How Important is an MBA in Climbing the Management Consulting Ladder?

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Many new graduates and professionals aspire to break into the billion dollar consulting industry, and most of them think that an MBA is a necessary part of achieving that goal. But is it really?

Yes, pursuing an MBA can definitely help accelerate your future career progression as well as your perceived market value; however, not all MBA’s are equal, and not all MBA holders reap the career benefits they expect.

MBA Benefits

An MBA provides several advantages, some of which include:

Improved practical business knowledge and understanding of business issues Obtaining an MBA will help you increase your ability to solve different business strategies and problems.
Expanded network One great benefit of having an MBA is the opportunity to extend your network. This new network could be invaluable to you in the near future. You’ll be able to make some great connections in your MBA program—people who are likely to become leaders, experts, and business owners in their own industries.
A well-respected credential Generally, an MBA is a valued credential on your resume. An MBA from a prestigious school, like Harvard, Stanford, Kellogg, Darden, and Wharton, among others, will provide you with a variety of opportunities that would not otherwise be available to you.
Recruiters can easily find you Top consulting firms like McKinsey and Bain recruit plenty of MBA candidates through efficient recruiting systems. They generally target the most prestigious and well-known schools because the success ratio of these university’s MBA programs is reported to be higher. Thus, firms spend less time and resources on finding the right candidates. If you’re already an MBA candidate at a target school, you’re instantly part of the recruiting pool!
You’re validating your consulting skills Earning an MBA from a top-tier school can demonstrate that you have the baseline skills and traits necessary to perform the responsibilities of a consultant. For instance, you can establish your ability to multi-task, prioritize, and that you’re results-oriented.

MBA Admissions and Consulting

Many people think that the relationship between top business schools and top consulting firms is like a revolving door, i.e., people from McKinsey get into Stanford Business School, and people from Stanford get into McKinsey. Well, that may be true to some extent, but it’s not that simple.

Yes, business schools perceive consulting as great work experience; however, they also want a diversified student body. In general, top business schools don’t admit more than a third of ex-consultants into their MBA programs. As a result, a paradoxical situation exists: consultants wish they had other work experience and non-consultants wish they had some consulting experience. So, what should you do? Granted that you still want to get an MBA, the best thing to do is stop worrying, and focus your time and energy on improving your application.

If you’re not a consultant, emphasize your business experience, and explain how an MBA degree, combined with your experience, can help you become a successful business leader. If you’re a consultant, focus on your accomplishments and why you’re more well-rounded than other admissions candidates.

Is an MBA a Requisite for Landing a Consulting Job?

Although an MBA can be an advantage in landing a consulting role, it doesn’t guarantee anything. To succeed as a consultant, there’s another important factor to consider— experience.

While many consultants hold MBA degrees, not everyone who consults for top-tier firms has an MBA. Yes, education is important, there’s no question about that. However, it doesn’t mean you have the ability to solve complex problems—that’s something you learn from experience. Believe it or not, successful consultants rarely go to business school in order to land the job.

Moreover, firms usually offer MBA-like training to their staff. They send many of their non-MBAs to mini-MBA boot camps to learn the most important and up-to-date business tools and concepts. Once you’re hired by a reputable consultancy firm, you’ll be able to take advantage of these training opportunities.

Why do Some Consultants Choose to Get an MBA?

Some consultants with years of real-world experience choose to get their MBA degrees for several reasons. For one, an MBA on its own warrants a higher salary; an MBA degree plus real-world experience allows for both better monetary benefits and a position higher on the corporate ladder.

Also, if a consultant wants to move to another firm, an MBA may make sense. This is particularly true if you’re targeting a firm that’s more selective than your current firm or if your target firm places heavy emphasis on an MBA. Some top firms, like BCG, even sponsor their high performing associates who want to pursue MBA degrees.

If you already have a consulting background, an MBA is usually unnecessary, but it could help you garner the respect of those unfamiliar with the industry. Moreover, clients will be more confident in your abilities if they know you have both experience and education.

In Which Cases is it Actually Better to Get an MBA First?

Let’s face it—real-world experience usually outweighs theory. That’s why you can break into the consulting industry even without an MBA. Remember, getting an MBA can be really expensive, so you should be absolutely certain you need an MBA before you apply.

