The first piece of advice I was given when I started my Master’s in Management at London Business School was to beware of the mirage of consulting. On the first day of orientation, we were told that we should start applying yesterday, especially if we wanted to get into consulting – but not to put all our eggs in one basket because it was so competitive – and so we all polished our resumes and contrived our cover letters and sent them out left and right to anyone with an inbox.
As the rejections began to come through and most of us partook in a collective sigh of “oh well!”, applying to consulting began to seem like more of a rite of passage than a genuine attempt at forging a professional path. It was at this time, about two months into the program, that I began to wonder: Is consulting really the holy grail of careers?
Consultants will tell you that yes, it’s the best type of role you could hope to land; the learning curve is incredibly steep, it’s a free pass into any industry you want after a few years, and if that’s not enough for you, the benefits will make you come around. But what few of them admit is how demanding the job really is. The hours are ridiculous, the work is tedious, and you will probably be living out of your suitcase for weeks at a time. A classmate who accepted an offer from McKinsey & Company described his concerns about starting by saying “I will have all this money, and no time to spend it”.
Consulting is almost the business equivalent of being a doctor: your job is to diagnose and fix problems within companies and sometimes even industries, and you will always be on call. Does that mean you shouldn’t apply? Absolutely not, but what it does mean is that you should make sure you want the job. Not the benefits, not the travel, not the prestige. The research, endless calls, early meetings, and long hours painstakingly putting together beautiful slides instead of meeting your friends for drinks or going on a weekend getaway.
It’s not a matter of having what it takes for the job. It’s a matter of whether or not you will be happy doing it. In other words, would you do it for free? A good method to test how well you would fit into consulting is to prepare for interviews. Apply to whatever roles you want, do your online assessments, and while you wait to hear back about whether you have an interview, start doing cases as often as you can, with as many people as you can, for as long as you can. If you continue to find some fun in the challenge of solving cases and crunching data, then congratulations, you have found your calling! If you are like me, and you get bored a few days into it, maybe it’s not the right choice right now.
Consulting prep isn’t actually “boring”, but it does require a certain ability to memorize detailed frameworks and apply them to case after case, which can become tiring because of the effort of trying to impose a logical structure onto your thinking process. There is nothing wrong with these frameworks; in fact they are a highly sophisticated method of tackling problems, but I personally found them frustrating because they didn’t always fit with a certain case, they limited how creative you could get in trying to find a solution, and they seemed too perfect to be applicable to the real world as more than an initial structure, which made it difficult to see the point of being interviewed on the basis of how well I could transpose frameworks onto a case. Nonetheless, this is not a general truth, and consulting applications are not only about frameworks, they are also about your personal fit with a certain firm, how well you pitch your solution, etc., and so there is plenty to like in both the interview process and the roles themselves, as long as you really want them.
After I realized that it was not the right time for consulting, I started looking at what else was out there, and believe me, there’s a lot. I was lucky enough to find something perfect for me in Tech, and can’t wait to start, but it’s only because I questioned whether or not I really wanted to be a consultant that I figured out what my next step would be. It’s not the end of the world if you don’t want the same thing as everyone else. In fact, it’s a good way to start looking elsewhere and find a field where you can make a real impact and be happy doing it.
Sarah Yakzan is a Master’s in Management candidate at London Business School. Before moving to London, she got a BA in English Literature from the American University of Beirut, and worked for a year as Marketing and PR manager, External Relations Coordinator, and Blogger. She will start her next role at Facebook in August.