How to get consulting jobs from a liberal arts and humanities background


*courtesy of toothpaste for dinner*
Liberal arts and humanities majors are often criticized for being “soft majors” – with unchallenging classes and lack of “real world” skill development leaving them unable to land competitive business jobs. Fortunately for all the budding English and Philosophy majors out there, that’s simply not true.

This is the second of our series on entering consulting from “non-business” backgrounds

It’s very common for those from a liberal arts/humanities background to be interested in management consulting. It’s a great introduction to business and opens many doors – from non-profit to government service, from corporate management to further schooling (eg, MBA, grad school, etc).

We’ve been receiving some feedback that much of this advice is tailored towards current and recent undergraduate students. We believe much of the advice to be broadly applicable but it’s most useful for this group because their career tracks are less restricted. If you’ve been a journalist for 10 years or a geneticist for 8 years, it’s tough to break into management consulting unless you shoot for an MBA or are in the top 1% of your field

As a liberal arts and humanities major, you may have the following concerns about your suitability for a consulting career:

  • You don’t have enough business experience on your resume
  • You don’t understand the consulting industry sufficiently
  • Recruiters won’t give you a fair shot since they assume you have insufficient analytical/quantitative preparation
  • You are nervous about the interview process, in particular, how to conquer those tough, complex case studies

In this post, we’ll address each of the above concerns, discuss what strengths you should market and develop, and share tips that will serve you well during the management consulting recruiting process.

What options are available as a liberal arts major?

  • Global management consulting firms – while the industry is increasingly quantitative and analytical, the cornerstone of success is simply logical thinking. Plus, there’s a definite premium for creative insight. Some firms (eg, BCG) have a reputation for innovation in “out of the box” thinking
  • Boutique consulting firms – the choices here are plenty, from industry specialists like Kurt Salmon in retail to functional specialists like Katzenbach in strategy and organizational issues

What are your strengths as a liberal arts major?

  • Extra time outside of classes (assuming they’re less time-consuming) – hopefully you’ve leveraged this to tackle more extracurricular work, part-time jobs, and leadership opportunities
  • Creative “out of the box” thinking – always tough to test/measure, but can be highlighted by showcasing your entrepreneurial initiatives, significant academic and professional risk-taking, etc
  • Strong written and presentation skills – skillset #1 for consultants; opportunities to showcase these include in your cover letter, resume, and interview process

How do you mitigate perceived weaknesses as a liberal arts major?

In the order listed above, and this does not differ much from our post on engineers:

  • Business experience – if you’re still in college, find business-related summer internships and part-time jobs during the school year (provided you can manage the workload). If you’re not, tailor your resume to focus on skills and experiences that consultants look for, such as people-leadership, quantitative impact, and entrepreneurial initiative
  • Insufficient understanding of management consulting – it’s your responsibility to learn as much as you can. Check out Management Consulted; email me with questions; read the Vault Guide to Management Consulting; network with contacts in the industry
  • Recruiting biases against liberal arts majors – a good GPA will go a long way towards addressing doubts about your analytical chops as it shows you can work hard and work smart; highlight analytical/quantitative jobs and experiences in your resume; become an expert at case studies so you can dominate them during the interviews. I will be writing posts about case studies in the future
  • Insufficient recruiting preparation – like the second point, it’s dependent on the time and effort you invest; we offer a coaching service that you can look into; read this article and follow its advice

Not sure if consulting is the right career choice for you? Take our tried and tested Consulting Roadmap on your journey of discovery and find out if management consulting is the right fit for you!

  • Ras

    Hi.
    Firstly, thanks sooooo much for this website. It’s wonderful. I am learning so much more than i thought i ever knew about management consulting.
    I am in the second year of university in a prestigious canadian school and last semester, deciding what it was that i wanted to do with my life, I went to an information session by a consulting company (Deloitte). I didn’t know much before this and was immediately drawn to this profession. I have always been in the top 5% of my class and coming from the International relations/ Economics faculties most people just pushed me towards law school. Instead, I started going for all these info sessions by consulting companies and doing research for myself. I now know this is exactly what i want to do. However, recently i applied to Mckinsey, with what i thought was a great resume (i followed your rules)- I am vice president of a Business club here, I interned for the biggest telecommunications company here and my GPA is a 3.68/4.0 . I thought i had it going for me to get an internship with Mckinsey. But i didnt. They told me that my qualifications did not meet what they needed. I was hoping if you could tell me where I went wrong? or if i could find a way to improve?

    Thanks. It really means alot to us that you have taken time out to care enough to create this website.

    Best regards,
    Ras.

  • kgao

    Thanks for the kind word, Ras. If you want to send me your resume, I’m happy to take a quick look. Often when they say you did not meet qualifications (assuming you didn’t interview), it has to do with:
    -a low GPA
    -insufficient work experience
    -insufficient leadership experience

    Plus the overall strength of the candidate pool must be considered.

  • Ras

    sure where do i send it?

  • kgao

    Ras – if you look at the “About” page, you’ll find my a link to my contact info.

  • Shlok

    Hi Kevin,
    I really enjoy following your writing on this website. I am a law graduate and have been working with bcg for about 13 months. I wanted your advise on tackling a low CGPA for B-school. I have some strengths in my own startup, good internships and publications etc.
    I had written to you a couple of days back, but I don’t think my email had been properly registered for the request to reach you. Any advise would be fantastic.

  • Sehaj_16

    My name is sehaj and I was to ask you that in humanities how many MBA options are their please name them

  • Alkdsl

    Since when do liberal arts majors have “Extra time outside of classes (assuming they’re less time-consuming) – hopefully you’ve leveraged this to tackle more extracurricular work, part-time jobs, and leadership opportunities”???In the US, it’s the Business Majors that are the slackers. If you don’t believe me, just read about it here.http://www.nytimes.com/2011/04/17/education/edlife/edl-17business-t.html?pagewanted=all

  • Emily

    Anyone who’s read 80 pages of Tolstoy one day and 80 pages of Booker T. Washington (much easier) the next will tell you that there’s just not a lot of free time after reading homework, going to class, and working their 10 hours a week. I agree whole-heartedly with your comment. I will grant it’s less time consuming than a chem-bio double major or a music-education double major – but those are the extremes.

  • jennyrae

    Hi Sehaj. Humanities are usually an undergrad focus while MBAs are a graduate level degree. If you’d like to talk more about your current options for study, feel free to e-mail us directly through the contact form.

  • Nat

    Thanks for the article, that s actually exactly what I thought. It s not really the diploma that does it all -it’s what you do with it. For example, students in philosophy have the ability to analyze and think outside the box but the professional degrees have the practical knowledge -then philosophy students should learn outside college the practical things and so have both skills/competences, they are complete candidate… even more than the Business Administration students in the end.

  • Vivian Li

    My sentiments exactly. As a Philosophy major at a top institution, my courses demand tons of readings (and you need to keep up with them to understand the arguments) and papers. Meanwhile, my Business major peers don’t seem to have their noses in their books nearly as often, and a lot of their projects involve group work. So it’s simply incorrect to generalize all Humanities/Social Sciences disciplines as the “least” time-consuming, when there are certainly other majors that better encompass this label.