Building a Career in Consulting — The Ultimate Guide

Precious Oboidhe
Precious Oboidhe

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A career in management consulting is glamorous. Its perks include lots of traveling, generous compensation packages, interactions with top-level management, exposure to learning opportunities, and the pleasure of working on complex business problems.

person researching a consulting career path on a computer

But the consulting career path also has its challenges. Mika Kim, a former consultant at one of the Big 4 consulting firms, reports working an average of 12 hours per day. Other anecdotal evidence suggests burnout induced by long working hours could be a core reason consultants quit the jobs they once worked hard to get.

The point? Consulting isn’t for everyone. In this article, we’ll give you a comprehensive overview of the consulting career path. You’ll learn what a consulting job entails and be able to decide if a career in consulting is right for you.

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Table of Contents

What is consulting?

Consulting is the practice of improving an organization’s performance by providing professional, research-based management advice. Management advice covers operations, strategy, finance, marketing, and governance.

The base salary for entry-level consultants at top-tier consulting firms is $83,500 a year, according to CaseInterview, a reputable management consulting blog. That’s a big deal for fresh graduates just starting in the field.

This often makes consulting enthusiasts wonder, “What are the unique insights/skills that justify the high compensation of consultants?”

First, here’s an important clarification: Consultants aren’t exactly responsible for solving client problems. They’re the bridge between clients and subject matter experts with the technical expertise to solve their clients’ problems.

Sounds like a simple job, but it’s hard. Here’s what a typical project journey looks like:

  • A consultant (let’s call her Claire) interviews her client (usually a top-level manager) to identify problems impeding the organization’s growth. Claire’s goal? Identify opportunities for improving the bottom line.
  • Claire does a detailed analysis of the problems.
  • Next, Claire takes the problems to her consultancy’s network of subject matter experts (called support networks) to determine best practices for solving the problem.
  • Finally, Claire pitches the optimal solution to her client, typically via a slide deck presentation.

Claire’s approach shows that a consultant’s core skills include analytical and problem-solving abilities, research and data gathering, communication and presentation skills, and interpersonal skills to relate with clients.

Let’s go over some real-life consulting project examples so you understand what consultants do to earn their paycheck.

What do consultants really do? (Real-Life Examples)

Three common types of projects in management consulting are tech implementations, operations improvement, and strategy consulting.

1. Strategy Consulting

“Strategy projects are usually about growth — how can we get our clients to expand their services, how can we get more people using their services, and how can we get into more markets,” says Hisham Zhkan, a management consultant who specializes in healthcare consulting.

“Usually, the client will come to you with a really broad question or a problem, then you’ll have to build a strategy that makes sense,” he adds.

Example

A large healthcare system and a large medical center are both operated in the same city. These organizations recognize that their combined presence in the city should cause improved healthcare delivery for the city’s people, and they wanted to realize that potential.

They approached Hisham’s consulting firm to see how they could work better together to serve the patients in that city. The consulting firm team analyzed the city’s patients, what they needed, and the services each of the hospitals offered.

“Then we used that to build out recommendations for how the hospitals could combine their services and also invest in more services that would be better fit for the population of that city,” says Hisham.

2. Operations Improvement

This involves uncovering insights and making recommendations to improve operational efficiency and increase profitability.

Example

One hospital Hisham worked with was losing money because insurance companies were denying them payments for the healthcare services rendered to patients. Upon investigation, Hisham’s team discovered the hospital’s billing system was disorganized.

Front-desk admin officers registered patients with the wrong insurance details. And people on the billing side submitted inaccurate claims to billpayers.

“We outlined exactly what was wrong for the client and told them how they could prevent the issues from happening. That meant we had to create a bunch of how-to guides and training manuals to help the client train their staff to be more efficient,” says Hisham.

3. Technology Consulting and Implementations

This involves developing and implementing new technology systems to meet a client's specific needs.

Example

A huge hospital system was inefficient at billing out services to insurance companies. “We spent months trying to figure out what the client needed… then worked with the IT team to customize the software to the client’s needs,” says Hisham.

“After installation, we created training plans for staff members to ensure the organization transitioned smoothly into the new system,” Hisham adds.

While these examples are all from the same industry, most consultants work across diverse industries, especially those working in the MBB, Big 4, or Tier 2 firms. That means you’d learn transferable business skills in a short period and gain career experience you can use to land higher-paying jobs elsewhere.

Bottom line: Consulting is a great professional stepping stone, especially if you’re fresh out of college or unsure what career to pursue.

