A career in management consulting affords some incredible benefits, including: amazing learning opportunities, top-notch exit opportunities, and generous compensation packages. There is no secret formula for how to become a successful management consultant, but there are four basic paths to break into the industry:
Today, we’ll review each of the four paths to a consulting career and share what makes a career in management consulting so attractive to millions of candidates each year.
The Undergraduate Recruiting Path to Become a Consultant
One obvious path is to go through an undergraduate recruiting process. The top firms like BCG or McKinsey count many undergraduate institutions as target programs from which to recruit new analysts. You will have opportunities to engage with consulting firms starting in your freshman year:
- Freshmen: Programs for you include Bridge to Consulting (BCG), Expedition EY, and Embark Scholars (KPMG).
- Sophomores: Programs for you include: Bain BEL, Growing Future Leaders (BCG), Sophomore Summer Business Analyst (McKinsey), Destination CPA (PwC), and more. More details here.
- Juniors: You’ll apply for junior summer internships in the summer after your sophomore year.
- Seniors: You’ll recruit for full-time, post-graduation roles in the summer after your junior year.
Find specific application deadlines for undergraduate entry-level and full-time roles for this year here.
Landing a position with a top firm is not easy. But interestingly, these top firms cast a somewhat wide recruiting net. They go beyond the Ivy League to many different well-regarded academic institutions. In fact, McKinsey recruits analysts from almost 400 universities each year!
Bain recruits heavily at Indiana University to staff its Midwest offices, for example. If you are still an undergraduate, students will often ask about what to study to become a management consultant. The answer is, pursue an intellectually challenging major that will demonstrate to top firms that you can think critically (bonus points if the degree is quantitative or STEM in nature). Biology, economics, engineering, mathematics, philosophy, and many other majors are all great options.
The MBA Recruiting Path to a Career in Management Consulting
If you sit a few years out of undergrad, another path is to bypass the experienced hire recruiting process and instead pursue an MBA at a program where consulting firms actively recruit. The BCG and McKinseys of the world follow the same internship and full-time recruiting process for MBA hires as they do for undergrads (albeit on a slightly different timeline).
There are a few benefits to this path. First, you’ll earn an MBA in the process, which will benefit your career as you look to continue to move up the corporate ladder. Second, you’ll be breaking into the consulting industry as post MBA-hire, with a much higher salary and enhanced role. The downside, of course, is that it’s a long-term play. The process of studying for the GMAT, applying to business school, and then going to business school may mean that your career in management consulting starts three years into the future.
The thing to keep in mind though, is that each year, thousands of pre-MBA management consultants leave the industry to pursue an MBA. Many of these MBA students then find themselves returning to consulting. So sure, you’ll have to wait several years to break in if you pursue the MBA recruiting path. But if you decide instead to find a role with a smaller firm as an experienced hire, you may ultimately decide to pursue an MBA anyway.
The Advanced Degree Recruiting Path
Advanced degree candidates (i.e., PhDs, MDs, JDs) have seen increasingly more opportunities inside consulting in recent years. firms like McKinsey, Bain, BCG, L.E.K., and ClearView Healthcare Partners have 1-5 day summer programs for advanced degrees. These “bridge” programs introduce prospective consultants to the firm, provide networking opportunities, and usually result in a first-round interview invite for a full-time role.
If you’re a PhD, MD, or JD considering consulting, we highly recommend looking into these programs.
Missed the window for the bridge programs? Don’t fret. Firms still want you to apply! Your next window will be in the summer (full-time) or fall (internship) so make sure your application docs are strong, you have a referral in hand obtained through networking, and that you’re ready for the case interview.
Becoming a Consultant Through Experienced Hire Recruiting
If you are already working full-time with just a few years of experience and want to break into consulting, we have good news and bad news for you. Let’s do the bad news first.
It Can Be Difficult, But Not Impossible, to Find a Role with a Top Consulting Firm
The bad news is that finding a role with one of the larger well-known firms as a lateral/experienced hire is not easy. These firms have both annual internship and full-time recruiting processes in place at dozens of schools, and a vast majority of their talent will come from this path.
Breaking into consulting as an experienced hire in an economic downturn? Even more difficult (hello, 2023). In either case, only the most prepared candidates will win.
