How To Break Into Management Consulting By Pursuing An MBA

This article was guest written by my friend Zeke Lee, a fellow former management consultant (Booz & Co.) and Stanford graduate who offers some great real world advice on the realities of recruiting. Zeke is also the founder of the GMAT Pill Study Method, a great GMAT prep resource for those considering the MBA route for their career aspirations – more on that at the end of the article.

Those of you who follow Management Consulted know the 2 most common ways to get into the industry are through

1) undergrad recruiting at a target school

2) business school recruiting at a target MBA program

Well, let’s say you missed the boat with #1: undergrad recruiting. Your school wasn’t a “target” school or you had no clue what management consulting was until now. How would you use #2 to get into management consulting?

Let’s first take a look from the firms’ perspective.

You see, different firms have different hiring practices between these two options.

As a management consultant at Booz & Company, I trained alongside with the rest of my hiring class. 95% of my class were MBA hires. Booz happens to have a much more “diamond” shaped hierarchy with lots of MBA level hires, but only a few undergrad hires.

Other firms like Bain & Company, on the other hand, hire a lot more undergrads and have a more “pyramid” shaped hierarchy. So a class of consultants will likely include a few more undergrads than MBA hires at a place like Bain.

Knowing the organizational structure of various firms helps you understand which firms have a higher demand at which levels. As an undergrad you may not research much about a place like Booz, but certainly at the MBA level the firm would come into mind because of the greater opportunities there.

Many of my colleagues at Booz were hired from MBA and so I naturally learned how many of them broke into the industry.

Let me give you an example of an MBA hire who leveraged his previous industry exposure to get into a specialized team of Booz & Company.

This fellow consultant (we’ll call him Jim) used to work at Boeing–the aerospace company full of rocket scientists who design the 787′s and 777′s for continental and intercontinental airflights you’ve all been on. Realizing he wanted to branch out of the nitty gritty details of what he was doing at Boeing, Jim decided he wanted a more business oriented career. He tried getting into the management consulting industry but couldn’t even get an interview.

After getting the career advice he needed, Jim took his GMAT and entered a top MBA program.

During a random networking event, he met a Booz & Company employee who actually was not a management consultant—BUT he happened to work right next to the group of management consultants at his office~ These consultants happened to specialize in aerospace! This referring employee told the group that they might be interested in someone like Jim who came from a big-name aerospace company like Boeing.

It’s important to note that Jim wasn’t an aerospace engineer—he had some assistant project manager position. But the fact that he came from a big company with a big brand name like “Boeing”–which also happened to be one of Booz’s key clients–made it that much easier for the referring employee to make the referral. You see, branding is that important.

As a side note, for anybody looking for a job right after undergrad, I highly recommend starting with a company that has a STRONG BRAND name. I would almost say that from a career perspective, it matters LESS what your job title is and MORE what your company name is–at least when it comes time to finding your next job in the early stages of your career. Of course, there are exceptions to every rule but this is generally true. A strong brand helps people associate you with something familiar and makes the referral process much easier–it’s just the way human beings are wired up.

Anyway, back to Jim. So Jim got his interview with the Aerospace team because he came from Boeing, a key client for the aerospace team. His interview was actually delayed over a long period of time because the hiring managers were in and out of town traveling from engagement to engagement. Jim followed up and eventually met in person.

During the interview, Jim shared stories of how he became VP of the consulting society at his MBA program, how he led teams at Boeing and made presentations to 200+ colleagues, etc. Negotiations went on for quite a bit, but eventually Jim got the job.

You see, this wasn’t even through the school’s official recruiting program! Definitely make use of your school’s recruiting channels, but do not overlook random networking events that might point you in the right direction like this one did.

From this story, we can summarize Jim’s progression that you can also follow: Jim…

1) Realized he wanted to get into management consulting

2) Took the GMAT exam

3) Got into a top MBA program

4) Networked and leveraged the brand name of his company wherever he went so people could identify who he was (the Aerospace guy)

5) Got the interview with a very specialized team (generally less competition) that he had exposure to.

6) Closed the deal

Consulting firms love hiring people with industry experience + MBA. Whether you work at Intel (semiconductor industry), Amgen (bio-engineering), or L’Oreal (luxury retail), getting an MBA can position yourself as a potential hire with the specific industry experience that firms love.

There’s much less risk for the firm to hire you if you already have a sense of who the major players are in that industry and how the competitive landscape looks. Instead of spending the first few months reading reports on what is happening in the industry, you can just jump right into the real work–saving the firm time and money!

Ok ok, I know. There are a lot of assumptions there.

Just because you work at a semiconductor company does not necessarily mean you understand the semiconductor industry in the high-level way that consultants do. This is true. When I was at Lucent Technologies, for example, there were plenty of people who had no clue what was going on with the company simply because they weren’t exposed at that level.

