Student Advice: Consulting

Careers in Consulting

Prior to becoming a professor I worked for 4 years with IBM Global Services and 3 1/2 years with Mercer Management Consulting (now Oliver Wyman). These comments are based on my experiences as an applicant, employee and recruiter/interviewer at both firms.

  • Consulting Firms
    • There are many types of consulting firms – top tier strategy consulting firms (McKinsey, Bain, BCG, Oliver Wyman, AT Kearney), technology consulting firms (IBM, Oracle, EDS, Hitachi), economics consulting firms (NERA, Charles River Associates), financial consulting firms (Huron, FTI), consulting practices within accounting firms (Deloitte, PWC, Ernst & Young) – and there is considerable overlap among these categories.
    • Consulting careers can be found in consulting firms but also in traditional companies with internal consulting roles or in start-up companies or sole proprietorships.
    • While the Denver area does not have as many consulting firms as New York, Boston, or Chicago, the number of firms in Denver is steadily increasing based on our strong economy and attractive location and quality of life. Recently two top-tier strategy consulting firms, McKinsey and Boston Consulting Group, opened Denver offices and there are now a wide variety of consulting firms in the Denver area – Hitachi Consulting, Booz Allen Hamilton, Accenture, Deloitte Consulting, The North Highlands Company, FTI Consulting, Agility Solutions, Panorama Consulting Solutions, Navigant Consulting, CliIntel, EKS&H, Slalom Consulting, Point B, etc. Other firms such as Bain and AT Kearney do not have offices in Denver (although they may have a few employees who commute from Denver while officially belonging to another office location). In general the Colorado market seems to favor small to mid-size firms who compete at a lower price-point and draw on strong local business connections.
  • Recruiting Process
    • Hiring by top-tier strategy consulting firms tends to be focused on two entry points – undergraduate and MBA – although they may occasionally do some off-cycle recruiting. In both cases, the hiring process can begin as much as 18 months prior to start date, particularly in the case of summer internships. Waiting until late fall of your final year of school to begin your job search will be too late!
    • Not all consulting firms have a summer internship program but those that do use them as an evaluation period from which to identify attractive full-time hires. Summer interns typically work alongside full-time consultants on real projects so that their abilities can be evaluated in a realistic setting. Students who secure a summer internship and perform well over the summer may be offered a full-time position at the end of the summer and can return for the second year of their degree program with a job offer in hand and potentially a signing bonus or tuition funding.
    • Top-tier strategy consulting firms tend to have a short-list of 10-12 North American schools where they conduct on-site recruiting and then a separate online application process for the “rest of the world”. Although being at a core school has its advantages, in both cases you face the significant challenge of getting noticed among the many applications received – through your application/cover letter, personal or school alumni connections, employee referrals and other efforts. If you are an undergraduate having difficulty getting noticed you can always set your sights on completing an MBA at a “core school” after working for a few years.
    • Some consulting firms regularly hire new graduates, either undergraduate or graduate, without consulting experience while others, such as North Highland, Slalom Consulting and Point B generally only hire those with significant prior experience and training from a large consulting firm who are able to hit the ground running and operate with minimal further training and oversight. Some will use summer internships as a necessary screening step prior to full-time employment while others have no summer programs and only hire directly into full-time positions.
    • For undergraduate hiring, the specific degree program or major you choose is not particularly important to most consulting firms (many top schools such as Harvard do not even have an undergraduate business program) but demonstrating that you have the necessary attributes to succeed – intellectual horsepower, leadership skills, flexibility, maturity and love of learning/variety and willingness to travel and work extremely hard – is extremely important. You will need to develop a story for how your past experiences and schoolwork translate into relevant consulting skills.
    • Unlike in many industries, HR staff typically have only a limited role in consulting recruiting to coordinate recruiting events, produce recruiting materials, and handle application and interview materials and logistics. Hiring decisions at all stages are typically left to the consultants themselves, who are best able to evaluate the abilities of their future co-workers. Employee referral programs also exist at many firms (although they may start and stop based on current recruiting needs) which may give consulting firm employees additional incentive to assist you in your job search.
    • Screening applicants based on their GPA, GMAT score or school may not seem like the ideal approach but when consulting staff need to review hundreds of applications in addition to completing their usual client work you can expect that they will use some basic screening criteria such as these to narrow the applicant pool.
