What (if anything) must these applicants do differently, to compete with the MBB competition?
Consultants from firms other than McKinsey, BCG, and Bain (MBBs) need not despair. Top business schools are looking for talented candidates with a diverse set of experiences, and there are only so many MBB consultants that an M7 school wants in its class. The need for a diversity of employers means that there are plenty of opportunities for non-MBB consultants. But your road to admission is more challenging.
Before we get started, we should recognize that “non-MBB” covers a wide range of firms, from behemoths like Deloitte to small boutique consultancies specializing in a single industry or functional area. So, while the term is useful for the purposes of this discussion, it’s important to understand its limitations and consider what makes your employer unique.
The non-MBB (mis)perceptions.
There are several key (mis)perceptions that you will face and potentially need to address in your application. The elephant in the room is the belief that the quality of the talent (consultants like you) at non-MBB firms isn’t as strong. Few admissions officers will admit this, but most think this way. It’s much like automobiles. If you ask someone, “which is the better car, Ferrari, or Ford?” most will reply Ferrari even though Ford vastly outsells Ferrari. Indeed, the very fact that Ferrari sells fewer cars contributes to the sense of exclusivity. Non-MBB firms are often less competitive in hiring so the perception is that the talent isn’t as strong—on average—and may be weaker in select core skills that MBA programs are looking for, including problem solving and analytical ability. When you consider that elite MBA admissions departments’ stock and trade is very competitive applications, it shouldn’t be surprising that they view the similarly involved MBB intake process positively.
Further, there could be the perception that—on average—the problems aren’t as important, the work isn’t as analytical or strategic, and the clients aren’t as senior. No surprise that given their elevated price points and positioning, MBB firms are often (but not always!) dealing with the most important business issues and working with the most senior executives. The perception for many will be that non-MBBs are often working lower down in the organization on issues that may be central to a function or business unit but are less important to the most senior executives. Further, large non-MBB firms are often perceived as more hierarchical with more layers, so pre-MBA consultants may have more limited responsibilities compared to their MBB peers.
There is one additional and significant challenge those working at small consulting firms face—the adcom has likely never heard of your firm. Many non-MBBs are too small to have brand recognition, particularly if they don’t recruit at top business schools. In this case, the adcom won’t know anything about how competitive hiring is or the type and quality of work performed, or even expectations for your role.
Having worked for both BCG and small boutique consulting firms, I know that these perceptions aren’t always accurate. And circling back to the automobile analogy: much like Ford outsells Ferrari, top business schools need lots of non-MBB consultants to fill their classes—more than “Ferrari” alone can provide. But while even below average MBBers still stand a chance in the admissions process, you will need to ensure that you position yourself as one of the very best consultants in your firm. And while you can’t change the perception of non-MBB firms, there are several things you can do to ensure you stand out from your peers.
What you can do if you come from a non-MBB program, particularly a smaller firm.
You want to position your consulting experience in the best possible light. To do this, you may need to explain your firm, your role, and your project experience. First, help the adcom understand your firm, or your part of the firm if it’s large. Does the firm have a particular industry or functional area focus? Does it have MBB partners? While MBB pre-MBA consulting roles are well understood, non-MBB roles can be very different (or they could be similar to MBBs). You will want to help the adcom understand your role. What is the scope of your responsibilities? Be sure to cover problem-solving, communication (both written and verbal), and client interaction. Finally, explain your project experience. Your goal is to position your experience as favorably as possible and, if you can, convince the adcom that your project experience is as strong as MBB consultants. Be sure to highlight your analytical (particularly quantitative analytical) experience and the most challenging problems that you solved (call out the strategic nature of the problems where relevant). Also highlight your leadership experience, client interaction, and presentation skills.
For larger non-MBBs with strong brand recognition, the adcom may already understand your firm and role well. Your challenge will be to explain any variances from the general perception of the firm and favorably position your experience. Are you in a newly formed group? Do you have a unique role? Have you had challenging or unique project experience? Leverage the various pieces of the application to convey this information, including the application form, resume, and letter of recommendation. Essays, depending on the question, can also be used to highlight your role and experience. Obviously, use your judgment in what, and how much, to communicate about these to position yourself favorably. But remember, the (mis)perceptions the adcom has about large non-MBB will be the default if you don’t help the adcom understand your specific situation.
Where non-MBB firms have an advantage over MBBs.
Non-MBB applicants have several potential advantages over MBBs. If any of these apply to you, be sure to highlight them in your application.
Opportunities for faster promotion.
MBBs can be very rigid in their promotion schedules for pre-MBA consultants. Non-MBBs, particularly smaller boutiques, can be more flexible. In my work at a boutique consultancy, I’ve seen several pre-MBA consultants quickly get promoted to a post-MBA consultant role and even to a project leader role within three years.
Opportunities for more rapid development.
This includes expanded project leadership responsibilities and client interactions, or even helping with a firm development project. At smaller firms, you often have the opportunity to work with very senior consulting leaders directly, rather than be buried layers down in the organization. This mentorship can be invaluable, and is worth highlighting.
Opportunities to work on leading-edge work.
Many non-MBBs have particular expertise in a narrow set of topics. In many cases, these could be leading edge. Most pre-MBA MBBs are generalists working for huge, establish corporate clients known more for bureaucracy than innovative frisson. Your specialized knowledge could well be unique and bring something unique to your MBA. In my own work, for example, I’ve seen pre-MBA consultants develop and evolve IP in the consumer goods industry that is more advanced than the MBB firms have. The brand new company with a big, exciting idea simply doesn’t have the budget for MBB consulting.
One final thought: Your recommendations can be even more important if you come from a non-MBB. A strong comparison to your peers from your recommenders is essential. And if you have a recommender with MBB experience, they can compare you to consulting peers from their present and past. The MBBer’s presence validates the firm’s legitimacy and gives the adcom a comfortable frame of reference.
Ultimately, the adcom’s easy familiarity with the MBB world is a big part of what makes those applications so successful. Good writing and application strategy can ease the adcom into your world too, it just takes a bit more work.
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.