“Huh? Quarterly Earnings? Today? What’s the CEO’s name again?”

So you can’t really say that by working in an industry you automatically understand what is going on.

However, for the purposes of finding a job what matters more is your PERCEIVED understanding of an industry rather than your ACTUAL understanding of an industry. Your mere background of coming from an industry automatically raises your PERCEIVED value as someone familiar with that industry. And it is this PERCEPTION of industry expertise and industry fit that can help you get into a specialized team within management consulting. This is especially true when everyone else is pitching themselves as a “generalist.”

Be careful, though! It’s not as convincing (though still possible) if you try to change industries in the process. For example, if you worked at Intel and want to do consulting in the retail industry, you’re going to be competing with people who already have retail experience and may be a better fit.

Having said that, IF you like your industry and just want to shift over to the business side of that same industry, then the GMAT/MBA route will position you well for a career in management consulting for those who missed undergrad recruiting.


For those of you who plan to take the GMAT exam, I highly recommend you check out a great GMAT prep resource, the GMAT Pill Study Method, especially if you want to maximize your time efficiency when studying. The site’s been getting good reviews around the web and even has a 60-day money back guarantee if you are not satisfied. In fact, if you decide to enroll, Zeke is letting ManagementConsulted.com readers in for a generous 25% discount –a great bargain and excellent alternative to Kaplan or Princeton Review.

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!

Share
  • Vikram

    loL very true…a lot of people in corporate companies have no clue what is happening to their own company..my uncle happens to be one of them!

    thanks for the insights, will keep them in mind as I look into MBA..gmatpill also looks really interesting

  • Rahul Guharoy

    Fantastic post!!! I believe constant attendance at networking events is the key. This is helpful so that you can personalize your experience to the nature and culture of the firm. Additionally, you can get clarity on where you want to be and the profile that will suit you at the firm. I am in a medium ranked MBA school in France and my passion is Management Consulting. I am looking at these events to get me through. It is a long way to go, however it is my passion that carries me on.

    Any other advice and comments are welcome.

    Regards
    Rahul.

  • Shan

    Hi Zeke,

    Where do you think Booz & co stands with regards to MBB today?
    I have a summer internship with Booz India (which incidentally is just being set up, and is 30 strong) Do you think I should stick to it or try for a position at MBB in India which have well established offices? (around 200-300)

    Confused.
    Shan

  • Rahul Guharoy

    @Shan: It depends on what you want to do and how Booz India will help you to attain that objective. By the way, the exciting thing about most of the Management Consulting companies and Booz is that you get to work with top management of Fortune 100 companies. You may want to stick on to enjoy that experience.

    Good Luck!!!

    Rahul

  • I Banker

    Overall, a very good and insightful post.
    The one thing I disagree on is the claim that your company’s brand name is more important than your specific role. The role you have is extremely important. In finance, for example, it’s better to start off in a small boutique firm in a front-office role than it is to be at a large prestigious firm in a back office role. And even if you get referrals through a strong brand, you’ll never survive the interviews if you don’t have the relevant background to drawn upon.

  • http://www.gmatpill.com Zeke

    @Shan–If you have a summer internship locked in with Booz and India then I would not give it up. Ask yourself if you enjoy the people you work with in your particular group–you’ll know after you do the internship. There are both pros and cons with new offices.

    Pros: You establish a relationship with the guys higher up before other people who join later. With an established office, you are the new the guy who has to prove himself and gain credibility—something other colleagues have already done. With a new office, everybody is more or less new so there is less of an existing set of politics to adjust to.

    Cons: The partners are probably working hard to bring in projects. Their relationships with clients may not be as developed since they are relatively new–so there is a risk of unsteady project flows (a.k.a. potentially more beach work and proposal work).

    Ultimately, you should assess how much you enjoy working with the people in your group and your interest in the industry group you will be focusing on. The age group of your colleagues at Bain will generally be younger than they are at Booz.

    In terms of prestige, most would say Booz is just under McKinsey/Bain/BCG. As an example, one VC client hired my group at Booz but they also secretly McKinsey to do the exact same thing. We did not know until the day of the presentation when we presented back to back with pretty much the same results. It must’ve been a pretty important project for the client to pay two firms for the same project. That doesn’t necessarily say anything about prestige but it gives you some context to understand which firms are in demand. Of course this varies by segment.

  • http://www.gmatpill.com Zeke

    Agreed. Indeed, the role you play is quite important–especially in finance. A front office role will trump any back office role any day.

    But in the context of the corporate world with comparable roles, a strong brand will get your foot in the door a lot easier. A strong likability factor can trump depth of industry expertise–it’s just the nature of working with people—unless the specific position is dedicated to an industry expert–someone probably with 15+ yrs experience, which is not that common.

