A Graduate Spills the Tea on Consulting Grad Programs
8 min read

A Graduate Spills the Tea on Consulting Grad Programs

We asked a former graduate management consultant at a professional services firm for an honest take on what graduates actually do, some insider secrets on how to get a graduate role and top tips on how to succeed.
A Graduate Spills the Tea on Consulting Grad Programs

What do you tell people you do?

I joined the graduate program in Consulting at one of the Big 4, so most of the time just saying that was enough for people to have an idea of what I did. I mostly worked with large Australian companies (the top 50 to 100 in size) on their strategy and transformation programs. That could be anything from deciding how to allocate capital across markets in a 5-year strategy, to restructuring underperforming businesses.

What do you really do?

Lots of data collection, analysis and program management.

It’s funny… when I described what I did, I was mostly describing what my manager was responsible for. I contributed big parts to it, but it doesn’t sound that exciting when I say that I was working late reformatting workshop materials to fit on size A0 posters, compared to, “we ran a workshop with the executive of XYZ company”.

Here are a few things I would usually do on strategy projects:

  • A lot of desk research at the beginning of the project to help familiarise the team with the industry dynamics, size of certain markets and positioning of our client vs. other players.
  • After that, we would usually need some primary data, so I would conduct some user, customer or client interviews (for example, seeing how likely UK teachers would be to use our client to find teaching jobs in other countries).
  • Then I would get stuck into some analysis. The team would typically have some hypotheses that we needed to test, so I would have some specific things I was looking for in the data (for example, whether demand for English educated teachers and international schools was higher in Thailand, Malaysia or the UAE).

On transformation projects, what I did was slightly different. Here are a few things I’d usually do:

  • Writing status reports for different workstreams on the project. On big transformation programs, one of the hardest things is for leadership to see problems and delays early enough to rectify them. I would speak to the people working on different workstreams and figure out what was going to plan and what was off track and then translate that into a status report.
  • Creating process maps for how the client currently does things and working out where this creates issues and what needs to change. This one can be tedious but it helps you understand the client’s business from the bottom up. It would be my job to interview people at the client to figure out how things actually are done so that as a team, we could make recommendations on what needed to change.
  • Finding examples of “best practice” from other projects done at the firm. There was a huge (but hard to navigate) repository of documents from previous projects at my firm. I would get a brief like “what are some good examples of implementing zero-based budgeting for a new Finance function?” and I would review the repository and find the best and most relevant examples.
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What is the biggest misconception about the graduate role?

That your success is most influenced by getting the “best” projects.

What no one tells you is that it completely depends on your manager. Some managers (they might be a Consultant or Senior Consultant) are really committed to giving you a good learning experience - maybe some of the work will be a little repetitive after a while but you are still learning from it. Other managers see taking on a graduate as extra work and they will avoid giving you work that requires them to spend a lot of time teaching you how to do it or giving you feedback.

I actually got the most valuable experience from my transformation projects vs. strategy projects because the managers were willing to give me ‘stretch’ tasks and spend the time teaching me how to do things myself to a client-ready standard. On the “sexier” strategy projects, my manager was more concerned about saving themselves time so they gave me lots of small bits of analysis to do for them. It made their life easier, but I could never trace a line between what I was doing day-to-day and the findings and recommendations we were making on the project. It was so disconnected.

Why do most people try to get into a graduate program?

Good quality training and optionality.

I chose consulting because I thought it would be a solid start to my CV and give me good ‘business’ training that I could use in any job I eventually wanted to do. After 3 years, I started to get quite a few offers from other companies in industry (and other firms). They were looking for someone that was still relatively junior in their career, but had all the early training and technical skills that the big firms offer (they consider it a pretty safe bet).

I also found that most of my grad cohort, like me, weren’t absolutely sold on consulting as a long term career. We joined for the career options it would give us later on. Coming out of university, it was hard to know exactly which industry and type of role was the right one for me, so consulting bought me a few years to see the inside of a lot of client’s businesses and then work out what I wanted to do. What I saw from my cohort was that 80% had left within 4-5 years to a wide variety of jobs (private equity, in house strategy, startup, other consulting firms). Also, all of them left for jobs that would have been out of reach (too senior) if not for their consulting experience. A start in consulting seems to open many doors, and not really close any.

How do people typically enter a consulting graduate program?

Gone are the days of just getting the gig through a friend or family member. All of the big firms have a very structured application, interview and intake process for graduates. The best a referral is going to get you (in my experience) is a spot in the first stage of interviewing (phone screen and group interview). In the end the interviewer is putting their reputation on the line suggesting which grad to hire and want the best team members.