In some cases, getting an MBA before applying to a consulting firm may be a smart option. For instance:

  • If you have additional long-term goals aside from being a consultant that require an MBA.
  • If you’ve already applied to a number of consulting firms and were rejected by all of them. If you seem to have no luck with your consulting application, even after writing a great resume and properly preparing for interviews, then maybe an MBA can help you.
  • If you feel that your past experience and credentials would qualify you to get into a top business school but not a top consulting firm.
  • If you’re extremely passionate about learning the advanced management theory that an MBA can offer, whether or not you plan to use it. Of course it would be great if you could use it, but there are also people who just love learning for learning’s sake, whatever the cost. Keep in mind that many MBA holders say that they only apply a portion of what they learned in school toward their actual consulting projects.

So, How Much of What is Taught in Business School Actually Helps in Consulting?

Well, this really depends on the school and curriculum you choose. Each consultancy firm will train you on management frameworks and other tools that are directly related to the job. So you really need to be selective about the school and curriculum. Good business schools can help you develop different perspectives to approaching business issues, as well as help improve your general teamwork and leadership skills, which are critical for a successful consulting career.

How to Break into Consulting without an MBA

Many jobseekers mistakenly assume that an MBA is needed in order to land a consulting job. The truth is, you can break into the consulting world if you have relevant years of experience as well as notable accomplishments related to business or consulting.

To help you get started, you should do or have the following:

Improve Your Job Application Documents

Update and polish your resume and cover letter. Your cover letter and resume are your primary weapons in your job search. Consulting firms are greatly impressed with well-structured resumes that efficiently convey the skills they’re looking for. They place the most emphasis on the following: solid education credentials, relevant functional expertise and accomplishments, and a proven track record.

Most firms are tolerant of “career changers”; however, it will be challenging to provide a rational story about why you wanted to shift careers. When perfecting your resume, place more importance on conveying your experience, enthusiasm, and skills (leadership, analytical, and communication). Don’t stress over formatting— just make it simple, concise, and professional.

List and Research

Make a list of 10 to 15 consultancies that you’d like to work for, then research each firm. Visit their websites or, if possible, talk to someone who’s associated with the firms. Before you even send your application to your chosen firms, it’s critical that you’re familiar with their preferred methodology, projects they’ve worked on, and most important, the people who work for the company. Based on your research, you’ll be able to narrow your list down to a few firms.

Determine Your Qualifications

Brainstorm over the reasons you’re suited for consulting, even without an MBA. To help you, create a list of traits that successful consultants have in common, then write out in specific detail your experiences that demonstrate each trait, including the results and what you learned. This will help you build your confidence when interviewing with recruiters.


Quality networking can take you places. Learn how to properly connect with influential people in the industry. Who knows, you may be able to connect with current or former McKinsey or Bain consultants. Use online tools, like LinkedIn, to help you build a strong network of professionals who can help move your career forward. However, keep in mind that your goal isn’t to ask them for a job, but for relevant advice such as recruiting insights, resume feedback, and other information that you can leverage. Your networking efforts may even connect you with consultants and recruiters who can refer you to one of your target consulting firms.

Work on Your Educational Qualifications

An impressive undergraduate education can also help you achieve your dream of working at a top-tier consulting firm. To be successful, you’ll need to demonstrate the following in your application:

University Ivy League or other prestigious school, like Stanford and UC Berkeley, never fail to attract consulting firms.
Degree A degree in economics, business, finance, or other concentration that can demonstrate your analytical and qualitative abilities. Alternate degrees, such as those in the social sciences, can be harder to sell.
GPA A high GPA is a big asset to a consulting application; you might not be considered if your average is below 3.5.
Leadership Proven leadership skills through impressive roles, such as Student Body President, or receiving prestigious awards and honors for notable social involvement instantly attracts consulting firms.
Expertise A specific area of expertise you will make more valuable to consulting firms. While a Harvard Business School degree goes a long way, deep industry knowledge can compete with it. Having a background in a specific industry increases your perceived value and can help you land a role with a specialized team of management consultants.

Remember, consulting firms hire candidates based on their demonstrated traits and skills. With or without an MBA, you can make it in this prestigious industry. If you enjoy problem-diagnosis, problem-framing, and problem-solving, and have a genuine passion for client service and effecting positive change, all you really need to do is write a great resume and cover letter and ace the interview process.

Learn More

Want more insights on how to break into the prestigious and lucrative world of consulting? Download and read our free consulting guide. It contains valuable tips that can help pave your way to becoming one of the next top consultants.

For additional information about getting an MBA degree, check this article of Consultants Mind.