    For example, consider a business operations specialist at L’Oreal vs a strategy analyst at ABC cosmetics. The two roles are somewhat comparable (unlike the dichotomy between front and back office for finance).

    Although one might argue the strategy analyst is more relevant for a particular cosmetics-focused consulting group, who do you think is more likely to get an interview? The global L’Oreal biz ops specialist or the regional ABC cosmetics strat analyst? It’s just the nature of human psychology to assign higher credibility to recognizable brands.

    Of course the regional strat analyst can also be highly qualified for the job and can demonstrate this through the interview–that is, if he/she can get their foot in the door with an unrecognizable name but relevant role. It’s possible–just tougher.

    Never say never!

  • shan

    @Rahul: Thanks for the reply. I would like to focus more on pure strategy. In that case would Mck BCG Bain offer me better prospects? Or is Booz in the same league?

    (Cuz you always hear of the big 3. Booz is never counted in that. Is it because of just size or is the work different too?)

  • Management Consultant

    Shan

    “…you always hear of the big 3. Booz is never counted in that…”

    I think this is more true in the USA, but it varies a little internationally. In Australia for example, I don’t think Bain rates as highly (eg the engagements they get with to 200 firms) as Booz. Internationally, I would rate Booz as very closely following MBB (btw, I have worked on projects with Booz, but never for them). If you have an offer from an MBB firm, great – go with it. But don’t underrate an offer from Booz – it’s a very strong brand in MC.

  • consultant hopeful

    zeke –

    heard through the rumor mill that booz had some pretty bad lay offs last year. the vault board describes the firm as having a “hire and fire” mentality, letting lots of people go within months of working there. if i have an offer with them to start next fall (as an undergrad hire), should i be worried? are they done with purging and now sufficiently understaffed such that anyone they hire they’ll really need? any perspective on this would be greatly appreciated.

  • http://www.gmatpill.com GMATPill

    I spoke with colleagues at Booz to get the latest scoop.

    Like most companies including other top consulting firms, there was indeed a head reduction. However, this was a one-time structural change and the partnership took great efforts to ensure that was the case. There certainly is no such “hire and fire” mentality so don’t believe everything you hear on a Vault message board.

    Bottom line, all it takes is a few people with a bad attitude to post something on a message. Treat it with a grain of salt.

    @Management Consultant–great response. Well said.

    As an analogy, just because Stanford University is not usually mentioned in the Ivy League rankings (like Harvard, Columbia, Princeton, etc) —does not mean it’s not a great school. In fact, it’s quite the opposite ;]

  • consultant hopeful

    thanks very much for this response, and that makes sense. i had a feeling the vault board was filled with disgruntled ex-employees who obviously hold a negative bias, but i couldn’t help but be rattled by reading that. i’m very excited to start there and glad to hear i can anticipate stability – at least in so far as i perform well.

  • Dorosi

    Hi. M&C
    I loved the post as well as all the other insightful article of yours.
    I’ve got a question that I thought you could help me out.

    I’ve a IT/Tech degree (with good GPA) and worked for
    IT-consulting(doing IT work mostly, like programming, database) firm for a 1year, and then at citibank in the system development department.

    How should I relate this to a pre-consulting-experience in my resumes and interviews?

    Thanks!

  • http://www.zenesys.org Saibal Sen

    Zeke – Great article. Fine example of how an aspirant should play by his/her strength or leverage one that is in reach i.e. work for a brand name firm.

    Saibal Sen

  • A

    Zeke,

    Is it possible to send you a private message to find out a bit more about your experiences with Booz and your friend’s experience in the A&D group?

    Thanks,
    A.

  • Joel DSouza

    Whoa! it’s really taking a long time for the next article to come out.

  • Ravi

    Great post!

    A question on the subject. With loads of technology experience, it is comparatively easier to break into consulting firms like Accenture and Deloitte. How difficult/easy is to make a transition from technology to strategy 1) within these organizations and 2)outside these organizations.

    It would be great to hear your perspective on this. Even better if you have an insiders scoop on Accenture in particular.

    Thanks!!

  • Don

    I hope you post the next article soon, we’re waiting to read it!

  • Oyuna

    Ditto Don. Look forward to your next article!

    bw, OR

  • http://adimkris@gmail.com Adim

    Zeke,

    very insightful article. You give a very logical approach to pursuing consulting opportunities. Now given your analysis, how would recommend that I approach my pursuit of a career in management consulting if I don’t fall into any of these categories. I have my sights set on strategy particularly but no industry experience. I have an MBA from a relatively small business school and have worked retail for the last six years. Obviously, breaking into MC has been tough considering my lack of “perceived” experience, not to mention prevailing job market conditions but I’m determined to anyway. Is this something you may have observed? How would you advice? Thanks!

