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Consulting

Consulting is a field dedicated to helping organizations improve their performance. Consultants assess and solve business problems, and are hired by companies across various industries who need their expertise, fresh outside perspective, and/or extra set of hands. There are many specialty areas in consulting, including management and strategy, finance, information technology, human resources/human capital, economics, health care, nonprofit, politics, and marketing. Students will have the option to join a large consulting firm that provides a wide array of services or a boutique consulting firm with a narrow focus. 

Skills to develop success in this field

  • Collaboration 
  • Communication and presentation skills (client facing, team based) 
  • Data visualization 
  • Leadership 
  • Problem-solving  
  • Project management 
  • Quantitative and qualitative analytical skills (advanced Excel) 
  • Research 

Online resources specific to the industry

  • Firsthand* is a comprehensive resource for information on what it is like to work within an industry, company or profession.  *Note: Registration using Northwestern email address is required for access.

Key information or knowledge for this field

  • Many firms offer programs for specific populations as a way to explore the industry. These programs are typically short-term, conference-like events that include educational sessions and networking. In some cases, those accepted to these programs are offered interviews for future internships. Specifications for who can participate vary by firm. 
  • Several firms host undergraduate case competitions allowing the opportunity to practice case interviewing (or casing) firsthand. Check for the option to register as an individual or team with peers. Advance registration or application typically takes place winter/spring quarters. 
  • You  can identify which firms are a good fit by attending events, reviewing firm websites and networking.   
  • The questions “why consulting?” or “why this firm?” are very important to reflect upon prior to recruitment and be able to answer thoughtfully during the interview process. It is especially noteworthy that you should not have an answer that is generic such as “I like solving problems” and that does not center only around consulting serving as a “launching pad” or “training ground” for other jobs.  
  • Coffee chats allow students to build their network and make a positive impression, often before the application is due. Coffee chats are like an informational interview and are often hosted by employers or can also be initiated by you. Be ready to share about your interest in the firm and the industry, and have questions prepared.  
  • Applying for roles in consulting is a time consuming and competitive process. The number of firms to apply to is a very personal decision. Consider fit as well as your capacity to manage the potential interview schedules if applications lead to interview offers. Consider applying to a variety of firms due to the competitive nature of the industry.   
  • Consulting firms often refer to “leadership” as a skill they seek in ideal candidates. Keep in mind that leadership is not tied to a title in an organization. An active group member who helps with projects, recruitment, event planning or works as part of a team or committee can demonstrate leadership. Employers want to see continued involvement and dedication. While there are many relevant pre-professional organizations, consulting firms value all extracurricular involvement and enjoy learning about the student’s passions and interests outside of consulting.  

Relevant student groups and professional associations

Northwestern Student Groups:
  • ISBE Analytics: subgroup of Institute for Student Business Education

Special considerations for graduate students

Advanced Degree candidates in consulting

Consultants help companies with a wide range of business problems. Some firms specialize in high-level strategy, while others focus on functional areas (IT, operations, marketing, finance, human capital, etc.) or industries (pharmaceutical, educational, etc.). Consultants typically work on-site with the client Monday-Thursday and work at their home office on Friday. Projects can last four weeks or several years, but most consultants will work on a project for 8-12 weeks.

McKinsey, BCG and Bain (nicknamed MBB) are the “Big 3” consulting firms, focusing primarily on strategic problems. These large firms have the resources to train non-traditional candidates and have hired more advanced degree candidates (ADCs) in recent years, making 20-40% of their consultants ADCs. Other consulting firms hire ADCs more sporadically, usually for their knowledge in a specific field.

Consulting interviews are distinctive in that they require “case interviews” in addition to typical behavioral interviews. A case interview offers a glimpse at how the candidate would approach a typical consulting project. Firms evaluate candidates on their ability to logically structure a business problem, evaluate qualitative and quantitative data, and present a compelling recommendation during these 25-45 min. interviews. Case interviews require extensive preparation due to their unusual format and evaluative weight. Consulting does not have to be a long-term career. Many consultants leave after 2-3 years, either seeking a more stable work-life balance and less travel, or a new challenge. Consultants often find attractive exit opportunities in a wide range of industries, from finance and banking, to non-profits, start-ups, and many more.

 

Entering Consulting with a Non-MBA Masters’ Degree

Candidates with non-MBA master’s degrees should follow the recruiting calendar for bachelor’s level candidates. Candidates who miss the summer-fall recruiting season may be able to secure interviews through networking.

