Breaking Into ZS Associates from a Non-Target School as an International Student

Mrinal received offers from ZS Associates and Uber. He ended up accepting ZS Associates’ offer (in the Princeton, NJ office). How did he navigate the consulting recruiting process as an international student and decide which firm to go with? We recently interviewed him to find out! This interview is packed full of insights into the networking process, how to break into top firms from a non-target school (Georgetown MBA), and how to tell if a firm actually has the great culture it says it does.

ZS Associates Non Target School

Table of Contents:

  1. Background & Context
  2. Choosing A Business School
  3. Advice If Pursuing An MBA
  4. Deciding On Consulting vs. Banking
  5. Preparing For Consulting Recruiting Process
  6. Identifying Gaps In Case Interview Prep
  7. Choosing An Offer
  8. Advice For International Students Pursuing Consulting

Interview Transcription:

Background & Context


Mrinal, thanks for taking the time to join me today. Can you start by walking me through your background?


I’m originally from India, from the city of Mumbai. I used to be a professional athlete during my teenage years, representing India in a couple of Asian Games where I ran the 100 and the 200 meters. Unfortunately, as you might be aware, sports in India is not looked upon as a good career unless of course, you’re playing cricket and then, you are considered an absolute god [laughs]. So, I had to give that up, unfortunately.

Post that, I followed a more traditional route. After pursuing software engineering from a premier institute in India, I worked for four years at Nomura, a Japanese investment bank, where I was working across three different financial markets. I spent a year in New York City, a year in London and the remaining two years in Mumbai. In terms of my role, I was a part of the risk management team, the majority of my work was centered around creating financial market data models and assigning risk profiles to the trades I was valuing. Given my software engineering background, I was also involved in projects aimed towards streamlining Nomura’s processes and systems through automation and machine learning.

Four years in, I wanted to pivot to either investment banking or consulting and the best way to make that change, in my opinion, was through an MBA and that’s what led me to Georgetown.

Choosing A Business School


Of course, just like probably 95% of other MBAs, it’s either banking or consulting when you first consider an MBA! What was it about Georgetown that stood out to you? I’m sure you had other options and other offers. Why did you choose to go to McDonough?


To be honest, I planned to start my MBA in 2020. I decided to use 2019 just to get an idea of how the US admissions process works. In my first GMAT attempt, I scored the 88th percentile and decided to apply to schools where that score was within the GMAT average; I applied to Indiana and Georgetown Universities and was offered an admit from Georgetown.
At that point I had no real intention of coming to the US that year, but I was still curious to learn about Georgetown. One of the senior directors in my team at Nomura was a Georgetown alum who, on my request, introduced me to many members of the Hoya community. I learnt about the Jesuit values at the school and each alum that I spoke to emphasized on the fact that the collaborative environment at Georgetown was its biggest advantage. I learnt that students were not only competitive but also went out of their way to help their classmates achieve their goals.

This is when I started considering going to Georgetown. Another factor that played into my decision was that the school was situated in DC – a city that’s in the middle of business, policy, and politics, all of which coincided with my interests. DC is also a city that has a very good mix of city life with accessibility to the countryside. Additionally, the Georgetown brand name is also renowned globally and is well respected.

So, my dilemma was – should I go right now? The opportunity cost for me was spending 1 more year in a role that I knew I did not want to pursue in the long run and that was the deciding factor. So, I took a leap of faith, trusted my instincts, and started my MBA.


Funny how things work out.


Yeah, exactly.


That makes sense to me. From a location perspective and from a cultural perspective, it seems like all the boxes were ticked. Now, looking back, do you feel like you made the right choice?


Once I had a couple of job offers in my hand, then definitely [laughs]. Given our batch was adversely affected by COVID and 75% of our MBA was virtual, I did wonder how the MBA experience would have turned out had the experience been in-person. But something like a pandemic cannot be predicted and is completely out of anyone’s control. That being said, I tried to make the best out of my current situation and the Georgetown Career Services team was a great help throughout the 2 years. So, all’s well that ends well, right?

Advice If Pursuing An MBA


Absolutely. You know, we have a lot of folks in our community who are where you were at 2 years ago. They’re trying to figure out – is this the right time for me to go get an MBA, and if so, where do I go? Do you have 1 piece of advice that you can give to those people that are thinking: “in the next 12 to 18 months, should I pursue an MBA?”


I would think about two factors –

First, do you really want to pursue the MBA for learning or the title? It’s a very important question. Some people do it only because of peer pressure or because they feel stuck in their current job. You should consider what your dream job is and what are the knowledge gaps that need to be bridged to secure that offer. If the gaps are wide enough that an online course will not help – e.g., if you want to switch industries and you would require a new network to help you move, then the MBA is the right choice.

