    Thanks for the comments. With regards to the information sources, most information was drawn from the work experiences of the MC team. Is there anything you would like to know in particular?

  • MC

    Hi Monitorite,

    Thanks for the correction!

  • Traveler

    This is a subject I’ve been thinking about a lot lately, especially this week when I’m scoring a few hundred MBA resumes. Yours is a great analysis, especially your point that the MBA is best for someone wanting M/B/B who could get into M/B/B with an MBA but couldn’t get in right now.

    If I look back at the career changers I’ve seen my firm hire, none would have got the job by just applying–they would have been told to get an MBA. But they all had strong undergrads (typically top 25), very strong work experience (typically the top firm in their industry), rock-solid test scores (typically 740-770), and great interviewing skills. Unfortunately they’re far outnumbered by people who took an MBA wanting to get into a firm like M/B/B and didn’t make it.

    I still think an MBA at a a top-tier school was worth it, but it’s not a ticket to certain career success. Often the same M/B/B analysts who go to the top MBA schools are the same individuals who show-up in the schools’ employment reports as having been “hired” by M/B/B post-graduation.

  • Jim

    Kevin -

    I just stumbled upon this website, and want to say thanks for all the immensely helpful information.

    This is off the topic, but you mentioned in a previous post about posting on transitioning to consulting from a law background (http://managementconsulted.com/business-consulting/official-site-launch-thanks-to-mergers-and-inquisitions-and-some-useful-consulting-resources-from-around-the-web/). I can’t seem to find this post. Did it actually go up? I’m especially curious in making a law-to-consulting transition, so any information on this topic would be really helpful to me.

    Jim

  • Kevin

    Hey Jim – thanks for your readership. That was a planned post as part of that series, but I never got around to writing/finishing it – I’ve yet to find great resources aimed at pre-law or law students, but if you do come across any please let me know. There’s a chance I’ll write it in the future, but I can’t promise anything right now. Best of luck with all!

  • Kevin

    Traveler – your insights are spot-on, and thanks for providing an insider’s experienced perspective on the issue!

  • Josh

    Hey Kevin,

    I’m just wondering how the travel is like for a strategy consultant at McKinsey? How do you deal with the travel? I am not the kind of person who likes to travel often. Should this be a major factor in my decision to apply?

    Thanks!

  • Kevin

    Josh – it’s an important part of the job and while it should be a factor in your decision, I wouldn’t let it drive the decision – I’d pay much more attention to longer-term goals and how those align with strategy consulting. Travel is just something you’ll have to deal with (and certainly more comfortable than private travel given the perks that most firms provide).

  • Josh

    Where do strategy consultants at McKinsey typically travel to? Are they usually to “flashy” places e.g. Madrid, London or are they usually more rural destinations? And is most travel typically in the US?

  • Robert

    Hi Kevin – fantastic site, keep up the good work! One MBB firm decided not to interview me and in the email said they were impressed but not currently interviewing for positions that match my qualifications (PhD from target school, couple years post-PhD business experience). Do you think they are really not interviewing for experienced hires or was this a “nice” rejection? Thanks!

  • sean

    Excellent article.

    I fit into the “2+ years experience at a top 50 firm” and am looking to apply to a top 10. Any specific advice? I did go to target schools.

    Thanks,
    Sean

  • http://www.gmatpill.com GMATPill

    Great article!
    Indeed the goals of business schools and consulting firms are not totally aligned as most people believe. While applicants might want to leverage business school to get into consulting, business schools have a totally different purpose that takes into account diversity and learning for the sake of learning—not necessarily just powering people into certain firms.

    Spot on. I think most people forget that there’s a whole other world that bschools also include in their student body that isn’t consulting/banking oriented.

    Having said that, applicants who don’t have relevant, leveragable experience to form a compelling story (if consulting is where you want to be) will need the MBA platform to rebrand themselves. So Traveler’s point about how some people would stand no chance without the mba is certainly true–at least based on what I’ve seen.

  • MC

    Hi GMATPill,

    Thanks for the insightful comments~ It’s certainly still true that an MBA is the right path for some people, and our list of 5 reasons to get an MBA is by no means comprehensive either, and the decision is also affected by the candidate’s degree of flexibility in choosing firms. Unfortunately, examining in-depth how to conduct a case-by-case analysis of each person’s suitability for an MBA may be outside the scope of this website.

  • RKM

    Thank you for the positive article. This definitely helps cure some insecurities as even if I don’t land the company or position of my dreams there is still hope. I appreciate the article and wish me luck!

  • Jeff

    Kevin,

    Thank you so much for this article =) It really has provided me with some very valuable info…

    I’m not certain how willing you are to answer specific situational questions but here’s mine:

    I’m finishing up my Junior year this semester and will be studying in Montpellier, France in the Spring. I’m far from fluent in anything but English, and was hoping to find the right internship for the summer. Do you know which consulting firm offers the best internship for those interested in a career in management consulting?

    Warmly,

    -Jeff

  • Kevin

    Jeff – am not sure what your question is asking. If you’re asking which companies are great as an internship position despite not speaking the dominant language (eg, French), then unfortunately I don’t have much advice.

    If you’re asking which companies are great for interns generally speaking, pretty much any internship you land will be incredibly valuable. Consulting is a selective industry, and even more so for summer interns. Aim for the best ones – but I’d cast a very broad net as well through networking, searches through job bulletins/directories, and plain ‘old Google research on consulting firms of all types.

  • JED

    Thanks very much for the article and sensible insights. My question is as I already have an MBA w/software engineering in bachelors.. but no/very little experience…which would be the best way to get into management/strategy consulting? I am ready to volunteer anywhere from 12-18 weeks as intern.