Application Materials

Prepare the following:

  • GRE Scores
  • TOEFL Scores (if appropriate)
  • Undergraduate GPA
  • Graduate GPA
  • Graduate Transcript (unofficial)
  • Business resume (one- and two-page versions)
  • Cover letter (one page)
  • Essays on leadership, teamwork, etc. (varies firm-to-firm)
Northwestern Resources
  • Kellogg Courses: To prepare for case interviews and gain skills for consulting, watch TGS news at the beginning of each academic quarter for Kellogg courses open to TGS students. These courses are only available pending openings after Kellogg students enroll and are filled on a rolling basis at the beginning of each term.
  • Management for Scientists and Engineers Certificate: Also consider enrolling in “Management for Scientists and Engineers,” a summer program offered through a partnership between TGS and Kellogg.
Firms that have hired PhDs from Northwestern
Management Consulting:
  • McKinsey and Co.
  • Bain and Co.
  • The Boston Consulting Group
  • Deloitte
  • PwC
  • Strategy&
  • Accenture
  • L.E.K.
Technical Consulting:
  • Exponent Consulting
  • Capgemini
Healthcare Consulting:
These firms tend to hire PhDs and postdoctoral researchers in the life sciences and biomedical engineering, as well as MDs
  • Clearview Healthcare Partners
  • ZS Associates
  • Huron
  • L.E.K.
Educational Consulting:
  • Huron
  • Education First
  • Most strategy firm
Resources

Introductory Books:

  • Cosentino, Case in Point
  • Ohrvall, Crack the Case
  • Cheng, Case Interview Secrets

Interactive and Online Resources:

Practice:

  • Casebooks by MBA consulting clubs at Wharton and Kellogg
  • Consulting firm websites
  • Study buddy: practice early and often (the ADCA can help you find a case prep partner)

Business Acumen:

  • Publications by firms (BCG Perspectives, McKinsey Quarterly, Bain Insights)
  • Harvard Business Review
  • The Economist
  • Fortune
  • Wall Street Journal
  • Fast Company
  • Casebooks, such as Wharton, describing industry verticals

Glossary:

ADC/APD: Advanced Degree Candidates/Advanced Professional Degrees. These include PhDs, postdoctoral researchers, JDs, and MDs, but not MBAs.

ADCA: Advanced Degree Consulting Alliance is a consulting club for Northwestern ADC’s. They schedule info sessions, workshops, send email reminders of important deadlines, and help candidates find case interview partners.

Case Competitions: Case competitions generally occur in the winter and spring, and include Yale Consulting Club, Michigan, Columbia, Mid-Atlantic (Bethesda NIH). These are helpful to learn more about the career, working with a team under a short deadline to solve a business problem.

Casebooks: Casebooks contain business problems similar to those you may encounter in a case interview and will often provide model answers, tips, and evaluation criteria. Candidates should practice mock interviews with another person, not just read them. Casebooks may also include frameworks, vertical industry data, and interview details based on the firm. Duke, Wharton, and Kellogg all have high quality casebooks, which are typically distributed internally, so networking to find more recent casebooks is helpful.

Case Interviews: 25-45minute business problem used to evaluate candidates’ ability to structure problems, analyze quantitative and qualitative data, do basic calculations, and present compelling recommendations. Practice Cases can be found easily on consulting company websites and online.

Case Partners and Networking: To find case partners, join ADCA and submit your name on the “Looking for Case Partner” list. Attending case competitions and bridge programs will also help you find case partners. Moreover, many Northwestern undergraduates become associates at consulting firms, so keep in touch with former students interested in consulting. Also, use LinkedIn to find contacts in consulting to help you navigate the process. Don’t be afraid to network!

Fit Interview: traditional behavioral interview, evaluating skills and personality. In consulting, these are generally brief, 15-20 minutes, and often right before a case interview.

MBB: McKinsey, BCG and Bain, the “Big 3” Consulting firms. These firms are the primary strategy firms, which hire PhDs because they are large enough to have the resources to train non-traditional candidates.

PST: McKinsey’s Problem Solving Test evaluates logic, problem solving, qualitative and quantitative abilities. It is a multiple-choice test, with questions similar to the GMAT.

Recruiting: Every firm has recruiting staff available to answer your questions and connect you to the company. Their role is to find the best candidates possible, but they do not play a role in the selection process. Contact recruiters with any questions about the job or the application process. Recruiters from many firms will hold informational sessions on campus, usually in the fall and spring. Find out about upcoming info sessions through NCA’s events listed in Handshake as well as through emails from ADCA.