Second, look at the location of your target industry/function where you want to go. E.g. – if you want to break into investment banking, your chances are much better if you study in a school on either the east coast or midwest, where several Investment banks are located.

In summary, go ahead and get your MBA right away mainly if you have knowledge gaps and you want to strengthen your network in a particular region.


I love that – I think that’s fantastic advice. Don’t show up because you think you know it all and you just want the validation. Show up to learn. And your point about location, I think it’s completely accurate. It’s not just where you’re going to be recruited, but the network that you’ll rely on and leverage for the rest of your career will really be focused in that region. And so, thinking long-term about those things is critical before you apply and before you make a final decision.

Well, okay, so you’re wrapping up your journey at Georgetown. Congratulations by the way.


Thank you.

Deciding On Consulting vs. Banking


So two years ago you were like, hey, I might want to do consulting, I might want to do banking. How did you decide that consulting was the route that you wanted to go versus banking?


I initially took the investment banking route since my pre-MBA experience was heavily focused on finance. Fortunately, I secured an internship at The World Bank that had elements of both banking and consulting. There was a lot of financial analysis and modelling but at the same time, I was also solving unstructured problems for my clients and evaluating market entry options.

It made me realize that while I loved building financial models, in the long run, I wanted to solve structured and unstructured problems. And consulting seemed like the right fit. In addition to solving problems through data analytics and presentations, consulting requires communication with clients and teammates. Having worked across different continents in the past, I felt I would thrive in a consulting environment where I can leverage my collaboration skills. Due to these reasons, I felt consulting was the right fit for me.

Preparing For Consulting Recruiting Process


How did you prepare for the recruiting process? What did that look like for you?


After my internship in July 2020, I started recruiting for consulting. It was tough because it was in the middle of COVID-19 and most firms were not too eager on hiring. Many consulting firms made return offers to interns and did not return for full-time hiring in the Fall. At Georgetown, among the top consulting firms that sponsored visas for international students, EY was the only one that came to campus for full-time recruitment. While this was discouraging, I decided to focus on what I can control.

I knew eventually the pandemic would subside and hiring would resume in 2021. My approach was simple. First, I focused on networking and took efforts to make meaningful connections with Georgetown alums who would at the right time, help me get an interview invite.

I spoke to more than 200 people during this time across different firms, practice areas and industries. For me, it was about getting a perspective of what consultants do – what’s their day-to-day work like? What’s the culture at these firms? What are the challenges that MBA associates face? What are their specific responsibilities and how do they change over time?

Second, I focused on strengthening my casing skills. In my first year, I did not prepare for case interviews as I was recruited for banking. So, I wanted to bridge that gap. I did approximately 50 to 60 cases. My approach was to focus on a particular case type, perfecting it and then moving on to the next type.

If I were to sum it up, I would say I focused on networking and casing – and gave my 100% on those.

Identifying Gaps In Case Interview Prep


I love it but want to dig into something you said there. Over a 3-month period you did about 60 cases. You covered different types of problem types, case types, industries, etc. Can you just dig 1 level deeper for us? How did you track your progress or your improvement? How did you identify gap areas? Can you just talk tactically about how you did that and how you knew you were ready? Or if you knew you were ready?


My first step was to watch a lot of YouTube videos, read blogs by ex-consultants, like Management Consulted’s blog, to see what to expect – and get an understanding of what a case interview involves? You have the prompt and clarifying questions. Then a couple of brainstorming questions, some math, and finally, the recommendation. For me, I focused on going step-by-step, to see what I’m lacking in each step and subsequently in each case type.

For example, I did not do all types of cases at once. I started with only profit maximization cases, did 8 to 10 of them, reflected on my gap areas, e.g., which profit maximization method I was struggling to identify, and worked on solving those specific cases. After I was confident in one case type, I moved to the next type – i.e., revenue maximization, then cost-cutting, followed by M&A and so on. So, I focused on cases category by category.

At the same time, I also read journals that contained industry knowledge. For example, in the retail industry: what are the main revenue drivers, what are the cost drivers? What are the global industry trends? Who are the customers? How are firms selling- what are the distribution channels? How are firms interacting with clients? What are the risks and what is the outlook going forward?


That’s really what I was looking for, the structure that you employed in your own prep and your own process. And to your point about industry knowledge, it’s a whole lot easier to navigate a case when you understand different types of business models that are at play in that industry.

Well, you went through this structured process, you put a lot of hard work in and you received offers from ZS Associates and Uber. Incredible! You had 2 amazing opportunities. Which one did you choose and why?

Choosing An Offer


I chose ZS Associates – the Princeton, NJ office.

A piece of advice that my Dad gave me during my undergrad recruiting days was, when it comes to comparing firms that do similar work, speak to current employees at various firms that you are interested in, and ask yourself if these are the people you want to surround yourself with. So, the biggest factor to consider for me was culture.

