For the Class of 2011, the gap between the percentage of workforce-bound students entering consulting and financial services narrowed to five points, according to the Office of Career Services’ senior survey. In 2010, that gap was 13 points, and, in 2009, it was eleven. It seems fair to say that while the popularity of Wall Street as a post-graduation plan has diminished in recent years, the popularity of consulting has not.
Why has this career option become so popular for Harvard students? Unlike much older professions such as medicine, law, or business (in the sense of entrepreneurship), management consulting has only come into vogue in the past quarter century. Many students have never even heard of the industry when they first come to Harvard, and many show up to senior year recruiting events just as confused. Even still, students of all concentrations, from Classics to Molecular and Cellular Biology, apply for the opportunity to examine the workings of corporations and improve their profitability.
In short, consulting companies have a highly structured, accessible recruiting process and promise to bring order to students’ amorphous post-graduation goals and desires.
As early as sophomore year, consulting firms often send personalized emails to Harvard students, explaining why they are a good fit for the firm and why the firm is a good fit for them. Once on campus, firms hold highly publicized information sessions at central Cambridge locations. During these events, students are given ample opportunity to connect with recent Harvard alumni who work at each company, who describe their transition from undergraduate to analyst as a smooth and successful one. In order to apply, all one has to do is submit a resume and (sometimes) a cover letter online. Unlike at other schools, where students have to travel to a company office for interviews, many consulting firms hold first-round interviews at a designated facility five-minutes from Harvard Yard.
The assertive marketing and comparative ease of the recruitment process highlight the positive aspects of this job and obscure some of the negative ones. Compared to all but financial services, consulting is a lucrative field, offering starting salaries of $60,000-plus. Consulting firms invest a great deal in employee training and feedback, in a systematic way. However, the daily reality of a consultant’s work can be grueling and repetitive; it is a different type of hard work than Harvard students are used to. Additionally, working at a top firm does not necessarily help a young person narrow down their career plans; indeed, the high turnover rate of the lower ranks of big consulting firms means that many young professionals do not leave by choice.
Additionally, consulting firms repeatedly emphasize that they are a career choice that opens doorways rather than closes them. Whether the claim is true that more than just a few token employees leave consulting to go into specific industries, start a small business, or head a non-profit is uncertain. However, the firms that come to campus definitely position themselves as ladders to corporate promotion, allowing students to bypass years of unglorified introductory work at the lower levels of their dream industries.
Is this a bad thing? On the one hand, forays into management consulting yield a lot of money and professional success of some type for individual students. On the other hand, there is a case to be made that society would be better off if 12 percent of the Class of 2011, the 12 percent that is arguably best at making connections and problem-solving used their existing skills to start restaurants, worked in education reform, or write books, as a recent article in The Yale Daily News argued.
But in a more constructive light, rather than bemoaning the number of students going into consulting, companies and recruiters in other fields should learn from their successful recruiting practices. Early, personalized attention and ample networking opportunities yield more interest than career openings weeks before graduation, resume drops followed by long silences, and unclear job descriptions or exit prospects. One organization that has followed this advice is Teach for America, whose recruitment practices include targeted emails, one-on-one coffee chats, and a clear explanation of exit options (including partnerships with Harvard Business School, Bain & Company, and Goldman Sachs). The best argument for the effectiveness of management consulting companies may be the degree to which they have perfected the recruiting process, and, should they want to attract Harvard graduates, employers in other fields would do well to follow suit.