Comparing McKinsey, Bain, & BCG

There’s a reason why McKinsey, Bain, and BCG are the top dogs in the management consulting industry. Perhaps it’s more accurate to say that there are many reasons that make consultants at these 3 firms part of an elite club. History, prestige, and expertise are a few of the elements that make MBB the most sought after management consulting firms for business undergrads and MBAs, but there’s a huge list of other factors that attract the brightest business minds in the world – like insane training and development programs, Fortune 100 client interaction, and dream-like exit opportunities.

Comparing McKinsey Bain BCG

But are MBB firms all the same? If a McKinseyite, a Bainee, and a BCGer were all sitting at a bar, who would you want to talk to? At the end of the day, where would you – as a consulting candidate with specific skills, personality, and goals – fit in best?

We advise our Black Belt clients regularly on pursuing and selecting the firm that’s best fit for them. If a candidate is MBB caliber, often he/she will receive an offer from 1 or more of the firms. The happy candidate then faces the choice of McKinsey vs. Bain vs. BCG, and asks – which is the right firm for me?

In terms of size, breadth, and reach, McKinsey has always been the obvious market leader. As the youngest of the 3 firms, Bain is the consistent upstart of the group and the firm’s lack of experience is compensated by huge risk-taking and market-differentiating moves. BCG generally falls somewhere in between – competing with both McKinsey and Bain by striking a balance of expertise and creativity – and when selling, they are “more creative” than McKinsey and “more seasoned” than Bain.

So where do you belong? Bain, McKinsey or BCG? Here are 9 things to consider when comparing MBB firms:

  1. Recruiting
  2. Case Interviews
  3. Global reach
  4. Scope
  5. Exit opportunities
  6. Culture
  7. Compensation
  8. Depth of experience
  9. Career Progression at MBB Firms
  1. Recruiting

All 3 firms are pretty stringent when it comes to recruiting cycles, making it tougher to break in ‘off cycle’ than through a target academic program. However, the current war for talent is changing things and making it easier for experienced candidates to break in. If that’s you, you face rolling application deadlines – apply once you’ve networked and found an advocate. The best time for you to make the transition is between March-May.

Typically, MBB firms target undergrads and MBAs from top tier universities in the fall for the following year’s summer class of new hires. Application deadlines typically come around in July-August.

In terms of advanced degrees, all 3 firms have a rich ADP hiring process and are open to recruiting professionals with other types of degree. McKinsey is the most open, primarily because it’s the biggest – which means if you have a medical, law, or other advanced degree and you’re looking to start your consulting career, check out McKinsey first. Application deadlines for ADP programs happen in February and March for all 3 firms.

At all 3 firms, recruiters have less pull on hiring decisions than consulting staff, so if you’re relying on your networking skills to land an interview, focus your energy on cultivating connections with consultants as opposed to recruiters.

  1. Case Interviews

MBB interviews are intense, no doubt about it. You’ll need to be prepared for 2-3 rounds of interviews, including fit and case interviews, and a heck of a lot of pressure you’re not used to.

Bain loves to pressure test their candidates – not to see if you know what you’re talking about, but rather to see if you really believe what you’re saying.  In contrast, McKinsey pressure tests to determine whether handling pressure is something you can do. In both cases, the same tactics are used but for a different purpose.

At BCG, interviewers are assessing your ability to respond on the fly. You’ll get the most surprising, curveball questions in a BCG case interview – and your ability to come up with a reasonable solution that includes explaining your thought process is the test of your true business intuition and fit for the firm.

We won’t fail to mention that each firm has online assessments (GMAT-style multiple-choice tests) that help to screen candidates who don’t have the potential to make the grade – both for English language competency and financial/math literacy.

  1. Global reach

All 3 firms have offices around the world, with a home base in the United States. In terms of geographic reach, McKinsey is top dog with the largest pool of consultants and the most offices. BCG comes in at a close second, with Bain a far 3rd.

Where you’ll be physically located for work depends on the firm’s staffing model. With McKinsey’s global model, you might see 8 different countries over your tenure. If you’re looking for the jet setter life with the chance to rack up travel miles and earn free weekend trips, McKinsey is your best bet.

At Bain, international travel is much less frequent. You’re almost always going to work in 1 primary country (or regional office like Singapore). You do have a chance to work abroad at Bain, however – during the 6 month period when you have a choice of an externship with another company, an international transfer, or a rotation in Bain’s private equity or non-profit arms.

