Applying to McKinsey from a Non-Target School

Question:

I wanted to thank you for your excellent materials, specifically the LOMS program.

Using your frameworks and guidelines, I was able to recently secure offers from Oliver Wyman and McKinsey (I accepted the McKinsey offer).

My school is a non-target and I am not sure if anybody from my school has received a non-MBA position at McKinsey in the past 10 years.

If I had to give other people advice on the application process, I think the biggest thing is persistence, enthusiasm and preparation.

I probably put in over 100 hours preparing, and only about 80 of those were for the case, I believe those additional 20 hours of prep for the experience portions helped put me over the top when competing with other candidates from more target schools.

I think my story is actually a little different than most average candidates.

I hadn't applied during the regular recruiting season as I was planning on going directly to an MBA program and trying to get into consulting afterwards.

However, after spending a few months on applications I ended up getting rejected from all five places I applied (who knew this would actually be the best thing to happen for me).

Once I got rejected, I started emailing everyone in consulting I could find from my undergrad experience as well as speak with anybody I could get in contact with via friends and family members.

Before my interviews with both firms, I actually got rejected from non-management consulting jobs (even though they were both less prestigious firms and would have been backups for me).

I ended up getting both of my interviews through networking (I'd rather not say specifically how since it would be quite obvious who I am to the companies involved) but suffice to say, my application would not have even been read if I had just submitted it online.

Basically, to get interviews, network, network and then network some more.

If the key to solving a case is segmenting everything, the key to getting interviews from a non-target is to network - especially since a lot of firms provide incentives for internal recommendations, and they will recommend and coach you if they think you have the slightest shot at getting the job.

In order to prepare, I went through LOMS about seven times, turning it on at work and listening to it throughout the day.

Additionally, I went through the Case Interview Secrets videos twice, and went through Cosentino's book four times (in order to nail any possible estimation question and read through some more case examples).

However, including the McKinsey case coach, I only had three practice cases before my first live case.

In addition, while I was going through all of this prep, I ended up taking 15 pages of case notes and 12 pages of PEI notes which I reviewed approximately 20 times by my final interview.

If I had to give people advice coming from non-targets, it would be to not give up.

I ended up in a great job after graduating, but realized after a few months that it wasn't perfect for me.

However, instead of giving up, I made sure to get experiences that I felt would help me out later in life in the business world and give me great stories.

Additionally, I think that the biggest thing for many people coming from non-targets is to not blow the opportunity.

This means not only preparing for the case portion, but preparing for the softer questions as well.

I was lucky that I had spent three months crafting in-depth stories for the MBA application process that I was able to reuse to separate me from other candidates during the PEI portion.

I think a lot of people focus on the cases, which are undoubtedly an important element.

But with resources such as LOMS out there, the average candidate is going to start doing immensely better on the case portions, and those that possess and are able to convey great communication skills, client skills, and leadership potential are going to be the candidates with job offers.

I really think it is different for each candidate, but I would truly recommend going through LOMS multiple times (and don't even question the purchase if you are serious about consulting, it is worth it), practice as much as you can, and don't get discouraged.

It would have been easy for me to give up after not getting a consulting internship junior year, or getting a consulting job after graduating, or getting into a top MBA program.

By persevering and maintaining confidence in myself and my abilities, I was able to end up with two great job offers and now will be in a better position after an MBA program than I would have been going directly to an MBA program at thispoint of my career.

Thank you again for your excellent emails and preparation materials, and I will highly recommend your website and LOMS program to anybody who asks me how to prepare.

 

My Reply:

Congratulations on the Oliver Wyman and McKinsey offers -- and welcome to the McKinsey extended family.

I'm glad you found my Look Over My Shoulder® program so useful in getting your offers.

There were two aspects of your story that I wanted to emphasize to others.

First, it's interesting that your path to McKinsey ironically began with two negative experiences.

a) You applied to a bunch of MBA programs and didn't get in.

b) You applied to a few non-consulting jobs and didn't get them.

This reminds me of my own story applying to every investment bank on Wall Street and not even getting an interview with most and not getting past Round 1 with anybody.

