Freshman and Sophomore Consulting Opportunities at MBB (McKinsey & Co., Boston Consulting Group, and Bain & Co.)
When I was a sophomore at Penn State University in 2020, I knew 3 things:
- I wanted to pursue an internship.
- I wanted the internship to be in the field of consulting
- I wanted my consulting experience to be with an MBB firm
A General Overview of Some MBB Summer Programs
Broadly speaking, underclassmen internships and special programs at MBB firms target a wide range of student groups, to say nothing of the well known junior year internship and full-time roles that exist:
McKinsey First Year Leadership Academy (Freshman Year)
BCG Bridge To Consulting (Freshman Year)
Bain Building Entrepreneurial Leaders Program (Sophomore Year)
BCG Growing Future Leaders Internship (Sophomore Year)
McKinsey Sophomore Summer Business Analyst (Sophomore Year)
The opportunities catalogued above are, as far I can tell, aimed at recruiting students of diverse backgrounds. The motivation behind this, in part, is to expand the recruiting pipeline for underrepresented groups in consulting. While diversity can be construed in many different ways, the application pages of these respective programs often specify what the firms are looking for.
In this article, I will outline three of the tips and best practices that gained me admittance into BCG’s Growing Future Leaders program and an interview for McKinsey’s Sophomore Summer Business Analyst program. I can say with a high degree of confidence that any number of suggestions to follow can contribute to your success in whichever opportunities you decide to pursue.
Let’s get started!
Tip 1: Build A Competitive Profile
It is no secret that McKinsey, BCG, and Bain aim to select what they regard as the corps d’elite of undergraduates interested in consulting.
When you first apply to these firms, your resume will pass through an Applicant Tracking System (ATS). This system largely provides hiring teams and managers with efficient means by which to sort through copious amounts of resumes and other application materials. You can be sure that a vanishingly small minority of the total applications to an MBB firm will be given interviews. Often, one of the deciding factors for who gets cut is one’s cumulative grade point average — not your major GPA, which is a calculation of grades earned in the classes one takes after declaring their major(s). If you can manage to earn anything north of a 3.7 (which corresponds to an A- average), you should fare fine in this regard. Here is how I think about it: do no harm (to borrow a Hippocratic idea); no matter what your GPA is, have it be such that it poses no obstacles in the way of your progression through the recruitment process.
This, in my mind, is the real differentiator. People are a consulting firm’s biggest asset, so beyond intelligence, these firms want people who are talented, motivated, and interesting.
Are you “well-rounded” (BCG likes that)?
Are you part of any pre-professional clubs?
Do you hold important, esteemed, or meaningful roles of leadership?
Have you worked in collaborative settings?
Do your extracurricular involvements indicate any kind of transferable skills toward consulting?
While the expectations of each consulting firm are different, there seem to be specific types of leadership that these consultancies like:
Visionary Leadership: McKinsey and Bain describe this as an “entrepreneurial drive” that surmounts obstacles through innovation, devises and implements new initiatives, and inspires the confidence of others to take risks.
Contributory Leadership: McKinsey says, “Interacting effectively with people is key to creating positive, enduring change.” At BCG, they describe it as “taking ownership of one’s work” on a team. You do not need a special designation or lofty title to lead by your contributions — the questions is: have you been a team player and to what extent have your efforts mattered?
Charismatic Leadership: This kind of leadership is deeply characterological. To wit, some people have charisma, and others do not. McKinsey refers to this as “inclusive leadership”. That is to say, can you bring people with diverse backgrounds together, create opportunities for the utilization of their abilities, and create an atmosphere of belonging? Bain asks, “Are you passionate about life?” They say that they want people who “challenge themselves to be exceptional and can champion that spirit in others.” BCG likes inquisitive minds that “build rapport” and seek to deepen their understanding of things around them.
Results-Driven Leadership: Bain wants to hear about how you made an “instrumental and quantifiable difference.” McKinsey wants “strong intellectual abilities and rigor” and BCG enjoys “feedback-oriented” problem solvers. To put it in a formulaic way:
(Intellect) x (Feedback) = (Prolific outputs)
This is the most “you” part of the application, insofar that if you go about this the right way, there shouldn’t be many applicants who have the same combination of passion activities as you. Or, at least don’t make them exclusively cookie-cutter extracurricular categories: this would include mundane experiences in greek life, professional clubs, band/orchestra, volunteering, scholarly research, sports/fitness. If you include those aforementioned things on your resume, think about how to make them “yours” — what makes them intriguing in the context of your lived experience? This is vital.
