Last Updated on February 14, 2024
Only 1% of top-tier consulting applicants make it through the MBB application funnel, 75% of which are already rejected at the screening stage. Getting into McKinsey, BCG, and Bain is not an easy task. The same applies to other firms such as Kearney, Oliver Wyman, L.E.K., Roland Berger, Strategy&, etc.
In this article, I want to highlight how you can stand out as a consulting applicant to maximize the chances of passing the screening stage and getting an invitation to the case interviews.
I want to tackle it in five steps:
- Build your resume
- Network and aim for referrals
- Prepare and send your application documents
- Approach recruitment tests and games
- Start preparing for case interviews already before you send your application documents
Let’s tackle them one by one.
Having a clear map of the process ahead, let’s start turning the odds in your favor! Once you know you have your map you can start engaging with the industry and the firms of your choice.
Build Your Resume and Research the Industry and the Job
Successful consulting applicants start preparing for the selection process way before the application deadlines arrive. If you want to increase your chances of getting to the interviews, you need to work on your profile early on to collect the relevant credentials that top-tier firms such as McKinsey are looking for.
- Start by building a strong foundation in your chosen field. This could include getting a degree in a related field, gaining practical experience through internships or entry-level positions, and staying current on industry developments. Consulting firms care less about your major, but more about the prestige of your program and university as well as that you demonstrate consistent achievements throughout your educational years.
- Get involved in relevant extracurricular activities. Extracurricular activities can be a great way to demonstrate your skills and interests in consulting. Consider getting involved in clubs or organizations related to consulting or business. Alternatively, you can also engage in any other activity that interests you as long as you demonstrate a leadership role and initiative.
- If possible, spend some time abroad either through an internship or an exchange term or even by going through a full degree program abroad.
- Research the different players and the consulting industry. It is important to have a thorough understanding of the companies you are applying to, as well as the consulting industry as a whole. This will help you tailor your application and stand out as an informed and knowledgeable candidate.
You can find more information here:
Network Your Way to Get Referrals
Consulting is a people-driven industry and a push for your application from the right source can go a long way to improve your chances of passing the screening stage.
- Network with current or former consultants. Networking can be a powerful tool in the job search process, and consulting is no exception. Connect with current or former consultants to learn more about the industry and to get advice on how to stand out as a candidate. Attend industry and company events, join professional organizations and student consulting clubs, and seek out mentorship opportunities to make connections and learn about potential job openings.
- Seek out mentorship and guidance. Consulting can be a competitive field, and it can be helpful to have a mentor or someone to guide you through the process. Seek out mentors or advisors who can offer advice and guidance on how. Some firms such as McKinsey have dedicated mentorship programs for high-potential students.
- Show enthusiasm and passion for consulting. Consulting firms are looking for candidates who are truly passionate about consulting and are eager to learn and grow. Make it clear in your interactions with consultants that you are excited about the opportunity to work in this demanding area and that you have a genuine interest in the field.
You can find more information on these topics here:
Go check out how the office of the firm you are applying to is conducting the process and find out about peculiarities via their website, HR staff (which are always eager to help), current employees you can contact via Linkedin (remember to be polite and ask specific questions), as well as friends and colleagues who might have gone through the process already.
Prepare Your Application Documents
When drafting your application documents, there are several things to pay attention to. Generally, there are a couple of motives that you should pay attention to in your resume and cover letter:
- Highlight your unique skills and experiences. Consulting firms are looking for candidates with a diverse set of skills and experiences. Be sure to highlight any experiences or skills that set you apart from other candidates.
- Demonstrate your analytical and problem-solving abilities. Consulting is all about solving complex problems, so it is important to showcase your problem-solving skills in your application. Be sure to emphasize your ability to think critically and solve problems. Mention any relevant experiences or projects where you demonstrated strong problem-solving skills.
- Emphasize your communication and teamwork skills. Consulting firms place a high value on strong communication and teamwork skills, as consultants often work in teams to solve client problems. Consulting requires the ability to clearly and effectively convey ideas and recommendations to clients. Be sure to highlight any experiences or projects where you demonstrated excellent communication and teamwork skills.
- Show your adaptability and flexibility. Consulting projects often require a high degree of adaptability and flexibility, as consultants may be required to work on a variety of different projects and adapt to changing client needs. Emphasize any experiences or skills that demonstrate your ability to adapt and be flexible.