Whenever I reached out to anyone at a consulting firm, the one thing that I would always hear from them is that “the culture is the best at our firm”. Everyone said the same thing, and I was confused! In my opinion, actions speak louder than words, and I needed to see how that culture is displayed.

Before ZS, I interviewed at other consulting firms. I worked very hard for each of them, put in a lot of hours but at the end of it, I would receive a generic email saying that their firm was impressed by my skills, but they will be moving forward with other candidates, without giving me any feedback. Failures are normal, you need to fail to succeed, but more importantly, you need to know why you failed. If you are not given feedback, how do you know what to improve on? And that is exactly what ZS helped me in.

First, while interviewing for ZS, I observed open and transparent communication. I was given constructive feedback and that made me realize that I was probably making the same mistake everywhere. Consultants at ZS mentioned to me that the culture was great, but the firm proved that by being transparent and helping me improve. Additionally, my interviewers at ZS took a genuine interest in my past professional experience and future goals and made me understand how ZS could potentially play a part in helping me reach my target state.

Second, I observed that the people at ZS were very smart but extremely humble at the same time. Since I come from a non-target school, several firms that I was interested in did not recruit at Georgetown. So, I had to send out cold emails and LinkedIn messages to consultants and partners to schedule informational interviews with them. ZS was the only firm where I got a response from each person that I had reached out to. Some took a while to reply, but they always got back to me.

Third, I noticed that people who started at ZS have continued working at the firm for a long time. Most of the partners and principals that I spoke to were lifelong ZS-ers who had been there for 20-25 years, and this speaks a lot about the culture.

This responsiveness, humility, and feedback really proved to me that the culture at ZS is where I will thrive.


Absolutely. Actions speak louder than words. Right?


Exactly, exactly.

Advice For International Students Pursuing Consulting


Well, it sounds like you made a good choice, my friend. Congratulations, again. You know, one thing that we haven’t mentioned yet that is central to your story is that you navigated this entire recruiting process as an international student. What is your best advice for non-US citizens or international students who are looking to stay in the US or break into a US office? How did you navigate that conversation?


There were two challenges for me. First, I am an international student, so I needed a visa sponsorship. Second, I attended a non-target b-school for many firms.

If the firm comes to campus – reach out to recent alums to learn about the firm and move up the ladder by asking the alums to refer you to other senior alums. To get an interview, you need to create a good impression within your school’s alumni at the firm and that could include speaking with at least 4-5 alums.

If the firm does not come to campus (your school is non-target) or your school does not have alums at the firm – reach out to senior employees, i.e., principals or partners. Since the firm does not have an obligation to hire from your school, reach out to people who can move the needle for you. This is the approach I followed – which was high risk, high reward. If a partner does not like the conversation they had with you, you might not get to interview with them for another 6 months / 1 year (depending on the firm), but if they do, in most cases you will get an interview call and then it all depends on your skills. But with a senior consultant, there must be at least 5 to 6 people who must push for you. You must ask: who will move the needle faster?

Another piece of advice that I would give is, and this is easier said than done, go to a target school for the firms you are interested in. Spend the extra few months preparing for your GMAT and improving your profile. If you want your MBA recruitment process to be easier, that’s the way to go.


It’s about being strategic and it’s about betting on yourself.




And then you’re right. When you’re in the interview rounds, you’re on an even playing field with everybody else, whether they come from a target school background or not.




Supposedly, and I think that this holds true most of the time, they just take the folks that interview the best. The bigger hurdle is getting to the interviews.


Absolutely. Once you get an interview, it is all dependent on how you perform relative to others but atleast you get that opportunity to display your skills.


At the end of the day, you overcame the non-target school hurdle, and you overcame the international student hurdle. Is there one piece of advice that you’d like to leave our community with as they look at recruiting for consulting this year?


First, make sure that you want to get into consulting. As rewarding as it might be, consulting is a challenging job. I would recommend all incoming MBAs who aspire to get into consulting to do a pre-MBA pro bono consulting internship. This way, you will know if you want to get in or not.

Second, I would say that there are dozens of consulting firms out there; don’t apply everywhere. Develop one best practice resume, put your best foot forward for the firms you are really interested in and go for it.


I love it. Amazing. Thanks so much for chatting with me today and sharing your wisdom with our community. I appreciate it.


Wasn’t that an insightful read? We’re grateful to Mrinal for sharing his unconventional journey into consulting. We receive emails every week from folks like Mrinal attempting to do the same, asking: “is it possible?” We’re happy to report that the answer is an emphatic “yes!” Reach out to explore your options. In addition, we recommend our Black Belt case prep program. With the right preparation and help, almost anyone – regardless of background or experience – can break into management consulting.


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Filed Under: Case Interview, Consulting Case Interview, consulting interviews, consulting recruiting, new consultant