When Weinberg third-year Mimi Wang arrived at Northwestern in 2018, she had no idea what consulting was. Before her first-year roommate proposed that they both apply for Lambda Strategy, one of the school’s student consulting clubs, Wang saw consulting as just a profession many of her classmates talked about pursuing.
Wang was accepted to Lambda, but when she entered the glass doors of the Kellogg School’s Global Hub for her first meeting, she says she felt “like a fish out of water.” Though her peers were well-versed in what Lambda did in the realm of consulting, Wang still did not fully understand what a consultant does.
She joined the communications committee and, with the help of other club members, worked on projects for clients like a New York waffle café that wanted to launch a new product in grocery stores. Wang says this hands-on work in the Northwestern consulting community helped her understand what the job entailed. In the years since, Wang decided she wants to pursue consulting as a career, and she is now co-president of Lambda. This summer, she is interning at McKinsey & Company, one of the top consulting firms in the world.
As a profession, consultants give advice to organizations to help them run as profitably and efficiently as possible, according to Vault.com, a job search website used by Northwestern Career Advancement (NCA). Consultants are essentially problem-solvers for hire and work on months-long projects to advise an organization on how to fix a particular issue.
"If I hadn’t gone to Northwestern, where there is such a big following within consulting, I might have gone down a different path."Weinberg third-year Mimi Wang
Consulting firms can vary in size and scope, but most focus on business management, like improving an organization’s structure, or financial advice, such as how to best allocate money and resources. Thousands of firms exist to help all groups, from nonprofits to government agencies, though the best known are McKinsey & Company, Boston Consulting Group (BCG) and Bain & Company.
"If I hadn’t gone to Northwestern, where there is such a big following within consulting, I might have gone down a different path," Wang says.
Fifteen percent of Northwestern’s 2020 graduates went into consulting after graduation. That number has stayed above 14% every year since 2015, per NCA’s post-undergraduate survey. This statistic is slightly higher than the 13.57% average among top 10 universities, excluding the California Institute of Technology, according to data from schools’ postgraduate surveys.
NCA’s survey also shows that consulting has attracted the second highest number of Northwestern students since 2015, following only business and financial services.
Why does such a tie between Northwestern and the consulting industry exist? To students and alumni, the profession’s prominence on campus, a wide range of available NCA resources and an involved alumni network have all helped build the connection.
Hannah Caplan, a SESP third-year, knew she wanted her career to focus on social impact when she started college. As a first-year, Caplan joined Students Consulting for Nonprofit Organizations (SCNO), a club that offers strategic consulting to Chicagoland nonprofits. Now SCNO’s president, Caplan says she was drawn to the club’s work because it let her use analytical thinking to directly resolve issues.
“[I] saw consulting as a way to help people on a higher level,” Caplan says.
SCNO — along with clubs like Lambda and Consultants Advising Student Enterprises (CASE) and business fraternities like Alpha Kappa Psi and Delta Sigma Pi — has frequently been a gateway for students into the world of consulting. These clubs provide a space to work with actual clients and develop skills like business judgment and project management.
Within consulting-focused clubs, members go through the recruitment and internship application process for consulting firms together. Applications are typically due in the fall of students’ third year, and preparation begins in the spring and summer of students’ second year.
As Wang and her friends in Lambda prepared for the interview process, they would practice cases with each other. A case, according to Wang, is a scenario that a hypothetical company is turning to a consulting firm for help with. Firms present applicants with cases during interviews, and applicants are expected to answer questions about how they would approach helping the company.
“[I] saw consulting as a way to help people on a higher level.”SESP third-year Hannah Caplan
One practice case Wang frequently used with classmates came from McKinsey & Company’s Careers website. The case involves a beverage producer called SuperSoda that has asked McKinsey for help launching their new sports drink, Electro-Light. An interviewee is asked questions about what market factors the company SuperSoda should consider when launching Electro-Light, how to find the share of the market that it should aim to take up and how SuperSoda should distribute Electro-Light to take over the desired share of the market.
“[When] casing someone else, you can learn from that other person just as much as you can when you’re actually practicing a case,” Wang says. “The feedback that your partners are giving you is something that can be really valuable as you’re learning.”
Having had multiple casing partners and a strong student network of support, Wang says her overall experience with Northwestern’s consulting scene has generally been more collaborative than competitive. However, CASE co-president Sonia Bhattacharyya says while students tend to work together, the rejections she faced while applying for consulting internships showed her the industry and its following at Northwestern can be cutthroat.
