Getting into consulting with a non-traditional background

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Last Updated on February 28, 2024

Consulting is a professional service that helps organizations improve their performance and achieve their goals. It has become an essential part of today’s business world, as companies seek expert advice to navigate complex challenges and capitalize on new opportunities.

Traditionally, consultants with the top firms have come from backgrounds in management, finance, and strategy, and are graduates from a target business school, but there’s growing recognition that individuals with non-traditional backgrounds can bring fresh perspectives and new ideas to the consulting industry.

As a result, the consulting industry is becoming more diverse and inclusive, and people with non-traditional backgrounds (non-business backgrounds) are finding their way into the field. In fact, some of the most common questions I receive in initial screening calls with potential clients with backgrounds other than business or management are: “Can I do this?”, “Do they want to hire me?”, “Do I need a business degree to work at McKinsey, BCG, or Bain?”

In this article, I want to break down how to enter McKinsey, BCG, Bain, and other top consulting firms with a non-traditional/non-business background. I want to show you how this background can be an asset rather than a hindrance to your recruiting and career success.

Let’s look at it through the steps of the recruiting funnel.

Overcoming Challenges in Breaking into Consulting with a Non-Traditional Background

Breaking into consulting with a non-traditional background can be a challenge, but it is not impossible. In fact, the first challenge that every aspiring consultant faces is to get their foot in the door, not just non-business majors.

Figure out if you have the right profile

The top consulting firms constantly struggle to find enough consultants that make it through their tedious screening and interviewing process. At the beginning of the funnel is the question of whether or not you have the desired profile to be an attractive prospect for these firms. However, this does not hinge on your degree, specialization, or background but rather on your achievements and consistency throughout your academic and professional experience. Developing relevant skills and knowledge can also help you overcome obstacles and position yourself as a valuable applicant. Relevant knowledge in this context relates to the ability to solve complex problems (whether you do this in business or another context does not matter).

For instance, someone with a business degree from an unknown school and an average GPA won’t make it through screening. On the other contrary, a candidate, with an Engineering background from a reputable school or program, with a strong GPA, and some extracurricular engagement will.

Before starting the process, take stock and think about your profile. Questions to guide you:

  • Do I have a degree from a reputable school or program?
  • Do I belong to the top % of all students in my program?
  • Can I highlight relevant experiences related to leadership, impact, and growth?
  • Can I discuss several achievements, awards, and other success stories?
  • Do I have some professional experience in a problem-solving context?
  • Can I discuss experience(s) abroad?

If you can say yes to a couple of those questions, you might be an interesting candidate for top consulting firms. More on the perfect consulting resume here.

Network and score a referral

Networking and building relationships are critical in this field, and it is essential to connect with people in the industry who can help you navigate the challenges of getting hired before you start sending out your applications.

The outcome of your networking efforts should always be to get a referral.

How should you approach this?

There are three ways to get to know people and make yourself heard:

Professional Networking, where you should contact current consultants of your employer of choice via professional job networks such as Linkedin, alumni networks, local consulting clubs, or young professional networks.

Firm-sponsored events, which are organized by different firms 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. Since McKinsey, BCG, and Bain are interested in getting a more diverse workforce, they are usually organizing events for candidates with different backgrounds.

Firm mentorship programs, For excellent students with promising prospects. The requirements to enter 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 building your network let people know you are interested in consulting and would like to learn more about the industry. Changes for a referral increase if you are able to identify and network with consultants that have a similar background to you.

By following these steps, you can increase your chances of getting a referral for an interview in consulting and build strong relationships that can benefit you in the future.

Create strong application documents

Once you have scored a referral, it is time to draft strong application documents and send your applications. Generally, most consulting firms are interested in your resume and cover letter.

Check out the following two articles for more details on each:

Get the help you need to turn your consulting application into success.

Ace the case and fit interviews

Once you have made it past screening it is time to prepare for the case and fit interviews that every consulting firm employs. How?

A case interview is a type of job interview commonly used by management consulting firms to assess a candidate’s problem-solving, analytical, and communication skills. In a case interview, the interviewer presents a business problem or case and asks the candidate to analyze and solve it, often using a structured framework, chart interpretation, and math. The goal of a case interview is to determine how a candidate thinks, approaches a problem, and communicates their thought process. It is also used to determine a candidate’s fit with the firm’s culture and work style.

To learn more about the process, the format, and how to prepare for a case interview check out this article here.

The fit interview or personal fit interview is a type of interview commonly used by consulting firms to assess a candidate’s personality, work style, values, and fit with the company culture. The purpose is to determine whether the candidate is a good match for the firm and would be a successful consultant. Fit interviews often involve behavioral and situational questions, role-playing exercises, and discussions of the candidate’s background and motivations. The interviewer may also evaluate the candidate’s communication skills, problem-solving abilities, and ability to work in a team.

To learn more about the process, the format, and how to prepare for a fit interview check out this article here.

If you have to go through aptitude and recruitment tests, click here.

To improve your skills in all areas of the interview, check out some of our targeted offers below.

The Benefits of a Non-Traditional Background in Consulting

Once you made it through the screening and interviews, it is time to start your consulting career.

Get up to speed with business operations

Everything that is related to business concepts and terminology can easily be learned. Firms such as McKinsey usually send non-traditional hires to go through a 2 to 3-week “mini-MBA”, where they learn all the basics that they need to know.

Truth be told, for most things that you need to do on the job, business knowledge is not needed or only to a very limited degree. What is important are the abilities to (amongst others)

  • structure problems
  • perform robust analysis
  • think about creative solutions
  • communicate strongly
  • build client relationships
  • lead teams and manage upwards

Leverage your background

Having a non-traditional background in consulting can bring many benefits. For your daily life on the job, a fresh perspective and new ideas can help consultants tackle complex business challenges in innovative ways and non-traditional hires are always in high demand by staffing and partners.

Consultants with a non-traditional background often have a unique understanding of the challenges that businesses face and therefore might be able to provide more nuanced and effective solutions. Additionally, they may possess problem-solving skills that are developed through their experience in a different field, which can make them highly valuable to consulting clients.

Build your personal brand

In order to succeed in this industry, It’s important to embrace your unique background and leverage it to build a strong personal brand. Stay up-to-date with industry trends and best practices and continue to develop your skills to maintain your relevance in the field.

You might want to become the go-to person for particular topics in your firm and build on your background. For instance, I have seen many medical doctors, who joined MBBs becoming trusted advisors on engagements with hospitals or the national health service, or engineers working with machine construction clients.

Conclusion

Having a non-traditional background in consulting can be an asset and bring fresh perspectives to the field. Breaking into consulting can be challenging, but with hard work, determination, and the right approach, anyone can succeed.

If you are considering a career in consulting, don’t let your background hold you back. Embrace it and use it to your advantage. With the right skills, knowledge, and attitude, you can make a positive impact in the consulting industry and achieve great success.

Keep in mind that roughly 50% of consultants with McKinsey, BCG, and Bain do not have a business background when they are hired.

How we can help you get a job with MBB

We have specialized in placing people from all walks of life with different backgrounds into top consulting firms both as generalist hires as well as specialized hires and experts. As former McKinsey consultants and interview experts, we help you by

Reach out to us if you have any questions! We are happy to help and offer a tailored program to help you break into consulting.

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