    • There is no point in worrying about salary negotiation tactics or which consulting firm is your favorite until you have multiple job offers in hand. Nor is there any point in spending a lot of time on case interview preparation until you have applied to many firms and have at least one interview confirmed.
  • Interview Preparation
    • Assuming you do have at least one confirmed upcoming interview with a consulting firm, intense and repeated case interview practice is essential. You should be able to get a general idea of each company’s interview format from speaking with your recruiting contact or with current or former employees or searching online. While interview formats can vary (verbal-only, verbal with some written materials, video/online, etc.) they are all used to assess a candidate’s ability to structure a problem, apply basic business concepts to the problem (income statement or balance sheet, Porter’s Five Forces, supply chain, 4 p’s of marketing, etc.), think on the spot, ask good questions, summarize your analysis, etc. Practicing with someone else – another student, a current or former consultant, someone at your school’s career center, a friend – is far preferable to just reading and thinking about the process. Forming a practice group with multiple like-minded students can be very effective as you can learn a lot observing others or playing the role of the interviewer. You should also expect some more traditional behavioral questions before or after the case discussion (“Tell me about a time…”). See the links before for some interview practice resources.
  • Handling Job Offers
    • As soon as you have a job offer in hand from a consulting firm (or any other firm for that matter), your influence over the recruiting process immediately skyrockets. Now you are in the driver’s seat and may want to act quickly to explore other opportunities before making a decision. Think about any companies that you are interested in but have not applied to or not yet lined up an interview with (even some that feel like a long shot!). You should feel comfortable letting them know that you now have an offer in hand but are very interested in exploring potential options with their firm before making your final decision. (You may or may not be asked about the source of your offer and you should be strategic about whether you choose to disclose the source either when asked or proactively). The fact that you have an offer in hand will immediately separate you from most other candidates and should get you additional consideration and a willingness to act within your needed timeframe if at all possible.
    • While you are seeking additional offers you can let the offering firms know that you are thrilled with their offer but want to complete the other interviews already in progress both as a courtesy to those firms and so that you can make an informed and definitive decision. Going through additional interviews and hopefully getting additional offers will be very beneficial to your decision process and also develop valuable connections that may be useful down the road in your career.
    • Salaries and other offer details change rapidly. It is very hard to find good general salary info given how many factors affect pay and even if you did it is hard to use that in negotiation. While it can be mutually beneficial to share information with other students who also have received offers, your best source of information and leverage is the other offers you have in hand or can obtain.
    • Once you know which firm is your top choice and are ready to negotiate, let them know which key aspects of their offer fall short of another offer (salary or otherwise) and use that as a point of negotiation (without mentioning the areas where their offer is already superior!). If they come back and say no, you are no further behind and have at least reminded them that you have multiple options and are in demand! Keep in mind that at large firms the person you are dealing with may be just as keen to improve your offer as you are, for multiple reasons – they like you, they want you to commit, the money is not coming out of their pocket and the success of your negotiation may help their own future negotiation. You have information about the job market that they do not so what they need from you is specific details from your other offers that they can take to their boss to justify the improvement.
  • From Consulting to MBA?
    • Consulting firms not only recruit heavily from business schools but the larger firms also pay to send many of their junior employees back to business schools to complete an MBA or other masters degree. Typically the funding arrangement requires the employee/student to return to the consulting firm after graduation for a certain period of time or instead to pay back the funding they received. In the case of two-year MBA programs the employee/student may also have an opportunity to complete a summer internship at another company.
  • Daniels Success Stories
    • Since my arrival at Daniels a number of my students have gone on to careers in consulting. They include Charlie Day and Parker Watson (Hitachi), Sara Kaplan & Emma Freedman (Agility Solutions), Kelsey Heyvaert & Sabrina Jain (Deloitte), Jesse Spittel & Jalan Williams (KPMG), Jenna Schmitt (FTI Consulting), Matt Carmines (Accenture, DayNine Consulting), Cody Ross (Riveron Consulting).

Useful Consulting Links