Graduate applications and interviews are done in the second last year of study (internships are even earlier and some interns secure a graduate position through the internship). Most grads meet people from the firm at a career fair to get a sense for the culture and type of work that they would be doing, and then enter the application process. More and more, firms are pushing interviews even earlier to lock in the best talent.

An extra note: The application process is designed to be unbiased and give everyone a shot, but it is absolutely overwhelmed by the number of applications each year. It can be hard to stand out and make the cut for interviews. The consulting recruiting team are scanning for a few things: your marks (of course) and any scholarships or awards that set you apart, previous work experience that demonstrates you’ve been seeking out learning opportunities, extracurriculars that suggest you might be a Type A overachiever, and increasingly, fluency in other languages.

How do you stand out in the interview process?

Demonstrate how you prepare: Interviewers assume you’ll treat your work like you treated your interview - if you show up unprepared, they’ll assume it's likely you’ll show up to your projects unprepared too. They will make this assessment very quickly and weed out those who aren’t invested in the process.

Let your genuine interest and intellectual curiosity shine: The interviewer can tell when you’re trying to ‘pass’ the interview, as opposed to having a genuine interest in the problems you get to solve in consulting. The ideal candidate is one who is energised by learning new things and is internally compelled to solve problems.

Be someone the interviewer would want on their team: There’s no point being the ‘smartest’ if no one in your group interview wants to work with you, or you need to talk over everyone else to get your point across. The interviewer is thinking about how you will fit onto their project. People who show little empathy or struggle to collaborate do not do well on consulting teams.

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What three main skills do people need to bring to this role?

Propensity to learn: It’s not about being the smartest when you walk through the doors, it’s about how quickly you can pick up new skills. Everyone assumes grads know next to nothing (that isn’t true but it’s what seniors think), so managers are looking for grads who get walked through how to do something once or twice (or proactively self teach) and then can do it independently.

Tenacity: Consulting is hard work and most grads struggle at some point with the learning curve and pressure. The most successful grads aren’t bulletproof, but they bounce back from challenging moments on projects quickly and never look like giving up. Managers prefer to work with grads who are tenacious and self-start, as opposed to those who ask to be shown everything rather than figuring it out themselves.

Interpersonal skills: You never work alone in consulting, so how you operate on a team and how you interact with clients is being judged from Day 1. Consultants need to be good at understanding how people like to work, what their values and styles are, then, they need to adapt their own style to make the ‘relationship’ work.

What did you least expect in this role?

I couldn’t believe how quickly I got thrown into the deep end. After 2 weeks of classroom training, I was put onto a client project with a small team at a $10b+ revenue client. After 3 months, I was working on a separate workstream where I was the only consultant working with people from the client. They would run things by me and ask for my experience… which to me was insane given I’d only been working for a few months. I didn’t expect the respect (and the expectations) that you get when you walk onto a client site, even if you are more junior.

What’s the most frustrating part of being a consulting graduate?

Being given ‘busy’ work. If you get a lazy manager that hasn’t thought through how a grad can contribute to the project with smaller independent tasks, they give you tasks purely to keep you busy (but that add no value to the project). Think… slides that get buried in the appendix of the deck that never see the light of day, random research or analysis based on a random thought the Manager had in the shower that morning.

What would only other people who do your role know about it?

You start every project knowing next to nothing. Your project team knows (and is ok with) how little you know, but the client usually doesn’t! The proposal has included your random internships as ‘years of experience’ and sold the desk research you did on your last project as ‘advising a major banking client on future growth markets’. This all leads to some big expectations from your new client but don’t worry, you get really good at faking it. Some of your favourite new phrases will be: “In my previous experience, I …”, “What I typically see other Industry X clients doing is …”, [and to misdirect] “The real question we need to ask is …”

What would the haters say about this role?

Haters told me there was no point doing consulting at the Big 4. It was MBB or bust (FYI, MBB is McKinsey, Bain or BCG). Most of these haters are alumni at these top tier strategy consulting firms...  go figure!

I don’t disagree that MBB is a prestigious place to start your consulting career, but limiting yourself to MBB means competing for far fewer grad jobs. The best graduates from my cohort weren’t shut out of great opportunities in tech, private equity, venture capital and banking. There are even a couple who moved to McKinsey after a few years. All you need to do is find the best learning opportunities and best managers to teach you the craft.

What advice do you have for people considering applying for a consulting graduate program?

Think about whether the pace and learning curve suits you and brings out the best in you. Consulting isn’t for everyone, and that’s okay. There are plenty of other paths, enough to choose one that makes you happy!

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