  • MC

    Hi JED,

    It’s great that you already have an MBA and a BS in software engineering. You can present yourself as someone who understanding both technology and business. Try focusing on applying to consulting firms with strong IT consulting businesses (e.g. Accenture, IBM Global Business Services) to get your foot in the door in consulting, then you can try to branch out to non-IT engagements from there if you want to. Offering to volunteer as a free intern up front at a large firm may actually hurt you; most top firms have established internship programs and would rather pay for good interns than allow free interns that are less than top-notch, and you may come off as desperate. However, if you are able to somehow arrange an informal internship through an acquaintance or something, it’s OK to do a free internship to get experience after you at least initially try to get a paid internship.

  • smita

    I am a stay at home mom now since 4yrs. I had done my Masters in Biomedical Engg. prior to that and had interned in my field then . Now i want to get back to the workforce and do not know where to start with no work experience. I am doing my homework by reading the blogs and info pages. I am ready to do whatever it takes to be a Management Consultant . I need your kind suggestions in what is the first step towards acheiving the goal or is it impossible to get through?
    Little about me: Analytical, Hard working, working on communication skills, A little above average student.

    Thanks

  • MC

    Hi Smita,

    Breaking into consulting would be quite tough in your situation, although not impossible.
    If you could send your resume to products@managementconsulted.com, we’d be able to evaluate your candidacy better, thanks!

  • JEN

    Would it be easy to break into public sector consulting with an MPA and with work experience in a foreign government?

    Thank you!

  • Paul

    I’ll be 31 after graduating from my MBA program in 2012. Would I be “too old” for an associate at M/B/B?

    Thanks!

  • Parimal

    I have a background in manufacturing which has included supply chain management roles, primarily in the automobile & telecom industry, over the past 9+ years. I was recently honored with Certified Supply Chain Professional (CSCP) from APICS-The Association for Operations Management, my experiences includes Planning Raw Material, Inventory Control, Outbound process etc. I have also been a part of sourcing team in one of the leading telecom companies in India.

    I would like to get into consulting industry but am not sure if my profile backs such a move. Can you tell me what an HR person from such an industry would be looking for and if at all my profile fits to be in such an industry

    I would appreciate any advice you could give me.

    Thank you,
    Parimal

  • Solveig

    Hi,
    Thank you for your thorough work on this site.
    I am extremely motivated to pursue a career in consultancy. I have a BA in French/Music, I speak German and Maori also, and for the last few years have run my own music teaching business while also completing some legal research projects with a focus on healthcare for a local lawyer. I volunteer on a number of community committees in different capacities, and last year assisted in the organization and management of an event that donated $25k towards ending human trafficking.
    I love research and analysis; I am an excellent communicator and can build relationships with ease and expedience. I truly believe consultanct would be one of the best-fits for my skill set, I’m interested to hear your thoughts on this.
    Again, your efforts are much appreciated – thank you.

  • Allendonald

    If at all queries are still being answered, I want to know if is it possible to jump from Tech consulting (not IT strategy at the same time not end-to-end implementation) at E&Y, Deloitte or PwC’s IT Advisory to the corporate finance practise at MBB provided I add an MBA and CFA to my resume.

  • Anonymous

    Hi Allendonald, yes although by far you stand your best chance if you go to
    a Top 10 MBA program, given the recruiting and networking opportunities
    there. Gluck

  • Amey Rambole

    What kind of research do top tier consulting firms do before selecting candidates from b-schools?

  • Mike

    Hi,

    Thank you so much for all the great tips, it really helps.I’m finishing my senior year at a large public school with a 2.8 GPA in Business Administration. I have had 3 pretty good internships, coaching experience, a year of division 1 athletics, and am in charge of business events at my school, do you think that even with my low GPA and not well known school I could get in with a good management consulting firm? Any tips on where I could fit?Thanks a lot for the help!

  • Quang

    Hi, I’m currently enrolled in an MBA program with the aim of eventually breaking into consulting at a top firm.  I have 5 years work experience doing in house analysis and consulting for IT divisions in major companies.  However I do not have an undergraduate degree (I got in purely based on business experience).  Would you recommend this as a good path to follow to become a consultant?  thanks

  • Nandhu

    hi,
    am nandhakumar.Am on the verge of completing my B.Tech Information Technology.how effective it ill be if i opt mba for my post graduation after engineering? i kindly request any1 to clarify my doubts…..waitin for the response….

  • Wyssa

    Thank you for the article, it has given me a lot of insight in what I want to do with my education and career. I have always had a fascination with becoming a strategic consultant.  Though my situation is a bit different than most people posting here. My current job is  as an assistant advising students on how to get work and keep it. Also the problem solving and analytical skills involved when I helped a business succeed at my previous job started my love for it, and brought me to realize that I really wanted to pursue this as a career. 
    My question is, I am just starting college, and pursuing an associates degree in Accounting, and also in Business. I do not have as much educational experience, and I think becoming a consultant for a firm right now is pretty slim. What are the entry level jobs for becoming a consultant? I’m very willing to be a go’fer or an intern, but what is your advice on going about something like that with my limited education?

  • jennyrae

    They nothing before the offer. Some firms will include a background check or confirm the source of your transcript just before the formal offer.

  • jennyrae

    Quang, if your MBA is a target school for top tier consulting, you wouldn’t be disqualified because your lack of undergrad degree. However, you probably will need to do a significant amount of networking to distinguish yourself from the crowd. IT consulting experience isn’t considered great preparation.

  • Krash

    No. 2.8 GPA on a resume will get filtered before a recruiter even looks at it.