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Getting an MBA Job in Consulting

INSEAD consulting interview

While a consulting job at a top firm is the Holy Grail for many MBAs, having an MBA certainly doesn’t mean that you can walk in a consulting role, says Vimi Emraz, assistant director for the consulting sector at INSEAD’s Career Development Centre in Fontainebleau. Not only do MBAs have to do a lot of research and soul searching to see if consulting is the right path, they also have to come up with a strategy to help them stand out from the hordes of other MBAs seeking the same roles. In this interview, Emraz discusses what MBA applicants can do now to help them land a consulting job upon graduation.

What are the most common types of consulting jobs for MBA graduates?

Typically, an MBA graduate will start at the generalist level. So their initial title will be consultant or associate depending on what terminology the firm uses.

On that level, they're really learning the basic consulting toolkit – doing things like building Excel models, running analysis, writing PowerPoint slides,  and interviewing clients, customers and employers. That’s a typical entry point. A lot of MBA students are career changers, so they're getting that basic grounding in consulting.

Some MBAs may go in as a specialist, as opposed to a generalist, so, there are two entry points, but it's typically the generalist role. Going in as a generalist, normally you would start specializing as a manager within that role.

Which companies are hiring the most INSEAD graduates for consulting roles?

In terms of which companies recruit at INSEAD, it's probably the names that you're familiar with. McKinsey, Bain, BCG, Strategy&, and Accenture are our biggest recruiters in terms of consulting at INSEAD.

What are some of the biggest misconceptions that MBAs have about working in the consulting industry?

That the firms will be interested in them just because they have an MBA. They still need to prove themselves.

Consulting is very competitive and you have to do your homework. A lot of MBAs are attracted to consultancy, because they'll get to do top-level strategy work, but sometimes they’ll find that they may not have impact or be able to create impact straightaway –especially if they're coming in at that generalist entry point.

So, sometimes at the beginning, it might just be about doing Excel models and writing PowerPoint slides. If you're more experienced, you can go in as a manager, but typically it’s more common to start at the bottom and move up. It's very much an apprenticeship model, so you need to be able to do it to be able to teach someone else.

Is there anything you can do to prepare for a consulting career before you start your MBA?

Lots. You need to do lots of research to learn what consulting is exactly. There are a lot of resources online and on the company websites, etcetera.

One really great thing that you should do is use your network to see whether you know someone who works in consulting so that you have an idea of what the day-to-day work will involve.

You can start making a list of firms that you may be interested in based on the research that you've done, as well as your previous experience, the transferable skills you're going to bring to the bring and the specialist knowledge you want to build on.

Some of the big firms also organize pre-MBA events. Before you start your program, you can go to the local office and get to meet some of the consultants, get to know the culture. That's a very good way to get to know a consultant and get an idea of the sort of firms that might be attracted to you.

Apart from that, I probably wouldn't advise reaching out to consulting firms at this stage. You need to be prepared before you start this kind of conversation.

Once you are on campus the firms are very active and organize lots of events for you to network and get to know them. Also, you can ask your peer groups. Typically your class will have a lot aspiring consultants who can be a good source of information.

Before you join the program it's about affirming the role and whether it meets your expectations in terms of where you want to go career wise and checking assumptions a little bit. So, there's lots of pre-work you can do before you actually start the program.

Which business school courses best prepare MBAs for a career in consulting?

I would say your typical core courses which are strategy, marketing, financial accounting, and also organizational behavior.

Those first three courses will help you in the first two years and the organizational behavior courses will help you as you progress to leadership roles within the consulting firms.

Which skills are consulting firms looking for and how can MBAs develop those skills?

It's quite transparent in terms of what consulting firms are looking for. Specifically, it would be the problem solving, analytical skills. They're looking for somebody who excels at quant and can demonstrate client leadership, because you will be managing senior and junior clients.

Communication is obviously hugely important.  Much of your job will involve several kinds of people preventing your ideas or trying to influence them.

