Getting into consulting is rough, making it at a top-tier firm is even harder with approximately 1-3% of applicants making the cut and getting an offer.
One crucial hurdle is the screening stage, in which 60-80% of screened applications will be rejected based on CV/ resume or cover letter.
Jumping the queue and actually making it to the interviews is paramount in your endeavor to become a top consultant. So how can you improve your odds? This is the topic of today’s post.
Network like a boss
Ideally, this process does not start with the application but already way earlier.
Consulting firms spend millions of dollars on recruitment activities every year to attract the top talent and the war for talent is becoming ever more fiercely with growing client bases and aggressive growth targets the firms have to meet. As a result, firms usually start to screen potential candidates way before their official job application.
Make sure to leverage this process in your favor by getting your name out there – it’s all about the leads! With the proper leads, you will be more likely to get interview invitations or even be fast-tracked (usually allowing you directly apply with a recruiter and not via official means such as the website job portal).
A lead – as applied here – is a person you can contact within the firm and you have approached via professional social networks, events, or university alumni gatherings. All else equal, the higher up the ranks, the better. Most powerful is a combination of leads that include both consulting personnel as well as HR people.
However, in order to make the most out of your leads, pair them with observation points. An observation point is any positive experience the consulting firm you wish to apply for has had with you. The more often they have seen you on their radar, the better.
Once again, leads + observation points = most powerful weapon in your holster to boost your application.
Getting to leads
There are three ways to increase your leads and observation points at the same time:
1. Professional Networking
Try and contact current consultants of your employer of choice via professional job networks such as Linkedin, through alumni networks, local consulting clubs, or young professional networks. Keep your messages short and polite, stating your interest in the firm, your time horizon for application, and ask for a few tips regarding the stage you are currently at in the application. It is important to be very specific in your questions so the consultant can help you most efficiently. Provided you stick to the rules above you will get a reply 9 times of 10. Consultants will always be eager to talk about their firm and will give you some insights, and if they see potential in you, they might even forward your application or provide feedback on your cover letter in an iterative process for fine-tuning. Apart from getting some name recognition, you also get the chance to write with different people to get a first feel of the company culture.
2. Firm-sponsored events
A large portion of a firm’s recruiting money is spent on networking events for prospective applicants to meet the consultancy and for the firm to screen high potentials. The type of events ranges from simple and plain company presentations, usually done by two consultants and one person from the HR department to whole-day workshops and even to fun-filled weekend getaways abroad with many consultants. The first type of event is usually quite generic with the consultants providing some information about the company and then taking questions from the audience. The filters the company employs to screen people that attend are relatively basic. It’s a good chance to get some information on the culture, the project work, and lifestyle if you have never heard about the consulting industry or the particular firm before. Since it’s usually larger events with many participants, if you want a particular lead, I would recommend you to go there early and grab the speakers before the talk. By doing this you make sure you have their undivided attention to answer all your questions personally. Additionally, they are more likely to remember you when you approach them later with your application or further questions.
On the other end of the spectrum, you will find very rich and fun events, usually organized by more elite firms. These events sometimes span over two or three days and take place in nature resorts or cities, all expenses paid of course. These events usually have an educational aspect added to the social and cultural dimension where participants not only get to know the firm and a number of consultants but are also solving a short real-life case together (sometimes in the form of a challenge, where teams compete against each other), attending workshops for things such as interview preparation, presentation skills and you name it. The higher the profile of an event, the more difficult it is to attend. Most commonly they require you to apply with your CV and sometimes even a cover letter. The number of applicants that compete for a highly limited amount of spots is usually quite high.
These latter events are very useful if you are at the beginning of your application preparation for several reasons: First, you get the chance to meet a number of the firm’s consultants over an extended period of time and you will be able to ask your questions to a more diverse group of people. Additionally, you will have the chance to see the interaction of the consultants with each other. I cannot stress the importance of this enough. By witnessing the conduct of a group of consultants among each other you can get a good feeling of the working environment within the firm. After having participated in such an event, you can usually tell if this is a company culture you would fit in and would like to contribute to. Second, of course, such an event provides you with the best leads you can imagine. It will give you several leads via the participating consultants but also leads with the HR people that can put your application on the fast track during the screening stage. Even more so if you made a good impression during the case study(s), the training, or on the weekend overall.
Sometimes, especially in the earlier stages of your studies, ‘successful’ event participation might lead to the invitation for a firm’s mentorship program.
3. Firm mentorship programs
Some firms offer mentorship programs for excellent students with promising prospects. The requirements to enter such are usually very similar to the ones set for to be invited to the first interview round, including excellent academic records, internship, experience abroad, and/ or extracurricular engagements.
When entering these programs, students are appointed a mentor within the firm, receive special coaching, and are invited to distinct events and training. The purpose of these programs is twofold. 1. Bind students closer to the firm before graduation and 2. help their professional development during that period (including assistance with applications for other industry firms). Orderly, firms manage to keep a talent until he or she applies for a consulting role which eventually converts into an offer. In any case, mentees are already considered as high potentials meaning that even if they don’t apply or fail, they are more likely to regard the company highly when working up their ranks in an industry role. And maybe someday, when they need consultants they might just pick the firm that mentored them in a crucial period of their life.
Being a mentee almost certainly will guarantee you an interview invitation. Being invited to the program sometimes is possible via a company’s website. Some are not very public about their programs and only invite students privately after successful event participation where they have worked on a case or some other challenge.
Sometimes ticking the necessary boxes (being among the top 10-30% of the university year depending on the university, relevant industry or consulting internship experience, time spent abroad, and some extracurricular activities) is just not enough to get to the interviews due to circumstances outside of your sphere of influence (e.g., hiring goals especially in smaller firms, economic situation, bureaucracy). However, following the advice of this article to build leads and observations points will improve your chances considerably to receive an interview invitation.
And from there on it’s a level playing field for all interviewees, no matter the background.
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Florian spent 5 years with McKinsey as a senior consultant. He is an experienced consulting interviewer and problem-solving coach, having interviewed 100s of candidates in real and mock interviews. He started StrategyCase.com with the goal to make McKinsey more accessible for top-talent, using tailored and up-to-date know-how about its recruiting.