It’s hard to look past Bain, BCG, and McKinsey when it comes to consulting. Year after year, swathes of ambitious, hungry MBA graduates enter the ranks of the Big Three consulting firms, keen for career success and the salaries consulting firms pay their incoming hires.
For those just starting out on their MBA journey, the world of consulting can seem daunting. Entering it requires downing a stress cocktail of case interview prep, networking, and extracurriculars.
Yet the Big Three continue to hire thousands of MBA consultants each year, with Bain, BCG, and McKinsey expanding MBA consultant hiring in 2021, despite the impact of COVID-19.
BusinessBecause caught up with top MBA recruiters at each of the Big Three to find out what they’re looking for from their MBA hires, and how you can stand out from the crowd.
Brian Rolfes, partner, global recruiting, McKinsey & Company
No matter where you come from, McKinsey looks for the same qualities in all its candidates. It boils down to three qualities, Brian explains.
They look for problem solving, the ability to work well in teams, and the ability to develop strong relationships. “These are at the core of what our consultants do every day and how we work with our clients.”
The firm works very closely with around 30 business schools round the world, but Brian adds that they accept applications from all MBA programs. He says McKinsey is the top employer of MBAs from INSEAD, with close relations with Wharton, Darden, Harvard, Columbia, Stanford, MIT, Kellogg, Chicago Booth, London Business School, HEC Paris, and IE Business School.
In 2020, McKinsey hired more than 1,000 people from MBA programs globally. Brian plans to hire even more, a record incoming class of McKinsey consultants, in 2021.
Of those incoming this year, Brian advises they pay close attention to honing their soft skills.
“We see can candidates prep a lot for problem solving, which is good, but I encourage them to focus also on what are often referred to as soft skills—their aptitude for collaboration, teamwork, empathy, and leading others. In the long run, those are qualities that make for success.”
Digital skills are becoming increasingly important. MBAs who have expanded their knowledge of coding, programming, and other aspects of tech stand out, Brian says. MBAs will be working with colleagues who are technologists, engineers, or user experience experts—knowing how to work with each of them is key.
When interviewing, tap into your experiences that highlight what you can bring to the table, and why you’re so much more than your 720 GMAT score and sky-high GPA.
“The best interviews are conversations and we want our candidates to share who they are beyond their resume. We know candidates spend lots of time prepping for the case study portion of the interview and encourage people to focus time on the personal experience portion too.
“Think of examples of when you led a project, solved a problem, or used your entrepreneurial mindset. This portion of the interview is a great opportunity for candidates to stand out, show who they are, where they excel and what’s not on their CV.”
Frances Taplett, partner & Amber Grewal, managing director and partner of global recruiting, Boston Consulting Group (BCG)
Smart candidates. That’s what BCG are after. Smart candidates with passion who live BCG’s purpose to unlock the potential of those who advance the world. You also have to be intellectually curious.
As the world becomes more digital, Frances (pictured) says the firm are also after MBAs with a mix of increasingly digital skills and soft skill capabilities.
“As our clients tackle how to address business in the digital world, we look for candidates to have a good business acumen and client communication skills. You can be as smart as the day is long but if you don’t communicate it then you don’t get as far as you’d like.”
Incoming MBAs also need to acknowledge that consulting has changed from the world where teams consisted of MBAs, business school undergrads, and senior consultants. Teams are much more diverse now, and incoming business school grads need the experience to work with the new consulting team of 2021.
"We might have a team with a UX developer, software developer, data scientist, two core MBAs and a few more senior consultants all working in symphony. Increasingly, we need MBAs to become the conductors that can conduct those diverse teams.”
Amber, who heads up BCG consultant recruitment, says candidates need to demonstrate intellectual curiosity, resilience, analytical rigor, and an ability to work with ease in a team and cultivate relationships.
“Most important, we look for candidates who have the passion to live BCG’s purpose to unlock the potential of those who advance the world,” she says.
The qualities BCG looks for in candidates are qualities that are often valued during a time of crisis; resilience, focus on teamwork, and working well under pressure.
“As the world becomes more digital, incoming consultants will also need to have an agile mindset, the ability to work in cross-functional teams, and seamlessly collaborate with colleagues in a virtual environment," Amber says.
Keith Bevans, partner, global consultant recruiting, Bain & Company
How do you become a Bain management consultant? Since Keith joined Bain over two decades ago, the core skills required to become a Bain consultant haven’t changed, he says.
Bain looks for people with analytics skills; the ability to break down challenging problems into parts they can tackle in a sequence; strong communication skills; the ability to simply communicate complex concepts; strong team skills and the ability to work successfully alongside others to win as a team.
“The new twist for everyone is assessing all of that in a largely virtual environment because of the pandemic,” says Keith.
“COVID has also accelerated the adoption rate for new technology, especially collaboration tools,” Keith adds. “People that went to school during this time are going to be a big asset to us because of the range of ideas and perspectives they’ll bring from their [blended learning] experiences.”
Keith says successful Bain MBA recruits understand the benefits of what it means to be a Bain and want to go on that journey with them.
“It’s about wanting to learn and constantly stay outside of your comfort zone, because we are working with more sophisticated tools and deeper expertise than we ever have before.”
He explains that consulting on a Bain case team is more like playing in a jazz quartet than a classical orchestra. There’s no script, so you’re going to play a bit, then pass it on to a fellow team member, who’ll do the same. Together, you’ll make great music, but the direction is improvised.
“I think some students want to be perfect and play classical music and don’t want to share their insight or preliminary analysis until it’s right. The truth is I need them to share because what they share may not be perfect, but it’ll spark something in somebody else. I need students who are comfortable in that sort of environment.”
The best piece of advice he has for incoming MBAs is that they should understand where Bain & Company fits into their broader career plan. Most people don’t enter consulting and stay for 20 years, he says.
“It’s most important that you understand how it fits into your journey because there will be times where it’s very difficult and challenging, and those times are much easier if you understand why you’re doing it.
“It has to go beyond wanting to earn money or the prestige on your resume.”
This article was first published in February 2020 and updated in February 2021.