Having a prestigious name on your resume doesn’t mean rejection stings any less. Every year many applicants coming from MBB management consultancies (McKinsey, BCG and Bain) don’t get into their top choice MBA programs. These individuals and their peers at other top strategy firms have made it past highly selective hiring processes, developed superior skills, know how to work effectively in diverse teams, and often had larger scale responsibilities than even their consulting peers from non-MBB firms. These are exactly the types of students that elite business schools are looking for. So, what’s going wrong?
Why Strong MBB Consultants Don’t Get Admitted to MBA Programs
The answer reveals a lot about the way MBA adcoms think, insights that can also be useful for those not applying from an elite consultancy.
First, there are too many qualified MBB consultants applying to the same top programs, and given each school’s desire for a diverse class, there is a limit on how many consultants a business school can accept. No matter how qualified these individuals may be, do you really want to attend an MBA program where all the students are former management consultants? Would such a program have the breadth and scope necessary to provide a well-rounded management education? This problem is even more acute at top-choice schools like HBS and Stanford GSB.
Second, top MBA programs are looking for the best of the best within this elite pool of candidates—candidates that have differentiated themselves vs. their peers. And it can be hard to differentiate yourself since most MBB consultants have only worked a few years, have comparable work experiences and skills, and most graduated from top undergraduate institutions. So how does one stand out from this particular crowd?
3 Things MBB Consultants Should Do to Get Admitted to a Top-Choice MBA Program
Our experience has shown that there are three things that MBB consultants can do to improve their odds at a top-choice MBA program.
- Drive your career experience from day one. Proactively find opportunities to differentiate your professional experience from that of your peers and translate this into the value you bring to an MBA program.
- Be involved in a meaningful extracurricular activity. It’s not all about work. Leadership outside the office can be a great way to differentiate yourself from your peers.
- Fully leverage the MBA application assistance your firm provides, but recognize it’s not enough. Leverage all help your firm provides to get into an MBA program, but don’t forget to actively manage and assist your recommender. Your company’s resources are by definition available to your most direct competition—you may need more to stand out.
Let’s dig in.
Drive your consulting career experience from day one.
MBB consultants will have limited influence over the projects they are staffed on or the type of work they are assigned. However, developing deep functional expertise, gaining international experience, holding meaningful leadership roles on a project, or mastering uncommon technical skills (especially if they burnish your data analysis skills) can all help an MBB consultant differentiate themselves. And while being promoted ahead of your peers can be hard given often rigid promotion guidelines, demonstrating that you are operating at the next level—even without the promotion—can help you stand out. This could include leading part of a project, helping to develop the overall story, or presenting to more senior clients. The key for any of these is to be proactive—these opportunities will rarely just land in your lap, you will need to find opportunities, ask for them, and be persistent.
How do these opportunities help my MBA candidacy?
Proactively seeking opportunities like these demonstrates your initiative and leadership potential (e.g., the ability to find and exploit opportunities) and helps expand your skills and business experience. Unfortunately, just getting these opportunities is rarely enough. To close the deal, you will need to compellingly articulate how these opportunities allow you to contribute on campus. Some questions to consider include: How are you a better, more capable individual because of these experiences? How will these experiences help you contribute in the classroom, in your teams, and in the activities you engage in?
Be involved in a meaningful extracurricular activity.
It can be hard for an MBB consultant to differentiate themselves at work. That’s why it’s important to remember that the MBA application is not all about work. Distinguishing yourself in an extracurricular activity can be a great way for the adcom to learn about you as a person and to differentiate yourself from your consulting peers. And while many consultants were highly involved in extracurricular activities as undergrads, given the demanding workloads, fewer consultants are active outside of work.
How does actively participating in a meaningful community activity help your MBA candidacy?
Being actively involved in something besides professional hustle allows you to demonstrate a desire to contribute to the community and helps the adcom better understand who you are and what’s important to you. In addition, depending on your level of involvement, it potentially helps reinforce your leadership, teamwork, and problem-solving skills. One area where it can particularly help is leading larger teams—compared to peers from more “hands on” industries like energy, CPG or manufacturing, consultants tend to enter the application process with a lower number of direct reports.
So, how do you choose the right opportunity if you’re not currently involved?
It’s best to find opportunities that are authentic for you—you’ll enjoy the experience more and are likely to become more deeply involved. Think of areas where you have a genuine interest in the mission and, ideally, can draw the connection to some interest or experience in your life (e.g., working with special needs kids after growing up with a brother who had a disability). Adcoms can see right through inauthentic extracurriculars you’ve added just to pad your resume. And don’t forget to seek leadership opportunities (however small) rather than just be a “participant.” This could be leading an event or driving a special project. It’s become much easier to contribute remotely in the last two years, which is helpful to frequent travelers. And finally, start early. Don’t wait until the last minute to become involved. Adcoms can see right through last-minute resume filler.
Fully leverage the MBA application assistance your firm provides, but recognize it’s not enough.
Top consulting firms offer their consultants varying degrees of help getting into graduate school. Some have formal (and extensive) programs that mimic or leverage what the best MBA admissions consultants can provide. Take full advantage of this—you’d be surprised at how many people only use a fraction of what’s available. You may be an expert with your client, but you are not the expert when it comes to admissions.
But also recognize that by itself, this help is generally not enough. Because strong recommendations are pivotal in helping you differentiate yourself from your peers, you will want to actively manage your recommenders. The good news is that at an MBB firm many of the people you might ask have MBAs and have written MBA recommendations before. They can leverage existing templates that are usually pretty good. If you want to secure admission to your top choice school, however, “pretty good” may not be enough. You want a customized and compelling letter of recommendation which speaks to your strengths and how you have outperformed your peers. Some recommenders aren’t effective writers, and most don’t have much time. You don’t want to leave anything to chance.
What can you do to improve your recommendation?
Naturally, finding the right (best) recommender is a critical first step. The key here is to find someone you’ve worked closely with who will advocate for you in the strongest possible way—this is far more important than the seniority of the recommender. Next, make life easier for your recommenders. Given them the details they need to write the recommendation (an outline is often the best way). This doesn’t mean writing the recommendation for them, but it does include highlighting key potential messages, providing concrete examples of project work that reinforces your strengths (including details of your role in project work), and highlighting career goals. Ideally, you would get them to write school-specific recommendations, rather than a single generic recommendation to use for all schools. Finally, give your recommenders enough, but not too much time to complete the recommendation. Deadlines are useful. Anything too far out risks getting sent to the bottom of the to-do pile. I recommend 4-8 weeks before the deadline
Congratulations! As a pre-MBA MBB consultant, you’re well-positioned for MBA and other graduate programs. But don’t forget these three strategies to maximize your chances of securing admission to your top choice program.
A JD/MBA graduate of the Kellogg School of Management and Northwestern Law School, Matthew served on the Kellogg Admissions Committee and was later an alumni admissions interviewer for MBA and JD/MBA applicants. He has helped candidates from a wide variety of backgrounds achieve success gaining admission to top-tier MBA programs (including Stanford, HBS, Wharton, Kellogg, Booth, Columbia, Tuck, and MIT Sloan), EMBA, JD (including Harvard, Chicago, Northwestern, UPenn, and UCLA), JD/MBA, part-time MBA, and MBA/MPP and MPP/MPA programs.