McKinsey vs BCG vs Bain – 5 tips to make a decision

Are you in a situation where you are thinking about which management consulting firms that you would like to work at? You have already narrowed it down to McKinsey vs BCG vs Bain?

I was in the exact same position some years ago and in this blog post I will give advice on how to decide. I will tell you what you should focus on, what you should not focus on and how to come to the best decision for you.

In preparation for this, I went back and re-read many of the articles comparing the Big 3 that I used to read back when I had to make my choice. When reading the articles I found that they often describe the three companies as quite different, with different culture, career progressions etc. In my humble experience, working in one of them and having friends in the others, there is very little overall difference between them. It therefore comes down to the small local differences and how well you connect with the people in each company during the sparse interaction you will manage to have with them during recruiting events.

The things that are truly important

  • People, people and people. When joining a company, you will spend hours upon hours together with the people from the local office and it is therefore important that you, in the short period of time that you have interacting with them during recruitment, find out if you connect. Of course, much of the work you do once in, is not directly tied to the local office, and you will often be travelling and working with people from different places. Despite of this, I have still found that I have spent the largest portion of my time together with the people from my local office both through projects but also during the Friday bars, training event, local recruitment etc. Another indication of a good fit is you have many friends from your school join one of the companies, but be smart and ask them why, it might not always be the people fit that drove the decision.
  • Size of the local office. On a global scale the three companies are very similar, having offices in all parts of the world, highly intelligent, interesting and diverse people and high performance, yet relaxed, cultures. On the local scale on the other hand, there can be larger differences. In my case, I have found the size of the local office to mean quite a bit. A smaller office compared to the other companies in the area can mean that they are not as strong in the local market and will therefore often not win as many local cases compared to the others. This could, to some extent, mean less opportunities for you. Of course, you can travel to other places for projects, but many local offices often recruit to sustain and grow the local market, which means you might, at least while being new in the company, be “stuck” with smaller selection of cases in a narrower field depending on the type and area of expertise of the partners in the office. A larger local office also means that you will be able to build a larger local network which will benefit you in the long run.

The things that are less important

  • Career progression. In the end, the career progression is the same for the three companies, both in terms of staying on board and if you think of switching tracks further down the line. McKinsey might often be the one that most people have heard of outside of the management consulting field, but the people that will be hiring you after you are done in management consulting knows all the companies and value them equally.
  • Depth of experience. You will be able to get an experience of a lifetime no matter which company you choose. Joining a smaller local office might mean that you will not have a wide choice between cases in the beginning, but you will still be learning a lot and in the end you will most likely have progressed and experienced the same no matter what you choose. The thing that is truly the biggest difference in determining the depth of your experience is how much you put in yourself. This means that if you really push for it you have the same opportunities in all three companies whether it be going abroad, getting staffed on a specific case, joining recruiting & training events, etc.
  • Type of work. All three companies do much of the same type of work, but there are small differences especially on the local level. These differences tend to get less the longer you stay and the more you specialize within a field, as you will be staffed in the place where you are needed no matter the geographical location.
  • Salary. The salary levels are almost identical across the companies and in any case the difference will not be so large that you should base your decision upon this.
  • Culture. I have found little difference between the culture of the companies, and the people close to me that have said that there is difference have not been unanimous in what the actual difference is. In the end, I think it is mostly in the eyes of the observer, and you should do you best to figure out if there is a difference in the local offices that you are applying for.

McKinsey vs BCG vs Bain – 5 tips I used to make my decision

  1. Go to recruiting events and apply for awards. Figuring out if you connect with the people in the local offices is one of the key things in deciding who to join. Before applying you should therefore sign up to all the events you can muster and winning an award or two is not bad for CV either.
  2. Ask individuals in each firm out for coffee. Use your connections, either through friends or the people you have met during events, and ask them to join you for a cup of coffee. There are several benefits in doing this; you will be able to get to know some people on the inside a little better, which will help you determine the local differences between the companies. Also, even though they will most likely not directly be able to help you get an interview, it is not bad having a helping hand on the inside. In my case, some of the people I asked out for coffee  ended up becoming close friends even though some of them have already now moved on to other places. Oh, and the last important benefit: A free cup of coffee (as they often end up paying for you)!
  3. Be genuinely interested and ask the right questions. When talking to the people in the companies, get to really know them. This means hearing their story and asking them why they made the choices they did. People love talking about themselves and you can probably learn more about what you should do by hearing their stories than by just asking them to give you advice. Another good idea is to join the recruiting events where there is a bit of alcohol involved (if you are in a country that does this), as this tends to be the place where you can get even deeper as people are more relaxed.
  4. Apply for an internship. An internship is hard to get, but it is the ultimate way to find out if you like it there. Often an internship is also a good idea if you are not sure if being a management consultant is even something you want to do. I did it since I was very much unsure of which way to go and it helped me to solidify my idea of management consulting being a great opportunity for me.
  5. Apply to all three companies, as well as some from the Big 4. It is hard to get in, and if you really want to, the actual company you end up at only matters a fractions compared to the amount of effort that you are willing to invest. In the end, it is your own drive will really pushes your career and personal development and not the company name on the building, and this is both within management consulting and outside.
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