Consulting resume structure and 23 other MC tips (January contest Q&A – Part 2)


This is the second in our series of resume and cover letter Q&As we collected during our Consulting Resume and Cover Letter Bible giveaway contest last month. We asked our email subscribers for one thing they wanted to know about consulting resumes and cover letters. We also asked them to include what they thought the answer was. You can find the winning entry in our first post.

In this round, we continue with your burning questions about consulting resumes – everything from how to make your consulting resume stand out and breaking in from non-consulting backgrounds to quantifying your experience and getting your structure and content right. If you disagree with some of our comments, or have another take on the matter – we’d love to hear from you! Subscribe to our newsletter, add your comment below, or send us an email.

STANDING OUT FROM THE CROWD

What you want to know:

“How can your resume differentiate you from other very qualified applicants?”

What you believe the answer is:

“Your leadership and team work experiences, your previous internships in prestigious firms, and your ability to quantify the results of your achievements.”

Those are all great ways not only to differentiate your resume, but to stand out as a strong candidate. If you’re serious about management consulting, then you probably have a lot of these experiences. It’s a matter of talking about them on your resume in a way that catches the recruiter’s eye – structured, with quantified detail. (If you don’t have these experiences, your goal should be to build some before you waste your chance by applying to firms – you’re guaranteed a rejection.) 

What you want to know:

“How to make my resume stand out when the most I could write about is my academic experiences.”

What you believe the answer is:

“Some people told me to include more student activities, but my roles in those activities were not as shining as ‘president’ or ‘founder,’ so I don’t think they’re going to help much.”

You’re an example of a student who may have a hard time “standing out” from the crowd. Realistically speaking, your chances of breaking into MBB firms without significant and impressive extracurricular experiences is small to nil. You may, however, be competitive in second tier or boutique firms. It sounds like you do have experience in clubs and other activities to some extent – if they are the best you have, be sure to include those on your resume. And, there’s still time! Use these last few months in school to get more involved than you have been up to this point – and network to let your personality show.

What you want to know:

“How do I make my resume stand out?”

What you believe the answer is:

“Top schools, business achievements.”

Yes, we certainly agree – just remember that there are still 500+ Harvard applicants for each consulting firm – so just the basics isn’t enough. You have to be results-focused and clear, with a max of 3 work experiences and 3 leadership experiences – and as many honors as you can explain, class projects that were interesting, and personal interest detail to round out the picture.

In other news, what if you don’t have these experiences? Does that mean you’ll never land a consulting interview? Not necessarily. Like many undergrads, you may have decided in your sophomore or junior year to pursue management consulting – and what if you’re enrolled at a great school, but just not one that consulting firms target? What can you do? Choose your classes wisely – make sure you’re getting as many business-related classes (finance, operations, strategy, management) as you can. Get involved in clubs on campus and tap into your professors for mentorships.

What you want to know:

“1. How to choose the items that need to be highlighted in the resume.  2. How to keep the content short and at the same time effective.”

What you believe the answer is:

“1. Highlight items that are significant and help you stand out from the crowd.   2. Avoid routine things that are expected from your job.”

1. Choosing what to highlight on your resume is a question we get ALL THE TIME. The answer? First, there are the 3 key sections that you must have on your consulting resume – education, work experience, and personal/interests – but what you choose to call out in each of these sections is unique to you, your experiences, and your goals. When we work with our clients, we help them draw out the best of what they’ve done – leadership, accomplishments – and then we show them how to convey that on their consulting resume.

2. In terms of “avoid[ing] routine things that are expected from your job” – that’s not the approach you want to take. You should clearly and concisely describe your job including the size of the team you worked on, even if it seems that it’s obvious from your job title and especially if you did market research, data analytics or project management. For companies and organizations that are not name brand (read: well known), also include a brief explanation of what the company does.

Overall, in order to stand out from the crowd, or more specifically, get the recruiter to read you entire resume, you need to do 3 things – help the reader understand what you did, explain to them how significant it was, then help them make the leap to visualize you as a consultant.

THE NUMBERS GAME

What you want to know:

“How is someone supposed to use numbers in their resume (when explaining their leadership/work experience), when the numbers are not able to be calculated?”

What you believe the answer is:

“I would assume that the person should do a rough estimate and simply guess a number (guesstimate). Assuming the person actually did the job, they should have a vague idea as to how successful it was. Therefore, a rough guess should suffice.”

