Pre-MBA’s Guide to Consulting and Top Consulting Firms

If you’re looking into getting an MBA, you’ve probably heard of consulting, which is what the biggest chunk of MBA grads do after business school. And if you’ve looked into consulting, you’ve probably gotten a sense of the basics – that consultants are external advisors to their clients, like outsourced brains brought in to crack specific issues. You may even have heard that consulting is like getting a second MBA, that consultants are analytical wizards, or that consulting is great for people who aren’t sure what they want to do, because you get to explore a bunch of different industries. 

But is that all true? What does it mean to think of consulting as like getting a second MBA? And what should you know if you’re interested in going into consulting after business school? Read on to find out!

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Let’s Talk About the Job

If you’re entering into consulting from a different industry or even another firm, after business school you’ll start as a Consultant, which is an individual contributor role. The job title varies by firm (for McKinsey, it’s an Associate; for Bain and BCG, it’s a Consultant), and the firms themselves are different, but the job is basically the same across them.

As a Consultant, you’ll conduct analyses and work alongside your clients and your team to generate recommendations for your clients. You’ll gather data (from industry databases, client data, expert interviews, analyst reports, etc.), analyze it to come up with conclusions about the issue at hand, meet with clients to get their perspective, develop recommendations, and draft materials to communicate it all (usually a PowerPoint deck). 

This is what people are talking about when they say that consulting is like a second MBA – you use a broad set of hard and soft skills, even for the most analytical work. Consulting is like finishing school for becoming an executive, and it prepares you to break down problems quickly and push to find data to inform how to move forward.

Folks generally picture consultants doing hardcore analytical work, but since it’s such a broad gig, you might be doing other things, like implementing software, creating trainings, developing new operating models, or recommending org changes. The same basic process and skills apply, but your data might look different (more qualitative), and you’ll work even closer with clients.

Depending on the firm, you may join as a generalist (which means you can work for a variety of client types and functions – this is the norm in strategy consulting), or as a specialist (in which case you’ll be expected to work primarily in your area of expertise, like digital, marketing, or analytics).

Being a generalist means that, as a consultant, you can work on projects in a huge range of functions and industries – so as you explore target companies, you’ll want to look into what type of work each firm does:

  • Some sample industries: healthcare, tech and media, manufacturing, consumer goods, retail, government, financial services, utilities, energy, automotive, hospitality, and more.
  • Some sample functions: strategy, operations, transformation, organizational design, pricing, corporate finance, digital, marketing, sales and more.

Draws and Drawbacks

So, why should you consider consulting? 

  • Consulting pays some of the highest post-MBA salaries, and it’s a prestigious post-MBA job with strong employer brands
  • You learn a ton, get senior client exposure, and gain a wide variety of skills – quantitative skills, stakeholder management, project management, communication, and influence
  • At most of the top-tier firms, consultants start as generalists, meaning you can work on projects in different industries and functions to explore your interests
  • You can exit from consulting into a variety of industries and roles, so you have time to explore what you’re interested in while gaining skills and paying down student loans

And what are some potential drawbacks?

  • The cost of the hyper-speed learning you get in consulting is working a lot of hours, easily 60+ hours a week on a regular basis (higher-tier firms tend to work longer hours)
  • There’s pressure to perform, since many consulting firms have an “up or out” policy – if you aren’t promoted within a specific window, you are “counseled” out of the firm
  • The need to just give your answer or implement an answer, but not both. The most common career complaints of former consultants are that they never got to “own anything” from start to finish, never got to build a long-standing team, and couldn’t measure their impact in any concrete way
  • People sometimes overestimate the breadth of exit opportunities from consulting (keep in mind that the most common exits are in Strategy, Finance, M&A, and Operations) 

Top Schools for Consulting

Let’s peek at the data! Here are the top 10 programs for consulting, based on the % of students and the # of students who went into the consulting industry (for the Class of 2020):

You’ll note that most of the schools that send the highest number of students into consulting are M7 schools with high GMAT scores. It’s true that M7 schools are huge feeder schools (“target” schools) for top-tier consulting firms – but we also want to highlight that there are opportunities at other schools for consulting recruiting. The catch is that top-tier consulting firms may put less emphasis on on-campus recruiting at lower-ranked schools, so you may need to put more effort into off-campus recruiting / networking if you aren’t at a “target” school.

If you’re looking at schools with an average GMAT in the 650-689 range, check out CMU Tepper and Emory Goizueta (listed above), along with Indiana Kelley and Vanderbilt Owen. These schools each send over 20% of their students into consulting, with salaries comparable to the top schools (gotta love wage standardization!).

Top Employers in Consulting

Here’s a quick overview of types of consulting firms that recruit MBAs:

“MBB” – McKinsey, Boston Consulting Group (BCG), and Bain. These are the most prestigious strategy consulting firms; when people talk about consulting at business school, they are usually referring to MBB.

The Big 4 and friends – Deloitte, EY, PwC, KPMG, Accenture. These firms do a mix of implementation, audit, and strategy work (note that their strategy arms might have different names, like Deloitte S&O, EY Parthenon, or PwC Strategy&).

Smaller strategy firms – e.g., Oliver Wyman, Roland Berger, L.E.K Consulting. These firms are smaller than MBB and also provide a great learning environment; they might have more presence in certain regions, industries, and/or functions.

Boutique and specialist firms – e.g., Chartis Group, Bridgespan, IDEO, and more. These firms specialize in certain areas like healthcare (Chartis Group), social impact (Bridgespan), or design, innovation, new products and experiences (IDEO).

Want to see the top employers in consulting? Check out our awesome Career Report, which includes insights about which industries, functions, and employers are the most common at the top 30 US MBA programs!

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Jackie Laine

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