Also, team skills because consulting is all about teamwork, so they're looking to see how you are able to contribute to the team environment and dynamic and bringing out the best in people. Also very important for consulting is that collaborative way of working, so they're also looking for that in candidates – how you get buy-in from all the people you're working with, whether it's your team or the clients. So again, a very cooperative approach mixed with drive and ambition.

It’s also very much a people business. They're looking for somebody who's also very personable. We talk about the plane test. Can I spend seven hours with someone on a plane or will being around them make me want to jump out the window? So, they're looking for someone they can go and have a coffee with and get on with generally.

In terms of how MBAs can develop these skills, I would say that the core courses I mentioned help build those skills along with electives. Internships, club membership, group work as part of the course and  organized treks all provide opportunities for MBA students to apply leadership and organizational skills. In addition, MBAs may get some of these skills through their non-academic endeavors – their personal interests, what they do in their free time. Consultants really look at the whole CV not just academics, but also previous experience and extracurricular activities.

Is the consulting job search different from the search for other types of MBA jobs? If so, how does it differ?

I think whatever industry you're targeting, you have to be committed to the job search. Consulting is very attractive to MBAs, but it's also very competitive so you need to stand out from the crowd. Practically your whole class will be looking at consulting, so you can't go into it halfhearted.

The consulting job search has two parts – the technical part which is the cases, and telling your story and finding your fit with the firm. The preparation is quite demanding, because you need work on your cases. For example, with the case interviews you need to do enough to feel comfortable. For some people, it means training their brain in an analytical way, training your brain to be quite agile.

You need to work on your story; why you want to go into consulting, what skills you bring and also why this particular firm. Also, you need to think about what you will contribute to the firm. This is a question that will probably come up.

Should MBAs use a different approach when applying for jobs at boutique consulting firms as opposed to the larger MBB firms?

In terms of preparation, I would say it's the same. Whether it's a boutique firm or MBB company, recruiters are going to be looking and testing how rigorous your analytical capabilities are. It's the same bar. They'll ask the same kind of questions in interview situations which might include "Why do you want to work for a boutique firm?" or "Why do you want to go to a larger organization?"

The difference is that boutique firms are not huge consumers of MBAs. MBB companies are used to taking cohorts – taking whole classes. Boutique firms look for maybe one to three people every season.

In terms of selection and preparation for the candidates, it's the same. What's different is the approach – how you get into a boutique firm. Networking should be an integral part of your job search, but for boutique firms it's even more important. So, you need to do a lot of networking by yourself and you need to find a nice alum who will open the door for you.

Sometimes, boutique firms can be looking for specialists – someone who is experienced in their sector, someone with a passion for their sector. Sometimes, they will want you to have previous consulting experience.

The largest firms are more open to career changers and people who don't have a consulting background.

What should career changers keep in mind when switching to consulting?

They have to really reflect on why they want to do consulting. Even though you're at business school, it doesn't mean you have to take on a career in consulting. We would advise them to do a lot of self-reflection – think about what they want to do on a day-to-day basis, the kind of people they want to work with, the experience they want to get out of consulting. Would they not find that same development elsewhere? If they're thinking about it as a stepping stone, how would that help them with their future career?

MBAs should also consider lifestyle and travel. It can be very different at every firm, but you have to ask yourself whether you'll be comfortable with the hours and travel aspects of the role. Different firms have different operating models. Not all firms make you travel all the time. As a consultant, however, travel is sometimes a given.

I would say think about consulting not just as a next job or next career, but how that also fits in with the rest of your life. If you have family for example, you need to think about how that's all going to piece together

Is there anything else MBAs should know before applying for consulting jobs?

Be very focused.  Realize that consulting is something that puts a demand on your time. Motivation has to be high on the list.

Interview edited for length and clarity.

Written by Nicole Willson

Nicole is the SEO manager of TopMBA.com, as well as a contributing author. She holds a BA in history and sociology, and a master's in library science. Aside from her work for QS, Nicole is a long-time contributing editor and administrator for WikiHow.

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