How do you land a consulting job? What is the job like? What was my path to getting there?
I often get asked a similar set of questions by college consulting applicants looking to land a job or internship at Bain. (Note: all just my personal opinions and not official Bain advice). Here are my answers.
Q: How do you get a job or internship in consulting?
A: There are 3 parts to think about:
- Getting school/work/leadership experience to make yourself a stronger applicant
- Writing a good resume and cover letter
- Preparing for case interviews
- School/work/leadership experience
A high GPA will boost your odds of getting your resume through the door. GPA is a woefully inadequate measure that says very little about your fit for the job, but it does show that you can work hard and succeed within the rules of a defined system (there are similarities between the skills needed to succeed in a class, a group project, and at a big consulting company).
There’s no correct field of study, so study whatever you want! While the majority of entrants into consulting come from business or engineering backgrounds, humanities backgrounds can be just as successful. If your field of study doesn’t include any sort of Excel/analytical work, try to get some of that experience through internships/on-campus clubs, since analytical experience can be helpful in your application (and is a part of the job). With that being said, plenty of humanities majors learn excel on the job and do just fine.
I often talk to students who are majoring in, say, finance, and look to add another professional/business minor, say, Business Analytics. While this won’t hurt you, no one really cares about your minor. If you would much rather take a few classes in some obscure field like Medieval history, a foreign language, religion, whatever… do that! College should be a fun time to explore interesting topics.
You’ll want relevant work experience, but similar to your field of study, there’s no right answer here. Consulting or finance experience is great, as is experience with a known company, but that’s not all that matters or is even required. If you’ve made it through your first 3 years in college and done 2 consulting internships and your main on-school involvement is the consulting club, you actually seem a bit boring/cookie-cutter in my opinion. Try something new! Tech, investing, law, corporate, sales, startup… really any type of internship or work experience can work. Think about what skills you’ll get from it and whether you can show leadership through it.
Somewhere in your work experience, if you can, it’s great to demonstrate analytical thinking and experience. This could look like a project involving excel, or be more complicated or technical like coding. No worries if you don’t have this experience (you definitely don’t need to know how to code), but highlight it if you do.
Consulting companies look for leadership experience. The easiest way to show this is through on-campus involvements - clubs, startup experience, non-profit experience… The earlier in college you can think about this the better. “Leadership” is a super broad category, and your leadership experience could come from a huge variety of places, in both official and unofficial contexts.
Regardless of where your leadership experience comes from, make sure it’s clear on your resume to anyone quickly reading it. You can have a separate section titled “leadership” or, if it’s all related to school activities, an “Activities & leadership” or just “On-campus involvements” section.
- Writing a good resume and cover letter
Just read these 2 very good articles and you’ll know all that you need to know!
- Doing well in case interviews
I have a separate page on resources I used to prepare for case interviews, but here I can share a few tips:
- The goal: show that you can clearly organize your thinking. Show that you’re easy to work with and a bit creative too.
- Do, if asked a framework question like “how would you structure the market? Or what would you think about before launching the product”, take a minute to think about it and structure your answer into 2-5 parts. Say “there are 3 things I want to think about” then list those, then briefly go into each one.
- Don’t ramble and come up with your structure as you’re talking. Don’t say there are 4 areas then add 3 more areas as you’re talking.
- Do answer the question you’re given, and do relate that to the Big Picture question you’re solving in the case.
- Don’t answer a question you’re not given or go take 10 minutes to talk about one question (unless the firm you’re applying to has told you that it’s an interviewee-led case, not how it works at Bain. You’ll be asked questions.)
- Do practice. It will be basically impossible if you haven’t practiced.
- Do practice with a friend who’s also interviewing. You can get a great start by yourself but should practice with others to better simulate the interview.
- Don’t devote your whole year or life to practicing. There are diminishing returns after the first 10-20 cases you practice.
- Do realize that there are only a few types of cases/questions… some might say only 2!
- Profitability (keywords to watch out for: “declining revenue”, “slowing growth”, “financial challenges”, “new promotion”)
- Doing a new thing (starging a new product or opening operations in a new geography or thinking through an investment)
- Here you’ll have to think through financial and non-financial impacts of the decision
- Within either of these, you could get a Market sizing (most often just one part of a case and you’ll be asked explicitly and likely given some info)
- Don’t copy/paste in a framework without thinking about whether it applies, or customizing it to make it your own. If it’s a profitability case, there’s only one profitability equation. However, in the parts of that equation, you should give specifics tailored to the exact case.
- Do rely on the interviewer as you go through. When you tell them your step-by-step thinking, they can correct you if you get off course. Think of them as a collaborator.
- Do get comfortable with simple case math. It’s all addition and multiplication, all things your 7th grade self could easily do, but that doesn’t mean you shouldn’t practice. A list of things you should be able to do:
- Most importantly, you must be able to ORGANIZE your math process. If there are 5 steps to getting to revenue or market size, you should set it up before actually completing the problem.
- Calculate breakeven point
- Quickly do multiplication by percentages
- E.g. Your mental math process should look like: 15% of 500K. 15% of 100 is 15, 15x5 is 75, add 3 zeros and get 75K. OR, 10% of 500K is 50K, tack on another half of 50K to get 75K.