Keep in mind this was after spending two weeks networking on Wall Street at Lehman, Bear Sterns, Goldman, JP Morgan, etc.. and after going to investment banker camp during one summer in high school (yes, most kids went to summer camp, I went to i-banker camp).

It is very easy to interpret such experiences in a negative way that is ultimately harmful to your self confidence and esteem.

You could conclude you're not very high caliber. You could conclude you're not employable (the thought I had crossed my mind).

And if you do so, you risk making an enormous mistake.

You'll notice that many of the success stories readers have shared with have a success that started through some kind of adversity aspect to it.

What I find exciting about these stories is they completely shatter the myth that the people at MBB are these untouchable genius "god-like" figures.

This was the mental image I had in my mind when I was recruiting (and no information existed anywhere to counter this image... and in fact this image was somewhat encouraged, or more accurately not discouraged, by the firms who neededsome way to justify their high fees).

So rather than interpret rejection as a reflection of your talent, skills or self-worth, I think it is better to interpret rejection as a reflection of the approach you happen to be taking at this moment in time.

I define an approach as a goal combined with a method.

So extending this line of reasoning, rejection should be interpreted as 1) you are focusing on the wrong goal, or 2) you got the right goal, but you are going about it in the wrong way..... and that's it!

Nothing more, and nothing less.

It is very easy to over-extrapolate the data and to form overly negative conclusions about those rejections. I had friends that did in fact do this -- and it ultimately hurt them in the end.

Here's why.

When you over-interpret rejection, there is a tendency for people to reject themselves long before the firms ever get a chance to.

This happens by giving up too early in the recruiting process as a way to avoid future rejection.

To further understand why this is problematic, let me introduce you to a concept I call the "Learning to Earning Curve".

(For those who follow BCG closely, this is analogous to the BCG Experience Curve.)

If you imagine the first half of a standard bell curve, the learning portion of the curve is the one rising to the top. The earning curve is really when you reach the top of the learning curve.

The best way to earn big dollars later in your career is to leverage what knowledge you acquired earlier in your career -- as opposed to continually learn new things.

This is why later in your consulting career, it is much more profitable to specialize.

Let me explain how this applies to case interviews.

When you start up the learning curve, you do not get the offer until you get to the top -- the earning portion of the curve (or what we might call in this case the "job offer" portion of the curve).

The learning curve is expensive.

You put in a lot of time, energy, and money (travel to interviews, taking people out to lunch, buying a new suit, prep materials, etc...) during the learning curve, and basically you have absolutely nothing to show for it until you get to the top.

So the problem comes from people who get 80% of the way up the learning  curve but get blocked getting all the way to the top.... and then quit.

The rationale is: "I was not successful, and therefore it is not possible for me to be successful in consulting."

As opposed to saying, "In this particular attempt I was not successful, and it will not be possible for me to be successful in consulting using this approach."

Notice the distinction between those last two sentences. Very similar in terms of words, but dramatically different in meaning and interpretation.

So the qualitative analysis to consider is this:

How much further up the learning curve do I need to get to be successful?

And how much more work is it (relative to the benefit) compared with my other career options where I might be at the start of the learning curve?

So for me, my attempt at investment banking ended quite poorly. I didn't even get the interview in most cases and so for me to get an offer, I had 90% of the way to go.

And once the consulting firms came to recruit, I was getting interviews from 100% of the firms I applied for... so it seemed like a better fit for me, so I focused.

So what I have found surprising is how many people get to second or final round, don't get the offer, and then promptly quit.

My reaction is, "Geez, you got so close... you're clearly capable of doing the job... but you made some mistake somewhere in the process.

I gotta think that if you had a few more attempts (e.g., apply to more than just three firms), you would be successful eventually, as you're already pretty close."

But a lot of people get really discouraged and just end up quitting.

And in contrast, you see how some of the people in my case interview preparation community double up their commitment and efforts -- and ultimately triumph.

By the way, from a longer term career planning perspective, it is wise to give some thought as to where you want your career to be in 5 - 7 years.

I know that can seem like a very long period of time, but switching careers involves adopting a brand new learning curve altogether.

So when I transitioned from consulting to work in hi-tech, and from being an employee in hi-tech to being a business owner, each of those transitions had enormous learning curves tied to it.

