200 students eager for jobs. 10 shiny consultants and one recruiter. Only 30 minutes to impress them.

Welcome to consulting recruitment.  

The past week has been a slew of information sessions, networking events and coffee chats with the world’s top three management consulting firms: McKinsey & Company, Bain & Company and the Boston Consulting Group (BCG), colloquially known as MBB. Hundreds of students—ranging from sophomores, juniors, seniors to graduate students—attend these on-campus recruitment events. That’s because working as a business analyst for an MBB firm is one of the most coveted positions among Duke upperclassmen. For those with a bachelor’s degree fresh out of college, beginning salaries as a business analyst are extremely high, averaging $83,000 at McKinsey, $83,500 at Bain and $84,000 at BCG.  

As a public policy major with little interest in working in the public sector and no clear-cut career trajectory, I decided to join the masses and give consulting a shot. As much as I’d like to say otherwise, the experience thus far has been more or less what I expected: uncomfortable at times, weirdly artificial and pretty tedious. Although I’ve only experienced the tip of the iceberg in terms of the recruitment process, I have gone through the parts that require the most networking and mingling. So for all of my aspiring consultants, here are the four things I’ve learned thus far:

“It’s not about what you know…” 

I know it sounds obvious, but consulting recruitment cemented the idea that, when it comes to professional development, it really is about who you know. Information sessions are purportedly meant to provide students with more information about the company, but the main objective is to give you an opportunity to network with consultants. Most of the students know what these companies do, and they don’t need much convincing to apply. At most of these information sessions, a senior consultant or manager explains why you should choose their company, then a Duke alum reiterates the same, and then it’s networking time. This is arguably the most important part in the beginning stages, because while being selected for an interview is technically based on your resume, many students have told me: "get them to remember you. That’s how you get an interview.” In the consulting recruitment process, good impressions and referrals can take you far.

Make connections early.  Otherwise it can be nearly impossible during recruiting events.

It’s very difficult to get quality time with the consultants once they come to campus.  And even if you do, whether it’s through a coffee chat or showing up for an event early, the odds that they will remember you amongst the 50 other students they will meet that week aren’t the greatest. What I’ve found is that reaching out at least a few weeks prior to on-campus visits, via phone, email or in person, is more effective. For one, it shows initiative and it makes it easier for them to remember you, so if they do happen to come on campus, you can spend less energy on making an impression amongst a sea of other students. Even if they don’t come to campus, maybe some of their coworkers will. Mentioning that you two have a mutual connection in the company helps to change up the dynamic of the conversation.  

Consulting recruitment bears a great resemblance to rush. 

If you’ve gone through Greek or SLG rush, I’d say you’ve already done 70 percent of the preparation. The rest is just doing your homework on the company. It’s a lot of exaggerated laughter, aggressive nodding in agreement, and knowing when to chime in—all things I’m not super great at.  During a Women in McKinsey networking event, I managed to nudge my way into a circle of a dozen girls who were chatting with an associate consultant. I was a little thrown off by the way some of the girls would laugh so intensely at “funny” remarks the consultant made, or how they would try so eagerly to relate: “You’ve got to be joking, the same exact thing happened to me!” I, on the other hand, stood there awkwardly as my main focus was keeping an interested expression on my face and maintaining eye contact with the consultant. Knowing how to network well definitely takes some practicing and getting used to.  Some people clearly had a knack for it, but I think for a lot of others, like myself, it involves observing and a whole lot of trial and error. 

There’s a difference between what they present and what they think

Two consultants who I spoke with recently—one a Duke alum who works at Booz Allen Hamilton and the other a non-Duke consultant at Accenture—both shared with me their work experiences that painted  different pictures than the ones recruiters did. While the Booz Allen consultant enjoyed the fast pace and dynamic nature of consulting, he also warned about the long hours. For him, hours could add up week after week, and he didn’t see it as a sustainable lifestyle once he settles down and starts a family. The Accenture employee found that, after a few months, the job wasn’t as stimulating as he thought it would be. He recommended that I keep exploring what I’m interested in and to not develop tunnel vision during the consulting process.

I agree. At Duke, especially for those studying public policy and economics, it’s easy to get caught up in the obsession with consulting. The hype is only magnified at recruiting sessions, because you learn about the amazing perks of being a consultant (lavish off-site trainings in tropical paradise, luxury retreats, fun office events)  and the recruiters know how to make you feel wanted. Getting a job at an MBB firm has also become a sign of prestige and a measure of success. But there are so many other career options that just aren’t as glamorized. That’s not to say that I no longer want to pursue consulting—I still think it would be a great opportunity—I just have to remember to keep the bigger picture, the end goal, in mind. For me, that’s doing something that I find fulfilling, meaningful, and sustainable, even if it’s not as glamorous and trendy as consulting.

Alicia Sun is a Trinity junior. Her column runs on alternate Wednesdays.