Your application is comprised of 3 documents - your resume, your cover letter, and your unofficial transcript. These are your only representation, and so you need to make sure that each and every one of these documents represents you in the best light possible. You don't have control over your transcript (beyond doing well in your classes!) but you do control what your CV and CL say.
So the first question to ask is: what is a consulting firm looking for when they review your resume? I won’t go into the specifics of writing a resume (use action verbs, use proper spacing, etc.) because you should already know how to do this! And if you don’t – please, please go and see your career services advisor or do some research online. I’ve worked with a couple of dozen students to improve their CV’s and there’s nothing worse than seeing someone who’s clearly very accomplished but has typos, bad grammar, or poor descriptions of the work they’ve done.
Thus, the following advice is specific to your consulting applications. There are 4 key aspects to focus on...
1. Demonstrated Academic Ability
The most immediate answer is academic ability, primarily in the form of a high GPA. You are generally expected to have a 3.5 or above. The happy zone is a 3.7 or higher, with bonus points if you’re over a 3.8 GPA.
Ideal: Over a 3.7
Less than ideal: 3.3 or below
2. Leadership Roles & Impact
Secondly, they are looking for leadership roles. An important part of being a successful consultant is the ability to lead and manage teams – this is something you will be doing at the client site, even as an entry-level consultant. More importantly, impressive leadership roles demonstrate that you enjoy working in teams and taking on new challenges.
This is doubly important if you’ve maintained a strong GPA, as it shows your ability to effectively balance academic and extracurricular roles. Consultants especially like to see students who take initiative outside of their faculty or immediate surroundings – taking on a leadership role in an organization that is outside your comfort zone is highly respected.
The impact element is closely related to being a leader, because it suggests similar traits – the ability to inspire others, the desire to effect change in the world around you, and the drive to make it happen. This can be seen through founding your own company or even something like funding your own way through university (through part-time work).
You also need to demonstrate impact in everything that you’ve done – whether it’s extracurricular or work experience, you should make it clear that you made a tangible difference. Maybe you worked after-hours on a personal project to benefit your organization, or you researched and developed a plan to improve operations, or you set up a charity at your firm – these are all examples of impact.
One final point – this is why your CV should be results-oriented. While it’s important to describe the responsibilitiesthat you had (to give the CV reader an idea of how important your job was), you must also discuss the results. The general rule is that at least 50% of your description for each position should focus on results.
Ideal: President of a large organization (MUS, SSMU, McGill Investment Club, McGill Consulting Association), founder of your own company, being an RA, captain of a sports team, etc. These tend to be positions with 10+ hours of work a week.
Average: President of a smaller organization, executive committee member of a large organization, organizer of a day-long event, etc. On average, this demand several hours of work a week.
Less than ideal: Minimal leadership experience beyond being on the organizing committee of events or simply being a member of a group.
Relatively speaking, this is the easiest aspect of your CV to improve – anyone can take on a personal project at any time. All it requires is the determination to do it and the resolve to see it through.
3. Challenging work experience
You need good work experience to get good interviews in order to get better work experience… unfortunate, but true. Internships are absolutely key here; if you’re applying to consulting internship positions, make sure that you’ve got plans B, C, D, and E so that no matter what the outcome of your recruitment, you’ll have strong work experience to strengthen your application for full-time recruitment.
So why is this so important? Simple – it’s for the same reason that McKinsey had a policy of interviewing any Harvard MBA candidate: because if you’re good enough for Harvard, then you’re probably good enough for McKinsey. If you’ve had an internship at a top firm (doesn’t even have to be in consulting) such as Procter & Gamble, IBM, General Electric, etc. then you immediately have a big advantage in the application process. Of course, having poor work experience won’t disqualify you, but it means that you need to impress in another category.
Of special mention is investment banks – consulting firms love investment bankers because if they’re strategically-minded, then they’ve already proven the ability to work long hours. It also means that they’re business-savvy and comfortable with numbers. Besides, the recruitment process is very challenging for big banks, so these students probably have strong CV's to begin with. Having a strong finance internship is a big plus for consulting recruitment, although you’ll have to convince the resume screener that you’re serious about consulting (having competed in case competitions, part of the McGill Consulting Association, etc.).
Don’t forget though – no matter what your work experience looks like, you need to demonstrate the impact that you had in your role at the firm.
One last point – consulting firms love to see students who have international work experience, and this is something that will be discussed further in just a few paragraphs. If you have worked on another continent, that’s a plus.
Ideal: A large, well-known firm that has a rigorous interview process. Preferably a position with analytics. If you had an internship with Goldman Sachs in Singapore, then you’re golden!
Average: A large firm that is not as selective (Fortune 500) or a position that did not have as much responsibility.
Less than average: No work experience beyond minimum-wage positions (administrative position, lifeguard, waiter/waitress, etc.)
4. Well-roundedness and internationalism
This is probably the least quantifiable aspect of your CV, but it’s a fact that consulting firms are looking for candidates who have diverse interests, backgrounds, and passions. They want to see a student who’s well-rounded, strong in both academics and extracurriculars, with interests that extend beyond just grades.
This is why it’s important to have a ‘personal interests’ section on your CV, to give you the chance to show the other sides of you. A consulting firm will almost definitely give an interview to a candidate with a 3.5 GPA and interesting leadership experience over a candidate with a 3.9 GPA and minimal extracurriculars. By the same token, that first student becomes a lot more interesting to recruiters when they mention that they’ve done volunteer work for the UN, or that they climb mountains in their free time. Again, it goes back to the question that an interviewer will inevitably ask themselves – “If I was stuck on a plane with this person, would I actually want to talk to them?”
Being well-travelled is a great thing to note on your CV (but don’t just list ‘traveling’ – be specific! ‘Traveling – most recently China, Lebanon, Peru’) because it shows that you are curious about the world and are eager to have new experiences. It also shows that you’re willing to step out of your comfort zone – this is why an internship is a foreign country looks great on your CV: because it shows that you’re willing to pack up your bags and move to another country for the sake of an exciting opportunity, whether you speak the language, know the culture, or not.
It’s also a plus because it shows that you’re comfortable with change – this is important for being successful as a consultant, as you’ll constantly be thrust into new and difficult environments. Being well-traveled also helps you relate to your clients. If you have an Indian client and you’ve traveled to New Delhi, it helps you establish rapport and increases your credibility in the eyes of a client as someone who is worldly and well-traveled.
Anything that you do that is out of the ordinary makes for an interesting application, and a great conversation-starter at the beginning of your interviews, so be sure to note it on your CV! After learning more about mental math last summer, I listed it as interest on my CV. It led to some great conversations, where my interviewer would quiz me on my mental math skills. This worked out well because it gave me the chance to show that I was comfortable with numbers. Another student who’s now at BCG listed underwater hockey as an interest. Wouldn’t you want to ask about that? A third student listed ‘Following startups’ – anytime he had an interviewer who was interested in startups (and many consultants are), he'd spend the first few minutes chatting about the startup community in Montreal. This was not only a relaxed and easy way to start an interview but it also gave him, an engineer, the chance to show that he was business-savvy.
Ideal: Listing ‘unique’ (but relevant) interests, being well-traveled, working in another country, etc.
Average: Some experience outside of standard organizations on campus (e.g. joined a human rights group)
Less than ideal: No personal interests section at all, or having generic interests such as ‘reading’, ‘writing’, ‘sports’, etc. If you’re going to put those, at least be specific!
One consultant at McKinsey listed ‘Learning’ as an interest, and for location put ‘Always, Everywhere’ which I thought was pretty cool. I’m sure you can think of some things about yourself that will help you stand out!