Perhaps it's the abundance of frequent flyer miles and business-class airline seating. Maybe it's the complimentary laptop, the big bucks and that new three-piece suit you've been eyeing at Brooks Brothers. And the free meals at some of the world's nicest restaurants can be a nice perk. Whatever the reason, you've decided that the exciting and professional world of management consulting is a good career match for your cosmopolitan self. The problem is that unless you attended a college with lots of ivy (or the initials MBA mean more to you than My Big Ass), consulting is often a difficult industry to break into. By following a few careful steps, however, you can figure out if consulting is really the right job for you, and how to break into it.


What consultants do

Before signing up, you first need to know a little bit about what it is that a consultant does. Consultants do just as their name suggests - they consult. In other words, consultants are people hired by companies to give advice about how to do stuff. There are many kinds of consultants out there; for instance, "technical consultants" give advice on technological issues and "financial consultants" give advice about money. But the biggest branch of consulting is called "management consulting."

Management consultants are typically organized into teams, specifically chosen for a given project. A "project" is a job that the team is hired for by an external firm. The team is constructed internally by the consulting firm, and it is maximized for efficient human capital composition (whoops . . . we broke into consultant speak there . . . in English, this means that they don't put two recent college graduates on the same project team). The average team consists of three to six people, depending on the job specifications and the clients' needs.

And what exactly are these needs? Well, that can be anything from "Tell me if I should sell my new sneaker in Kalamazoo" to "Evaluate our petroleum operations abroad and tell us where we're losing money and how to fix the situation." You, as a consultant, help find the answer. The clients' problems are all unique, and hence the length of a given assignment varies by project (typical project lengths range from a few weeks to many months).

But how does a consultant go about solving the problem? After all, you just graduated from college, so you only know about how long it takes beer to absorb into your bloodstream. Fear not, for there are all kinds of tasks that the team tackles in order to solve the problem, including:

  • employee interviews
  • computer analyses and projections
  • industry/competitor comparisons
  • historical trend research
  • market research

and anything else that would allow the team to attack the problem from all angles. If any or all of the above research mechanisms are foreign to you, don't fret. You'll learn how to do all that stuff in orientation, through on-the-job training or just through continuous learning. In other words, technical ability is usually not a pre-requisite for being hired, but we'll get into more of this when we get to Step 2.

The main consulting firms

The organization of the consulting industry is notable in and of itself. Most consulting firms are small, one-person operations. We're gonna assume you're looking for something a bit larger. The Big Five (traditionally accounting and tax firms) consists of:

  1. Arthur Andersen
  2. Deloitte & Touche
  3. Ernst & Young
  4. KPMG International
  5. PriceWaterhouseCoopers

In addition to management consulting services, these firms provide other services ranging from technology solutions to change management to process improvement. These other branches of consulting deal mainly with helping companies run more smoothly or add on of a new business process. Besides the Big Five, there are a few strict management consulting houses. Firms in this class (McKinsey & Co., Bain & Co, Booz·Allen & Hamilton, The Boston Consulting Group) are considered elite in the management consulting field. Hands down, the largest consulting company is Andersen Consulting (spun off from Arthur Andersen when it became the most profitable branch), with over 65,000 employees in 48 countries. Other consulting houses function as specialty houses, or boutiques, and only handle particular types of work. Recently, this has focused on e-commerce opportunities.

If you're interested in the business, you're assumedly going to want to toss your résumé into the stacks of every firm you can reach. But in case you're a more discriminating customer and don't want to waste time, here's a bit of info about a few of the more popular houses:

  • McKinsey & Company: Hands down, the most selectively elite firm in the field and possibly across any given industry. The lore is that they accept less than 1% of their 50,000 annual applicants. However, they pride themselves on their diversity, so if you have an advanced professional degree or if you've spent the past few years working in Nepal for a mountain climbing Web start-up, you may have an edge at landing an interview.

    Contact McKinsey at

  • Booz·Allen & Hamilton: This firm describes itself as a "management and technology consulting firm focused on business strategy and transformation." This means that they do other consulting besides strictly strategy work. Booz tends to be a bit more mature than some of the other firms, with most of its incoming recruits holding MBAs rather than bachelor's degrees. This does allow for post-undergrads to stand out inside the firm, though.

    Contact Booz at

  • Bain & Company: Bain is a global strategy consulting firm (are you seeing the similarities between these firms manifest themselves yet?). They tend focus on strategy work and are a younger-oriented firm than Booz·Allen. They hire a lot of recruits with both MBAs and bachelor's degrees.

    Apply to Bain online at

  • The Boston Consulting Group: BCG is similar to Bain in many ways, notably the similar age of recent-hires. BCG brands itself as a bit more creatively-minded, however. Eccentrics can stand out here, as long as they have some structure and precedent for backing up their crazy ideas.

    Apply online at

  • Andersen Consulting: Being the biggest firm in the industry brings with it a lot of structure and training and Andersen has often been lambasted for overtraining (brainwashing) its employees (droids) with the company's ways of handling given issues and problems. Whether or not you subscribe to the criticism, the company offers some of its youngest consultants the option of sticking around for a few years beyond the typical consultant's two-year pre-MBA stint.

    Apply online at

  • PriceWaterhouseCoopers: PWC is one of the largest firms in the field, but management consulting is only one part of their service and industry offerings. The firm is similar in many ways to the Andersen experience (both firms have similar background), but different in many ways as well. PWC offers excellent perks (nice restaurants, the best hotels, a slave-like service where for a few dollars an hour, you can have someone sit in your house and wait for the cable man), but the salary is at the low end of the spectrum for the industry (low 40Ks).

    Apply online at

Phew. OK, now that we're through with the logistics of the industry and assuming that you're still interested (you're still reading, aren't you?), we can get you started on the career path to the Wonderful Land of Consulting. Consulting can be an end to itself in some larger firms (like Andersen), where depending on your individual development, you can move up the ladder and eventually be a partner. In other firms (for post-undergraduates), it is more widely assumed that you'll take off after a couple of years to get your MBA or to gain industry experience. Talented veteran partners at McKinsey & Company often slip into CEO positions in Fortune 500 firms. The current trend among many younger consultants is to be drawn toward Internet start-ups with nothing more than a few stock options and a dream. With a well-established firm already on their résumés, many say, "Why not?" and take the risk, sometimes reaping great benefits (hint: dollars). Whichever industry you'd eventually like to enter, consulting can function as a grad school of sorts for the professional managers of tomorrow.