As consulting has become more popular (frantically so), we are getting increasing numbers of emails from undergrads – and even high schoolers – begging the question – if you want to land a consulting internship, what should you major in – and what majors are deal-breakers?
Here at MC, we’re always looking for new ways to help you land your dream consulting internship (and job!).
Today, we’re continuing our new series on top undergrad majors, specialized Master’s programs, and U.S. and Global MBA programs for consulting by looking at undergrads. If you’ve got your heart set on consulting, this article is for you.
Let’s face it – consulting work is heavily quant-focused. You won’t succeed without having a firm grasp on numbers, markets, analytics, economies of scale and much, much more. If you’re an undergrad with a desire to break in to consulting, an economics degree will train your mind to tackle problems and make you an attractive prospect for internships and Masters’ programs. More importantly, however, an economics major is a flag that you have an active and genuine interest in business – and the sheer number of Econ majors who end up in consulting make this major a winner.
The problem with Econ majors? Econ majors get jacked up on nasty jargon like “economies of scale” and “opportunity cost”, phrases they often don’t really understand. Dropping these terms in interviews can be good, but only as a Master’s student, and only when appropriately practical. In addition, Economics degrees are highly theoretical – which often doesn’t equate to the very specific, actionable and data-driven consulting culture. In addition, everyone and their grandma (and frat brother) has an Econ degree, so it can be hard to differentiate yourself. You’ll need a sexy minor, some unique leadership experience or a great summer internship to stand out.
A fun fact – Jenny Rae was an economics major at UVA, but famously decided to shave her head and travel the world after graduation (yeah, her parents were really proud). Her biggest hangup in case interviews was “de-jargonizing” her language and really understanding the fundamentals of business which an Econ degree had not taught her.
2. Engineering (Mechanical Engineering is the most operationally focused)
With an Engineering degree, more than anything else, you are proving that you have a “math mind”. The amount of math and science problem solving required of you is good training for the problem solving you’ll have to do in consulting, where every one of your findings has to be broken down for the client and backed by empirical data. Engineering majors are known as beasts at Excel, which is fundamentally the most important hard skill you will need for consulting (on day one, the best analysts at Bain were absolutely the engineers – until the rest of us could catch up). As an engineer, you’ll also become more and more familiar with a wide range of industries, including medical, energy and automated manufacturing, which you’ll undoubtedly consult for one day.
Most engineering majors start with applied physics, where you are using the established laws of nature to create items with practical uses. Now granted, not all engineering degrees are created equal. Mechanical Engineering is the most operationally focused, in contrast to say Civil Engineering, where you are more focused on ideas such as land use instead of metrics and modeling. This emphasis on practicality will serve you well in consulting.
The knock on engineering? No offense, but some of you engineers aren’t exactly known as the social type. This doesn’t mean consulting is an extrovert-only endeavor, but simply that you must know how to be warm, endearing and personable with clients and co-workers alike. Having an impressive leadership item on your resume or showing membership in a fraternity or sorority will go a long way in dispelling any stereotypes about your social skills.
In addition, engineering is known as a detail-oriented field. There is nothing wrong with this, but engineers are known for getting lost in the weeds from time to time instead of being able to focus on the big picture. As a consultant, keeping the big picture in mind is a must. The whole reason they have hired you is because you have a bird’s eye view of the situation; engineers can be more susceptible to lose this perspective.
A Finance degree not only shows that you’re proficient in math, but also implies you’re inquisitive and like to get to the root of problems. To be specific, a degree in finance shows that you not only know the numbers, but can communicate them in a way that is easy to understand. To be successful in Finance and consulting, you don’t need just intelligence, but personality also.
However, Finance is mostly a pipeline in to investment banking. If you are a Finance major, you must show that consulting isn’t your second love and a career choice you simply settled for. We recommend showing your love for business (which is what will really set you apart from the competition) by taking a leadership role in a business club or organization on campus, as well as interning for a brand-name company (think Google, Facebook. P&G, Coca Cola etc.). If all you have is trading, investment, and financial experience on your resume, the firms will wonder how interested you are in business operations.
Some may think that because of our focus in the Top 3 of heavily quantitative majors, a Math major might be next on the list. At a base level, the previous degrees are specialized programs with specific applications all based on math. But Psychology? There is a common misconception that psychology is more an art than science, but this is simply not true. Psychology is quickly gaining credence as a STEM degree because it immerses you in an array of different topics such as statistics and neuroscience. The insight in to problematic behaviors gained here will be a big asset to you in your consulting career as you diagnose issues and think of ways to present solutions in diplomatic terms.
