With its fast-paced learning environment and its consultants cracking some of industry’s biggest challenges, it’s clear why consulting is a popular career destination amongst university students. However, it’s also notoriously hard to get into and competition is fierce.
This week, an incoming first-year on my UCL undergraduate degree reached out to me via LinkedIn to ask:
Can you give me some tips to get into the consulting industry?
We had a conversation about the ways in which proactive candidates can stand out in the consulting applicant pool, which served as a reminder that a few years ago I had barely heard of consulting myself.
Fast forward to now, as an applicant from a non-traditional background with experiences and insights at firms like McKinsey, BCG and Oliver Wyman, I thought I’d share some of what I’ve learned over the past 4 years.
Here are some of my key pieces of advice for breaking into the sector:
1. Gain leadership experience – for your application, but also for yourself. Leadership is not only a highly employable skill, but challenges and develops you in an unparalleled way to many other roles. I’m a great believer that the things you take on during university and beyond should serve you as much as it would serve a potential future employer. Think about what you’re passionate about and research organisations and groups where you could get involved. Paid or voluntary, huge- or small-scale, learning to work with others to deliver impact will help you in a consulting fit interview.
2. Evidence problem-solving / overcoming challenges. And, importantly, not necessarily just in a consulting environment! There’s a common misconception that consultancies are exclusively interested in your experiences solving consultancy-style issues. Any opportunity to discuss assessing situations and solving problems comes in handy; I often end up talking about my experiences in leading youth social action programmes.
3. Network with people at consulting firms to understand what the role is like and get advice. This could be an entire article in itself, but doing this will help you start to piece together the industry. There’s various ways to do this – lots of unis have an alumni network, you can reach out to people on Linkedin or you can see if firms you’re interested in have “About Consulting” resources on their website. No link to consulting at all? Wrong, you have me! I’m no expert but drop me a message and I’ll do my best to help you out.
4. Try to “level up” your involvement with the industry. Rather than starting totally cold, you can build a background of evidenced interest in the industry step-by-step. (For example, going to talks > getting onto insight days > a first year spring week programme > penultimate year summer internship)
5. Make the most of your university societies. Some student-run “careers” societies do an excellent job hosting a variety of talks and events about getting into industry. I’d recommend getting on the email lists/social media of a couple to start you off; these tend to be quite passive, low-commitment memberships, which mean you can just keep an eye out for their upcoming events etc. and apply for ones you’re interested in.
6. Understand what makes you different, and how to express your story. In recent years, companies are starting to recognise that a diversity of workforce leads to better business. Therefore, it’s less of a disadvantage than before to have a “non-traditional” background for consulting. However, the trick is understanding how to summarise and pitch yourself to others. I recently completed a short, free LinkedIn Learning course on this which broke down this process.
7. Get comfortable with case studies. If you make it to the consulting interview, chances are you’ll have to complete at least one case study interview. Case studies are simplified examples of business problems, which give you an opportunity to demonstrate the way you tackle problems. There are lots of free resources online about this – if you’re interested in a follow-up post of some of my favourites, just drop me a message.
8. Research different firms and approaches. It’s easy to homogenise “consulting” as one big job bracket, but the reality is that there is enormous diversity within the industry. By researching different organisations and their approaches, you’ll gain a better understanding of what parts of the consultancy industry interest you most.
9. If applicable, get involved with events and networks aimed at underrepresented groups. The industry is changing, but the reality is that the majority of business leadership remains straight, white and male. To combat this, lots of consultancies have networks aimed at recruiting and retaining underrepresented talent (including but not limited to: women, BAME, LGBT, first generation). If you identify with an underrepresented group, I’d recommend that you search for the social media sites, newsletters and groups of these networks, as you may be eligible for additional events and opportunities to help counter this imbalance.
10. Gain experience in other sectors. It sounds bizarre to say “to break into one industry, try out another”, but consultants gain a breadth of experience across industries throughout their careers! Don’t be disheartened if you can’t gain direct consulting experience; most consulting firms acknowledge that it’s a difficult industry to get experience in, and are receptive to hearing about what you’ve learned and enjoyed in other areas.
Got any questions? As always, feel free to leave a comment or get in touch.