A few weeks ago, I attended an event with the UCL Consulting Society. I was lucky enough to be invited to sit on a panel of five speakers, all of whom work in the consulting industry. We were asked to share our experiences of applying to Big 4 companies and working in the consulting industry. The main part of the session was reserved for Q&A and open discussion.
In this re-cap, I’d like to reflect on my three favourite questions from the event. Some other questions – not featured here – have inspired future blog posts.
One of the most interesting questions was around how companies use software to efficiently filter out the vast number of applications they receive. We were asked which keywords should be used in order to make sure your application doesn’t get filtered straight into the ‘no’ pile.
This question peaked my interest because I’ve still never heard of a real example of this filtering occurring. In my experience, it’s better to make your application stand out as a whole – for example, with an impactful opening line or a CV with an original look. Focusing on the detail of individual ‘buzzwords’ is probably less effective, in my opinion. The golden rule is that if you do want to use some key technical or consulting jargon in your application, be sure you know what it means! There’s nothing worse for an application than when the recruiters can see the applicant doesn’t quite understand what they’re talking about.
Nevertheless, if you’re still keen to include a few key words and phrases, check out my article on consulting jargon so you know exactly what it all means.
Expert vs Generalist
Which is best? We were asked to comment on whether students should focus on being an expert in a couple of key areas or broaden their horizons and become a jack of all trades. All of the panel speakers agreed that there wasn’t an easy answer to this one, as both have their merits. In true consulting style we answered, ‘it depends’.
Simply, it depends on what role you’re applying for. If you’re applying for a specialist technical role, clearly you must be able to show you are especially skilled at certain things, such as programming. However, for most graduate consulting positions, the Big 4 firms are looking for a wide diversity of applicants with core ‘soft skills’ such as negotiation, teamwork and critical thinking.
To put students at ease, my advice on this question is simple: Early on in your career you have the luxury to be either and expert or a generalist. If you decide to invest time (or money) in becoming an expert in something, and it turns out not to be as useful or enjoyable as you expected – you still have time to re-train. Equally, if you choose to be a generalist, you still have a chunk of time (several years) before you reach the critical stage in your career when you need to specialise.
Engineering & Consulting
We were asked by a chemical engineering student why they should apply to consulting. “What does the subject have in common with consulting and why would they hire me?” The answer seemed simple to me, but I thought this was a great question as many students might not consider consulting until they understand that the industry has more in common with their studies than they might first think.
Engineers are trained, during their studies, to use a set of tools (mathematics) to solve problems they have never encountered before. There are many other subjects that share this structure, albeit in subtly different forms – and I’m not referring only to STEM subjects. Just consider the way subjects like History encourage critical thinking and deep research, or languages which allow people to appreciate different cultures and communicate in new ways. All these examples describe what we do day in and day out as consultants and is why any experience (or education) is almost always good for consulting.
Hopefully this re-cap is useful for people who weren’t able to attend. To those who did, thanks for the great questions, and thanks to the organisers and the rest of the panel for making it happen.