Why you should do engineering or business if you want to break into consulting: return from hiatus plus a slew of reader questions

It’s been too long since my last post. After a string of talks at schools such as UPenn and Yale, I’m back on the blogging train. For now, here are answers to some reader comments and emails.

I’ll followup with a post tomorrow summarizing key takeaways from the talks Brian and I gave this past week – Recruiting in a Down Market.

There are great upcoming posts on networking, case study frameworks, and insider perspectives on consulting. Stay tuned!

My main goal is to get to McKinsey & Co., however they do not recruit interns from my school, Univ. Wisconsin-Madison School of Business. However, I locked up an interview for a full-time job with McKinsey for Sept/October. Does McKinsey prefer non-Big 4 (accounting) consulting firms when recruiting? I have offers from Towers Perrin (Risk Management/ Actuarial), Deloitte, PwC, Mercer (Actuarial), and IBM. What firm is viewed the best by McKinsey?

First off, congrats on receiving those offers. It’s a remarkable accomplishment in this environment!

McKinsey prefers strategy consulting firm experience whenever possible. You can be pegged as unsuitable for strategy/management consulting if you have extensive technology/IT consulting experience – commonly associated with the Big 4. It really comes down to what group you’ll be working with – I’d shy away from highly technical/specialized niches (eg Towers Perrin Actuarial), and accept an offer in operational consulting (if that is indeed what the Deloitte offer is).

Operational consulting will be the closest functional specialization to traditional strategy/management consulting.

Bottom line: with the firms you named, it’s far more important WHAT you do and not WHO

What types of majors should be studied for consulting?

Shoot for more analytically-challenging majors (eg, Engineering, Math, Economics, Finance). However, it’s better to do well in a major you love (resulting in a high GPA) than to struggle in a major you don’t like (resulting in dissatisfaction and a low GPA).

Bottom line: GPA trumps major, but technical majors are preferred

What types of masters programs are good for consulting?

Very similar to above question. Shoot for something business/economics/finance related – since it’s a grad degree, the closer you are to business the more credibility you’ll have.

More important than which program is where. The better ranked the school, the more consulting firms will recruit on campus and the better a chance you’ll have of breaking in.

I’m changing industries from civil engineering to consulting. I’ve been out of college for almost two years and I have been working at the same engineering firm since graduation. I am very interested in applying to the big-name firms. Although my undergraduate GPA wasn’t the strongest, 3.25/4.00, will most companies consider that I was a Purdue University engineering student, or would I be shortsighted to rest on that notion? I feel that I am a highly intelligent, well spoken individual, and if I were to obtain an interview, I know I would have no problem gaining the interviewer’s confidence

Engineering helps compensate for a low GPA. In addition, you’re several years out of school so your work experience will play a major role (which firm, what your responsibilities were, your references). My advice for you is to a) learn as much as you can about consulting (starting here of course) and begin developing and communicating your intended career change with your network (the key ones I recommend are friend/family, business, and school alumni).

However, a 3.25 GPA is fairly low, and will be challenging in this economy. Spread your net wide, look at as many boutiques and regional consulting firms as you can – they are a great stepping stone into the industry.

Given my experience in High-Tech, would it make more sense for me to target the McKinsey Business Technology practice?

using an ipad for work

For all readers – the McKinsey Business Technology Office (BTO) is a firm practice that specializes in technology-related client issues. Unlike firms such as Accenture, McKinsey BTO does not do hands-on implementation work (eg, procuring and installing enterprise software) but provides strategic advice on technology issues and concerns.

If you have several years of experience in High-Tech, this is a great starting point as they typically look for technology-savvy people (either academically or professionally). Most BTO consultants spend considerable time on projects outside the BTO practice, so you will have some project diversity. The BTO handles its recruiting independently of standard firm recruiting – so be sure you properly express interest upfront. The interviews and cases are also slightly different (focused on your prior technology exposure, unsurprisingly).

Will I be able to carry a good reputation or a recommendation letter when I apply elsewhere after completing my summer internship?

Ultimately, the main thing consulting firms (and any leading business) care about is whether you received a return offer. If the answer is yes, you’re good to go.

Having a big name summer internship helps a lot during fulltime recruiting. Be sure to promote this front and center on your resume, and to discuss the experience in your interviews.

Finally, if you’re on good terms with your summer internship managers and they understand you’d rather pursue a career elsewhere, you can ask them for references to other companies.

I wouldn’t worry about the recommendation letter unless explicitly asked, but I would be prepared to provide a reference in case it’s needed.

How well do you have to do second round to receive the offer, in my case, for a summer position? I just finished up my second rounds yesterday, and thought that they were just okay–a few number struggles, some missed conclusions, but no major screw-ups. It was also a little bit more difficult to make a personal connection because I was interviewing with everyone via video conference. My worst case performance was with a partner interview, which is pretty worrying, and overall I felt much better coming out of first rounds

In this environment, I’d say your performance has to be distinctive. In good hiring years, a solid performance (eg, getting most of the case right, having strong prepared answers to fit questions) and strong resume would be enough to receive an offer. But this is not a good hiring year – and from what I’ve seen/heard/expect, you have to have a near-perfect performance – nailing almost all of the case components and generating answers they’ve never heard, having memorable responses to fit questions, and having a truly distinctive resume.

Video conference puts you at a disadvantage. For all prospective applicants – avoid this when possible. In-person interviews are much better for your candidacy.

Finally, it doesn’t help that your worst performance was with a partner as they have the most influence on final decisions. But keep your hopes up – you can never tell what a partner thought of your performance, because they’re usually looking for different things than you think.

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