And with each transition, especially the one to being a business owner, there was just an enormous learning curve. It is easy to assume that consulting teaches you everything.

While it does a teach a lot(especially a lot of stuff that is very hard for the average person to learn elsewhere), it does not teach everything.

So when you make a big career switch, you are forced on to a new learning curve.

So the earlier you figure out which "Learning to Earning Curve" you want to be on, the more profitable (financially, lifestyle, health, etc...) each incremental year on the "earning" section of the curve will be, as opposed to the "learning" section.

This is just something to keep in mind.

This now leads me to the second aspect of the original story that I want to point out -- the role of networking.

I love your phrase of "If segmenting is the key to solving a case, then networking is the key to getting an interview from a non-target school."

So true!

Now, let me explain why it's true.

Consulting is a relationship business.  It is a business that favors people with good people skills.

Who is good at networking?

People who build relationships with people they barely know and somehow persuade them to help them in their recruiting process.

(Do you see the parallels here yet?)

These are the same skills that a new consultant would use in working with new members of a client team working on an engagement.

So one "test" of people and leadership skills is: can you find a way to secure an interview with a firm when there is no obvious and easy way to request one?

It is the same problem as: can we drop you off at the client's site, by yourself, for two weeks and have you figure out this analysis when there is no obvious way to get this data from the client?

Candidates with good people and leadership skills find a way to work through others. That is the essence of leadership. (For more on networking, see my guide on How to Network to Get a Consulting Interview.)

So when two identical resumes gets submitted to a firm: 1) via the online application form, and 2) the other via networking, the latter automatically is already perceived as more qualified.

This is a pretty important point.

In many respects, how you apply implies information to the firm about your skills over and above the content presented in your consulting resume and cover letter.

It is, after all, a people and relationship business -- never forget that.

This is why if you're applying from a non-target school, networking is so important.

The reason a non-target school is designated as such is because the firm has determined that the ratio of qualified vs. non-qualified candidates is too low to justify the expense of recruiting on campus.

They figure the best 0.5% of that school will come find us. We know it is not easy. It is deliberately that way.  But the good ones won't let that stop them.

Now let me link together my two key points from today -- the "learning curve" and the role of the networking when applying from non-target schools.

When you apply from a target school, the first part of the learning curve which correlates with getting the interview is relatively easy.

If you are applying from a target school and you are not getting interviews and you've followed my advice on consulting cover letters and resumes, then consulting probably is not a good fit for you.

When you have every advantage and avoided making major mistakes, and it is still not working early in the process, the most likely conclusion is that you might not be compatible with this field.

That's because from the employer's perspective, the bias they have is to grant you the interview when you apply from a target school.

However, the situation is very different when you are applying from a non-target school.

For these kinds of candidates, the early part of the learning curve that correlates with "getting the interview" is substantially harder than a similar candidate applying from a target school.

So when you don't get the interview, you can not as easily conclude that consulting is not a good fit for you. This is true in part because the bias employers have when seeing an application from a non-target school is to not grant the interview.

Bottom line -- it is harder and far more time consuming to apply from a non-target school.

So it is possible you are not good fit for consulting. It is also quite possible you did not network enough to overcome this institutional bias at the firms you are targeting.

The relative mix of effort devoted to "getting the interview" vs. "performing during the interview" is quite different, depending on where you are applying from.

For a target school applicant, the mix can be 15% effort to get the interview, 85% effort to do well during the interview.

For the on-target school applicant, the mix is probably closer to 50% / 50% -- with a high number of absolute hours in both categories.

This is also true for experienced hires, and second chance hires as well. Once you are off campus, it can take a ridiculous amount of effort just to get the interview.

This leads me to the final point mentioned in the original story.

Don't blow the interview!

When interviews are easy to get, it can be tempting to not take the case interview practice process very seriously.

But when it takes you 30 hours of work over five months -- meetings, lunches, coffee appointments, phone calls and emails -- to get each interview, suddenly you take the preparation process more seriously.

This is also a pretty strong case for when you are doing on-campus recruiting, take advantage of how easy it is (relatively speaking) to get interviews by fully preparing for them -- so you don't have to take the more laborious path later.