- Get comfy with zeros - this is one of the easiest places to get tripped up. If you divide 10 billion by 5K, you should know how to quickly “cross off zeros” and get to the right answer. Same with multiplying 48K by 5K - do 5x5 and add the zeroes, then subtract the 2K*5K if you need to be precise.
Q: How important is networking? What about if you’re coming from a non-target school?
A: Can you get a consulting job through networking? It really depends. For about 95% of jobs in the world, you can “break in” just by connecting with the right person and conducting informational interviews (I actually helped write a book about this with a Santa Clara professor, check it out here)
However, for a small set of big companies with formal hiring processes, you need to follow the process. It really depends from company to company whether networking helps. At some companies, they’re more likely to give you an interview if they know of you, at others, you could be referred. At others (like Bain), everyone’s resume gets the same shot of making it through to interviews and networking doesn’t really help your odds. You just have to apply online.
But even in cases where you have to go through a standardized process, networking with current employees can still give you a better idea of what the job is like, tips to get hired, and what the company looks for in the process. Try to find someone from your school to talk to, and if there’s no one, someone at a school similar to yours.
Q: What is the job like?
A: Overall, it’s great. I don’t think there’s any better way to start your career. Or at least, I’ll tell myself that since I can’t change how things turned out. There are a few sub-questions within this that I break down below.
Q: What literal activities will you be doing on a daily basis?
A: A few things…
- Team meetings. Lots of these vs. other companies. Consulting life moves fast - you’ll have either one team meeting a day or short AM and PM syncs to check in on progress. You’ll also have team meetings for getting feedback from partners, and “workstream check-ins” for discussing the progress on your part of the project.
- Client meetings. The amount of client meetings ranges from ~1x week or two up to multiple per day on a small number of client-heavy cases. Most of the time you work for a couple of weeks and then have a “SteerCo” (“steering committee” refers to the decision-makers on the client side) or just a “final update” about a topic/diligence/piece of the project. On cases with more client, it’s common for more junior ACs (Associate Consultants) to get to present to and interact with clients; this is less common for cases without much client interaction.
Then, it’s likely that your “worksteam” will involve one or more of the following 3 activities:
- Data analysis/modeling in Excel. It’s common to work with Excel, and you’ll be doing one of two things if you are.
- Analysis. As in you already have data and you’re trying to figure out key insights from it. This could be at a company level (spend data, growth/revenue data) or at a market level (market growth, income growth, etc.)
- Modeling. As in creating a market sizing model to evaluate the opportunity in a given industry, or for a particular company. With modeling, you’re starting from scratch a bit more and pulling in “secondary” (data from the internet or your team’s researcher) to support your assumptions and math.
- Expert calls. The main way consulting companies answer difficult client questions is by bringing in internal subject matter experts and pairing that with external market experts. There are third-party companies that help us talk to relevant industry members, and ACs generally lead these workstreams. I’ll tell an expert network company that I want to talk to a VP of Cybersecurity at one of 10 companies, then do an hour-long call with an interview guide I’ve built out based on the scope of the question we’re looking into.
- Secondary research. Bain has done so many tens and hundreds of thousands of cases over time that there’s a lot of great past work to pull from. It’s almost impossible that you’ll be working on the first ever project in any industry, although some might have more past work than others. At the start of a case, the first day or so is spent taking stock of what we already have. Additionally, there’s lots of great info online in many industries that you can pull from… yes we really find sources on Google all the time!
And last but certainly not least…
- PowerPoint slides. Consultants love slides. They’re how we communicate basically everything. Regardless of your workstream, it’s almost certain that you’ll be making slides. Bullet points aren’t the most elegant form of communication ever created, but they’ll become your best friend. Same with bar charts and tables. If you hate PowerPoint, don’t go into consulting.
- Bonus… having fun! Team meals, team fun activities, fun stuff with your start class or office-wide events and lunches and retreats and all that good stuff 🙂
Q: What skills will I be using?
A: Also calls for a bulleted list:
- Summarizing. Not what you thought I’d put first on the list but I think it deserves the top spot. When your 4th grade teacher asked you to summarize articles for homework? Yep, directly transferable skill. Let’s say you’re working on an investment diligence of a used car company, it’s the second day of the case, and you spent the day looking through market data online and conducted two 1-hour expert calls. It’s PM sync and your manager says “what did you learn?” It’s now up to you to summarize the vast amount of information you’ve consumed into a few points that either A) confirm what everyone already believed, B) answer important questions the team had, or C) contradict what we believed and thus should be further tested. It’s actually pretty hard, but you get better at it over time, especially if you’re in Bain’s Private Equity Group (PEG) doing shorter diligences where you’re changing topics frequently.
- Structuring your thinking. One reason consultants love slides is they force you to organize your thoughts. If the question is “What forces are driving the market?” then a slide with a table with “trend”, “description” and “commentary” (expert quotes) forces you to pick just a few bigger trends and describe how they’re working. The constraint of the slide’s size forces you to.
