Admissions Blog

P&Q: Consulting: Why So Many MBAs Do It

By 12th July 2015 February 3rd, 2018 No Comments

Source: Poets & Quants

by John A. Byrne
Jul 12, 2015


[dropcap]S[/dropcap]urely, you’ve heard this one: “How many consultants does it take to change a light bulb?”

One answer: “We don’t know. They never seem to get past the feasibility study.”

Or there is this one: “Three. One to change the bulb, one to document the process and one to coach him on how to conform to the process.”

Or how about this gem: “Six. One to change the bulb and five to tell him how much better they could have done it.”


While consultants surely rival lawyers for the most career jokes, there is no industry or field that attracts more MBA graduates in a given year than consulting. For many, a job at the very top of the consulting value chain, with McKinsey & Co., Bain & Co., and Boston Consulting Group, invariably referred to as M/B/B, is the equivalent of another graduate degree on your resume. The next tier of firms, Deloitte, Accenture, Strategy&, A.T. Kearney, Booz Allen Hamilton, Oliver Wyman and PwC Advisory also are among the most highly regarded MBA employers. Because consulting is little more than the outsourcing of big brains, the field oozes prestige and status, especially at the highest levels.

More than one in three graduating MBAs last year at Kellogg, Tuck, Columbia, MIT, Michigan and Emory landed jobs in the consulting industry. Some 41% of INSEAD’s Class of 2014 headed into the consulting industry, up from 34% a year earlier. And if you looked at the percentages by function—as opposed to industry—MBA hired into consulting roles at both the consulting firms and in corporations is even higher. At MIT Sloan, McKinsey last year hired twice as many MBAs at the largest non-consulting employer at the school, 32 vs. 16 by Amazon, and five of the eight largest employers were all consulting firms. After McKinsey, Bain hired 17 graduates, BCG took away 15, while Deloitte and PwC Advisory both employed nine Sloanies each.

The job offers unparalleled variety, allowing a new recruit to work at different companies and industries, in different functions and locations. The broad exposure to a vast number of business challenges is ideal preparation for nearly any eventual career as an entrepreneur or a corporate solider.

And let’s face it: With standard starting median salaries of $135,000 and median sign-on bonuses of $25,000, the pay-and-benefit packages are among the highest available to freshly minted MBAs. In fact, MBAs who venture into consulting are typically far more likely to get signing bonuses than those in other fields. At Northwestern University’s Kellogg School of Management last year, more than 35% of the grads who landed consulting jobs got sign-on bonuses that ranged from a high of $45,000 to a low of $3,000. The average bonus? $26,619. Consulting was more than three times more likely to pay a sign-on bonus than consumer products, more than six times more likely than health care, and more than twice as likely as financial services.


Source: MBA Career Coaches Consulting Career Primer

Source: MBA Career Coaches Consulting Career Primer

Besides, there’s the opportunity to travel, early exposure to C-level executives and big issues, entree to a high-powered network of colleagues and clients, and even outplacement support when you’re ready to take on a new challenge outside the field.

“I believe consulting is the perennial top choice for MBAs because it allows you to delay the question of what you want to be when you grow up while still giving you really valuable skills to apply when you figure that out,” says Angela Guido, founder of MBA Career Coaches. She joined the Boston Consulting Group after earning her MBA in 2004 from the University of Chicago’s Booth School of Business.

“I speak to a lot of clients who enter the MBA explicitly trying to avoid consulting because they think of it as following the herd,” adds Guido, whose firm has produced a free primer for applicants and students who want to take a quick deep dive into the industry. “But this isn’t the right perspective. For many people, consulting truly is the best choice for their first job post-MBA. Think about it: a lot of people want an MBA in the first place to open more doors and expand their horizons. Consulting continues to do that by exposing you to a variety of industries and functions without – in the case of most firms – forcing you to specialize immediately. It gives you the chance to apply what the MBA taught you, continue developing at a rapid rate (consulting has a very steep learning curve), while still opening new doors and better positioning you for other jobs.