Summer Bridge Programs: Several large firms offer 1-3 day programs for ADCs to learn more about consulting. These competitive programs also create helpful networking opportunities and can guarantee a first-round interview. Applications are due in spring for the summer program. Students should apply the spring before they are ready to apply for full-time positions. Programs include McKinsey’s Insight program for scientists and engineers, Bridge to BCG, Bain’s Advance into Consulting, and Connect to Clearview for life scientist

Case Interviewing

What is a case interview?

Case interviews simply stated are real-time problem solving scenarios that aim to replicate the approach and types of interactions consultants have with clients. They typically take approx. 30-45 minutes in an interview setting (possibly longer when practicing). Examples of case questions include:

  • Sales of a popular movie theater chain are decreasing? What is causing the sales decrease?
  • A national nonprofit hoped that their annual campaign would continue to fund their efforts, however donations have decreased dramatically. What should the organization do to ensure they can continue providing support to the community across the US?
  • A national grocery chain is trying to determine whether it should eliminate more name brand products for its in-house brand. What would you recommend?
These may seem like big questions, and ultimately there is not one correct response. What a consulting firm is hoping to learn from engaging with you in a case interview is how you analyze quantitative/qualitative information, think creatively about solutions, and present your ideas. Much of what you will do as a consultant requires skills and industry specific knowledge you will gain on the job. Preparing for the case interview process is about demonstrating your transferable skills and interest in learning how to work in the way that consultants help their clients each day.

Common types of cases

The subject matter of a case will often fall into one of the following categories:
  • Profitability – based on profit loss/gain
  • Business situation – conceptual/qualitative
  • Mergers & Acquisitions – acquiring or merging with another company
  • Market Sizing – estimating potential for new product or service

Many of the resources included below will provide a basic understanding of casing structures. Below are two “formulas” that order the steps you will take in a case interview:

  • Establish hypothesis + problem solve + synthesize
  • Understand problem + ask questions + develop solutions

Preparation tips and resources

By understanding the structure of a case interview, frameworks utilized when responding to a case and tips for evaluating quantitative and qualitative information, you can develop the skills and approach that works for you.

Resources:

  • Case in Point: This book will provide a foundational understanding of what a case interview entails, frameworks to utilize and provide sample case questions.
  • CaseQuestions: This resource includes math drills, interactive cases and more. This site was built to supplement the strategies and skills you learned while reading Case in Point.
  • CaseInterview.com
  • ConsultingOffer.com
  • Vault: Search Vault Guides > Consulting for case guidance as well as information on top firms.

Practice cases with peers and/or alumni

While reading about the structure, process and strategies of casing can be helpful, actually practicing cases will allow you to develop the necessary skillset. Peers can be incredibly helpful with this. Additionally, while networking or engaging with alumni you may find consultants willing to either practice cases with you or provide advice.

Those who help you prepare for cases may be your future colleagues – so work to be an excellent case partner! Make practice a two-way street – especially when practicing with your peers.

  • Ask what types of cases they would like to practice/share a case you would like them to present.
  • Review cases you present in advance so you are familiar with the structure and suggested “answers” prior to leading your partner through a case.
  • Consider if you and your partner would like to record your practice cases to review later.
  • Provide detailed feedback based on any area they mentioned wanting to focus on, and share what areas you would most like to improve/discuss.
  • Practice with those who are less experienced, more experienced and at the same point as you in terms of preparation - remember you can learn a lot from observing how others respond to and approach cases.
  • If practicing with an alum consider your relationship with them and the impression you make. If you do not know them well you may not want your first time casing to be with someone who works for your desired future employer. Consider practicing with them once you have a few practice cases completed.
Resources that include sample cases: consultingcase101.comKellogg Consulting Club Case Book (PDF)Wharton Consulting Club Case Book (PDF), employer sites also often share sample cases - visit the BCG Interactive Case Library for an example.

Attend Employer and NCA Hosted Events

Employers often host case workshops (mostly during spring/summer quarters) that will explain firm specific structure for case interviews. They may also host case competitions that allow students to form teams and practice case scenarios (these most often take place winter/spring quarters).

NCA provides opportunities for you to engage with employers/alumni for case practice. Annually NCA facilitates alumni mock case interviews and hosts “Case Interviewing with the Pros” (both are typically held in summer prior to the start of formal consulting recruitment). For alumni mock cases students “apply” via Handshake to be matched with an alumni case partner. The alumnus will present the student with a case (typically virtually/via phone) in a mock interview setting. The Case Interviewing with the Pros event allows small groups of students to rotate through several (in-person or virtual) sessions with employer/alumni guests who facilitate small group practice cases.