Just “adding numbers to your resume” isn’t what you’re trying to do. Adding metrics and qualifying your accomplishments to substantiate your performance IS, however. Numbers can serve to provide context to your work experience, which enables the resume reviewer to get a better understanding of what you did on the job. If your first job out of school was to make cold calls all day to homeowners, how many calls on average did you make on a daily basis? If your internship entailed editing senior manager presentations and making shipments to regional sales locations, how many senior managers and how many regional sales locations did you support?

What you want to know:

“How can one quantify an achievement and its impact, if typical metrics such as cost savings, improved efficiency… can not be applied?”

What you believe the answer is:

“Try to describe the achievement by using quantifiers for the process (e.g. how large the team was, how many countries were included in the study).”

This question is in the same vein as the one above, however, this one gives a much stronger answer. If typical metrics – cost savings, improved efficiency, increased revenues, market share increase, higher customer satisfaction ratings – can’t be applied, there are still ways to quantify your achievements – how many managers you supported, how many newsletters you created on a monthly basis, how large the conferences were that you organized, etc.

Here’s the key takeaway. Explaining what you did without telling what happened as a result is entirely missing the point. By playing the “numbers” game, you’re showing that you’re goal-oriented and focused, and that you can define an objective, work toward it, and measure your performance – exactly what firms are looking for in a new consultant!

WHAT (ELSE) RECRUITERS ARE LOOKING FOR

What you want to know:

“The one skill or achievement that will grab attention.”

What you believe the answer is:

“Only top-tier universities get noticed.”

Like we mentioned in our first post in this series, many of you seem to be looking for that magic bullet. We’ll say it again – there isn’t ONE thing that makes you a candidate for a career in management consulting. While a degree from a top-tier university will certainly open major doors, there are other things that will catch a recruiter’s eye – Rhodes Scholar, started a business, consulting club president – and often it’s the candidate displaying a combination of all of these who gets an interview. We work with 100+ candidates from non-target schools each year who get interviews and offers from top firms.

One quick and helpful note here – if you’re NOT from a target school, 99% of the time you need to have a networking in at one of the firms – and a sponsor’s desire to support you starts with a killer resume and cover letter. You’ll have to work harder, but it’s totally possible.

What you want to know:

“Which areas should I emphasize? Should I include a lot of my math/science competition results? What do consulting firms care about the most?”

What you believe the answer is:

“I should emphasize my leadership, interpersonal, and problem solving skills.”

What you’ll want to share on your resume are your GREATEST accomplishments – we’re not talking about the blue ribbon you won in your speech class, but the trophy you won for your university in debate.

Keep an eye out for our February newsletter, sent to subscribers only, where we’ll announce our next contest. You can win FREE interview prep hours with MC’s Managing Director if your 1-minute video in response to “What’s your greatest accomplishment?” is among the selected winners. If you’re not a subscriber, sign up now.

What you want to know:

“I’m applying to MBB as a pre-MBA experienced hire from the strategy team of a UK Big 4.  I’d like to know about how reviewers evaluate project experience on a CV. Do reviewers look for breadth of experience across industries and strategy projects, or depth and focus in a particular area? How should project experience be presented, and what features should be highlighted to maximise the chance of an interview? Do MBB CV reviewers have any biases about consultants from non-MBB firms and, if so, how can these be overcome in the CV?”

What you believe the answer is:

“Strategy consulting firms, and MBB particularly, are looking for signs of personal impact. They will be skeptical about your background so your project experience needs to show that you’ve a solid problem solving skill-set and are taking on responsibilities ahead of your time.  Use your most prominent examples of high-impact work.  If this is concentrated in a particular sector then you could offset with an example from another industry. Conversely, if your experience has been very broad then also provide some examples which show you are developing an interest in a particular sector.”

This Q&A definitely deserves an honorable mention! Great answer. You did leave out the last part, though – whether MBB CV reviewers have biases against consultants from non-MBB firms. The answer? Yes, they do. Why? Because firms spend a lot of time and money on training and inculcating their specific culture, paradigms, and processes into new hires. If you’re coming in with a completely different set of rules, it’s going to be very difficult and time-consuming to retrain you. 

You’ve probably heard of the McKinsey culture, for example, right? McKinsey, and all of the MBB clan, are righteously picky. Still, if you have a skill set formed in a key segment (such as healthcare, private equity or energy) your project experience will stand out.

You’re making the right move – hop over now, before the Big 4 cultural heebie-jeebies have set in and really put off the MBB recruiting gatekeepers. 

