View from the inside: strategy consulting

A graduate recruit (who asked to remain anonymous) tells us the truth about joining an elite strategy consulting firm

With at least a hundred applicants for one place, getting a graduate position at one of the big three consulting firms - McKinsey, Bain and BCG - is one of the most competitive recruitment processes out there. The promise of diverse and challenging work, generous compensation packages and exposure to the chief executives of FTSE 100 entice many to apply.

Joining the firm

My rather small cohort of 12 included a fellow Oxbridge BA, a former Goldman Sachs trader, a London Business School MBA graduate and a neuroscience PhD.

Together, we went through two weeks of local and regional training. In our week at the company's offices in London, we learnt some office basics and were introduced to consulting skills such as how to use Excel and Powerpoint, modelling and structured thinking. The sessions concentrated on technical rather than analytical skills - most consultants learn on the job, so only a very basic understanding of theory is needed before starting.

The regional training with new starters from other European offices provided more of an insight into consulting work as we spent our days working through a mock case based on the games industry. We also enjoyed booze-fuelled dinners and a fully sponsored bar every night. And the training didn't end there - consulting firms continuously skill up their workforce via weekly office training sessions and further regional training.

On the case

After this relatively short period of training, each new starter, known as an analyst, is assigned to a case team. You're allowed to state preferences (industry, type of work, travel or non-travel, UK-based or abroad) and the staffing teams do their best to meet these, but they are often constrained by what work is actually available.

You may well find that a few industries are overrepresented. Due to their high profits, financial services companies tend to hire consultants a lot, which means that every analyst tends to work for at least one. However, if you build relationships with relevant partners, you could work on cases in a wide variety of other industries too.

As an analyst, most of your job involves detailed research. I found myself interviewing broadcasters from around the world, digging into the records of a major media organisation, and reading multiple industry reports on care homes. One of my colleagues had to go to every single major retailer and count the number of types of yoghurts offered on sale!

You'll then be asked to present your findings on a slide - producing Powerpoint presentations will quickly become one of your core skills - which will fit into a story compiled by your boss, the project manager. Despite being given directions, I sometimes struggled to fill these in - with only a few months of experience, it's hard to work out, say, the exact organisational structure of a particular department at a bank. Estimation and guess work is sometimes the best you can do - consulting is often a marriage of science and art.

Working days and nights

On average, consultants work 55-65 hours per week, with the majority of their weekends free. Some consulting firms even allow you to protect one evening per week - as long as there are no client emergencies, you'll be guaranteed to leave work at 7pm.

The exception is due diligence work, which can see you racking up 80-100 hours per week as you have to comprehensively analyse the sustainability of a company's revenues in a very short space of time - don't be surprised if you end up going home at 4am! You are, however, compensated with a generous expense allowance - taxis and dinners after 8pm can be charged to the client.

One of the most anticipated and feared aspects of a consultant's lifestyle is travel, though I've found that how much you do is very much a factor of the industry you're working in (for example, a lot of financial institutions are headquartered in London) and the location of your office (anecdotally, those in US offices travel more than UK ones). You might end up with all your cases involving travel or, as in my case, none!

Office life

Consultants enjoy one of the most active office social lives as partners are keen to ensure that everyone gets to know each other. You'll enjoy periodic team bonding events - most likely dinners, perhaps at a Michelin-starred restaurant, but some of my colleagues have also taken part in group nail bar visits or cocktail-making (and then drinking!) classes.

There are also regular office activities such as drinks and lunches, and ad hoc social events such as pub quizzes, tennis matches, and sushi-making classes arranged by the bonding committee (yes, these exist!)

However, the highlights of office social activity are surely the frequent weekends away. In my first year, I had the opportunity to attend four purely social trips abroad: a sports trip to Germany, a skiing trip to Austria, a summer weekend away, and a three-day offsite in France.

It's also worth stressing that your colleagues are likely to be pleasant to be around. One of my former banker friends who made a switch into consulting has remarked many times on how much nicer people are in this industry. They're very smart, too: 90 per cent of them will have a degree from Oxbridge or a top-ranking MBA.

Up and out

The notorious "up or out" policy at consulting firms doesn't really apply to you as an analyst - the vast majority of graduate joiners will stay at the firm for two years. After that period of time, many opt for an externship - an opportunity to spend six months working in industry, usually for one of the firm's clients.

Others apply to go to business school - if you're a top performing analyst, you're likely to have your tuition fees and maintenance paid for by the firm in exchange for agreeing to return for two years after you graduate.

Strategy consulting firms are also incredibly helpful in assisting departing analysts with finding jobs, dispensing valuable careers advice and providing access to alumni in industries you're interested in joining.