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What is a referral really?

Application Cover letter MBB Referral
New answer on Jun 11, 2020
6 Answers
16.6 k Views
Anonymous A asked on Dec 11, 2017

Hi guys,

What do people consider as a referral; a person you've had contact with or someone that explicitly says "you can mention my name on the application" or something of the sort? I'm currently working in a top tier consulting firm and perhaps got the position because I mentioned the name of someone currently working herein a cover letter after having a 30 mins phone call with him.

Since then, I've always applied to MBBs the same way; chat with someone and keep in touch and when the time comes, use his name in your cover letter. When people say that referrals give you a much greater chance of getting recruited, is that what they mean or is it different and if so, what is the typical procedure to obtain a referral?

Thanks in advance!

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replied on Dec 11, 2017
McKinsey / Accenture Alum / Got all BIG3 offers / Harvard Business School


There are certain criteria for the referral:

  1. The consultant makes you a reference in the system and uploads your resume. Usually, he has to indicate why he thinks you are a good candidate
  2. You skip some steps in the recruiting process (CV screening at McK, Test at Bain)
  3. The consultant gets referral bonus ($) if you get a job offer

As you can see simply mentioning a person in your CL does not change the process at all.

The conversion to reference will be higher among consultant / manager level people who are still interested in the referral bonus. The basic idea is to ask these people for a mock interview.

Here are some tips on how you can do that:

1) Leverage your own network - find friends or friends of friends who can practice cases with you or make you a reference.

2) Attend company events. Consulting companies do a lot of events both for graduates and experienced hires. Find the social network groups related to consulting or websites, subscribe to newsletters and stay tuned. Also, check if they have events in your University since you are a PHD.

While some of the events will be open to everyone, others will require a resume and a cover letter, so make sure to prep.

3) Talk to people on the events and send Thank You notes. After each event, there is a Q&A session where you can talk to consultants 1 on 1 or in a group. Ask for contact info or send a thank you note after the event ("I just wanted to thank you for visiting our University... It was especially interesting to hear about... Would be happy to keep in touch and apply in the nearest future.). Alternatively, you may use linkedin for that. If you are an experienced hire I strongly suggest to ask for a 1 on 1 meeting in a thank you note.

4) 1 on 1 meetings. All people like giving an advice. So don't hesitate to ask consultants for a career advice. Tell your story and ask how consulting fits into it

5) Mock interview Depending on where you are in your prep process you may ask a consultant for a mock interview. Consultants are very much opened to help even if it is a cold call e-mail. The main problem is a lack of time on their side. So don't be afraid to remind about yourself if the consultant has already committed but finds it hard to find the time

6) Talking to partners If you are an experienced hire I suggest to talk directly to the partners in your industry or the partner responsible for experienced hires (in consulting partners also have additional roles). Get an intro from the HR or from your friends working there. Partners care a lot about experienced hires with relevant industry expertise. Chances to get referral are much lower though. They also will not be interested in giving mock interviews.

7) If you are an MBA graduate Just talk to your section mates and ask for a reference or a mock interview - they will be happy to help. Make sure you attend all the consulting events.

Good luck!

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Julien on Dec 11, 2017

Hi Vlad, I'm also interested in this question. I read another post under you saying that the ultimate goal was to get in contact with the HR since they're the ones that decide whether or not to accept your candidature. I've recently had a cold call an MBB consultant that enjoyed our conversation, he referred to me to the HR who was happy to answer some of my questions. Later my application was denied (all the minimum requirements were met, target school, GPA, work experience, etc.) should I have done things differently with the HR or cold contact?

Vlad on Dec 11, 2017

Hi Julien! You probably misunderstood me. The objective is to connect with someone who can make a reference to bypass the HR. The only case when you have to connect with HR is if you are an experienced hire. Than HR may provide you with the contacts of the partner who is responsible for Experienced hires recruiting process.


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replied on Dec 11, 2017
#1 Coach for Sessions (4.500+) | 1.500+ 5-Star Reviews | Proven Success (➡ | Ex BCG | 10Y+ Coaching

Hi Anonymous,

as Vlad said, receiving a referral means that the consultants directly talks to HR forwarding your application, thus just mentioning the name in the cover would not be as effective as a true referral. You don’t need necessarily to attend events to get referrals, although that could be useful. If you don't/can't attend events, the usual steps to follow are:

1. Identify who are the people who could more easily help you

2. Write them a customized cold email to schedule a call

3. Have a call with the consultant, and indirectly ask for a referral

Each step has its specific rules to maximize conversion.

You can find more info at the second post at the following link:



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Odeh replied on Dec 12, 2017

I second Vlad & Francesco's input on this. However, I want to raise an important point. Referals DON'T get you a job. They only open the door. The candidate must have robust standing and credibility when putting their application forward. No person wants to reference a candidate only to be told by HR or a colleague that the candidate was not up to the required standards. It reflects badly on the referrer's judgment - and no one wants that!

So although a reference is good, it does not guarantee a job offer. It only facilitates one getting in front of the interview panel.

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Anonymous replied on Jun 11, 2020


I would like to explain you the mechanics how referrals usually work:

My mentee sends me the documents (CV and cover letter) for a specific company.

I have a very wide network of friends, former colleagues and ex-mentees on high positions in consulting (partners, principals and managers) across the world. I chat with them individually praising your competences and skills. Afterwards, I ask them to follow your documents on their behalf directly to their HR ladies while putting a word for you.

In that way you may get your “partner referral” which normally brings you in the pole position for the interview. You may compare it to “skipping the line for business class” at the airport.

If you have any questions, just send me a whatsapp under +41793242861. – I am happy to answer your questions as well as to help to get interviews and convert them to offers.



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Originally answered question:


replied on Jun 15, 2018
Former BCG interviewer

As said, allows you to skip at least the "automated" screening step of the application process. This is of crucial importance especially if:

  • you do not come from a target school
  • you apply off-cycle
  • you are an experienced hire

Otherwise, it's a nice to have but doesn't change the equation much. Hope it helps,


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Vlad gave the best answer


McKinsey / Accenture Alum / Got all BIG3 offers / Harvard Business School
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