What you want to know:

“What are the WOW factors a consulting resume should have? What are the top three points a resume reviewer keeps in top of mind for selecting or rejecting a resume?”

What you believe the answer is:

“Anyone can do consulting with the right approach and experience. Consulting skills can be learned.”

The answer seems light years away from the question asked, so we’re guessing you didn’t have a clue as to the answer. Enter MC…the WOW factors are anything that help differentiate you in a superior way from other candidates. For instance, you weren’t just a member of the business club on campus, you were the founder and president. WOW factors are those things that keep a recruiter reading – like increasing sales by 35% in your first 3 months.

In terms of rejecting a resume, there’s a long list of mistakes you can make that will land your resume in the “no thanks” pile. For starters, poor grammar and sloppy presentation are huge no-nos. A low GPA will also put you at the bottom of the stack. Lack of detail in your professional experience is another way to lose the recruiter’s interest. 

What you want to know:

“The process for which employers read the resume and what they pick up on. This would be very useful to know as it would help me frame my resume and cover letter better to emphasize the key points that the employers are drawn to.”

What you believe the answer is:

“They look at the headlines and major key words such as companies and the bullet points underneath.”

Here’s the short version (for the full version of secrets of the application review revealed, get The Consulting Resume & Cover Letter Bible.  You can also read our consulting recruiting process overview post). The recruiting office receives your application, along with 500 other applications from your school (multiply that by the number of target schools!). Recruiters assign current consultants at the firm  to resume review teams, and each individual on a team reviews a stack of 150-250 resumes, ranking each candidate on a huge spreadsheet. When all the reviews are done a week later, the spreadsheets are compiled, tallied, and the team convenes for a review session. First, the top 20 or so shoe-ins are determined, then the bottom ~40% are eliminated, and finally, discussion takes place on the remaining candidate pool. This is precisely where “who you know” can come into play!

What you want to know:

“Why there is a specific resume format that is preferred by consulting firms over other more traditional formats that show the same information?”

What you believe the answer is:

“I believe that, just like with other professions, there are specific topics that human resources in consulting firms look for such as a top university, certain skills sets, etc.”

Your question and answer are talking about 2 different things. First, the consulting resume format can be defined as a 1 page, traditional resume – including a profile/overview, professional experience, education, and a personal/interests section. Your ability to display your entire life history (or at least what’s relevant to consulting) in one page reflects your ability to give a clear, concise presentation. 

Second, there are specific things that consulting firms look for, just as you said – top university, analytical skill sets, leadership qualities, etc. 

It’s important to demonstrate both to their fullest extent in your consulting resume.

What you want to know:

“What are the main bullets I should include in the description of my activities in my résumé?”

What you believe the answer is:

“Bullets with numbers (percentages of savings, efficiencies, etc).”

Depending on the time you spent at the company, each bullet should have 2-5 bullets, with a max of 4 indented or sub-level bullets for each. The clarity and punch of the first bullet is very important because it’s the most likely to be read by the recruiter – if they’re skimming, that’s usually what they’ll catch. (If you don’t believe it, spend 30 seconds max looking at a friend’s resume and see what you glean.) In the first bullet you should give specifics about your work setting – how many people were on your team, what were your overall responsibilities, etc., and include an explanation of the company (what they do) if they’re not a recognized brand name.

Use sub-bullets to talk about your results – what you accomplished, goals you met, etc. Using metrics here is a huge plus.

What you want to know:

“Are visual resumes the way to go these days?”

What you believe the answer is:

“I’m not sure, but I would say no.”

This is a great question, and we’ve had lots of queries about it too. But we agree – a traditional 1-page resume is still the way to go in management consulting recruiting circles. While you may associate a creative and stylish resume with “thinking outside the box,” a consulting recruiter will read it as “not able to color within the lines.”

What you want to know:

“If you have consulted to many clients, how do you reflect this in the resume without making it many pages long?”

What you believe the answer is:

“Somehow summarize the experiences.”

We’ve seen this as a growing trend in our work with resume editing clients. More and more candidates are filling the gap between jobs with short-term or seasonal contract work, ending up with a list of clients at the end of the day. Best way to handle this is to put your name as the company name, then add client bullets as results under each of the key entries.

If, rather, you have a lot of clients as a consultant with just one firm, include all of the client names in either the first or last bullet, and then pick 3-4 representative projects for each title you’ve held (if you got promoted, you can include more client projects). When selecting, pick the ones with the biggest brand names, biggest impact and a variety of skills demonstrated overall.