BCG falls somewhere in the middle. The firm has more of a local staffing model like Bain, but also enjoys an established global reach, which means BCGers are still more likely than Bainees to travel internationally so the firm can keep utilization above 75%.

At the end of the day, you will be on the road every week with all 3 firms. The norm is 4 days a week at the client site and back to the office (or home office!) on Friday.

  1. Scope

McKinsey is the largest firm with 10,000 consultants, followed by BCG with 7,000 and Bain with 4,000. Bain is also the smallest firm in terms of revenue. In terms of price, however, the 3 firms often compete at the same price point – around $500K for a 6 person team for a month.

MBBs count Fortune 50 and Fortune 100 companies among their clients (although they prospect to the Fortune 1000 and privately traded firms like Private Equity and Hedge Funds as well). As a consultant you’ll be interacting with C-level executives – hence the reason for the rigorous hiring process. MBB firms need to uphold a certain level of professionalism and sophistication when they’re dealing with CEOs of huge corporations, if for no other reason than to keep the CEOs comfortable with the price tag they’re paying.

Since Bain came to their senses in the late 2000s and joined rank with McKinsey and BCG, all firms now employ a 1-project staffing model. That means consultants are on only 1 project at a time, making resource management across the firm much smoother.

Each firm continues to try and differentiate itself by offering sector and function-specific practice areas. McKinsey boasts huge Education and Digital practices, BCG offers a robust Digital Ventures practice, and Bain rules the roost when it comes to working with private equity firms. Here’s your takeaway: outside of strategy, the 3 firms have strengths in different practice areas, which means as a candidate coming from a particular background, your chance of being hired could be greater at one firm over another. All 3 firms continue to organically and inorganically expand their practice areas to increase the amount of downstream work they can sell.

  1. Exit Opportunities

If you’ve made it on with MBB, your future is bright! Most MBB alum are recruited into CEO, VP, or other leadership positions at Fortune 100 companies, or even start their own famously successful businesses. When you exit from McKinsey, Bain, or BCG, your future colleagues know you’re coming from a background of world-class training, unmatchable Excel and modeling skills, and an uncanny ability to solve business problems.

Of course, there’s going to be just slightly more prestige attached to a McKinsey alum than someone coming from BCG or Bain. You’ll definitely get more “oohs” and “aaahs” when you’re interviewing for your next post-consulting position.

McKinsey also has an edge on alum networking. Because it’s the largest firm, it offers the largest global network for ex-McKinseyites. The firm also does the best job of keeping its alumni connected through great resources, contact and job databases, and consistent membership activity. We’d say that BCG does an above average job of keeping their alum connected, while Bain has some areas of improvement here.

Nevertheless, Bain comes in first for quality of alum relations. The culture is so strong at Bain that there’s an immediate affinity between Bainees when they meet. While a McKinsey alum would offer to spend 10 minutes on the phone with you to talk about your exit options at Google, a Bain alum would invite you to her office and introduce you to her staff.

  1. Culture

More than anything else, you’re going to see big differences among the MBB firms when it comes to culture. Oftentimes, when candidates have more than 1 MBB offer to consider, they make their final choice based on which firm’s culture resonates best with their personality.

McKinsey

McKinseyites are smart and business-like; the firm’s culture isn’t as collegial as BCG or Bain’s, although it’s not the stuffy workplace stereotypes would have you believe. McKinsey consultants are trained to attack a problem in a certain way – so no matter which global office you’re in or what level you’re at, you can count on The McKinsey Way. The organization itself is structured and formal, and everything from attitude and attire at McKinsey reflects that. The firm is known for its long legacy client relationships.

BCG

BCGers are creative, innovative, and in the upper ranks – thought leaders in their fields. BCG puts a strong focus on both teamwork and individual contributions when it comes to projects and is great at looking ahead for trends in business and the global economy. BCG prides itself on its customized, collaborative client approach.

Bain

Camaraderie, connectivity, and conviction characterize the culture at Bain, where the local office culture is strong and the focus is on teamwork. Considered the “frattiest” of the top 3 firms, Bainees know how to enjoy a beer in the office on Fridays. This atmosphere of “work hard, play hard” is a huge draw for new recruits. In head to head recruiting, Bain often beats out BCG because of culture but loses to McKinsey based on prestige or brand-name.

In terms of staffing, you’ll find that Bain is more analyst heavy than both McKinsey and BCG. On a standard McKinsey or BCG team, there may be only 1 analyst. In contrast, a team from Bain will have 2 analysts and fewer people who are more senior. This could mean you’ll have more responsibility early on at Bain, and at the end of the day play a larger role in the team’s success.

