Everyone talks about how competitive it is to get into investment banking, but consulting is just as tough. As someone who recently started at a Big Three strategy consulting firm, and who now screens graduate applications, I can tell you it’s getting fiercer. The likes of Mckinsey and Bain received up to 100 applications for every role this year.
Getting into consulting is not all about innate talent, you need a strategy to your application. These are my tips for getting in...
1. Apply to a lot of firms
The first stage of the selection process will be some form of problem-solving test. Firms use this to filter from roughly 100 to 50 candidates for available role. These tests are not intended to assess your ability in ‘maths’, they try to test the way in which you think through problems.
Natural problem-solving ability is important. But the questions often repeat – if not in content they do in style. It is possible to learn how to solve the questions well or more quickly. Making sure you get plenty of practice is therefore critical. To get ahead of your rivals, apply to lots of firms across professional and financial services. Most firms will pass you automatically to the testing stage giving you fantastic, real practice.
2. Have a ‘top’ university on your CV
Academic standards will be used to chop 50 candidates for every role to around 25. Missing minimum grade requirements (normally an A in GCSE Maths and English and a predicted or realised 2.1 degree or above) causes an immediate rejection.
Less obviously, going to the wrong university can get you shown the door immediately too. Consultancies receive so many applications that they lack the resources to screen each one of them manually. They can also be very picky.
If you do not go to one of the top universities in your country (i.e. a ‘top 10’ university in the UK, or an Ivy League college in the U.S.), then your application will not even be considered. Don't give up if you're not in the right place now though - your chances could be increased hugely by pursuing postgraduate education at a better-regarded university. Then, you'd have both a more impressive level of education and a better university on your application. Alternatively, focus on building your experience.
3. Get work experience, but not too much
Manual CV and cover letter screening cuts the number of candidates from around 25 towards 10 for every role. At this stage, candidates will have the minimum academics and have passed the problem solving test. CVs are therefore graded for two things: exemplary academics and/or the right sort of experience.
PhD, university level awards or first-class degrees are the best ways to get bonus points for academic achievements.
Having at least two months’ work experience at a blue-chip firm is a strong support to an entry level application too. Well-regarded internship programmes - within or outside of consulting - are therefore well worth doing. Spending a summer in an investment bank and then applying to a consultant is almost as good as experience in consulting.
On the other hand, if you have loads of experience, you are unlikely to be considered for a role above entry-level.
The most efficient route into consulting is to apply straight after university having done one summer internship. More experience does not equal an increased chance of success.
Other experiences outside of work will also be considered. It is well worth including part-time jobs you may have held during your studies, for instance, as these will be taken as a positive demonstration of initiative. Extra-curricular leadership roles could even be treated as equivalents to internships or jobs. Your role in a society at university could well be the difference between getting an interview and being rejected.
4. Use a repeatable formula to write cover letters
Cover letters are used to confirm your interest in consulting and for the specific firm that you are applying to. Not much else.
It is therefore worth being ruthless and formulaic with how you write them. Writing something around one side of A4 is important – it shows effort, and most other candidates will do the same.
Pointing towards your key skills or achievements is also useful in making sure an assessor gets the right points out of your CV. But the key thing you must do is to write something specific and relevant about the firm you are applying to. Mentioning your attendance at a recruiting event (and a person you met there) is ideal. Using buzzwords to describe the firm (perhaps lifted from their recruiting website) and linking them to your experiences and interests is a fantastic thing to do. It sounds simple, but most candidates miss easy points here. Do not be afraid to use bullet points or bolding to draw attention to your key selling points or your specific reasons for applying to that firm.
Applying with an average test score and cover letter, combined with top and punchy academics and experience is a combination likely to push you from the top 100 to the top 10 candidates for strategy consulting roles.
I’ll be back soon to give you some pointers to ensure that you’re the one person that a consulting firm chooses for an entry level role.
The author is currently working for a large management consultant in the City of London. James Smith is a pseudonym.