- Communicating to different levels of people. The partners on your case care most about the big questions of the case, and now all 18 things you learned from your call. Your supervisor also cares about the big questions but will be much more involved in the day-to-day details of your work. Your team’s manager falls somewhere in between. This applies to clients as well. Clear verbal communication of what you learned, what you’re doing, and how you plan to tackle questions is a common skill.
- Organization. Of your time, of content on slides, of your excel formatting, of how you present to others, of how you write. All of it helps.
- Excel. Yep, Excel skills help. As does being able to interpret what’s most important from the data.
- Ownership. Pretty quickly you’ll be given pieces of the case to “own” and drive towards the answer. By the time you’ve been around just 6-12 months, those pieces of work will start to become more and more important. If you’re reading this, you’re likely the proactive type, so you’ll be set. But this job will definitely encourage you to take ownership.
- Supervising. Pretty quickly into your Bain tenure, you may get to supervise interns and new ACs… often as soon as 12-18 months after you start. It’s fun! And much sooner than you’d get to supervise in other jobs.
Q: Why should you want a consulting job?
A: 3 reasons:
- It opens many doors and closes none
- There’s almost no job that working in consulting will prevent you from getting, and many more that it will help you get. Even better, the most obvious next steps after consulting (assuming you do 1-3 years at least) are super cool: investing, bizops / strategy roles, and product management. Or grad school. But almost nothing will be off-limits.
- You’ll learn very quickly
- Everything moves fast. You’ll be on projects for generally shorter time ranges (maybe 4-6 months each on average), and thus get a bunch of experience very quickly. You’ll work for different types of clients, on different types of cases, and get experience with different types of skills.
- You’ll meet cool people and have fun
- The transition from college to the real adult world can be hard, but a job in consulting (especially with Bain) will make that easier. You’ll have a start class of 60+ people who are much more friends than coworkers. You’ll meet awesome people on your teams and around the office. There’s loads of money for fun team events, class events, and office events. You can participate in what are essentially extracurricular activities and feel right at home after college. The friends you make will likely last far beyond your time in consulting. That’s all pretty cool.
Q: What was my path to landing a job at Bain?
A: Short answer is I applied online, did a few interviews, and got the job offer.
Longer answer: I was a business (MIS) major at Santa Clara, but there wasn’t one area of business that really stood out to me. I enjoyed design but wasn’t artistic enough to be a designer. I enjoyed writing but there aren’t many jobs that are just that. I enjoyed data analysis but didn’t want to be stuck with numbers all day. I wasn’t quite technical enough to code. Sales didn’t stand out to me as particularly fun. I had some high school and college jobs editing videos but that didn’t feel quite right either. I had gone to a high school that focused on group projects and enjoyed those in my business classes. I loved management and psychology literature but didn’t see how that would connect to a job.
Early on in college, I tried to get involved in things that interested me. That meant Santa Clara’s Center for Social Entrepreneurship, where I helped revamp their online curriculum for entrepreneurs. I also started a podcast just for fun and continued it through all of college (more here).
I studied abroad in the first half of my junior year (pull out all the stops to do this if you can), and upon coming back, realized it was time to think through junior year internships (those of you in your first couple years thinking about consulting can scold me for not knowing consulting applications are a full year out). I applied to a few UX design-related things, but they didn’t pan out. Then I realized the best path was to do the fellowship associated with the Center for Social Entrepreneurship where I worked. I spent the summer in India working with a company funding electric vehicles… it was awesome and I never would have traded it for anything more prestigious-sounding or a more traditional way to spend a summer. I spent a bit of time before the summer practicing case interviews, mostly through books and online materials.
After returning home from India, I asked a Bain recruiter whether the AC position was accepting applicants. She said it was, and that the deadline was tomorrow (!). I franticly applied, then made it through the two rounds of interviews and received the offer, all within 2 weeks of applying. I hadn’t even started looking for other jobs and felt super lucky.
Fast forward a year, the start of a pandemic, and a few extra months of delay due to COVID, and I started at Bain in December 2020.
Q: What have you worked on?
A: In my first year at Bain, I worked on two different cases, one related to testing whether it was worth it for a marketing tech company to build a new type of customer data platform. I then spent about 6 months on a procurement and supplier relationship case with a pharma company. I got lots of cool opportunities on this one, from supervising to leading client meetings, some data analysis, and lots of ownership over my workstream.
For the second year at Bain, I was in the Private Equity group working on shorter 1-3 week diligences of companies in many different industries. It’s a very fast pace of work and we can accomplish a ton in just a few days. I now know more than I ever thought I would about a wild range of topics - luxury car rentals, hunting apparel, IVF clinics, period underwear, gutter cleaning, window replacement, preschools, dentists, sports agencies, physical therapy clinics, and more.
Q: How much do you work? Do you have work-life balance?
A: Average is about 55 hours a week, varying substantially between weeks and teams. It’s certainly more than a 9-5, but also better than some other finance jobs. And I haven’t worked on weekends at all. A normal week entails some evening work on M-W until ~9-10pm, and being done around 7pm on Thursday and 5pm on Friday. All in all, I’ve found it a very worthwhile experience, even if fewer hours is something I look for in a future job. Bain is also good at helping you make time for important personal things.