For many applicants, an MBA is only the stepping stone to their next target: Getting an offer from a top consulting firm, like McKinsey, Bain or BCG. Roughly one in three MBA graduates head into consulting, but many more apply. Here are six tips to help you succeed:
1. Begin early.
Many would-be consultants begin their preparation by joining the campus consulting club. The collaborative approach at the schools is a wonderful thing, but you should not forget that the ultimate goal is to stand out from your peers. Accordingly, the best time to start preparing for your consulting internship interviews is before you start the MBA.
You need to be ready for the consulting interviews right after the winter break, and that first quarter or semester of your MBA will be very busy and spent settling into a new place, making friends, and figuring out what’s expected from you and what you want to get out of the program. Coming to campus with a firm grip on the case interview means that you can use those last months before the actual interviews to practice and refine, while still enjoying all the good things the MBA has to offer.
2. Make connections and seek out referrals.
Making connections is useful in two ways: You will learn more about the company and you can draw positive attention to yourself. Talking to current or former consultants is a great way to learn about consulting. Besides gaining general knowledge about the job, it will allow you to learn more about a particular firm and why it might be a good fit for you. (Motivating your choice for a certain firm in the interviews is really no different than what you did in your MBA application when you motivated your choice for this or that school.) Don’t forget to ask consultants you speak with about the hard parts of the job.
As a former Bain consultant, I can assure you that everyone always enjoyed presenting results to the client, and the initial brainstorming sessions for new projects. But a successful consultant is also willing to put in long hours, do boring but necessary tasks in Powerpoint or Excel, and in general, take one for the team. When you show this knowledge in interviews, it will go a long way in convincing your interviewer you’re a good fit for the job.
You should also view the recruiting process as a way to show off and practice your business skills. Demonstrating initiative and good networking skills is certainly part of the package. Find people you know with consulting experience such as friends or friends of friends. There are multiple ways to use your connections, like having someone put in a good word with the recruiter or pass on your resume. Maybe you can even get a call with a partner or manager at the firm you’re applying to. While the single most important factor is whether you nail the case interviews, the personal dimension matters too, and networking is a great way to show what you will add as a person.
3. Attend recruiting events and present yourself professionally.
Recruiting events allow you to learn about the firm, make connections and check out your competition. You should attend as many as possible. Consultancies will often give you the opportunity to register for pre-MBA events at a local office, which are even better than on-campus events.
When I attended a McKinsey presentation for PhD students at Stanford, hundreds of smart candidates were there (mostly from engineering and scientific fields). At the time, I was a lecturer in a humanities program, and I worried that my quantitative skills might not stand out. As I was discussing, the case interviews with some other attendees, a woman who was finishing her PhD in Physics sighed, “It’s the zeros that get you,” referring to the back-of-the-envelope math you need to do during the interviews. I was shocked that this scientist could be tripped up by any numbers and decided to devote myself to always getting the zeros right. I practiced this mental math until I could do it in my sleep. I have no doubt it was one of the factors that helped me nail the case interviews.
Lastly, don’t forget that you need to leave a good impression. It’s wise to limit yourself to one glass of alcohol and skip the shrimp skewers–you don’t want to be munching away on that shrimp when the partner you’ll interview with next month walks by and asks you which office you’re interested in!