ADDRESSING GAPS IN YOUR RESUME

What you want to know:

“What is the best way to present a gap in my resume due to being made redundant and looking for work? How can I present this in a positive or at least not-negative light?”

What you believe the answer is:

“I have heard that using volunteering or other activities can help to fill the gap when not working. However, when all of your attention is on looking for work this can be difficult.”

If you held a significant volunteer position or had another role that took up most of your time, it would be appropriate to include that among your work history. Otherwise, a good option for covering up an uncomfortable gap in employment is to remove months from your resume and focus on years, provided your redundancy didn’t last more than 12 months.

BREAKING IN FROM A NON-CONSULTING BACKGROUND

What you want to know:

“I would like to learn how to phrase and tie together my various professional, extra-curricular, and academic experience (mostly multi-cultural and data-/programming-intensive stuff) so that they are relevant to the qualifications consulting firms look for in candidates.”

What you believe the answer is:

“A few points so far make sense to me:  – Present the experiences in a way that highlight the creative problem-solving aspect  – Be as quantifiable about the process and outcome as possible.”

Great answer. Also, highlight anything that demonstrates your leadership qualities, ability to work with clients, and experience collaborating with teams.

What you want to know:

“How to demonstrate my qualifications and interests if I have not worked at a management consulting firm before.”

What you believe the answer is:

“Plug in consulting ‘key words.'”

It’s great to be aware of a firm’s keywords when you’re writing your resume, but there is such a thing as overkill. A recruiter will quickly see through a resume that gives them a bunch of mindless buzz words but misses the more important and more meaningful content that shows what you did, how you did it, and what impact you had. In other words – keywords are important, and most important for technical consultants, but as a standard the types of keywords you’re looking for are action words – married with quantifiable results.

What you want to know:

“How can I best convey analytical rigor if I come from a predominantly qualitative / creative background — i.e., television / digital producing?”

What you believe the answer is:

“Choose a few stories from your background that highlight analytical experience and make sure you fit it into your resumé / interview – BUT need help choosing appropriate stories / not sure of level of analytical rigor appropriate / sufficient!”

You’re another primo example of someone who would greatly benefit from our resume editing service. To give you hope, here’s a story about one of our clients who broke in after spending 10 years in the creative/film business.

In the meantime, think like this – if you’re telling a fellow artist about what you did, you might talk about technique, talent or style. If you’re talking to a consultant about what you did, you’ll talk about metrics and results – how much was the budget, how long did it take, what was the main result? Make sure you’re speaking the right language for your audience, and show that you can think about your creative work from a business perspective.

What you want to know:

“I would like to know how to write my Big 4 due diligence (transaction support) experience into a relevant experience for consultancy jobs.”

We hear this line of questioning very often – how do I take my particular experience and make it consulting related?

Focus on results (like deal size and acquirer/target), accomplishments (main cost savings/key recommendation), and presentation (max of 2-3 bullets for each transaction), and stay away from key words (especially IT focused) that might put you in a Big 4 box.

What you want to know:

“How do I make my experience in a start up content media based in Taiwan stand out, when the company is only famous among a small circle of Chinese readers? I have produced articles analyzing salaries and conglomerates’ strategies, and presented to common readers.”

What you believe the answer is:

“I can point out specific strategies taken by brand name clients in my cover letter and emphasize that I have written the article in an understandable way to readers.”

Talking about what you did, adding context by including size of the reader base, and giving examples of the topics you wrote about are excellent ways to present your experience. Name dropping big brands will add a flavor of importance to what you did as well

All in all, make sure that you include whatever you would explain to a consultant in a 20-story elevator – that kind of focus and explanation will provide all the background you’ll need to an audience beyond the “insiders.”

What you want to know:

“I would like to know how to summarize info into a condensed and concise format to include all relevant info in less than 2 pages.”

We go into serious detail on this in the Consulting Resume and Cover Letter Bible, but here’s the quick and dirty. Without changing the actual content, you can try these tips to reduce down to a 1-page consulting resume:

  • use margins of 0.5″ (but 0.5″ at a minimum)
  • use a smaller type-set font (like Times New Roman or Arial)
  • reduce font point size from 12 to 11, and 10 at an absolute minimum
  • include your GPA after your degree instead of on a separate line
  • reduce page header distance

What you want to know:

“How to highlight technical expertise into transferable management skills.”

