Chocolate and peanut butter. Thunder and lightning. MBAs and MBBs. Some things just go together, and in the MBA admissions world, there’s no surer pair than elite consulting and elite business schools. The Big Three consulting companies (McKinsey, Boston Consulting Group, and Bain & Company; or “MBB”) send many successful applicants to the world’s top business schools, and then hire many of the graduates. Some of our consultants went through this entire pipeline––for them, it’s the most logical thing in the world. But when our non-Big Three applicants see the staggeringly high percentage of M7 students coming from just three companies, they ask “What’s so goddamn special about MBB consulting?” It’s an important question, because understanding what makes an elite consultant’s MBA application so powerful can help non-MBB applicants make their profile similarly appealing.
First, let’s establish just how much having a Big Three name on your resume helps your application. The short version: if you’re applying as an MBB consultant, you’ll get into an M7 B-school. This is only a slight exaggeration! The firms themselves report success rates of around 75-90% at top schools, and anecdotally MBB folks in our client pool do even better. As a percentage of incoming MBA classes, the MBB population is also very disproportionate, though many schools don’t publically release precise company-by-company data.
What does an adcom member see in an MBB veteran? Prestigious labels are not valuable by themselves—they work because the people with the label often share a certain set of traits and characteristics. Those assumptions aren’t necessarily fair on an individual level… is every doctor more skilled than every untrained shaman? Probably not. But, if your child’s life is at stake and you had to choose between a randomly selected board-certified doctor versus a randomly selected medicine man, you pick the doctor because he is much more likely to have the traits you’re looking for. It’s the same with MBB consultants. Seeing “McKinsey” on a resume tells an adcom member a lot more than just “this guy is a consultant and worked at a place called McKinsey.” Let’s identify what those special traits are.
Massive Responsibility at a Young Age
All MBBers are consultants, which comes with intrinsic advantages. In most industries, a fresh college graduate starts out in the trenches. Even those on a managerial track must work their way up from lower to middle to upper management. Your average MBA applicant from a company like Unilever, Microsoft or Shell is coming to the adcom in the early stages of that climb: they might have responsibility for the profit and loss of a few products or projects, but their perspective on the company’s operations is limited to their specific area. In management consulting, by contrast, even the newest hire is looking at client companies’ operations holistically.
Big Three consulting companies then hypercharge the standard management consultant advantage by giving their youngest employees substantially more responsibilities than their peers at firms like PwC or Deloitte. There are very few workplaces on Earth where a 22-year-old can independently recommend eliminating an entire division of a large multinational—McKinsey is one of them. A McKinsey associate may not have ultimate responsibility for any operations of her client company, but her recommendations can affect an entire organization, and she’s been trained to consider all of those impacts. She also works with many different companies, particularly the large, successful industry leaders who can afford MBB prices. Gaining that strategic perspective is essentially what attending an elite business school is all about, and the fact that these students already have some experience makes them a good bet if you’re an adcom building an MBA class. Just imagine what ex-management consultants can bring to discussions—they’ve done exactly the kind of work that B-School students will be reading about in case studies.
MBB firms feel confident entrusting their youngest employees with this kind of responsibility because they recruit the very best from the very best schools, and then winnow that elite pool through a brutal series of “up and out” performance reviews. For example, an incredible 43% of BCG employees have been with the firm for fewer than two years. Culling every six months also means that the survivors have an impressively rapid series of promotions on their resumes.
An MBA “On-the-Job”
Another reason MBB firms feel comfortable granting their pre-MBA consultants outsized responsibility is that they run highly structured on-the-job training programs that have been refined over many years. MBB firms invest a TON of time and money into training their consultants. This makes sense, because, besides some intellectual property, people are MBB firms’ true asset – without them, they have nothing.