- Display your analytical and quantitative skills. Many consulting projects require strong analytical and quantitative skills, so be sure to highlight any relevant coursework or experiences that demonstrate these skills.
- Focus on your achievements. Consulting firms are looking for candidates who have a track record of success. Be sure to highlight any notable achievements or accomplishments in your application.
- Show your leadership potential. Consulting firms are looking for candidates who have the potential to become leaders within the organization. Be sure to highlight any leadership experiences or skills that you have developed.
- Mention any relevant internships or work experiences. Relevant internships or work experiences can be a great way to demonstrate your skills and interests in consulting. Be sure to mention any internships or work experiences that are relevant to consulting in your application.
- Stand out from the competition by showcasing your unique strengths and experiences. Consulting firms are looking for diverse candidates with a range of skills and experiences, so be sure to highlight what sets you apart from other applicants.
- Customize your resume and cover letter. It is important to tailor your resume and cover letter to the specific consulting firm and position you are applying to. This will show that you have done your research and are genuinely interested in the opportunity.
You can find more information on how to draft the perfect application documents here:
Having application documents ready can also be beneficial during the networking stage as your consulting contacts might be interested in getting a good overview of your profile before or after engaging.
Hence, arriving prepared with a polished resume is crucial. It not only demonstrates your professionalism but also ensures you’re ready should the counterparty express interest in forwarding your details to HR and recruiting.
Think of it as having an ace up your sleeve; you never know when the conversation might pivot from casual banter to serious career opportunities. So, before heading out for that seemingly laid-back coffee chat, make sure your resume is in tow.
Make the Most of Your Application
To maximize your chances of passing the screening stage, you also have to be strategic about where, when, and how to send your application. Apply these four principles:
1. Apply to the Right Office
Working in high-tier consulting firms will allow you 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, 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 just talking about geographical proximity. There are also cultural and language dimensions. For example, it’s quite common for German speakers to apply to different offices in Germany, Austria, and Switzerland, whereas European Spanish speakers sometimes apply to South American offices and vice versa.
When choosing the right office, make sure there is a cultural fit and you speak the local 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 so be careful about wasting an application) 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 of starting 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 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 can 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 remotely 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 on time.
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 in seeing 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.
(Update: In 2024, this is no longer possible for most offices due to data protection laws. The rules and benefits of networking still apply, however)
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 are 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 for 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, as 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 of getting a top-tier job by tweaking the odds at screening, preparation, and timing.
Get the help you need to transform your consulting application into success.
Prepare for Aptitude and Recruitment Tests and Games
Aptitude tests and recruitment games have become more important over the last couple of years and all firms are employing some sort of screening assessments before the case interviewer. McKinsey is using their own Solve Game, BCG employs a virtual chatbot to conduct a case, and Bain uses several different assessments including the SOVA.
- Start preparing for your aptitude tests already before sending out your application. Aptitude tests are taken from home and the link to go through the test might be sent out automatically the day after you have delivered your application, leaving you with little time to prepare.
- Figure out what tests or games each firm employs and prepare accordingly.
Benefit from our dedicated preparation materials for different recruiting tests.
Prepare for the Case and Fit Interviews
Congrats! You have made it past the screening stage, and other assessments by McKinsey or BCG, and have been invited to the McKinsey, BCG, or Bain interviews, which means you fared better than roughly 75% of all applicants so far.
Now, your interviewing skills will be put to the test. However, before you can dive into case interview and behavioral interview preparation, you should know how the interview rounds and the associated assessments are structured.
Depending on the size of the firm and the office location, you will need to go through one to a maximum of three rounds provided you are a university graduate. For senior hires, the number of interviews can be significantly higher depending on the job title.
Essentially, the more is at stake for the firm, the more they will invest in understanding if your skills and values match with the position and firm.
Pre-Screening Consulting Interviews
If a company employs three rounds, the first one is usually aimed at screening candidates further before the actual on-site or virtual case interviews happen. This can either be a talk with HR or a motivation/fit-based interview with a consultant in person or via telephone. At this stage, some consulting companies have you sit an online math and case skill test or an on-site test.
