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How to land a consulting interview from a non-target school

Tactical advice from a student at a non-target school who landed multiple consulting offers

Edited by Kenton Kivestu, ex-Google, ex-BCG, Founder at RocketBlocks
Published: February 5, 2018 | Last updated: May 7, 2020

Guest Post: This post is based on the learnings that of an undergraduate in his senior year at Queen's University in Canada. Despite not attending a "target school" and having an average GPA, he received multiple management consulting offers including one MBB offer and an offer from Accenture. He joined Accenture in the Fall of 2017. Below, he shares his advice on how others with a similar profile can get the attention of top consulting firms.

Management consulting is one of the most highly sought out jobs there is making it an incredibly competitive industry to break into. The deluge of applications that consulting firms receive every year, rumored at over 700K in 2016, forces recruiters to use significant short cuts in resume screening.

Consulting firms just don't have enough time to give each resume a thorough read! As a result, factors such as GPA, brand recognition of elite "target" schools, and certain extracurricular activities tend to jump out (e.g., Class President, school newspaper Editor-in-Chief).

In this post, I'll explain the strategy and tactics tactics that my friends and I used to successfully land jobs at elite firms like McKinsey, Bain and BCG. Even though, on paper, we were not the slam dunk, "prime candidates" the elite consulting firms typically describe, we were each successful in landing jobs.

Here is the relatively straightforward, but tough, path we took to break into the industry:

Quality over quantity networking

We're going to start with the obvious: networking. It seems like trite and tired advice but the reality is networking, and specifically the right type of networking which we'll get into, is without a doubt the most important aspect of breaking through the noise in the recruiting process. We're not talking about the "glad-handing," boisterous, meet everyone in the room type networking that the term might conjure up initially. Save that for the social scene at your school if that's your thing.

The type of networking you want to focus on is building one or two meaningful connections at the firms you're interested in. The goal of this is quite tactical: your sole purpose for networking is to help elevate your resume to the top of the pile when the firm is deciding who does and who doesn't get interviews. To be clear, networking will not help you get the job. Your interview performance will dictate that but networking can and will be able to help you get the interview itself - and that's a huge first step.

Think about it from the firm's perspective. The largest part of the recruiting funnel is the resume drop. While firms might ideally like to interview all candidates to truly identify the "best," it's simply not feasible. To cope with the incoming demand, they've developed a series of filters that meet their needs: passing on the candidates who appear the most interesting and have a high likelihood of succeeding in the interview. If you're the Class President at Harvard, the Captain of the Crew team and have a 3.9 GPA, you can stop reading here. The resume screen is likely going to be a breeze for you. But if not, you need a hook to get the recruiter's attention.

While there are many potential ways to accomplish this, there is one, time honored, battle tested, high probability way to do this: make sure the recruiters know who you are before you even apply!

Do your homework

How do you do this? The first step is do your homework.

Successful networking begins with preparation. To have a great conversation with a recruiter or consultant at one of these firms, you need a list of quality discussion topics. A quality discussion topic is defined by meeting three criteria: 1) something you're genuinely interested in 2) something the firm has expertise in and 3) isn't readily available elsewhere.

For example, if you're preparing before a Bain & Co. informational session, maybe you plan to ask about the daily cadence of a private equity due diligence case? This is a good question because it's 1) something you're interested in 2) something the firm has significant expertise in and 3) it's hard to find that type of info elsewhere (eg the company website). A bad question might be: how many offices in the US does Bain have? Why? Because even if you are interested in it and while Bain will undoubtedly be *the* expert in that, that info is easily available elsewhere (eg just look on the website!).

Build a relationship

Now that you're prepared to have a great conversation, you can start reaching out to folks.

Depending on what's available to you, this might be through on campus information sessions, searching through LinkedIn to find alumni from your school at the target firm, reaching out directly to recruiters at the firms you're interested in.

The goal is to reach out and open up a discussion about the topics you're interested and build a relationship. Whether it ends up being a phone call, an email chain or an in-person coffee chat, the goal is the same.

As soon as you are able to set up a meeting and create a relationship with someone at the firm, your chances of advancing past the initial screening phase will skyrocket. Now, when your resume shows up in the massive pile of thousands of other applications your relationship with the recruiter or the internal referral you received from another member of the firm's will immediately move your resume to the top of the pile. My biggest pet-peeve in the recruiting process is when I hear someone say "I don't have any good connections that will get me into one of the big firms so I'm not going to bother trying". Well what's stopping you from going out and creating those connections for yourself?!

Develop your unique selling prop

As we discussed, if you're not the Harvard Class President with a 3.9 GPA, you are at a disadvantage on paper. So, the only alternative is to find a way to negate every disadvantage with an advantage in another area.

Just as marketers obsess over USPs (unique selling proposition) for their products, you should ask yourself what your own USP is? Why should McKinsey/BCG or Bain hire you versus any of the other talented MBAs, undergrads and industry hires looking for a great job?

In my case, I became passionate about harnessing the entrepreneurial spirit and technical know how on my campus and putting it to use. That drive resulted in my helping to launch QHacks, Queen's University's first hackathon. The program has since grown and in 2017, we received 1,800+ applications and hosted 500 of Canada's top computer scientists.

Not only was this a great personal experience, it helped me significantly in my networking. I found that since I was doing something I genuinely cared about that had a positive impact, other people wanted to hear about it too. A lot. Essentially, extracurriculars can be used as a means to create an identity for yourself rather than merely being used as something to write on a resume to win some bonus points. As with networking, you'll get more mileage out of a single, strong story rather than a laundry list of extracurriculars with no detail.

In my case, when I would sit down for a coffee with a senior consultant who I reached out to via LinkedIn, I found they started to remember me as "That kid who founded Queen's University's Hackathon and built it up to the 2nd biggest in Canada in only 2 years", rather than "That nice kid from Queen's with an average GPA..."

This is another one of those positive, step function improvements in your chances. As soon as you can figure out your USP, you have a gigantic step towards putting yourself ahead of the competition. All of a sudden, you have established some type of memorable reputation for yourself.

The key when looking for what extracurricular activity to get involved in, or what to start-up while at University, is to only do things that will allow you leave a legacy. If you're inducing real positive change and helping others people will recognize it and learn to respect you for it.

Conclusion

All in all, the biggest takeaway here is: when there's a will, there's a way.

None of the tactics described above, focused, quality networking or really digging into an extracurricular that you love, are rocket science. But, many people lose the forest through the trees when they're in the recruiting process. They start to focus on quantity over quality and they try to emulate others rather that play up their own, unique strengths. So my final piece of advice is: no matter how under qualified you think you are, if you have the hustle to build connections and can craft a story about your unique perspective and skillset, chances are you can land a consulting interview. That being said, you will never know until you try.

P.S. Are you preparing for consulting interviews?

Real interview drills. Sample answers from ex-McKinsey, BCG and Bain consultants. Plus technique overviews and premium 1-on-1 Expert coaching.