Top Management Consulting Firms to Work For

Consulting firms are categorized into four tiers based on the project size they handle (not based on the size of the companies). These tiers are as follows.

Consulting career path. Top Management Consulting Firms. The Big 3 or MBB — McKinsey, Bain, and Boston Consulting Group. The Tier 2 — Includes Accenture, Kearney, Oliver Wyman, and L.E.K. Consulting. The Big 4 — Deloitte, KPMG, PwC, and E&Y. Boutique Firms — Smaller consultancies that specialize in a specific industry.

1. The Big 3

McKinsey, Bain, and Boston Consulting Group (or so-called MBB) are the most elite consulting firms in the world. They handle the biggest projects and charge millions of dollars per project. They also pay the highest compensation to consultants. This makes them the dream workplace for newbie consultants.

2. The Tier 2

This includes Accenture, Kearney, Oliver Wyman, and L.E.K. Consulting. Tier 2 firms are the second biggest group by project size, with each project costing up to $1 million. They also pay excellent compensation and are a great place to build a consulting career.

3. The Big 4

The Big 4 include Deloitte, KPMG, PwC, and E&Y. In terms of company size, this group consists of the biggest consultancies — bigger than even the Big 3 firms. However, they typically handle smaller projects.

4. Boutique Firms

The Big 3, Big 4, and Tier 2 firms are general strategy firms, meaning they don’t specialize in any specific industry. However, boutique firms are smaller consultancies that specialize in serving clients in a specific industry.

From healthcare to tech, finance, education, and retail, there’s a boutique consulting firm for any industry you can think of.

Entry Points Into the Consulting Career Path

Breaking into consulting is challenging. But there’s an entry path for both fresh graduates starting their career in consulting or seasoned professionals looking to make a transition. Below are the three basic pathways into the world of consulting.

1. Undergraduate Recruiting

Top-tier consultancies typically recruit fresh grads as entry-level consultants. Your first opportunity to get in is via a junior summer internship. This can be converted into a full-time position after graduation. If you missed the internship window, you can still apply for a full-time role.

A commonly asked question by undergraduates is about the most relevant degree programs for becoming consultants.

Victor Cheng, a former case interviewer at McKinsey, says, “Most management consultants begin their professional lives by obtaining a bachelor’s degree in a business-related or consulting-related discipline.”

However, top consultancies (including MBB firms) hire applicants without business backgrounds. What matters is having a profile that meets the overall requirements.

2. MBA or Advanced Degree Recruiting

An MBA makes it easier to get into consulting, but it’s also not a prerequisite.

Elite firms actively recruit MBA graduates from top business schools. So earning an MBA (especially from target schools like Harvard, Stanford, Wharton, and Yale) significantly increases your chances of landing a job.

Besides MBAs, firms hire candidates with advanced degrees such as a Ph.D, M.D., and J.D.

3. Experienced Hire Recruiting

Consulting firms frequently hire professionals with niche expertise or vast experience. However, this is the most difficult way to get in. If you seek this entry path, you have two options.

The first is to target smaller consulting firms that’d immensely value your skills. These firms need top talent but struggle to find and keep them because the best candidates aim for more prestigious jobs.

Second, if you choose to apply to a prominent consulting company, applying via the firm’s online portal isn’t the most effective strategy. Instead, get a referral by networking with other consultants at your target firm. You can send in your formal application once you’ve gotten a referral.

The Traditional Consulting Career Path (Titles, Progression, & Salaries)

Consulting offers a faster career growth trajectory than most industries.

Most consultancies hold an “up or out” employee promotion policy, meaning you’re either promoted “up” to the next level, or you’re phased “out.” These promotions typically happen every 2-3 years. If you’re a top performer, there’ll always be opportunities to advance up the firm’s career ladder.

Now, the exact title for each position differs from firm to firm. But, below, we describe what the typical career progression looks like.

1. Business Analyst

Analysts handle most of the heavy lifting on projects. Project leaders assign them a few work streams. Their work involves researching, interviewing experts, gathering and analyzing data on spreadsheets, and building PowerPoint presentations.

This is the entry-level for fresh graduates. The average salary for analysts at top-tier firms is $83,500.

2. Associate/Consultant

Associates have similar job functions to analysts but manage larger workstreams and have more autonomy. Since they are more experienced, they’re often responsible for guiding and directing less experienced analysts.

MBA hires join firms at the associate level. The average salary for MBA hires and experienced consultants at top-tier firms is $149,000.