“People at Northwestern, as much as I love them, are pretty intense when it comes to their future careers,” Bhattacharyya says. “We all know these consulting companies can only take so many Northwestern students. You definitely know that you’re competing against people who are in your classes who are very bright and very resourceful.”
According to Wang, Caplan and Bhattacharyya, NCA is a key resource for accessing the consulting industry. Mark Presnell, NCA’s executive director, says it is a place where students receive career counseling and advising. This includes help with everything from choosing a career to editing resumes and cover letters.
For consulting, NCA offers tools like CQ Interactive, an online casing trainer, and hosts mock case interview programs. It also frequently posts job and internship opportunities to Handshake, a general employment website meant for college students. Caplan found her internship in strategy consulting for this summer on the platform.
Presnell says NCA also helps consulting firms recruit by providing information about the school’s student body. Every major consulting firm, according to Presnell, recruits at Northwestern. They use school-specific representatives, meet-and-greets like coffee chats and presentations explaining what their brand of consulting is to garner student interest.
NCA also has a detailed four-year plan for students going into consulting available on their website, complete with details like reading The Economist and other business publications and creating profiles on employer websites. The majority of industries that NCA has resources for do not have such a plan. While NCA’s consulting resources appear greater than what it has for most other professions, Presnell maintains that NCA serves all career tracks with the same success.
“NCA is going to support every student’s career goals and objectives, including in consulting,” Presnell says. “We have a strong track record of supporting students through the application process, we have a track record of companies recruiting here on campus and a track record of successful placement, but I can say that in a lot of fields, not just consulting.”
“Being able to have that type of impact right out of college, in a beginner role where you are still learning so much, is a very cool experience and very satisfying early on. In a lot of roles, it takes a lot longer to get to a place where you can have a meaningful impact.”SESP third-year Hannah Caplan
Since Northwestern has consistently sent high numbers of graduates into consulting, there is an expansive alumni network that students, NCA and consulting clubs can utilize. Though not consulting-specific, NCA offers programs like the Northwestern Externship Program (NEXT) where students can shadow an alum for one day at work. Groups like CASE and Lambda host alumni speaker events and have LinkedIn networks with club alumni through which members can make connections.
To John Hruska, a Weinberg graduate in the class of 2019 who is now an associate at BCG, the University’s alumni network is a key factor that lands many students at major firms after graduation.
“It’s a sort of chicken and egg situation where having alums results in a general taste for the alumni of that school to work at the company,” Hruska says. “I’m sure [alumni] make a concerted effort to find potential recruits from said school.”
Recent graduates typically start at firms as associates, and, according to Business Insider, earn somewhere between $60,000 and $90,000. These base level jobs can require long work weeks of up to 70 hours with frequent travel. Hruska says associates perform most of the data analysis for projects and use software like Excel to inform a summary of a client’s data. Students say the near immediate involvement in projects is a sizable appeal of going into the field.
“Being able to have that type of impact right out of college, in a beginner role where you are still learning so much, is a very cool experience and very satisfying early on," Caplan says. "In a lot of roles, it takes a lot longer to get to a place where you can have a meaningful impact.”
The consulting industry is not without its issues, though. McKinsey, which is seen as the industry’s top firm, has been involved in scandals like advising the Trump-era Immigrations and Customs Enforcement agency (ICE) to save money by cutting spending on food and medical services for detained migrants. The firm also advised Purdue Pharma, the maker of OxyContin, on how to significantly bolster its sales during the U.S.’s opioid crisis.
Such scandals have led to increased criticism of the profession. An April op-ed in The Daily Northwestern titled “The Consultant Trap” referred to consultants as “high priests tapped by executives to make impersonal decisions in the name of our most secular deities: Efficiency, Profit and Optimization.” The industry is also characterized by a lack of diversity. About 73% of consulting firms’ employees are white and just 23% of all junior consultants are female, according to a 2020 report by the Diverse Asset Managers Initiative.
Many Northwestern students interested in consulting say these critiques are valid but feel this dark side of the industry does not represent the morals of students looking to enter it. Consulting club leaders like Bhattacharyya say the students leaving their organizations for the professional world can best reckon with firms’ flaws by working to change them.
“The best tiles for change is probably to work from the inside and understand [the industry], and then once you work in it, try to make it better,” Bhattacharyya says. “There’s always going to be two sides of the coin, and not everything is going to be perfect morally either, which is just something you have to accept, but you also know you can change it.”