Fortune 500 vs. niche consulting internship, Choosing between top offers, and Breaking the “no experience” barrier


Since we’ve been back from hibernation, we’re getting flooded by emails – thanks for letting us in on your thought process as you ponder your futures!

We’ve brought some of the best questions to you here…with our (hopefully insightful) responses.  As always, everything we share is anonymous.  Enjoy!

Q:  Background – I am a master business student [MBA] studying in Europe and was recently offered an opportunity to work as a business development intern in a specialized energy consulting firm in South East Asia. I also have another offer from a Fortune 500 company (i.e. big name) as a business analyst intern in Europe.

The first option requires more responsibility and thus allows me to achieve more impact. In the second, I would assist a manager supervising the financials of 60+ countries. My ultimate goal is to work in a top management consulting firm in the U.S.

Which choice would add more value on my CV from the perspective of M/B/B recruiters –  big name + less challenging job function OR small name but potentially greater responsibilities and exposure?

Would the specialized consulting intern experience give me an edge when applying to top consulting firms (as they have corresponding divisions)?

A:  First of all, congrats on your offers – you’ve got 2 excellent choices.

Without knowing all of the details (exact firms, pay, responsibilities, etc.), the Fortune 500 client makes the most sense to me.
First, brand-name experience sets one candidate apart from another in the application and interview process, and just having it on your resume means that you likely went through a competitive application process to get the internship – a great first step.
Second, geography makes a difference. If you’re considering applying in the U.S., experience in Asia doesn’t carry the same perception as experience in the U.S. or Europe (where the range and caliber of expected work is higher in general). Note, however, that applying to the U.S. if you don’t have prior work authorization is a non-starter, as very, very few firms will consider sponsoring a visa for a student from outside the U.S.
Third, factor in your future. Which firm offers the most potential for longer-term career options if you don’t end up breaking into M/B/B?  Wouldn’t it be easier to go from the Fortune 500 firm to the energy consulting firm vs. the other way around? Climb the highest mountain first, and keep your backup options in mind.
Finally, just having corresponding energy experience won’t give you an edge at this stage in the game – especially as it sounds like it will be from a lesser-known firm in Asia. In fact, you’re just talking about a short period – you won’t get much real responsibility in either role.
My advice:  you’re just talking about the summer. Bulk up on prestige – and look for accelerated experience later in your career, when you’ve opened the door to more options.

———-

Q:  I got offers from BCG, Bain, and Booz (now Strategy&) in Western Europe this month. Any thoughts on the main differences between them? I am primarily interested in office culture and (international) exit ops/prestige.

A:  Way to go! Congrats on having to make the (wonderful) choice between 3 great firms.
You can expect all of the firms to have an impressive and dynamic office culture with lots of opportunities for professional development, so it’s really more about your fit with the specific firms than any sense of better/worse within them.
Between the 3, Booz (now Strategy&) is a great brand name but Bain and BCG are considered one step above, yet largely interchangeable in the broader business world.
Between those 2, Bain and BCG are really of very similar caliber when it comes to prestige and exit ops.  Bain would have a slight bent toward finance exit ops (private equity) because of its association with the London PE practice, and BCG has more academic focus/support if you want to go back to school for a non-traditional degree (like law) and return.
At the end of the day, it’s going to be easier to transition from Bain/BCG into Booz (now Strategy&) at some point later in your career than going the other way around, so if everything else is equal, select either of the 2 M/B/B options. We’d recommend weighing those based on your perception of your own cultural fit within the firms.

———-

Q:   I could really use some advice.

I am running into a theme with my consulting applications/interviews: smart guy, strong presence, but no experience.  I would appreciate your thoughts on the following: 1. Are there some consulting positions that are easier to land/easier companies to get into? 2. Internal strategy positions for companies – are they easier to land, and do they provide good experience for the big name consulting firms? 3. Are there consulting recruiting firms that I should use/contact?

A:  Glad to help.

1.  Yes, definitely. Brand-name or boutique firms are better – stay away from Accenture, IBM and E&Y if you want to lateral into M/B/B at some point (but obviously go for them if you are interested in or have experience in a specific functional area they boast as a speciality). Firms like A.T. Kearney, L.E.K., Strategy&, and Oliver Wyman are better options…

In the meantime, check out Vault’s Top 50 as a good start – you may find firms on there that weren’t on your radar before. We’re also about to release a long-awaited product – our Networking Bible – which includes a database with 1000+ contacts at ~100+ consulting firms. You heard it here first!

2.  Not necessarily easier to land (many are actually considered exit opportunities from consulting, not the other way around), but there are a range of diverse experiences (even project management) inside Fortune 500 firms that are relevant and would bulk up your experience. You just want to stay with name-brand firms (or firms big enough that they could be clients of the top firms).
3.  Honestly, don’t know of any. We’re not saying they aren’t out there…
Readers – anything to add here? Post your comments below!
  • Guest

    Very good insight. On the first question, I do agree that F500 is better vs. small firm. However, I couldn’t disagree more on the geography bit, unless you’re going for a very US-centric firm. In this day and age, experience in Asia is what really counts. Experience in very rapidly developing markets vs. moribund markets, especially in Europe, and to an extent in the US. 

  • GuestResponse

    While I agree that Asia and experience in that region are critical, recall that it’s the FIRM that was being discussed, and in that context, I agree with the author: while experience in Asia’s rapidly-developing markets will be highly valued (over time), it’s more likely that the FIRM where one gains one’s early experience will be far more influential on a person’s long-term career prospects. Another way to put it: Just because you have worked IN Asia doesn’t mean you gained better EXPERIENCE by doing so.