From the minute a new consultant starts work, she’s guided through a series of classes, workshops, and summits designed not only to equip her with a consulting toolkit (covering everything from Excel modeling skills to presentation techniques) but also to introduce her to peers who come from offices around the world. These trainings are often regional or even global, so an MBB consultant from the Atlanta office might be assigned to a team with fellow consultants from Dubai, London, and Hong Kong for a week-long simulation project. Having the opportunity to learn and practice cross-cultural management at such an early juncture is another big advantage that often isn’t possible at other consultancies.
A Network Built for Success
We’ve talked about how the nature of MBB consultants’ work exposes them to high-level strategic thinking. It also exposes them to high-strategic thinkers, which is almost as important. For example, an applicant from an MBB firm might be advising the CMO at Unilever, whereas a brand manager from Unilever applying for the same HBS slot reports up to the same CMO, but with 10 people between them in the chain of command. Who gets in at Harvard: The MBB consultant who has a close personal relationship with the executive, or the brand manager who presents to them once a year on the product they are responsible for?
From the very beginning, consulting firms have operated as clearing houses for business ideas and strategies, a place where competitors can indirectly share knowledge without exposing sensitive business information. It’s not uncommon for consultants to spend two to three very intensive months working on a given client, which means that in a year, they may cover four to six different companies, often in completely different industries. This exposes young consultants not only to different products and services, but also to different corporate philosophies, business models, and executive teams. Being at the nexus of this information flow means that consultants are up to date with emerging trends and best practices in many industries.
MBB consultants benefit from their peer network too: Big Three consultants are drawn from elite undergraduate institutions and put through an idiosyncratic case interview process that favors people “in the know” about the rules of the test. The end result is a workplace populated with mostly well-connected, privileged people.
What’s a non-MBB Applicant to Do?
First, it’s important to recognize what can be replicated and what can’t. For example: If you went to an Ivy League school as an undergraduate—congratulations, you’ve already got a substantial portion of the benefit of being an MBB consultant! If you didn’t attend an Ivy, there’s not much that can be done about that, so move on and focus on your other strengths. Let’s start with what can be replicated outside the MBB world:
- Strategic perspective. Just because you aren’t whispering the ear of C-suite executives doesn’t mean you don’t have experience thinking strategically. Are there moments when you make decisions with the company’s bottom line in mind? Do you ever weigh costs and revenue, picking the option that maximizes overall profit? How about risks and opportunities? Highlight those experiences. MBB is all about the big picture, so the bigger the picture we can show you contemplating, the better.
- On the job training. What makes the MBB approach to training unique is that it is highly formalized and given to everyone. The actual skills being taught… they’re not unique at all! Most companies have some kind of training program for future leaders, but it will require more work to get in—an internal application or a reference from a manager. Earning a sponsorship for your MBA can also demonstrate that the company feels you are worth investing in. In terms of the actual knowledge, just about anybody with a solid internet connection and some initiative can access resources (many of them free or low-cost) that only corporate insiders had 10 years ago, through companies like edX, Coursera, and Udemy.
- Diverse experience. The adcom also does honestly want a diverse class. MBB candidates have exposure to many different industries, but precisely because MBB consultants are, by and large, drawn from elite universities, they tend to come from similar backgrounds and look similar on the page. Non-MBB candidates have a real advantage here, in that they have the opportunity to do work that is more interesting and rare in the applicant pool. How you portray your unique experiences in your resume and in your essays is critical. Frame your work anecdotes in terms of the positive impact that you had on your employer, on your colleagues, and on your customers.
And here are a couple of things that are a little harder to replicate:
- Rapid promotions. Promotions are usually out of an applicant’s hands, but you can convey that you are the “cream of the crop” in other ways. For example, rare awards and superlative performance reviews both show that you are one of your employers’ best managers. Being in the top X% is what counts—the difference is simply that everyone applying from a Big Three firm is by definition in a top percentile, because if they weren’t they would have been asked to leave. Your letters of recommendation (LORs) are important here, because your recommenders have the credibility to compare you to your peers, both past and present, in a way that you don’t.
