Many aspiring consultants want to know if it’s possible to get a top tier strategy consulting firm like McKinsey / Bain / Boston Consulting Group (MBB, in short) with no MBA and no prior experience in the field.
Jenny Lee (name changed) has managed to do just that. In this article, she explains how she managed to get into an elite consulting firm without following the conventional recruitment route.
I graduated with a law degree, practiced as a litigator, then had a stint in a mobile technology startup in a developing country for a couple years before returning to Singapore.
Previously, when I was advised to consider consulting as a career, I had not even heard of McKinsey— how ignorant! In 2013, I began to read up about management consulting. Thankfully, the internet had a wealth of resources on the topic, and as I began to learn the names of the various players in the industry, I also realised I had many friends who were already working in consulting. This meant I was able to hear more real-life anecdotes about being a consultant from these friends.
Let’s go through the two (MBA and relevant experience) before I share my own experience.
If you believe what you read online, an MBA would appear to be a prerequisite for anyone who wants to succeed in consulting. The only other entry point to the consulting world besides the MBA route would be as a fresh graduate. I’ve heard that firms are pretty strict on this, and while this didn’t apply in my case, do note that I am a rather unusual exception to this rule.
This is trickier, because what’s “relevant” is subjective, and dependent on the level at which you plan to enter the industry. Many boutique consulting firms hire people from industries relevant to their practice. MBB firms also want subject-matter experts for industries from manufacturing to pharmaceuticals.
In my case, I didn’t have an MBA and my experience seemed all over the map, but made a strong case for myself regardless. When considering how to shape your own narrative, I’d say it’s important to think about how entrenched you are/have been in an industry, and whether or not that can work in your favour.
I was certain that doing an MBA just wasn’t the way for me. I was disinclined to spend 2 more years studying, and prefer to learn on the job anyway. Hence, I knew that my best shot would be to try and apply as an experienced candidate.
The fear of rejection and failure that many Type A folks feel is definitely heightened in the context of consulting recruitment, where not only are the odds not in your favour (and I’m no Katniss!), the mystery of the consulting process means it can be quite opaque.
Personally, I had no idea where to begin. From applying online to the format of the case interview to having to practice cases, I was more lost the more I searched for answers. This is where friends in the industry came in handy. I asked for their personal experience with recruiting, and realised that it was quite a stock process. Most of the firms go through a similar interview format, and that made it much clearer as to how to proceed.
I applied to 2 firms. Based on everything I had read so far, I was gunning for the MBB firms. I went with what seemed to be a better fit with my personality and my career goals, so the choice was quite straightforward. I knew I was only giving myself a 50/50 chance by applying to 2 firms… but as they say, go big or go home!
It took about 6 – 8 weeks (which honestly felt more like 6 – 8 years!) for both firms to get back to me via email indicating that I was going to be invited for the first round interview.
Interview prep was an organised affair. Having put together the information from online sources (blogs, the firms’ official websites, and online forums on consulting— yes there is something for everyone on the web!), I set out to prepare for 1) the fit portion and 2) the case portion of the interview. Here are the resources I used:
There are no surprise elements to the case interview, which is quite formulaic. You always begin with 5-7 minutes on your CV and background/experience, followed by 30-35 minutes for the case interview, and the final 3-5 minutes on any last questions you have for your interviewer.
I progressed to the final rounds for both firms, which involved 4 one-on-one interviews for each firm, starting with more junior staff and then progressing to partners in the final stages.
The firm got back to me in less than a week from my final interview. The same interviewer called me to deliver the good news. I tried my best to remain professional and measured on the phone, but there was no denying how ecstatic I was to receive the news. What a process and what an ending!
I feel that consulting is an elusive industry, which only serves to add to its mystery and allure. As such, I’d approach “breaking in” as follows: