Seniors Seeking Consult Jobs

News Feature

When she signed up for a resume check with a counselor at the Office of Career Services (OCS), Yang-Sze Choo '95 wasn't quite sure what she wanted in a chosen profession.

But all the other students who signed up on the list had written the same things: investment banking and consulting. So consulting it was.

"I didn't know what it even was at the time," Choo says.

Today, along with some 500 other seniors, Choo will submit job applications through the Office of Career Services in the hopes of finding a consulting position. These applications will be pooled with 200 previously submitted applications for spring recruiting.

It seems as though the number of undergraduates entering the consulting recruitment process has been increasing over the last few years. Some 715 became involved in recruiting last year, says Marc P. Cosentino, assistant director of OCS.

"This has become by far the most popular industry on campus," Cosentino says. "It's been an explosion we've seen here."

It is difficult to say exactly how much interest in the field has grown. But these days, about three out of every four students who come into Cosentino's office indicate an interest in consulting.

The number of firms who come to OCS has also increased over the past few years, Cosentino says. A few years ago consulting and investment banking made up 50 percent of the jobs offered through OCS. This year, they compose 65 percent.

What's Consulting

If students such as Choo find consulting a mystcry, it is perhaps because even consultants themselves have a difficult time explaining the field.

"The short definition is that we help our clients make more money," says Arthur Wu '93 of the Boston based Corporate Decisions Inc. (CDI). "We help them improve their business processes, whether internal or external, or the processes in the market and help them play against other companies."

Firms hire consulting companies such as CDI to give objective and innovative advice. The consulting firms send out teams of professionals to access the issues, formulate recommendations and sometimes even help implement the plan.

For example, "a large company's profit trails off and wants to grow," says Brian J. Hirschfeld '93, also of CDI. "We have to understand the business, look at value migration, understand what the customer is demanding and which customers are most profitable."

Many college seniors join consulting firms right after graduation. About 75 percent of Oliver Wyman & Co.'s professionals have only undergraduate degrees.

First, recent graduates come cheap. Second, no technical trades or skills are needed for consulting. Consultants emphasize this breadth as one of the inherent aspects of the business.

"There is not a specific trade school that makes someone successful. We're interested in analytic skills which can be defined by any major," Hirschfeld says. "If you've never seen a balance sheet before, that shouldn't stop you."

As for the credibility of a consultant with only a bachelor's degree, it's not hard for client firms to trust undergraduate level consultants, says Sameer A. Chishty '93 of McKinsey & Co. in New York.

"It's a well-known 'secret' that McKinsey works for IBM. IBM hires the company as a whole, the experienced as well as the freshmen associates," Chishty, a former Crimson executive, says. "If I know nothing about computers, that's okay, because someone here probably does."

Clients may at first be taken aback by consultants' youth, especially since the client knows more than the consultant about the industry. But they come to realize the consultant has many insights to add, says Paresh N. Shah at Monitor Company in Cambridge.

In addition, most beginning consultants are introduced gradually to responsibility.

"We don't throw people to a board of directors their first day of work," Shah says. "We offer training and a support system."

Tough Lifestyle

Students give various reasons for their interest in consulting. But one common explanation offered is the attractiveness of the lifestyle.

"I think a lot of it has to do with lifestyle," Cosentino says. "A typical investment banker put in 80 to 85 hours of work. For consulting, it's around 60 to 65."

While consultant firms hesitate to divulge salary rates, starting salaries typically range from $35,000 to $40,000.

Paolo Abelli, a Business School student, worked for Monitor Co. before returning to academics. He calls consulting the "liberal arts" of business.

"In banking they treat you like a CD-ROM, turning you on and off," Abelli says. "In consulting, you're put in a pretty good position...a good consulting experience will teach you how to ask questions."

Many firms say the educational benefit of being a consultant is one of the profession's biggest attractions.

"Consulting has given a strong impression that you can go in quickly and make an impact," says York M. Eggleston IV '92, who worked for New York-based Booz Allen & Hamilton Inc. "There is the impression that this is where the smart people are. Hey, you can continue to get an education here."

Industry-Wide Growth

The growing number of people entering consulting after college reflects the growth of the industry itself. In 1993, some 80,000 consultants sold $17 billion of advice, a 10 percent increase from 1992, according to a recent issue of Business Week.

Monitor has seen a 45 percent annual growth rate in its professionals. It now employs 550 consultants.

Consulting's popularity may also reflect changing admissions policy in business schools, which strongly emphasize work experience as a prerequisite for admission.

Harvard Business School does not generally admit any applicants straight from college, says Clare R. Scherrer '92, a business tutor at Winthrop House. Scherrer was given a deferred admission there and entered consulting for the two-year interim.

"Harvard's business school works by the case method, and 50 percent of your grade is based on participation," she says. "The more work experience you have, you have more relative contributions in class."

For recent students who plan to attend business school eventually, consulting firms have developed "business analyst" or "associate consultant" programs.

McKinsey offers a two--to three-year version. According to Chishty, about half of a given class who choose to leave the firm look for other jobs, often with their consulting clients. The other half return to graduate and business school at a subsidized tuition.

Other firms, such as Monitor, hire recent graduates from college for an indefinite term.

If Monitor employees choose to apply to business school, 85 percent of them get accepted at their top choice.

As soon as students decide they are interested in consulting, they participate in information sessions and workshops about the field and specific companies.

The workshops range in size from a handful of students to several hundred.

An information session at the Charles Hotel for McKinsey drew approximately 400 students.

After the sessions, students submit resumes to consulting groups through OCS.

"It's a lot like applying for college," says James C. Murray '95. "Your life is up for evaluation and you have to fit it on one piece of paper."

Most firms claim several employees will read the resumes. Then the companies organize at least three rounds of interviews.

"We expect 40 to 50 applications from Harvard alone," says Timothy M. Riley, vice president of human resources at the local consulting firm Renaissance Strategy. "The first round we contact live or by telephone. We will have about 30 interviews with other graduates of the school. Finally, we select a subset to make offers. We expect about half to accept."

Oliver Wyman & Co. has a particularly intense hiring procedure, says Stein E. Berre, a consultant for the company in New York.

After initial screening and campus interviews, Oliver Wyman invites candidates to visit certain company offices. Then, on a Saturday, five to six people at a time try to solve three case studies in three half-hour sessions. They are informed of the decision the next day.

Many students say they feel the selection process is too competitive.

"It's very overwhelming," says Rachel A. Heit '95. "Added to this, everyone wants to know where you're applying."

The numbers support this impression of competition. Last year, Monitor received more than 6000 undergraduate resumes, about 600 of which were from Harvard graduates. This year, CDI saw close to 600 resumes from OCS. Renaissance expects 200 applications for 10 to 15 spots, which will be filled in the next 12 months.

* What Firms Look For

Company recruiters mention similar sets of characteristics for their ideal consulting candidate: analytic skills, intelligence, a diversity of extracurricular activities, leadership skills, intellectual curiosity, maturity and poise.

Other skills in demand include computer expertise and knowledge of foreign languages.

"Grades are definitely important to get consulting jobs," Hirschfeld says. "Nearly 100 percent of the companies require a transcript."

While most consulting firms do not set specific grade standards, many recruiters say the standards are very high.

"I don't think any of them has had less than a 3.5," Riley says of Renaissance employees. "Most are, in fact, higher."

Consultants say they are especially interested in the applicants' interviews. A popular approach in the interview is to offer a case question or a brain teaser in which the applicant must estimate a quantity or size.

"These questions include 'How many pianos are there in the U.S.?' or 'How big is a certain market?'" Wu said at OCS in a presentation to seniors on Tuesday.

Competition

With such fierce competition for jobs, it's somewhat surprising that many students enter consulting recruitment because they have nowhere else to go.

"When you're a senior you realize there are very few things you can do," says Christian A. Maas '95. "I don't think anyone's really ready to make a decision."

"I'm writing a thesis. I had to finish running Model U.N. I don't have much time. Harvard's system of recruiting was lucky for me," Maas adds. "[But] we are limited by Harvard because there are few options that recruit outside consulting and investment banking."

Students also say they are attracted to consulting because the field accepts applicants of all concentrations, and they cannot find other jobs.

"People want a high-paying job where they don't care you did English for 10 years," Choo says.

Students hesitate to say whether the mass movement into consulting reflects a general weakness in liberal arts education. But even if so many students are interested in consulting out of default, Cosentino says this is not a big problem.

"If you look back through time, a lot of students don't know what they're doing. It's their first call and they'll change maybe five or six times. That's okay," Cosentino says. "Besides, companies can pick up on that. They want people who know what they want. These people can get very far.