- An elite network. Replicating the MBB network outside MBB is hard, but the good news is you don’t have to. Adcoms don’t value networks for their own sake—they value them because people with a good network have a better chance of succeeding after they graduate from their MBA. Look at your application from the perspective of an investor… Do you look like the kind of applicant who will come back in 20 years and donate enough money to get your name on a building? That’s the person a Harvard, Stanford, or Wharton MBA adcom is looking for, and an MBB applicant’s wide-ranging network helps reassure the adcom that she has the connections needed to succeed. A non-consultant applicant can build a similarly powerful network in their target industry, and create a similarly cogent plan for how they will take advantage of emerging opportunities. The difference is that non-MBB applicants must consciously build this network and explain it to the adcom, whereas MBB consultants are assumed to have it simply by the nature of their work. Do your research, zoom out from your day-to-day responsibilities, and prove that you have a consultant-grade understanding of the business you propose to enter post-MBA. Don’t be shy about reaching out to senior people in your target industry – you’ll be surprised how much people want to help, especially if you demonstrate a genuine interest in their career paths.
It’s also worth mentioning that there is one way in which non-MBB candidates actually have a greater responsibility than their consultant peers: they often have the opportunity to directly manage a team. The big consulting firms don’t usually assign any direct reports to folks without an MBA, whereas most candidates from CPG, energy, and even tech have led at least a couple of subordinates. Focusing on this aspect can help a non-MBB candidate, and even provide a greater advantage than a Big Three name. For example, an oil and gas guy who has led a few dozen engineers on a project in a remote location often performs just as well, if not better, than an average MBB.
The key to getting the most out of your team leadership experience is to emphasize your soft skills, not your technical or finance prowess. Can you demonstrate the impact of your stellar mentorship skills by sharing a story about a subordinate who you’ve coached to a promotion? Or showcase your communication skills by telling an anecdote about a conflict that you helped mediate? Adcoms are looking for future leaders, and future leaders understand that soft skills are just as important – if not more important – than hard skills.
Correlation vs. Causation
Being associated with McKinsey, Bain or BCG wouldn’t be a huge admissions boost for long if MBB veterans weren’t succeeding in B-school and beyond. While individual cases may vary wildly, there is certainly some truth to adcoms’ underlying assumption that elite management consultants do very well in elite business schools. But is that because of the work they did as a consultant, or because high-paying MBB consultancies attract the very best people coming out of elite colleges? Would the kind of person who gets an offer from McKinsey be an excellent MBA candidate no matter what they did between undergraduate and their MBA? As we’ve seen, there are arguments to support both correlation and causation: MBB consultants are drawn from a limited, elite pool; but they also do have different responsibilities than lower-tier consultants.
One possible answer is to look back a few decades, to a period before management consulting was considered prestigious. There was a time when MBA classrooms were full of students from industrial conglomerates like GE and AT&T, and the strategy questions currently outsourced to MBB firms were instead dealt with in-house by a larger stratum of middle managers. Management consultants did what we might call “policy consulting” or “operations research” today—in the words of one ex-consultant, “Despite all the chest-pounding, 50 years ago most [elite consultants] would have been clerks.” When consultants were distant from the decision-making process, they were admitted to business schools in almost negligible numbers. MBB consulting became a powerful asset in the MBA application pool only after MBB consultants became a force in the boardroom.
The lesson is simple: business school adcoms admit applicants who appear to be primed for success. Right now, as a group, MBB consultants have that “special sauce.” But once you understand the ingredients, it’s possible to reverse-engineer the MBB magic.
Alex is the Managing Director of Systems & Content at Admissionado, a top admissions consultancy. Since graduating from Columbia University in 2013, he has worked with hundreds of MBA applicants on thousands of essays, helping his students maximize their MBA potential. From his base in New York City, he has written a wide variety of education-related reports, case studies, and articles, many of which can be found on Admissionado’s website and Amazon store.