Entering Consulting With a Liberal Arts Background

Do you come from a liberal arts background, and have doubts on whether you can break into consulting? Are you worried that you are disadvantaged in the consulting application process because you did not study an MBA or a business-related degree? 

In many geographies, studying the humanities and social sciences is often considered a ‘non-traditional’ path especially when business and other professional degrees are seen as the default and typical path to securing a job in the corporate world and in consulting. I, too, faced similar doubts: I was a final year History major in college with zero internship experience wondering if I could break into consulting. 

However, the reality is that having a liberal arts background does not necessarily put you at a disadvantage when trying to break into consulting at MBB or other top consultancies such as Roland Berger, Oliver Wyman, or Kearney

In this article, I hope to shed some light and dispel some common myths on this topic. In addition, I will also share key insights on how you can use your non-traditional background to your advantage in the application and interview process.  

3 Myths

Myth 1

Top consulting firms like MBB only hire from business related degrees or MBAs

Reality: In reality, top consulting firms like MBB hire from a diversity of backgrounds.

As a candidate with a non-traditional background, it is most important to first understand the mindset of consulting firms in the hiring process, and the context that shapes this mindset.

In the hiring process, top consulting firms are not focused on your specific degree or background. Rather, they focus on specific abilities and traits (e.g. analytical and structured problem solving skills; communication and interpersonal skills; leadership etc.) and on validating the belief that you will be able to demonstrate them on the job. 

As a generalist consultant, a significant portion of your growth will come from the exposure to a diversity of different projects. You will be exposed to industries, project types and situations that you will never have had  ‘studied’ or have had experience in. Nevertheless, you are still expected to bring the core consulting toolkit to help tackle the problem and ultimately deliver a good outcome for the client.

For example, if I recall my first year in consulting, I was already exposed to several industries (Mining, Consumer Goods, Banking) and different project types (procurement, market entry, customer strategy).

The range of projects and client situations in consulting are so diverse that it is impossible to have built up the topical knowledge/expertise for every possible project before you start the job, or even before your next project staffing. Thus, it is less important to firms what degree or discipline you had studied, but more important whether you have the transferable core consulting skills. 

For the generalist consultant, firms are not looking for expertise, but aptitude. Firms are looking for abilities and traits that are actually discipline, industry and background agnostic. This why I was able to break into consulting with a History degree. This is why consultants come from a variety of backgrounds – I personally knew consultants during my time in MBB with backgrounds in law, medicine, anthropology, government, STEM PhDs – and the list goes on.

Myth 2

I am disadvantaged because I did not study business; my non-traditional background is not useful or relevant for consulting.

Reality: Having a non-traditional background can actually be an advantage.

If we break down the abilities and traits that consulting firms are looking for, we will realize that many of the fundamental skills and abilities that consulting firms are looking for were not invented by the consulting industry. In fact, many of these skills have existed for centuries (or even millennia) before our modern era, and some have been historically integral to a variety of disciplines. For example:

Analytical and critical thinking

  • The ability to analyse facts and data, challenge and uncover assumptions as well as form robust arguments is a fundamental skill in consulting

  • Taking a historical lens, the earliest records of this would have been Socrates debating and arguing at the Athen’s square c. ~400BC

  • In our modern era, many disciplines today also employ analytical and critical thinking. The key differences lie in the data sources and topical specificities of analysis, but often the logic and principles are the same 

    • E.g. the literature student who has to justify their thesis by critically analyzing the tools of language deployed by a poet

    • E.g. the art historian who has to form a robust argument about the meaning of a painting by analyzing the visual motifs and the techniques of the artist 

    • E.g. the economist who has to interpret and derive insights from quantitative data 

Hypothesis driven thinking

Advisors use hypothesis-driven thinking to arrive at meaningful answers for their clients in an efficient and effective manner. Hypotheses are indeed employed across various disciplines, particularly those heavily reliant on research and empiricism. While there are some nuances in the difference between a scientific hypothesis and a business hypothesis, the overall logic and thought process are very similar.

For example, when I applied for jobs after completing my history degree, I realized that I had already employed a very hypothesis-driven approach in my research. In many of my college essays, my central hypothesis was addressing a question, and the rest of my essay supported my arguments through inductive logic. I had applied hypothesis-driven thinking in my research, continually asking myself, "What analyses would support my arguments, and what data do I need to conduct these analyses?"

Myth 3

I do not have a typical business related experience/CV [e.g. internship experiences] so I have a weaker application.

Reality: Unconventional experiences can also demonstrate the right capabilities.

As a non-traditional candidate, you may not have planned to break into consulting, and may not have had the same level of preparation as other candidates. Yet the core behavioral traits and abilities that firms are looking for can be demonstrated in a variety of contexts and environments, and are not limited to corporate internships. 