Source: MBA Career Coaches Consulting Career Primer

Source: MBA Career Coaches Consulting Career Primer

“Never mind the advantage the firm’s network will later confer,” says Guido. “Many of the most sought after jobs in industry state a preference for a background in management consulting. The one thing people consistently underestimate about this job is the network component of it. All firms have staffing coordinators and assigned mentors that support you in getting the developmental opportunities you want, but they only have so much authority. In the end, the project options you will have depend on who wants to work with you.”

What’s more, consulting offers a well-defined career path that eliminates much of the ambiguity in many professions (see below). You start as a business analyst, move up to a consultant, then a job as a $250,000-a-year manager, a $350,000-to $500,000 principal, and ultimately a partner, where the annual compensation is between $500,000 and $1 million or more. So it’s little wonder that consulting firms routinely take the largest single chunk of MBA grads from the highly selective schools year after year.


The negatives are obvious, too. The travel can be relentless and exhausting. The hours are long, and the typical work schedule unpredictable. There’s a steep learning curve at the top firms where there is an “up or out” culture. Translation: You either advance in the firm or are “invited” to leave it. You also have the distinct possibility of having a new boss on every project.

As Guido’s primer points out, “The downside is that you you almost never have a chance to sit still. As soon as you have established yourself as an Excel whiz, for example, you will then be encouraged to tackle client relationships and human dynamics on your next project. Relying on the same skills that make you a great entry-level consultant will make you a poor project manager; at each level, new skills are required.

“The job constantly challenges and stretches you, and some consultants complain that the unceasing focus on weaknesses can get tiring after a while. Add to that the necessity to impress each new ‘boss’ or project manager you encounter, and a consulting job could definitely take a few years off your life, especially if you do not approach it with the right mind-set and maintain a sense of humility and humor.”


Source: MBA Career Coaches Consulting Career Primer

Source: MBA Career Coaches Consulting Career Primer


Regardless, a job at one of the top consulting firms is highly coveted and requires jumping through a number of challenging hoops, from multiple rounds interviews to untangling complicated case questions. What does it take to land an offer? Guido says that each firm has its own approach to screening talent, but essentially it comes down to three broad strokes:

1. Strong intellectual horsepower and a track record of success in a challenging field.

2. An ability to structure and analyze ambiguous problems in an improvisational manner, to work adeptly with numbers and calculations, and to clearly explain your thought processes.

3. Persuasive and analytical communication skills that engender confidence and trust in you.

Keith Bevans, a Bain & Company partner who leads the company’s global consulting recruiting efforts, has a slightly different take on these requirements. He says that intellectual horsepower, professional experience, and leadership are essential for an applicant. “Demonstrating those three things happen to be the core part of what we do, having the analytic horsepower to get the job done; being able to connect with people in a professional setting on a personal basis; and then being accountable and knowing that, no matter what, you have to improvise, you have to get things done despite the unavoidable challenges,” he says.


Consulting firms make their judgments on these attributes by looking at your undergraduate and MBA grades, asking applicants what they scored on the GMAT (typically 710 or higher is required, especially at schools with grade non-disclosure policies), and testing the mental acuity of candidates through case and behavioral interviews. “Some MBA students say that prepping for case interviews is like taking an entire extra class during recruiting season,” says Guido in her primer. “However, most also note that the process is worthwhile in its own right because it teaches them to think in a structured way and to communicate their ideas clearly.”

If you’re interested in consulting, the best advice is to immediately begin building a network toward an ultimate offer. “The best thing you can do for yourself–even before you get the internship or the full time offer–-is to begin developing relationships with people in your office of choice at your target firms,” advises Guido. “And then keep doing that even once you get there. Find the people you want to work with and impress them. That will both ensure you are able to stick around and that you enjoy your time there.”

You can get started by conducting informational interviews with friends, classmates, and alumni at target firms, creating a consulting-targeted resume with help from your school’s careers office, and beginning the process of prepping for case interviews.