What you believe the answer is:

“Focus on the results.”

Sounds good to us. You can also include a succinct list of your technical expertise in your profile/overview at the top or personal/interests at the bottom – it will be important for technical positions – but if you want to focus on moving to a business or strategic role, portray your work in business/strategic terms.

STRUCTURE AND CONTENT

What you want to know:

“I would like to see how the resume should be structured. For example, someone graduating from college may have the following resume outline: Education first, Work Experience second, Skills & Interest third, etc. But what about someone who is an experienced hire but pre-MBA?”

What you believe the answer is:

“There’s no real right answer.”

Okay, your “what you believe the answer is” was horrible, but we’ll still tell you what we think.

In general, you should lead with experience, except in these cases when you’ll lead with education: 1) you’re currently in school, 2) you’ve worked for 1-2 years but you went to a mega-brand name school (Stanford GSB, Harvard) that you want listed at the top of your resume, or 3) you are applying through a networking contact at your school/through your school’s career center.

What you want to know:

“While I only have an undergraduate degree, I took a long time to finish this degree as I was always taking on contracts or internships. As such, I have experience in the development/non profit industry – but I don’t know how best to present this experience such that it makes sense in spite of its chronological messiness, and how to communicate that the international development experience I have would make me a great candidate for firms specializing in public or human service consulting.”

What you believe the answer is:

“I’ve been told a whole sleuth of things – from a suggestion to using a non-chronological, skills-based resume to being honest about the alternative path I chose. Yet, I don’t know how to apply any of the above while keeping my resume to 1-page (within the international development industry, it is no big mistake to use up 2 pages for your CV, as long as the experience is relevant). The 1-page limit for consulting firm applications is really throwing me off.”

From what you’ve told us, a chronological resume listing education after your professional experience sounds like your best bet (unless you went to a mega-brand name school, then we recommend listing that first). You should never, ever use a skills-based resume for consulting (or really anything but federal government jobs, and then only if required). Also – don’t include any professional experiences that are older than 4 years and just put your graduation date from college.

By the way, you’re another GREAT candidate for our resume editing service. If you want to know how we can help you, email us your resume for a free resume review. We’ll give you a high-level analysis of how we can help.

What you want to know:

“How to set the right level of granularity of the CV for a person with 3 years of experience and people management. Is the 1 page template still a good example to follow?”

What you believe the answer is:

“I think it’s not trivial and that the most relevant experience with clear evidence of success/leadership should be evidenced.”

Your answer doesn’t quite hit the mark. Clearly put, YES, the 1 page resume is still a good example to follow – and an iron-clad guideline in the U.S. unless you’re a super-experienced professional applying for an Engagement Manager or Partner level role (which you’re not). We do work with experienced professionals with 10+ years of experience at 5+ companies/organizations in various roles, and we still manage to get it all on 1 page!

What you want to know:

“How many bullets should be devoted to each section?”

What you believe the answer is:

“Three.”

That’s a fair answer, but let’s be more specific. Each entry under professional or work experience should include 2-5 bullets (any more than that and you’re shooting yourself in the foot – any less, and it’s not worth having on there). As a guideline, we recommend that the number of bullets should relate to the time spent at the company or in the role.

What you want to know:

“How far back should you put experiences?”

What you believe the answer is:

“Include anything that is relevant.”

In general we agree, but we also want to point out 2 things: 1) don’t include anything as far back as high school and 2) you may still need to include a job you had, even if it seems irrelevant, if it took up a considerable amount of time in your work history (6+ months after you graduated) and you have no other activities (volunteer, externship, etc.) you can point to during that period. In short – you can’t just pick and choose your favorite stuff – your timeline needs to make sense too

If you have an entrepreneurial experience that has been an undercurrent for other undesirable experiences, include that instead – it adds flavor and knocks out the questions that could arise from insignificant experiences.

What you want to know:

“How to write a compelling resume that offers an optimum marketing tool, whilst taking into account myriad (and most likely) relevant experience.”

What you believe the answer is:

“Commission the services of a professional resume writer.”

We just had to end with this one – we work with 600+ clients each year and get so many unsolicited rave reviews and recommendations that our business is growing by leaps and bounds.

Honestly, what is $250 when you compare it to a $10-30K salary boost in your first year alone, a resume you can use for life (just modified with different experiences) and the confidence that you made the most of your single shot to break into the industry?

If you still have questions on consulting resumes, post your comment below or email us


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