Working in consulting

Management consulting can be varied, exhilarating and rewarding – both personally and financially. But it can also be challenging, so it’s important to understand the demands of the job before you embark on a career in consulting.

Pros and cons

If you are intellectually gifted and personally driven, management consulting can give you the opportunity to prepare for a senior role in business while shaping the future of organisations in a variety of fields and being comfortably compensated.

The top reasons shared by candidates for joining consulting firms include:

  • High-impact work – achieving significant results in a short period
  • The chance to develop general management skills
  • Talented, high-calibre colleagues
  • Breadth and depth of career opportunities after consulting
  • Variety of assignments
  • Opportunities for international travel
  • Speed of career progression
  • Compensation
  • Perks
  • Better hours than corporate law, investment banking and private equity

The downsides of a consulting career include:

  • Client-service business that can involve longer hours than corporate roles
  • A high-pressure environment where clients expect results quickly
  • Lower compensation than top-paying corporate law, investment banking and private equity firms

What consultants do

Management consultants are hired by the world’s leading organisations to analyse their most critical business issues and propose solutions.

As a consultant you will have to opportunity to:

  • Work exclusively on the most interesting strategic problems. Your projects will be at the forefront of the client CEO’s agenda, shape the future of their organisation and often make the news.
  • Be exposed to a wide range of industries, functions, organisations and issues in a short period. For example, you might work on launching a new medicine, expanding a luxury hotel chain internationally, improving the productivity of a trading floor, devising an economic recovery plan for a government, turning around a failing business or advising a private equity firm on the acquisition of a TV network.
  • Take on significant responsibility and senior management exposure from the outset. You will have your own issues to solve from day one, giving you the opportunity to have a tangible impact on the problem at hand and present your findings at the highest level of the client’s organisation.

Life as a consultant

Assignments are usually completed by small teams of two to five consultants, and can last for anything from a few weeks to six months. As a consultant, your role typically involves working from the client’s site for part of the working week.

Your day-to-day tasks might include:

  • Analysing data
  • Interviewing experts
  • Facilitating workshops with clients
  • Leading problem-solving discussions
  • Communicating findings
  • Sharing recommendations with senior clients

No two days are alike for management consultants. You will be constantly encountering new situations and acquiring new skills, many transferable to other areas.

Work-life balance

Consulting is a demanding career, and you should expect to travel abroad and spend the majority of work week evenings at work.

Having said that, the culture of consulting firms, the predictability of the work and more formal efforts to limit working hours help consultants maintain a sustainable work-life balance. Weekend and holiday work is generally considered off limits, and it is possible to make room for personal time and occasional personal commitments on weekdays.

Consulting firms

Management consulting is led by a small number of players, including Bain & Company, Boston Consulting Group and McKinsey. Other participants include the strategy teams of the ‘Big Four’ and some specialist boutique firms.

All top consulting firms share four characteristics:

  • A meritocratic and performance-oriented culture where top performers can expect swift promotions and salary increases – and, on occasion, where underperformers can be asked to leave
  • A supportive environment where significant resources are invested in your development through formal training and mentoring, strong emphasis is placed on constructive feedback and consultants consistently help each other out
  • A vibrant culture where fiercely competitive selection processes result in very high-calibre talent pools. As a consultant with a top firm, you’ll make great friends and build a far more powerful business network than you would via the top MBAs or universities
  • Offices around the world, with opportunities for short-term or permanent transfers.

Career progression

Consulting careers are characterised by frequent promotions and rapid career progression.

Terminology varies from firm to firm, but the key roles correspond to these levels:

  • Graduate Consultant (university graduate entry point)
  • Junior Consultant
  • Consultant (MBA graduate entry point)
  • Project Manager
  • Senior Project Manager
  • Partner

A university graduate could expect to make Partner at a top consulting firm roughly 10 years after joining, or following five promotions.

As a Graduate Consultant progressing to consultant level, you would gain client exposure and take on responsibility for larger projects, but the nature of your work would not change fundamentally. However, once you reached Project-Manager level, you would get to manage a project and a full team of consultants, while as a Partner, you would manage commercial relationships.

Entry points for experienced professionals

Most top consulting firms hire experienced professionals at the Junior Consultant and Consultant levels:

Required work experience Total compensation range (UK) Total compensation range (France)
Junior Consultant Three to five years in a commercial role
Three or more years in another role
£70,000–£80,000 €75,000–€90,000
Consultant Five or more years in a commercial role £100,000–£125,000 €100,000–€120,000

Total compensation includes base salary, end-of-year bonus and retirement contribution. This varies depending on firm and individual performance.

Exit opportunities

Some people work in consulting for just a couple of years, while others stay for a decade or longer. A consulting career can open the door to many other opportunities. Some of the most common exits include:

  • Joining a corporation in a strategy or managerial role
  • Joining a private equity firm or a hedge fund
  • Starting a business
  • Moving into the public or not-for-profit sector

15% of the CEOs of the top 500 global corporations are alumni of Bain & Company, Boston Consulting Group or McKinsey.

Generalists vs specialists

Most candidates join in a generalist role, where they get to work across a range of sectors and functions. Then, after a few years, they specialise in a specific area.

Some candidates might join in a specialist role, where they are primarily staffed on a particular practice area (i.e. a specific sector or function).

See our opportunities page for available specialist roles.

The recruiting process

Top-tier consulting firms are notoriously selective. Their recruiting process generally involves two stages: CV screening and interviews.

CV screening represents a very high hurdle, with fewer than one in every 50 applicants invited to interview. Firms only meet with candidates with outstanding academic achievements, professional track record and/or extracurricular activities.

Consulting interviews are consistently ranked as some of the most difficult in the world, with one out of every 10–20 interviewed candidates receiving an offer. The process is usually structured in two to three rounds, involving a total of five or six interviews. Each interview features a business case and a discussion of your background and achievements.

Consulting firms recruit experienced professionals all year round, with no specific application deadline.

We recommend that candidates carefully prepare a consulting CV and spend at least six weeks preparing for interviews in their spare time.

We help our candidates put together a consulting CV and prepare for interviews at our interview boot camp.

We also offer our exclusive interview preparation material to the public at CaseCoach.com, our online preparation service. It includes video lectures covering the key skills assessed by the firms, sample interview videos and access to private coaching with our former consultants. We provide this service free-of-charge for our preselected candidates.

Recruiting criteria

Consulting firms look for outstanding potential rather than specific know-how. Their selected candidates are drawn from a variety of backgrounds, but all have outstanding skills in problem-solving, presentation and communication, and exceptional interpersonal abilities.

  • Problem-solving skills are assessed through the business case. Firms look for the ability to structure complex problems, logic, numeracy, creativity, business sense and synthesis.
  • Interpersonal abilities are assessed through a discussion of your background and achievements. Firms typically look for evidence of persuasion, teamwork, leadership and drive.
  • General impression is more subjective and not always formally assessed. However, firms look for candidates who can represent them effectively with their clients, which involves verbal communication, confidence and the ability to build productive relationships.

Background of successful candidates

Here is a summary of the backgrounds of the dozens of candidates we have placed with top-three consultancies in London over the last two years.

Years of experience Three to 12 years post-graduation (median 4.5 years)
Academic background 75% Oxbridge
15% Other UK (e.g. Sandhurst, LSE, Imperial)
10% International
Professional background 30% Banking
15% Consumer goods
15% Military
15% Public sector
5% Law
5% Medicine
5% Venture capital and private equity
5% Arts
5% Other

Want to know more?

If you’re considering a career in consulting and would like to talk to someone with knowledge of the industry, just press the button at the top right of this page and we’ll contact you.