  1. Compensation

Generally speaking, compensation at MBB firms is pretty comparable – around $100K base for undergrads joining the firm as full-time hires and around $175K base for full-timers with an MBA or advanced degree. Signing bonuses, relocation reimbursement, retirement, profit sharing, and benefits (e.g., health insurance, resort membership) are also typically part of the offer package.

All 3 firms are usually the first to raise their compensation inside the industry. They set the bar, and other firms follow suit one cycle later. Why is it the MBB who consistently sets the bar on salary? 2 reasons –

      1. Each firm has a very specific prestige profile for who they hire. They’re recruiting the class President, the Rhodes Scholar, #1 HBS graduate, etc. – candidates who likely have interviews with the other firms and a high probability of receiving strong offers. MBB offers the best salaries to attract the best candidates.
      2. The top firms have more competing offers outside of consulting. The firms are not only competing with each other, but also with major players in banking/finance and big tech. Top prospects from the best b-schools have many paths they can take – from internal corporate finance and private equity to venture capital and corporate law. To draw and retain the best talent, McKinsey, BCG and Bain are willing to pay top dollar.
  1. Depth of Experience

McKinsey, not surprisingly, leads the pack on depth of experience. They’ve been around for the longest, they have the largest number of consulting staff, and their reach is the most extensive. Dozens of best-sellers have been authored by McKinseyites and hundreds of firms have been led by McKinsey alum. When they come to the table to pitch to a client, McKinsey can usually point to 10 examples where they’ve done the same job successfully before.

On the other end of the spectrum, Bain relies on its “we’ll work hard for you” mentality to win clients. The firm doesn’t have the decades of experience to draw from like its competitors, but it does have a card up its sleeve. Bain gives a lot more ideas away in the sales process than would McKinsey or BCG, relying heavily on its quantitative prowess and willingness to go the extra mile. A partner at Bain might give away what would normally be the first month of work to a potential client – a tactic that often sways clients in their favor.

BCG is going to sell somewhere in between –  their approach is to “roll up their sleeves” and provide “tailored solutions for clients.

  1. Career Progression at MBB Firms

On the surface, the career progression at MBB firms is simple – up or out. You work 2 years and then decide whether you’re staying or exiting. When you look a little deeper, however, you discover some pretty cool things that make each firm unique and attractive in its own way.

For instance, Bain has built a 6-month sabbatical into its career progression. After completing their first 2 years, undergrad hires are given the opportunity to rotate into a 6-month term doing something entirely new – whether it’s working for Bain’s non-profit group Bridgespan, working abroad through an interoffice transfer, or doing an externship with a company totally outside of Bain.

BCG offers unique programs for top performers that reward and retain top talent at the firm, like The Strategy Institute – a special international project team that develops a long-term look at strategy and competitive advantage – and the BCG Fellows program that gives senior consultants carte blanche to work on whatever they want with an associated budget and staff.

McKinsey has a subject matter expert track and a generalist track, and moves consultants early on into specific practices, such as Education or Digital. Because McKinsey hires candidates early on into specific areas of expertise, they’re more open to considering applications from candidates who’ve chosen not to go the typical MBA route. If your education and/or work experience is “outside the norm,” McKinsey is more likely to consider you than BCG or Bain.

BCG operates in a similar manner, hiring people into practices a lot earlier than Bain – who waits until consultants have reached Partner or Sr. Partner level before assigning a specialization. Bain has been trending towards earlier specialization, but they’re still 2-5 years later than the other firms.

What does this mean for you? As a Bainee, you can exit into different industries a lot longer than you could at McKinsey or BCG, where you’ve already pinpointed yourself into a specific area of expertise.

MBB Job Titles

Finally, because it’s often a source of confusion for new hires, we’ve outlined the consulting job titles across MBB firms. We frequently get questions from readers who confuse the post-MBA “Associate” position at McKinsey with the pre-MBA positions at Bain and BCG.

McKinsey –

Undergrads are hired as Business Analyst, MBAs are hired as Associate

Bain –

Undergrads are hired as Associate Consultant, MBAs are hired as Consultant 

BCG –

Undergrads are hired as Associate, MBAs are hired as Consultant

That’s a Wrap!

We trust that you found this MBB overview helpful! Have more specific questions? Work with us on interview prep or resume edits!

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Filed Under: Consulting Firms, management consulting