Note: This post could be relevant no matter which school you are applying to - though the school discussed in context is my school. The post focuses on the consulting recruitment process in general.
For many students aspiring for an MBA, consulting remains one of the prime exit choices. It is very evident in INSEAD, and I would think it is so in most other schools as well. For many years INSEAD has been known as a "consulting school", though career statistics show that post INSEAD careers are quite evenly split among Finance, Consulting and Industry. This year we seem to have a greater interest from industry and an understandable slow-down in Finance.
In this post I will cover a few things that INSEAD applicants and even MBA population in general might find useful when it comes to consulting aspirations. For reasons best known to me, I will be refraining from mentioning actual names of companies in some cases. Keep in mind that at INSEAD we have only just begun the recruiting season for my batch (or promotion, as we call it), so these impressions are based on what we saw last week - an insanely hectic week.
Consulting companies at INSEAD this year
Pretty much all global consulting companies recruit at INSEAD - it is perhaps true that INSEAD is one of the major feeders into the best known consulting companies. One of the "big 3" let us know that last year (2007) they hired more from INSEAD than any other business school in the world, and it is a fact that many consulting companies recruit quite heavily from INSEAD. You would be surprised at the number of INSEADers in the top consulting firms around the globe with the exception of US (of course!) This year some of the smaller companies have tailored their process to make it easy for us to apply for offices around the world. The reality also is that apart from some US citizens and green card holders most others are no longer interested in applying to the US due to the hassles of visa process and the broad economic indicators.
The whole consulting story is not over if I do not touch upon briefly how both the companies and students connect with each other. It is surprising to see the amount of time and effort consulting companies take in keeping in touch with INSEAD students, and the love is likewise reciprocated with full audiences during presentations :) For example, one of Big-3's (McKinsey, BCG and Bain) arranges terrific welcome parties when we join, another Big-3 provides us with a helpful consulting resource book and also holds a very useful preparation workshop. Another Big-3 takes us to a lovely French chateau for drinks, conversation, dinners, music, and more drinks. Most firms send their people to campus to hold one-on-one chats to understand them better. Whatever someone's misgivings are about consulting, you cannot ignore the fact that they pay a lot of attention to recruiting. Those who complain about the work and the load should not choose consulting, because it appears to have its own characteristic. Most companies require consultants to travel Monday-Thursday. Campus recruitment is typically open to most offices in the world, with some exceptions where particular offices may have stopped hiring because they are already staffed (e.g. some North American offices may not be open because they coincide their cycle with US schools).
Consulting in the face of Macroeconomic indicators / US slowdown
Clearly, everyone worries about the US recession (whether officially announced or not, things are not looking good), fall of the US $, oil price increases, impact on UK - all the depressing news FT brings to us each morning. It is hard to predict whether consulting companies will recruit in same numbers as last year, or less, or more. The message right now appears to be business as usual - though when all this ends a few months from now and the dust settles we will perhaps have a better picture of what is happening.
The process by most companies
Consulting companies emphasize structure when interviewing. Thankfully their own recruitment follows a pretty structured process. You get enough information about the companies, perhaps have coffee chats, then you have presentations, then you have time to network with people from different offices, and then you apply using a couple of mechanisms - whether through the internal career website, or in some cases via the company's web site. The interview dates and round 1 dates are often within weeks of the application. The final rounds are almost always in the office of your choice. It appears that one would know if they had a job or not pretty quickly once the rounds are over.
With regards to questions on how you choose offices - well, you typically choose the office you want the most, and most companies will allow you to choose 1 or 2 additional choices. For e.g. Big-A lets you choose 3 offices and the office will look at your application in order of preference. The application moves from office 1 (if refused) to office 2 and last chance office 3. If an office picks the application, then offices in the lower preference will no longer process it, and if you fail the interview, then it is all over. Big-B lets you choose 3 offices and each office can independently get in touch with you - but you must choose 1 office to interview with. Not many differences, but typically your first choice is what matters most.
What fun is life if you have no competition? Well..it's not a lot of fun consulting-aspirers in schools like INSEAD. You are no longer the king of your class feeling all smart - when you look around your "competitors" you realize how hard it gets when you are at INSEAD (or Wharton, or Kellog - any top school). A huge number of talented, smart and accomplished people and you have to find ways to distinguish yourself. It is difficult and many find it stressful - but that's how it goes. The consulting companies are selective - and they are 'selecting selective few' from an already 'selectively selected' population. Argh. So is getting a consulting job for the typical INSEAD grad a given? I think not. It is a hard fough battle for most.
When people see most of their friends apply, they apply too, and then their friends apply, and that makes their friends apply. Network effect. Yes, many apply for consulting jobs whether they are really sure they want it or not.
What profiles consulting companies look for
It is premature to answer this question - perhaps a picture will emerge once we begin to see interview short-lists. But based on what we hear, it is quite useful to have some interesting experiences to show, have some language skills (many offices require knowledge of local language), strong analytical and problem solving skills. I'm telling you what I hear a lot - but I have nothing more to say here until I see outcome. If someone does have consulting experience, it is probably an advantage.
What happens next?
Your guess is as good as mine. Or wait for Part-II if I write it.
From all the presentations and discussions, it is not difficult to see why consulting is an attractive choice to many. The work appears to be hard with lot of travel, but the chance to work on a wide range of issues, travel globally and work with lot of smart people is a motivator to many (not to mention the pay and perks). INSEAD seems to have a strong track record with many companies, but it remains to see how things will play out this year.
PS - I will not respond to any individual emails sent to me asking for specific data, company names and so on. If you have something to add, please leave a comment. If you have questions, please leave a comment and I may respond. If you want to speculate, be my guest :)