Have you run 5 marathons in 4 years? Do you keep a blog on existential philosophy? Have you written a book? Have you made it your mission to summit the world’s biggest mountains? Do your arrange your own music and make money? Do you track and collect memorabilia from every concert you’ve ever gone to? Do you dee-jay for weddings, concerts, and celebrations? Have you danced competitively on the world stage?
Look, I’m not being facetious here. I genuinely met people at BCG who had these things to say about themselves. One of my passion activities was public speaking: I described the experience of giving a TED talk at 19 years old. You don’t NEED this section, but so long as your activities are not too arcane — it can only make you more interesting as a candidate.
Awards and Accomplishments
Finally, this category refers to the honors that you have received over your career, both scholastic or professional. In my view, you should display honors that show you were the best or among the best at something:
- Top 3 in a competition (STEM activities, liberal arts contests, and so forth)
- Student marshal (valedictorian) or Latin honors your major
- Research grants and scholarships
- Publications and public recognition
- Distinctive opportunities (giving a TED talk, attending an important conference, etc.)
- Feats of leadership (organizing a conference, founding a legitimate organizations, and more)
Tip 2: Win Champions at the Offices You’re Applying to
When you apply to competitive companies, no matter how meritorious your credentials might be, the odds are always lottery-like. There’s a saying about the discipline of business: it’s about who you know. In other words, the people who think highly of you and that can vouch for you are tremendous enablers for your success.
Consultants (Associate and Senior)
While consultants don’t have as much influence regarding the success of your application, they can provide a lot of value to you on the way to a final decision.
If you’re looking to run through cases or behavioral interviews, consultants are a safe way to experience interviewing with some degree of verisimilitude. Not least because first round interviews are normally administered by consultants. If a consultant is a personal friend of yours or an alumni of your school, the odds are high that you won’t have to fret making mistakes around them. If you connect with a consultant who has no relationship or commonalities with you, there is no telling whether or not your mock interview will be evaluative. In that respect, let the applicant beware.
Consulting Advice and Industry Information
Because most consultants are only a handful of years removed from where you are as a college student, they can tell you about the realities of the profession: what the hours are, what the pay is like, what resources are available for your growth, how to manage performance and feedback, and what life is like outside of work.
If you find a consultant that does work in a particular industry that interests you, ask them about their experiences and share what you know. You may learn something and build a connection in the process. While it seems to me that many beginning consultants are generalists, there certainly are some who seek to specialize right away.
Middle Managers (Project Leaders and Engagement Managers)
Differently from consultants who can graciously handle some awkwardness or rambling on your part, this kind of thing can really hurt you with middle managers, whose time is worth a lot of money and value. At the middle manager level, you can begin to see what leadership looks like in consulting and what developmental strategies will be relevant to your ability to win trust and responsibility at the firm.
By dint of their position, most middle managers have spent a number of years at their firm. There are a number of questions you can ask them, and for starters, you might ask why they chose to specialize in the industry that they did, how they developed during their tenure at the firm, or the rationale behind the career decisions that they made.
Most Project Leaders and Engagement Managers work squarely in a single industry or a few adjacent ones. If you know that you are someone who is well versed in a specific industry (meaning that you confidently know its history, trends, problems and opportunities), this may be a terrific opportunity to put your knowledge to the test at a higher level than what is expected in conversation with a consultant. Remember, the goal with such a conversation is not to score points. After all, they work at the firm and you do not. The opportunity here is that you can connect with someone that shares your interests and learn things of which you were previously unaware.
Senior Staff (Partners, Managing Directors)
Partners and MD’s are the breadwinners of a consulting firm. Many of them have advanced degrees, wide-ranging connections in different industries, and outlooks on career that reflect a wealth of experiences.
Partners have tremendous influence in their fields of specialization. More likely as not, they have authored articles and reports on behalf of their firm, given talks and widely-circulated presentations, or worked on highly influential engagements in their fields. As alluring as all of this may sound to a prospective applicant looking to break into the industry, it is not without its risks. For one, partners and MD’s are tremendously busy — you may never hear back from them. And two, they are so serious about how they spend their time that an aimless, unstructured conversation with a partner will only serve to hurt your chances. The opposite is also true. If you can manage a memorable interaction with a partner, their support can carry you much farther than you can get on your own.