  • Jonathan Simms

    Hi MC,
    (thought I’d post this in the relevant article)

    I am one of only a few students in my MBA class with little professional experience – worked near full time as a counsellor for people with mental disabilities while completing my undergrad degree (3yrs), then a year of travel and teaching English in China. I also just completed an internship that included financial modeling and leading a team- But I fear that it may be too little too late.

    1) Can I (must I) speak to the work experience prior to the MBA when applying?

    2) Will these items on my resume – as bulleted titles in the work section – be big red flags?

    Thanks.
    JS

    I absolutely love this site by the way. This is exactly what I was hoping for when I began searching for info online!

  • http://alabamabusinesstoday.com Calvin Bacon

    I agree with your assessment. However, you might want to talk a bit more about which business school one attends. Some schools prepare students better for consulting than others simply because some school emphasize consulting approaches more than others.

    Differences in business schools are wider in graduate programs than in undergraduate programs. I suggest a person who wants to get an MBA and then go into consulting check with the university placement office to see what types of jobs their graduates are getting.

  • ELISE SAN VILLA

    HELLO,
    I NEED YOUR FEEDBACK ON SOMEONE LIKE ME WHO HAS THE FOLLOWING BACKGROUND:
    EDUCATIONAL ATTAINMENT:
    -BSC-MANAGEMENT MAJOR(ASIAN COUNTRY)BUT SCHOOL ACCREDITED IN USA)
    -MASTERS DEGREE(INTERNATIONAL BUSINESS) SMALL SCHOOL IN CALIFORNIA AND NOT ACCREDITED
    -GPA 3.78
    -LED GROUPS IN CASE POWERPOINT PRESENTATION AND OTHER WAYS OF PRESENTATION (NEWSCASTING,TV HOSTING TYPE) TO AVOID THE USUAL WAY OF PRESENTING THE CASE TO THE INSTRUCTORS
    TRAVELLED THE WORLD(ALMOST)
    -20 SOLID YEARS OF CUSTOMER SERVICE
    4 YEARS MARKETING EXPERIENCE(EVENTS,AD CAMPAIGN)

    WHAT DO YOU THINK IS MY HOPE IN MANAGEMENT CONSULTING?

    THANKS,
    ELISE

  • Nitin Rajan

    I have done MBA from one of the tier 3 institute in India. After that i have worked for various research companies focusing on secondary research. Now after spending some 5 years in the industry in secondary research i am looking for a career in Management consultancy. Is it possible to change and shift to a new industry.

  • http://managementconsulted.com Kevin

    Nitin, the short answer is yes, it is possible. However, it is definitely NOT easy and would require you to have a strong network/contacts at firms that you’re interested in. That is probably your best chance of landing an interview since you no longer have access to standard recruiting channels. To start doing that, consider leveraging alumni networks, past employer networks, friends/family, and beyond. Good luck!

  • Mag

    I’m a second year law student at a top 6 law school (think Columbia, NYU, Chicago) interested in consulting. I took a year off after college (top 15 non-target undergrad) to help my family start a successful small side business, which I’ve helped to manage since. I’ve been accepted into my school’s MBA program for a joint degree, which would take one extra year, and I’m deciding between doing the MBA, or gunning for a consulting position straight out of law school.

    McKinsey recruits directly on my law school campus and has taken several JDs over the past few years. I’ve heard that some other consulting firms, such as BCG, are amenable to hiring JDs, although I haven’t yet talked to any JD consultants other than at McKinsey. Do you know which consulting firms have been willing to interview JDs (top tier or second tier), and do they usually start them at the MBA-level as they do at McKinsey? I’d much rather go into consulting without getting the MBA, even if it means a small pay-cut, but I’m concerned that I may not be able to create enough interview opportunities with just the JD.

    There are a few more reasons why I’d rather not do the MBA right now. One, my school is traditionally known for placing into finance, rather than consulting, and doesn’t have the same “prestige” as does my law school (this probably gives my school away..). Two, I’m concerned that if recruiting as an MBA I’ll be up against individuals with lots of work experience and may not be able to even get my foot in the door for an interview. Three, I’d like to preserve the MBA option for the future if possible, as my non work-experience stats make me a viable candidate for better schools and I may want to career-switch as some point.

    Given all this, do you think looking for a consulting position straight out of the JD is a viable option, and how many more opportunities, if any, might the MBA give me?

  • Traveler

    Hi Kevin,

    I worked at intel for 4 years, now joining duke fuqua MBA. Two questions:
    1. which consulting firms serve the semiconductor industry?
    2. Is duke MBA a good route for me to enter these firms?

  • jennyrae

    1. Most likely, all of them do at some level. It depends on what type of consulting you’re talking about (IT consulting, strategy consulting, operations consulting, etc.).
    2. Duke’s MBA is a great point to break into MBB, but you might be a better candidate for full time hire. You need to do something more strategic or product-oriented (not technical) over your summer.