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What are the best degrees and majors for a career in consulting?

Consulting is an excellent career choice for recent graduates. The unparalleled learning opportunities, along with exposure to a huge amount of sectors, functions and locations, are among the reasons why so many people choose to work in management consulting. Unsurprisingly, the competition to land a coveted offer from a top consulting firm like McKinsey, BCG or Bain as a recent graduate is intense.

In this article we explore the firms’ ‘pre-experience student’ hiring channel, in which recent graduates are hired into entry-level roles. We look at the academic institutions, degree subjects and majors that tend to stand these candidates in good stead. We also examine the other essential elements that their applications need to include to cut through the competition and earn the attention of recruiters.

Pre-experience student hiring is the largest recruitment channel at McKinsey, BCG and Bain

The pre-experience student hiring channel is for recent graduates of bachelor’s degrees and non-MBA master’s degrees, who typically have no more than two years of work experience. These candidates are hired into entry-level roles at top consulting firms, either immediately or shortly after completing their studies.

The channel is the largest source of candidates for the firms the world over. In our recent analysis of top routes into McKinsey, BCG and Bain, pre-experience student hiring accounted for the highest proportion of hiring in every global location. In the US, 45% of hires were pre-experience students, while in Canada, it was 43%. In some of the European countries in our study, this proportion was even higher: 68% in Switzerland, 69% in France and 70% in Germany.

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Which universities do successful candidates attend?

Firms tend to hire from a small set of top-ranked universities

In almost every country in our analysis, the majority of pre-experience student hires came from a small set of nationally top-ranked universities:

  • In the US, 45% of the firms’ pre-experienced student hires were from 10 prestigious universities, including Harvard, Duke, Yale and Princeton.
  • In the UK, the University of Cambridge, the University of Oxford and the London School of Economics collectively accounted for 58% of pre-experience student hiring.
  • In France, four universities – HEC Paris, ESSEC Business School, CentraleSupelec and ESCP Business School – produced more than 70% of graduate hires at McKinsey, BCG and Bain.

Because top candidates tend to study at these institutions, the firms invest in attracting applications from them by holding events on campus and allocating dedicated recruiters to each university.

Candidates from a wider range of universities are considered in certain locations

Our analysis indicates that in some parts of the world, McKinsey, BCG and Bain approach pre-experience student hiring with a greater degree of flexibility than in other locations.

Successful candidates in Germany came from a total of 125 institutions, and the majority of pre-experience student hires in the Middle East came from a pool of 64 international universities. Some flexibility is even evident in certain US offices. The universities that contributed most to the firms’ pre-experience student hiring in Dallas & Houston and Atlanta were regional universities not typically ranked in the national top 20.

It’s particularly important for graduates of less selective universities to demonstrate academic excellence and the potential to succeed in consulting in their applications, as this will help them stand out among candidates from top-ranking universities.

What are the best degree subjects or majors to choose for management consulting?

There is no list of degree subjects or majors that top consulting firms require candidates to have studied. However, McKinsey, BCG and Bain tend to favor Business and Economics degrees and STEM majors (i.e. Science, Technology, Engineering, Mathematics).

In our analysis of pre-experience student hiring in the US and the UK, 42% of candidates had studied Business and Economics degrees. Meanwhile, 18% and 19% respectively had studied STEM majors.

Although having a Business and Economics or STEM degree helps to demonstrate a candidate’s quantitative skills or interest in business, this is not a requirement. Many successful candidates complete studies in other subjects, such as History, Politics, Philosophy and International Relations. It’s important for these candidates to demonstrate their quantitative skills and an interest in business through other means, such as high school graduation grades or test scores in math, or internships in a relevant field.

Overall, the best degrees and majors for future management consultants are those that are challenging and allow candidates to demonstrate their academic abilities and quantitative skills.

Do candidates with a master’s degree stand a better chance of joining a top consulting firm?

The pre-experience student hiring channel consists of candidates who have recently completed bachelor’s degrees and non-MBA master’s degrees, which means these candidates are competing against one another for the same roles. So which candidates stand a better chance?

Our analysis indicates that this varies greatly from location to location. In some countries, McKinsey, BCG and Bain hired a higher proportion of graduates from bachelor’s degrees than master’s degrees. In both Canada and the US, for example, only 12% of the firms’ pre-experience student hires joined the firms after completing a master’s degree.

However, in other parts of the world, the opposite was the case. In Germany (85%), France (91%) and Switzerland (95%) the vast majority of pre-experience student hires had completed master’s degrees.

Elsewhere, the intake was more balanced: in the Middle East, 41% of the firms’ pre-experience student hires joined after completing a master’s degree, and in the UK this proportion was 45%.

How to join a top consulting firm as a pre-experience student hire

Navigating the application process

While pre-experience student hires join McKinsey, BCG and Bain after graduating, the application process begins while they are still at university. The firms all have summer internship programs, and a variety of application deadlines that differ among firms and locations. It’s vital for anyone who is looking to apply as a pre-experience student to source all this information during their studies.

At universities where the top-3 consulting firms tend to recruit large numbers of graduates, these details will be readily available at on-campus events hosted by dedicated recruiters from the firms. At less selective universities, students will need to source this information independently by conducting research on the firms’ websites and attending virtual events for pre-experience candidates.

Submitting a standout application

When it comes to preparing an application to McKinsey, BCG and Bain, it takes far more than having attended a certain university or studied a particular subject to stand out from the crowd. A strong application will also include the following additional elements:

Academic excellence

Top consulting firms aim to recruit the ‘cream of the crop’ from universities. To provide evidence of this, you should include your final grade or class position in your application. If you studied at an institution where a high proportion of graduates join McKinsey, BCG or Bain, graduating in the top half of your class could be enough to demonstrate academic excellence. If you studied at a university where the firms only recruit sporadically, you’ll need to be in the top 5-10% of your class to stand out to recruiters.

Selective internships

Top consulting firms want to see evidence of a track record of success, even from candidates who have only recently graduated. If you completed a sought-after internship or gained work experience with a selective employer during your studies, describing this clearly in your application is an excellent way to demonstrate a strong track record.

Regardless of the internship or work experience you choose to highlight, focus on illustrating the impact you had, rather than simply stating what you did. Being offered a full-time job after completing an internship, having an unusual scope of responsibilities or playing a key role in achieving a goal are all good examples to include. Don’t be afraid to remove less relevant work experience from your resume to make space for these valuable details.

Extracurricular activities

McKinsey, BCG and Bain are only interested in hiring graduates who can demonstrate that they have the potential to succeed in consulting. If you’ve participated in extracurricular activities that demonstrate that you have leadership skills and the ability to make an impact, be sure to include this evidence in your application. Focusing on two or three of your most impressive examples will have more impact than simply sharing a long list of activities.

If a career in management consulting sounds like it might be right for you, you can learn more in our complete guide to the management consulting industry. And if you’re preparing to apply to a top consulting firm, the resume and cover letter templates and specialized advice in our Free Resume Course will help you get your application in great shape.

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