Talent Acquisition Lead & Recruiters
Recruiters and talent acquisition teams are the folks who design and manage the recruitment processes and strategy for a consulting firm. Externally, they represent the firm to interested parties: business schools, student consulting clubs, and experienced professionals, to name a few.
These folks are extremely helpful when it comes to understanding a firm’s recruitment process and applicant expectations. Because they work with undergraduates, MBA’s, and experienced hires, you can trust that their advice is tried and true for whatever group you belong to. Additionally, you may have heard about the ATS, or Applicant Tracking System, that screens a wide pool of candidates during the initial stages of MBB recruitment. Many times it is recruiters who manage this system, so to the extent that you can make yourself memorable to such a person, they may be able to advance you to the through the recruitment process!
Tip 3: Practice Your Strengths and Mitigate Your Weaknesses for the Case Interview
The case interview is undoubtedly that most formidable part about applying to consulting firms. While there are people who quibble about its merits, the unvarnished truth is that the case interview is likely here to stay. While a well-rounded case interview performance (very few mistakes all around) is the surest way to leave a positive impression on your interviewer, employing the nuanced approach that I describe below is a close second.
Do Some Reflecting on Your Strengths and Weaknesses
As an underclassman, you probably will not need to worry about being polished in your interview like an upperclassman, MBA, or experienced hire would need to be. Let me be clear, these lower expectations should be regarded as a cushion, not an excusal. If you bomb the case interview, even lower expectations cannot help you. If you take an inventory of your strengths and weaknesses and plan for each, you can produce something approximating a “well-rounded” performance. Consider the following:
When you’re casing, what are the elements of a case interview that you know you can perform reliably on? Better yet, what are your “spikes”?
If you are a strong analytical thinker, consider ways to dictate your thought process out loud more than what is expected of most candidates. To demonstrate: “It seems to me that one can understand the given case situation as one single issue across three dimensions. Dimension one involves ____, dimension two involves ____, and dimension three involves ____. Be that as it is, there are multiple lenses which may rearrange these dimensions in order of importance. The shareholder would expect us to focus on _______, whereas our consumer may expect that we examine _____. As such, we can predict that a ____-focused approach would lead to ____ as an outcome and a ____-focused approach would lead to____ as an outcome. In my view, we ought to go the route of _____ because it assures us of the following: ______.”
If you are quantitatively talented, consider ways to display your mental math or quantitative reasoning skills. To give an instance, if you are asked for a specific numerical solution, you could give a brief sensitivity analysis along the lines of: “The number I calculated was $ ___, which tell us ____. Interestingly, a number $_____ higher would reflect proportionate increases in ____ other cost factors, and the same is true in the contrary situation. In a hypothetical situation where _____ was possible, I imagine that it may increase our fixed costs by 15% to roughly $____ but reduce our overall costs by 40% which would look like a $_____ decrement.”
If you are an excellent communicator, consider ways communicate with your interviewer as though they were a client of the firm. How can you engage with them interpersonally with eye contact, communicate with gestures and precise speech, and summarize aspects of the case as you go along with polish and flair?
Every candidate has areas where, if they are pushed exceedingly hard in that respect, cracks begin to show. First, there is a sense in which that is expected — consulting firms know that you will require investment and training over your tenure at the firm to progress past your developmental arrests. Making allowances for that, the deficiencies that pose a prohibitive risk to your success in a case interview should be addressed fully and proactively.
I suggest that you spend a majority of your preparation time on mitigating your weaknesses, asking your mock interviewers to stress test you or learning alternative strategies and methods online improve your abilities. Your strengths, by definition, do not deserve much rehearsal before your interview. No matter your modus operandi, find ways to blunt your weaknesses so that your emphasis on strengths will be remembered by your interviewer.
In the end, I hope that these tips prove to be thought-provoking, or even implementable for you a pursue opportunities in consulting. It is incredibly fortunate that there are opportunities for younger students to make their debuts on the consulting scene earlier than most, and if this happens to be your situation, I hope that you succeed and ponder ways to bequeath your experiences and advice to others who will come behind you.