Once you have familiarized yourself with the consulting employer of your choice (in your case that might be McKinsey, BCG, or Bain), built a relationship with the firm through event participation and networking, and have compiled your application, it’s time to send it out. To maximize your chances of passing the screening stage, you have to be strategic about it by applying four general principles:
- Apply to the right office
- Time your application
- Send your application via informal channels
- Spread your eggs
1. Apply to the right office
Working in high-tier consulting firms will give you the opportunity to work in an international environment on global cases. This is even truer for the bigger firms due to their global reach and breadth of services. However, when you start out, you want to apply to an office where your story makes sense; read: where your application will have a higher chance of passing the screening stage. This office will likely be in your home country or an office that ‘is close to home’. By close to home I am not only talking geographical proximity. There are also cultural and language dimensions. It’s quite common for German speakers to apply to different offices in Germany, Austria, and Switzerland, whereas European Spanish speakers sometimes apply in South American offices and vice versa.
When choosing the right office, make sure there is a cultural fit and you speak the office language. In these dimensions, you should be on par with the typical applicants they get from their home country or geography. If you have studied, exchanged, or worked in this geography previously and can bring some experience to the table, this would be another good story that sells. In these cases, the local offices will be more willing to help you with work visas and other administrative burdens. If none of these criteria apply, it will be very hard to justify your application. You will either be rejected (the ban for re-application can be on a global basis) or advised to apply somewhere else (not a very efficient process for you).
More often than not, firms want you to start on your home turf. This makes sense when you consider the challenge to start out in a highly competitive industry with a steep learning curve while at the same time finding your bearings abroad for the first time. This might prove difficult and impact your job performance and at this stage, you might want to mitigate other stress sources.
Competition for consulting entry-level positions is fierce, however, in certain offices, it is even tougher. When you apply, consider that success rates vary per region and office, the reason being that the number of applicants varies significantly. To illustrate, candidates in the U.S. would normally have a harder time passing screening and making it through the interviews in the prestigious New York office, whereas for the U.K. the same holds true for London. Additionally, some offices or country divisions have fixed recruitment quotas where you compete against your fellow applicants. This holds typically true for the Anglo-American markets and is especially rigid for Asian markets such as mainland China, Hong Kong or Singapore. These offices typically hire only a small number of consultants annually compared to the large number of graduates that pour out every year of B-schools. In other regions such as Germany, Austria or Switzerland, the companies usually extend an offer to anyone, who is able to jump high enough to pass the set bar.
Research about these idiosyncrasies well in advance and be open to applying for an office in a second-tier city. You will work mostly remote anyway and depending on your preferences you could, once hired, initiate an office transfer in the region of your choice fairly quickly.
2. Time your application
Timing matters. Firms employ various recruiting cycles across regions or even for offices within a region. While some firms recruit all year round, others have a fixed recruiting window both aiming to fill hard or soft recruitment targets for a particular year. These quotas are usually more flexible the bigger the firm gets. All else equal, the earlier you start the process the better, as even tier-1 firms that recruit all year round sometimes have soft targets that once met will decrease your chances of positive screening. Alternatively, once you have the offer they might push your starting date back due to the high supply of suitable candidates. On a stricter logic, smaller firms usually will reject your application once their spots have been filled for the year. Also, be aware that some firms don’t interview over the summer months.
There is another benefit of applying early. When firms employ several rounds such as online tests, phone interviews, and on-site case interviews the total process can become quite lengthy. Take this into account in your scheduling in case you have only limited time for job search and application.
As this again is highly individual for each firm, country, and office, do your research beforehand in a timely manner.
3. Send your application via informal channels
Probably the best thing you can do to improve your chances at the screening stage is to send your application directly to an HR person or consultant instead of applying via the generic online systems. Proceed only if you have networked well and built some connections within the firm. If you have done so, I highly encourage you to do this for two reasons. First, based on your interactions and observation points, the person you are sending the application to has a personal interest to see you succeed and will forward or screen the application herself, bypassing the official channels. At this stage, this is more often than not a formality and it is very very likely that you will pass the screening stage. Second, the screening will happen much faster as you jump the queue and automatically land on top of the recruiter’s pile.
To find out how to network like a pro and collect observation points, read this article.
4. Spread your eggs into many baskets
Apply to several firms and do the interviews sequentially. There are two benefits to this: First, you spread your risk of failing the screening stage. If you have applied to many firms, you can always cancel once you get the invitation or even the job you wanted from another firm. Second, you spread the risk of failing an interview. There is also only positives to this. If you fail early you can learn a great deal from your failure to improve for later interview rounds. If you get an offer from another firm you will be much more relaxed once you go into interviews of your choice gig. The general rule is to apply to tier-2 or tier-3 firms first and work your way up to the top three firms of your choice. I recommend getting the first interview dates early in your preparation, early as in week 1 or 2. Ideally, you spread the interviews in a timeframe between one and two months.
Obviously, depending on how you feel about your skills, you can quicken this process. However, I would not recommend sitting in a top-three interview (for a firm you would love to work for) without having gone through at least one proper real case drill with another firm, simply to get familiar with the setting and pressure. Also, note that the interviews usually become more difficult with tier-1 firms, and the room for mistakes narrows. And don’t forget, practice is the most important lever to successfully deal with case interviews and there is no better practice than real stressful interviews with professional and real feedback.
By applying these four principles, you will increase your chances to get a top-tier job by tweaking the odds at screening, preparation, and timing.
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