3. Manager/Project Leader

The manager’s key job is to oversee projects. Although they’re well-informed on the relevant data points, they spend no time analyzing data. Instead, they define a client’s problems and lead a team of analysts and consultants who figure out the best solutions.

“They usually have a final say about what to present to the client and what solutions are going to be offered,” says Hisham.

Managers/project leaders at top-tier firms earn an average of $175,000, excluding performance bonuses and profit-sharing opportunities.

4. Principal/Director

Directors strengthen and develop new client relationships. They may review analysis and provide input on high-level projects. They also provide nurturing and motivation to less experienced team members. Directors and principals earn upwards of $250,000.

5. Partner/Shareholder

Partners are individuals who have invested in a firm for many years. They ensure the long-term health of the company. Their key roles include identifying new business opportunities, winning projects, managing client relationships, and providing leadership.

Base salaries for partners or shareholders range from $570,000–$1,000,000, excluding bonuses.

Tips for Getting Started in Consulting

There’s stiff competition for roles at the top consulting firms. Tens of thousands of candidates apply to the MBB firms annually, but less than 5% of applicants get in. The following tips will help increase your chances of landing a job.

1. Maintain a high GPA.

Top consultancies expect academic excellence from their candidates. Having a high GPA becomes more important if you’re studying at a non-target school. A low GPA doesn’t kill your chances, but having a high GPA certainly boosts it.

2. Gather relevant experiences and internships.

Ex-PwC consultant, Mahdi Kafi, is an example of someone who got into a prestigious consulting firm despite having rough grades and no experience. In fact, he had no internships on his resume.

What Mahdi had was a list of relevant skills like customer service, autonomy, client management, analytical and presentation skills, and the ability to work in teams.

He developed these skills by deliberately doing jobs that required them. The result? He got interviews with the Big 4 and other global firms.

3. Write a stand-out resume and cover letter.

Many candidates get screened out because of poor resumes. When creating your resume, ensure it impresses recruiters by showing your skill and relevant consulting work experiences.

If you’ve worked at a top firm or attended an elite school, make it conspicuous on your resume — names are a big deal in consulting. Proudly display a high GPA and any standardized test scores.

Finally, try to fit it all on one page. Be sure to share who you are and why you’d be a good fit for the firm in your cover letter.

4. Start networking.

You’re more likely to land an interview if a firm member refers you. So tap into your professional and school alumni networks and connect with consultants in your target firm.

Don’t have any such connections? Start building them via LinkedIn or send cold networking emails so you can apply early to open roles.

5. Prepare to crush your interviews.

Consulting firms conduct two types of interviews: behavioral-fit and case interviews. Fit interviews gauge whether your personality fits the job and the firm’s culture.

Case interviews simulate your life on the job; they’re used to evaluate how you think about a problem. Acing both interviews is crucial to landing the job.

What happens after you leave consulting?

Only a handful of consultants stay in the industry long enough to make it to partner. Most leave after two to four years. Regardless of when you leave, life after consulting offers many promising opportunities. Below are four of the most common options.

1. Start-ups

People leave consulting to implement and own their results rather than just advise. In this case, starting a business or joining a fast-growing startup is a great option.

Consultants have business skills and a network that provides a sound foundation for success as startup founders. For example, Udemy Co-founder, Gagan Biyani, began his career working for Accenture. He was also a former and early employee at Lyft.

2. Corporate Management

Ex-consultants often become high-profile corporate managers at established organizations.

McKinsey alums are special in this realm. In 2020, 359 McKinsey alums ran $1 billion plus companies across the world. It’s why McKinsey is dubbed the CEO factory.

3. Nonprofits and NGOs

NGOs need to effectively deploy their resources like funding and volunteer hours. This is where consultants' problem-solving, operational management, and strategic planning skills become valuable.

Nonprofits and NGOs are a great exit option for ex-consultants who want to leave an impact on the world.

4. Investment Funds

This includes opportunities in venture capital, private equity, and hedge funds. Potential roles might involve deal sourcing — identifying investment opportunities, due diligence — evaluating investment opportunities, and portfolio management.

Investment funds might be the most financially rewarding exit option since you can have equity in the business. And if you don’t want to invest your money, you can join as a strategist.

Launch Your Consulting Career

Consulting is a highly rewarding but demanding career. It requires you to be on top of your game every time. Only a few people can sustain such high work intensity while building relationships and having satisfying and meaningful lives.

The good news is that you don’t have to work in consulting forever. As a newbie consultant, you can aim to climb the ladder or just get transferable skills and exit after a few years.

You’ll learn and grow from the experience, whichever path you choose.

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Topics: Consulting

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