How do you win? Through the right experience, successful networking, and razor sharp case skills. Make sure you ignore the firm’s online application portal – at least at first. You must network inside your target offices, and only after securing a referral should you apply online. Get more specific guidance for experienced hires here.
Finding a Role with a Smaller to Mid-Size Consulting Firm is Another Good Option
If you are struggling to break into the top firms, the good news is that top-level talent is not always easy to retain at smaller firms. Smaller firms tend to have uneven demand, and often find themselves in a position where they need talent quickly.
It always seems reasonably easy to find a consulting professional with 10-15 years of experience who is available on a contractual basis. But those individuals tend to be expensive and, in a sense, overqualified. Often, the true need is for a person with 2-3 years of experience who understands some accounting and finance and can build models and identify insights. If this is you, you may be in more demand than you realize.
This creates an opportunity to become a consultant by targeting smaller management consulting firms. You may have much better luck breaking in at a smaller management consulting firm, and then transitioning over to MBB in 2-3 years if that is your ultimate goal.
A list of large and small management consulting firms is available here.
What Makes a Career In Management Consulting Attractive?
Management or strategy consultants are typically “generalists” who help companies solve major problems, re-define their business models, or refresh their five-year plans. They help companies get aligned on where and how they make money and the initiatives to prioritize to drive growth. The best known, “Big 3” strategy and management consulting firms are of course: Bain, McKinsey, and the Boston Consulting Group (BCG).
Typical reasons for focusing on a career in management consulting include:
- It’s intellectually stimulating and enables you to address complex problems
- You learn a lot about different industries and business functions – meaning it’s great training for future business leadership!
- You develop concrete data analysis, project management, and communication skills
- You’re well compensated
- You build an impressive network of both clients and coworkers, making your exit opportunities limitless
- You have the opportunity to travel
- Projects are typically 3-6 months long, meaning the work is not monotonous
Great. Now on to our question, “How to become a successful management consultant?” There are several different paths to explore.
Bonus Path: Become a Consultant by Pursuing an Independent Consulting Career
There is another path to a career in consulting, although definitely non-traditional. You can go independent, at least for a while. By independent, we don’t really mean go off on your own and find your own clients (but if you want to start your own consulting practice, we can help). That’s possible for someone with years of experience.
But let’s say you have 2-3 years of experience post undergrad. You’ve been working in finance or marketing for a mid-sized company. You’ve decided you want to become a business consultant, but don’t want to pursue the four-year path of getting an MBA first. You should certainly pursue the experienced hire path described above and target smaller firms. But you should also consider participating in the growing industry of independent consultant “on demand networks.”
Exploring the “On-Demand Independent Consulting Network” Path
Business Talent Group (BTG) and Catalant are the best examples of what we’re talking about here. These companies connect companies looking for consulting help to individuals who are available to provide their consulting services. As mentioned above, good analytical help tends to be in short supply on these platforms. So one option, if you are a bit of a risk-taker, is to become a consultant by making yourself available on an online marketplace for consulting jobs.
How could this work? Well, these roles tend to pay very well, at least for the duration of the project. It might take you a month to find a project, but for the next 2-4 months, you’ll make a nice monthly or weekly salary. You’ll be able to make it clear that you don’t have consulting experience, and you will probably still have some project options presented to you. Firms like BTG put teams together, and can accommodate 1-2 individuals without consulting experience.
Once you complete one project, you immediately have some consulting experience to put on your resume. This can lead to it being more likely that additional consulting projects are presented to you through these platforms. It can also make you more attractive to consulting firms in the future.
Another way to gain consulting experience? Join Strategy Sprint – a 1-week consulting project facilitated by Management Consulted. You are staffed on a team of 6 that is led by a former MBB consultant, and you solve a strategic problem for a real-world client. You gain relevant experience, in-demand skills, and a killer addition to your resume.
MC Strategy SprintA 1-week consulting project experience:
- Oct 2023: 10 hours of self-paced training & homework
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- Certificate of Completion (shareable on LinkedIn)
- $200 early bird savings through Oct. 6, 2023
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It won’t be easy to land a career in management consulting, but it will be worth it. No matter which path you’re on, we are rooting for you to win big. Get our flagship consulting prep program, Black Belt, for help navigating the consulting networking and interview process.