This of course involves extensive case interview practice with Look Over My Shoulder®, live practice with a partner, or preferably both.

As suggested earlier, it involves being prepared to answer questions about your accomplishments on your resume.

I will cover how to answer those "fit" or "leadership" questions in a future post. (There is an optimal way to do this)

For now, let me say that in hindsight I realized that I practiced my answers to those questions until I could literally answer them in my sleep.

(After all, after 61 case interviews, it's not like you get surprised by the fit questions interviewers ask you.)

And in closing on this topic of applying from non-target schools, call me crazy, but I find it reassuring that the job offers go to those who are often the most determined.

Perhaps it's because determination and perseverance are qualities I so admire.

Or perhaps those are just attributes that are within everyone's own control (as opposed to raw talent which isn't) -- which makes the process seem very fair (though definitely not easy).

Regardless, for those who are applying from non-target schools, even for just a McKinsey internship, realize it is very much possible to succeed, but also keep in mind the process is intentionally difficult to weed out those who aren't determined enough.... just decide which category you fall into and the rest just takes care of itself.

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7 comments… add one
  • Albert Sep 29, 2012, 4:47 am

    This article was particularly helpful and encouraging. Thank you for spelling it out as it really is, but also for lighting the way for those of us who have a more difficult path ahead just to get to the front door.

    • Victor Cheng Sep 29, 2012, 9:48 am

      Albert,

      You’re welcome. Good luck!

      -Victor

  • Mike May 2, 2013, 11:12 pm

    Thank you for posting this article, Victor—it was very inspirational. I’ve posted your quote at the top of my case preparation notes to remind myself that the hard work will inevitably pay off.

    “They figure the best 0.5% of that school will come find us. We know it is not easy. It is deliberately that way. But the good ones won’t let that stop them.”

    I’m new to your website and I’m very excited to digest the vast amount of resources and advice you have posted! Thanks so much.

  • Charley Sep 4, 2013, 11:11 pm

    Victor –

    I’m a relatively new JD and licensed attorney in TX from a non-target whose post-grad independent work with clients speaks louder than my GPA and rank. I’ve dived into resources on the business consulting field, motivated to make the transition from practicing law. I’m hooked on your blog. This article with its honesty was a great read as I start to look into how I’m going to get in the door. I’ve also noted some quotes also going into this journey. Thank you. Your passion for this work comes through your posts; it inspires newcomers like me who will continue seeking to uncover the keys that open the doors.

    Best,

    Charley

  • Samantha Feb 2, 2015, 9:20 am

    Victor,

    This is an awesome resource. Thanks so much for all the helpful and encouraging articles.

    I’m in a similar boat as you. Have done 2 internships at top bulge bracket IBs, no offer end of summer but realize it wasn’t for me. What do you think is the best way to word this in consulting interviews?

    Thanks!

    • Victor Cheng Feb 3, 2015, 11:43 am

      Samantha,

      If asked, y can just say what you wrote in your message to me. It’s not a big deal. Some people can be either bankers or consultants, others are really meant to be one or the other.

      A lot of consultants already working at the top firms took a look at IB and decided it wasn’t for them. You won’t be telling them anything they haven’t heard before.

      They key is in HOW you say it. If you say it like you failed, that’s the wrong way to say it. If they ask you are direct question, you answer it matter of factly and just own that IB is not a good fit and the decision was mutual. They didn’t extend me an offer and I wouldn’t have accepted one either. It just wasn’t a good fit for me.

      Be able to explain why. A good reason are things like it’s too narrow, you don’t get to see the whole business only a narrow slice, or its very transaction oriented, or some aspect of the Wall Street culture.

      A bad reason would be the math was too hard, I couldn’t handle the analytics or any issue that would be a yellow flag in consulting.

      Be careful not to bad mouth Wall Street as you may be speaking to an ex Banker. Just explain things in a neutral way withy offending anybody.

      Victor

  • Sudipto Mitra Jul 5, 2016, 2:14 pm

    Hello Victor,

    I graduated Bachelor Degree from Calcutta University, India (Non-Target School) in June 2015. I am hearing disability. I bought your book from Amazon and it was awesome. Will I submit my GRE score before applying Mckinsey and Company Business Analyst Position?

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