Many people are keen to work in business consulting, attracted by the high average salaries, interesting work and opportunities for progression. However, this makes the competition for the available jobs intense. Amongst a group of talented, well qualified individuals, how do you make yourself stand out?
What do consultancies look for?
Consultancies want to recruit the very best candidates. They have high standards and look for candidates who they can trust to deliver strong results from day one. They key attributes that you will need to possess to be successful are:
- Intelligence. You have to be bright to work in business consulting and consultancies will expect you to demonstrate the intellectual horsepower necessary for understanding complex situations and solving difficult problems. You will need prove this with a solid academic background and the ability to perform well on psychometric reasoning tests.
- Ability to work with people. Working within consultancies means you have to be able to work effectively with a wide range of people, both colleagues and clients. You will need to be able to work well within a team and build productive relationships quickly. Strong communication, a willingness to cooperate, and personal flexibility are key.
- Drive. Consultancy work is demanding and deadlines can be tight. Consultants often work long hours and undertake a lot of travel. To be successful you need to have the internal motivation and strength of mind to keep going, even when things get difficult. You will need to be tenacious and strive for high standards at all time.
- Confident and presentable. Consultants represent their organization and must therefore be presentable with excellent interpersonal skills. They must be comfortable managing relationships with senior leaders and be able to do so with confidence and poise. To be successful, consultants must be credible, and that comes down to how you present yourself and interact with others.
- Willingness to learn. Every day is different when you a consultant and the learning curve can be steep. You need to be willing to put the effort in to learning and understanding new concepts and contexts on a regular basis. An interest in business and your specific area of focus is essential.
To break into business consulting you will need to be able to demonstrate that you have each of these qualities. You need to be able to prove that you have shown these qualities in the past, and present yourself in such a way that the impact you make supports these qualities.
There are a number of recognized routes into business consultancy, these can broadly be seen as graduate opportunities and joining as an experienced hire.
Many consultancies offer graduate/undergraduate schemes and recruit directly from universities. Some have relationships with particular universities so it is worth finding out whether that is the case for your university. Graduate/undergraduate schemes are a great way of getting a foot in the door, acquiring some serious professional development, and securing opportunities for the future. The schemes tend to be well established and selection criteria and processes are fairly tough.
Jobs are also routinely advertised at ‘Experienced Hire’ level and candidates with substantial work experience, who can demonstrate expertise in their particular field, can secure consultancy opportunities in this way.
However, these are not the only way of finding and securing business consultancy opportunities. Candidates who are serious about breaking in to consultancy should also proactively use their networks to source opportunities. Reach out to individuals within your network who may be able to advocate on your behalf. Look for Alumni currently working within consultancy and ask their advice. Attend industry events and aim to speak with people working in the field. Never the afraid to ask for advice or introductions; remember, consultancies are looking for people with drive and initiative.
Internships are another excellent way of breaking into the consultancy sector. Whilst not everyone is in the position to take up an internship (paid or otherwise), if you can it is likely to be a worthwhile investment in your future. The experience you will gain and the contacts you will make, will enable you to secure paid work more effectively in the future.
Speculative applications are sometimes also successful. If this is a route you want to explore then you must have an impeccable CV and covering letter. It must demonstrate your skills and experience, and the examples you provide should align exactly with the requirements of the role. To be successful you will need to have some quantifiable evidence of success that clearly demonstrates how you would add value to the organization. Address the application to a specific person otherwise it is unlikely to be given much consideration.
Succeeding at selection stage
Business consultancies have famously rigorous selection processes; this reflects their desire to select only the very best candidates. To be successful candidates must be able to perform at high levels in a number of different tests.
Typically, this will involve:
- Psychometric ability testing (usually including numerical, verbal and abstract reasoning tests) to assess your cognitive abilities
- Personality/motivational tests to determine your drive and organizational fit
- Interviews. The interviews are often challenging and candidates will be quizzed on why they want to work in business consultancy and why this consultancy in particular. It is imperative that you can answer this effectively. Also be prepared to answer questions around your strengths and weaknesses, and questions that test your ability to work things out. For example, questions like ‘how many cups of coffee do you think are drunk in Britain each day?” The interviewer does not expect you to know the answer, they want to see how you go about working it out.
- Presentations. A core part of the consultant role is being able to present information credibly, professionally and with impact, this is therefore often assessed during the selection process.
- Group exercises. Similarly, consultants must be able to work effectively with others and have strong interpersonal skills, this is therefore assessed using group exercises. Successful candidates must be able to work effectively within the team, show leadership whilst also ensuring that everyone in the group is heard, and effectively influence others.
- Case studies. Typically, candidates will also be asked to complete a challenging case study. This aims to mimic, as closely as possible, the day-to-day work of a consultant. You will typically be presented with a large volume of data and expected to make sense of it, showing analysis and insight, and arriving at logical and strategic conclusions.
Ed Mellett is an entrepreneur, careers professional and founder of practicereasoningtests.com. He is known for co-founding and launching the leading student and graduate careers website wikijob.co.uk. Now in its 11 th year, wikijob attracts over 400,000 unique users per month and is a must-visit resource for students considering their careers post-university. In 2011 he founded wikifestivals.com, a wiki resource and global community for festival fanatics. Ed’s other interests include AI, neuroscience and psychology.
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