Psychology is a great theoretical major, but is not as “hands-on” and practical as some of the others on this list. At its very core, consulting is about assessing a situation objectively and devising a solution that can be applied practically. Majoring in Psych can show you prefer abstract ideas to concrete implementation, and this can affect the way you will be perceived in the interview process. If you are a Psych major, make sure you have 1-3 concrete examples of the positive change you have brought in to a workplace, especially in a consulting or brand-name internship.
And why not math? Frankly, math geeks highly, highly theoretical equations are not considered applied enough to understand the fundamentals of business.
5. Political Science
Political Science is really about the study of systems. In this major, you learn how systems are influenced and operate, about how individuals find a place in the prevailing system, and about how systems are transformed over time. This is invaluable insight in consulting, as you will have to be astute enough to understand the “question behind the question” that a client or your manager is asking you, and how that fits in to the big picture in a complex organization. In every organization you will work for and work at, you will be a political actor. It is imperative that you know how people in the organization you are there to help will perceive your presence (hint: usually, not well!) and how to bring factions together, build consensus and implement positive solutions.
By now, you should be able to quickly tell what the big weakness with a Poli Sci degree is. That’s right, little to no quant work. If you are pursuing a degree in Poli Sci, we highly recommend that you minor in a heavy quant major such as Econ, Finance, or Physics. We also recommend taking a leadership position in your math club on campus. In this case, you want to be known as an extracurricular math nerd! Brushing up on your math skills (or at least Excel or other analytical tools) is a must to land that internship you want between your junior and senior years.
6. Computer Science
At its very core, programming is about communicating with computers, and let’s face it, all of us wish we spoke their language. Majoring in Computer Science shows that you have the necessary math building blocks that will get you started in consulting, as well as the drive to problem-solve (troubleshoot) effectively. Also, IT consulting as a field is growing exponentially, as firms in every industry need to know how to manage their networks. A background in Computer Science can help you land a position consulting firms on creating and optimizing IT systems.
As with engineering, CS majors can be known to be more on the anti-social side. Again, to dispel this notion, make sure you take an active leadership role in an organization on campus. The more you can show that you know how to drive positive change within an organization, the better. The other downside of a CS degree is that while it is very STEM-focused, it is also a narrowly-focused program. You don’t get the sociological training that you’ll find in Psych or Poly Sci, or the more big-picture strategic thinking that is emphasized more in Econ. Minoring in one of these other degrees will go a long way to making you a more well-rounded candidate.
Surprise, surprise…another quant-focused major on our list! Physics is one of those majors that combines theoretical quant work with an eye toward real-world practical application. Along with the quant and numerical modeling skills you’ll begin to acquire, an appreciation of Physics shows you have a natural curiosity and an innate desire to answer questions you have about the world around you. Examining the principles of the laws of nature can be good practice for going in to a client firm and recognizing the overarching principles that guide the firm and its people (hint: these are usually different than the idealized ones you will see plastered all over the walls!).
The problem with an undergrad Physics degree is that it is only recognized as a general liberal arts degree, and not one where you picked up any real-world skills. Specializing in a particular field of Physics and obtaining an advanced professional degree will give you claim to being an expert, and a numerical modelling master. More importantly, we highly recommend minoring in a degree that is business-related and being an active participant (hopefully, leader) in a business organization on campus. Again, this not so much about skilling up as it is about showing you have an interest in and a love for business and are willing to commit at least part of your career to it.
Chemistry is similar to Physics in that you will get a chance to improve your math skills (anyone else remember stoichiometry?). As with Physics, having a science background shows that you know how to move methodically through a problem or formula to see it through to completion. In fact, the scientific method is a pretty good picture of how you would work through a problem in consulting. In addition, a lot of top candidates for consulting firms started out as Pre-Med majors, but transitioned over midway through undergrad. That’s not all bad, because healthcare consulting is the fastest growing strategy field worldwide.
In scientific degrees, an emphasis on creative thinking and problem solving can sometimes be missing. There are no formulas in the consulting world, and sometimes those with Chem backgrounds are known to be a little uncomfortable having to construct answers without the benefit of a formula. Again, we recommend showing you also have had a love for business during your undergrad years, as well as some familiarity with business concepts. An undergraduate STEM degree can form a potent duo when combined with an MBA, as firms are always looking for candidates with science backgrounds to work with clients from those industries.
Honorable Mention goes to History. You may be thinking – really? Well, yes. Consulting firms recruit from many top liberal arts schools, and there is such a thing as consulting fallout – people who were passionate about the idealized form of something (i.e. teaching) but hate it in practicality. Thank heavens for internships that help you discover what you might and might not like – for real! If you are a History major, just make sure you get some sexy real-world experience from a brand-name company!
Do you agree? Did we miss anything? Comment below to let us know what you think the top consulting majors might be – and stay tuned for the upcoming installments in our series!