As a former McKinsey consultant, I frequently work with clients who are interested in switching to a career in consulting, or candidates who currently work as a consultant but want to transition to strategy consulting after business school. I’ve seen my fair share of eminently capable candidates over the years, and I’m always surprised that a majority of folks fumble their case to the admissions committee right out the gate, often in very similar ways. While a desire to work in the consulting industry is an excellent reason for attending a top-tier business school, the following three mistakes hurt many talented and otherwise deserving candidates.
Not making a compelling argument for why consulting is right for you.
Every business school will accept joining a consulting company as a valid motivation for applying. But candidates who stop at a simple statement of their short-term goals are not differentiating themselves from the competition.
Good candidates don’t just declare their ambitions—they clearly express why they want to join a consulting firm and the source of their passion for the industry. They articulate why consulting is the right career choice for them, demonstrating their understanding of the kind of work involved and how it fits with their skill set and abilities. They also tie in appropriate past experiences to show they have a reason to believe they can make a successful transition.
Candidates need to explain how consulting fits into their career path. For some people, consulting is an intermediate step to a long-term goal in a particular industry, while for others, getting to partner is the long-term goal. One of the benefits of consulting is that it exposes you to a variety of industries, but thoughtful candidates will have a sense of what could be their eventual “spike,” or area of expertise. Think about the difference between stating that your long-term goal is to eventually join a company in a senior management position, versus a goal of leveraging your logistics expertise gained in the Army to specialize in supply chain management issues, eventually becoming COO for a global manufacturing firm.
This clarity is required even if you are currently working as a consultant. If you are a non-strategy consultant, for example in the IT industry, but want to transition to strategy consulting, then you need to be able to build a convincing argument about this switch – why you are excited to make this change and how, specifically, a transition to strategy consulting fits into and supports your long-term goals.
Building this detailed, compelling argument achieves two goals. First, in showcasing clear, results-oriented thinking, you are demonstrating that you are a focused, pragmatic thinker who not only sets solid goals but is able to achieve them. More importantly, you impress the admissions committee by making the connection from your past to your future sharper.
Consider writing up your goals the way an entrepreneur would make a pitch in front of a venture capital firm. Your seat in the class is comparable to asking for a two-year, six-figure investment – the committee is making a calculated risk on which candidates will make a good return on this investment.
Not highlighting your problem-solving skills in your application materials
This common mistake weakens any candidate’s chances for admission but is especially important if you want a career in consulting. Many MBA programs are now certified as STEM degrees. While classes and test scores help demonstrate your quantitative abilities, you also want to use the application to show that you have an analytical mindset and understand what key variables to focus on when solving a problem and measuring success.
Highlight examples where you have used a consulting problem-solving approach. While showing impact is important, you also need to highlight your use of structured problem-solving. A simple McKinsey framework, for example, is “Situation, complication, resolution” – make sure that your examples are clearly organized, providing key details to support your game plan without getting bogged down with extraneous information.
For example, when writing your resume, you should examine every bullet point and see if there are ways to highlight your problem solving and quantify your impact. Statements like “Trained department in Business Office software resulting in major increases in efficiency” are basically worthless. Compare that to “Implemented new digital tracking system for twenty users for new business development, increasing efficiency 20%.” By showing us how you achieved the result, and contextualizing your impact compared to peer or prior performance (up 20%!), you evince a “management consulting-ready” thought process.
Your problem-solving abilities can include situations that are harder to measure and also can include work you volunteer to take on outside of your normal job responsibilities. This is especially important if you have had a fairly junior role in your organization to date. For example, one business analyst – the most junior position in a consulting firm – set up monthly check-in problem-solving sessions with his peers, creating a national network and an open forum where analysts could learn from and support each other. In his essay, he highlighted his problem-solving approach, showing the moves he took to identify a problem, test a solution, and then roll it out nationwide. His initiative and logical approach were just as important as the impact that he had and was recognized by his target schools.
Not digging deep enough in your school selection process
At a high level, most business schools in the Top 50 look like a good bet for a career in consulting. Most list a significant portion of their classes going to consulting post-MBA, from 20-40%. Many list the most common brand names on their employer website.
However, it is important to dig deeper to find the right school for you. For example, McKinsey might typically take a class of 20 second-year students from one school but just a handful from another. You won’t be able to tell this from a superficial review of a website.
Smart candidates do their homework. They have already identified what type of consulting, e.g. strategy, logistics, or HR, they want to focus on, and have a target list of firms. They interview current and former students and leverage their networks to get a true, insider picture of what recruitment looks like at their target schools. They go beyond the landing pages of the career development websites, talking to staff and alumni about what resources are available to help their job searches be successful.
All of this work not only pays off in your second-year job search – but also makes an impact on the Admissions Committee. Schools want candidates who have done their homework, and who are knowledgeable and passionate about their programs. They can see through someone who is basing application decisions solely on ranking and marketing materials, and instead, choose the candidates who demonstrate that they understand what the schools have to offer and why they are the perfect fit for the class.
Now you know three things NOT to do! Avoiding these mistakes is a great foundation for any consulting-focused MBA application, but there’s a lot more to earning an admit from an elite program than any list of dos and don’ts could hope to contain. At the root of all of these mistakes is the (formidable) challenge of objectively assessing your own strengths and weaknesses, and how they will be perceived by the admissions committee. If you find yourself stumped, or just want an extra pair of eyes, we’re happy to help.
Recognized by industry expert Poets&Quants as one of the “Top 10 MBA Admissions Consultants” for 2017, Stephanie is an MBA graduate with honors from the Kellogg School of Management at Northwestern University. She was engaged by Kellogg to serve as an admissions interviewer. Since joining The MBA Exchange in 2011, she has helped a wide range of clients achieve admission to top-tier business schools worldwide. Stephanie earned a master’s degree in English and a bachelor of science degree in chemistry from Bucknell University, where she was a recipient of the Mellon Foundation Fellowship.