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 trains 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 in 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.