Let’s look at a few potential examples across different contexts and environments:

Academic lab/research positions

  • As an academic, your position is a great one to demonstrate problem-solving and analytical skills

  • You may also have had to collaborate with other researchers and/or organize academic events which can demonstrate your teamwork and ability to manage others

Sports teams

  • Experience like this can often demonstrate strong teamwork and leadership if you have held a captain or team manager position

  • Winning a prestigious championship or competition can help to demonstrate a track record of significant achievement 

NGOs

  • NGOs often operate in challenging and unique environments, experience in this context can demonstrate problem-solving and entrepreneurial drive to overcome these limitations and constraints

Personal ‘passion’ projects

  • Building a successful personal project or ‘side hustle’ (e.g. a popular YouTube channel, an online e-commerce store) can demonstrate entrepreneurial drive and a history of achievement

I had never heard of consulting until my last semester before graduation; I had never prepared to break into consulting during my 4 years of college. In fact, I had zero internships as I initially thought I was going to pursue a PhD after graduation. I had to reflect deeply on my previous experiences and highlight the strongest ones that demonstrated these skills in my behavioral stories and in my application.

Candidates often have the right ‘raw material’ in their lived experience, but many struggle to distil relevant and compelling insights and craft a strong application and story. 

 

3 steps

As you embark on your journey to break into consulting, I suggest 3 steps to help you achieve your dream:

  1. Shift your mindset

    • To achieve your goal of breaking into consulting, you must work with the end in mind and become outcome driven

    • Often, candidates from non-traditional backgrounds spend too much effort worrying about where they are currently, when instead they should be focusing on understanding what is needed and how they will get to where they want to be

  2. Determine your baseline 

    • An upfront baseline assessment of your application strength and interview readiness will help to determine where your existing gaps are

    • There are a few common weaknesses non-traditional candidates face:

      • Application strength: Work experience

      • Case interview: Quantitative thinking, Business sense/judgment

  3. Craft a strategy

    • Getting the offer is more than just case interview preparation or CV refining

    • You will need a comprehensive plan to help you secure an interview, as well as build the necessary skills to ace the interview

Final Tips to Get You Going

Lastly, I will share some tips based on my own experience on how you can address some of these common weaknesses in the case interview:

Quantitative Thinking

This was an area I initially feared, math was never one of my strong subjects and as a History major, it was not something I had done at all during college. What worked for me was to start forcing myself to think and reason quantitatively in as many scenarios as possible in real life, and to generate ‘formulas’ to try and get to a quantitative answer or solution to a situation/problem/question

For example, I quantified the decision for a credit card by calculating the annual fees, reward points, etc., and ultimately comparing them to each other. At the supermarket checkout, I asked myself how many additional cash registers would be needed to reduce the waiting time, and so on. You will notice: Your everyday life is filled with quantitatively solvable problems.

Business Sense/Judgment

Consulting firms often expect candidates to have ‘Common Sense’. I define this as the ability to reason and employ logic based on your understanding of the world and how it works. What I found extremely helpful for myself was to use analogies on experiences or observations that I knew.

For example, to comprehend a specific product price during the case interview, I leveraged my own experience in purchasing goods and services at various price levels and applied it to determine the unknown product price. I also utilized my personal experiences from visiting a Starbucks café to identify potential operational bottlenecks in a restaurant during a case interview.

Benjamin has >8 years of consulting experience, starting off at Kearney SEA before spending the last 5 years at BCG SEA where he was a Principal. At BCG, Benjamin was fast promoted twice (Consultant to PL; PL to Principal) and was also selected to be a CEO Ambassador (internal secondment). Benjamin has a wealth of case experience across multiple functions (Strategy, Operations, Transformation, Due diligence) and industries (PE, TMT, Public Sector, Consumer, Tech). While focused on SEA, Benjamin has also done cases in the Middle East, North Asia as well as South Asia.

At BCG, Benjamin had ~5 years of experience as an interviewer. Having come from a non-traditional background himself, Benjamin can offer practical tips for lateral/experienced hires and non-traditional candidates.

Benjamin graduated with a B.A. (First Class Honours) in History from the National University of Singapore.

Benjamin has >8 years of consulting experience, starting off at Kearney SEA before spending the last 5 years at BCG SEA where he was a Principal. At BCG, Benjamin was fast promoted twice (Consultant to PL; PL to Principal) and was also selected to be a CEO Ambassador (internal secondment). Benjamin has a wealth of case experience across multiple functions (Strategy, Operations, Transformation, Due diligence) and industries (PE, TMT, Public Sector, Consumer, Tech). While focused on SEA, Benjamin has also done cases in the Middle East, North Asia as well as South Asia.

At BCG, Benjamin had ~5 years of experience as an interviewer. Having come from a non-traditional background himself, Benjamin can offer practical tips for lateral/experienced hires and non-traditional candidates.

Benjamin graduated with a B.A. (First Class Honours) in History from the National University of Singapore.

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