The difficulty and passing grades of these tests usually vary a lot across companies but are consistent across offices of the same firm. You can prepare with online tools that firms offer, as well as by working through GMAT preparation books and logical reasoning exercises.
As a side note: If your math-savvy friends help you with a remote online test, be aware that some firms like Oliver Wyman let you re-sit the test during the second round to make sure the performance rendered at home was actually yours.
For smaller firms and consulting boutiques, the first round sometimes is held via telephone or video conference, with the content ranging from simple personal and motivational questions to proper case interviews.
The First and Second Interview Rounds
For larger firms, the first ‘real’ interview round will usually be held either at one of the firm’s offices, in a hotel, or virtually (since the pandemic). These rounds usually consist of two to three interviews between 50 and 75 minutes each. A typical interview usually covers three areas:
Personal fit questions. These questions discuss your background and try to gauge your motivation and personality. Duration: between five and 30 minutes.
The case interview. This is the core of the interview, the most difficult part, and the easiest to screw up. A case typically is a real-world business problem that you need to solve in the short time allocated. The interviewer acts as the client that you are consulting and provides all the information needed for you to come up with a recommendation. The key is to structure the problem, ask the right questions to elicit the information from the interviewer and deliver a solid answer. Most interviewers will give you one exhaustive and longer case. Others, though the minority, will ask you several short cases. Brainteasers are mostly employed by smaller firms in this part of the interview. Duration: between 15 and 60 minutes.
Questions to the interviewer. At the end, you will have a chance to ask the interviewer some questions about the firm. Make good use of this and come up with interesting questions about topics you haven’t learned about from publicly available sources. Duration: between two and ten minutes.
When you make it to the final round you will again face one to three interviews, usually with more senior people. In this round, interviewers try to confirm findings from the first round or test you in areas where you appeared weakest (oh dear case math…).
Sometimes, firms employ special formats in an interview round including such things as role-playing, mimicking daily issues of a consultant, or pro and con group discussions about a particular issue. These formats can appear both on first and second-round interview days.
Common formats are also written case interviews:
The Final Interview
The last interview is often a senior partner interview. He or she can still break your case by doing a formal interview including all elements discussed above. However, in most cases, they’ll be super polite as they just want you to sign the contract.
You have to understand that top firms invest a substantial amount of money in recruiting and it is rare to find candidates that make it through the whole process. As a result, at this stage, they want to keep you and are willing to go the extra mile. If you want to discuss start dates or any other issues, here is where they are most likely to make concessions.
Combining All Interview Rounds
Some firms like McKinsey & Company or BCG have streamlined the process in particular countries. If you have passed the screening stage, you can do the whole test/ interview marathon in a single day. The day is usually split into several rounds. Depending on your performance, you might be able to continue the day or be escorted out the door.
In any case, you will receive short feedback about your performance. If you are lucky, you can leave the office with an offer in the evening.
We have covered the interview process specifically for McKinsey in greater detail here.
Practicing for Case Interviews
All top consulting firms use case interviews as a way to evaluate candidates. These interviews involve solving a business problem or case in a structured, logical way. It is important to practice for these interviews to stand out as a candidate and invest at least 50 hours into this task. Practice with sample case studies to improve your problem-solving and presentation skills.
Practice for other common case interview questions (e.g., brainteasers, market sizing cases) as well as fit interviews. In addition to case studies, you may also be asked behavioral and fit questions to assess your fit for the consulting industry and the specific firm.
You can find more information here:
Other Logistical Aspects
While there might be some minor variations in the process depending on the size of the company, it is fairly standardized among management consulting firms. Some elements are employed only by a few firms, usually smaller, such as pre-screening via telephone or online math tests.
Larger firms such as McKinsey & Company, BCG, or Bain in some geographies offer both a one-hour coaching call and a one-hour online session to help with interview preparation. Some firms even consolidate the first and second rounds into one super-day of case interviews.
First-round interviews are usually done by my more junior consultants to the project manager level, having been with the firm between two and five years. Second-round interviews are usually done by principals/ junior partners and partners, with the offer being extended by a senior partner, sometimes even the managing partner of a particular office. For smaller firms, depending on the availability, even first-round interviews are sometimes held by very senior consultants.
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How We Can Help You Score a Job in Top-Tier Consulting
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