I joined McKinsey having only attended a “non-target” school. This dichotomy dominated my mind as I tried to break into the industry over the previous two years. Once I became an employee there, I was just another employee. When I mentioned my school, people would pause and usually say something like “wow I’ve never met anyone here that went there.”

Search results of the internal database confirmed this. A search for “Harvard” on the internal database and found about 1,000 (of the 10,000) employees that had some sort of affiliation with Harvard.

From my school? Six

So how do you get a job at McKinsey from a non-target school?

I went to the The University of Connecticut, a medium-sized public University. While see as a highly respected national University, it is not taken very seriously from the elite business institutions of our world – the McKinsey’s, Goldman Sachs and the Googles. Smaller consulting firms, instead of trying to steal the most driven people from big state school like UConn rather have McKinsey’s rejects than come to a school that is not part of the secret gated community of elite universities and prestigious companies.

The students I talk to always tend to have a bit of an inferiority complex because of this fact and its one I completely understand. I felt the exact same way when I was getting rejected from every consulting firm in the country.

But I love the students that think this way – its way more fun to help the person that is told they aren’t supposed to be able to do something than the person that thinks they are owed something.

Yet, these students tend to ask the wrong questions. Someone recently asked me “which companies do I need to work at to get into a top business school?” This seems like a good question at its surface, because when you are in college your career still seems like a linear path that can be planned.

Just because a number of people who are enrolled in top business schools worked at certain companies does not mean that is the best path.

Every year a college graduate looks around and says “People like that do things like this…” and then heads off to GE, hoping to follow in that persons path. The cycle repeats and repeats and repeats.

Except what they are often neglecting is an underlying sense of knowing what they are actually interested in. Even though entry-level training programs and consulting firms can be good places to go if you don’t know what you’re interested in, they often don’t help you solve this problem. They instead offer tons of marginally interesting projects and extrinsic rewards to distract you for a few years.

The people that end up wanting to go to business school are often the ones with the least idea of what they are actually curious about. They have even less of an idea than they did when they were graduating college.

If you know something that excites you (a lot of people are unsure early in their career), go do that and be awesome at it. You may end up loving it and staying – or you will be a great candidate for business school, because you have accomplished a lot.

Okay I should be curious about something, but what if I still want to work in consulting?

Now back to what McKinsey is looking for. They recruit at elite schools like Harvard, Cornell, Dartmouth, Yale et. al. becuase it is efficient. These schools have already spent a ton of time screening for high performance. Also, since they already recruit at these schools the students know about the opportunities. This is an overlooked fact. Since many students know about the opportunities – they prepare like hell.

Now does this mean you are shit out of luck if you did not attend these schools? No. Two factors are helping you:

Consulting as an industry has been growing FAST – faster than GDP growth (at least in the US, if not everywhere) – This means more job opportunities – and the firms need to look further than their traditional recruiting grounds. Check this out

Consulting industry market size

The secrecy of the consulting world has been diminished – When I started looking into consulting in 2006 LinkedIn was not fully developed, I knew no one actually working in the industry and the only source of information was illegally obtained Vault guides on the internet. Now, in 2016 you can go to glassdoor, read LinkedIn posts, visit QUORA!, connect with alumni and check out interactive websites of each of the consulting firms.

What Else Can You Do To Prepare?

There are two things you should spend the most time on:

#1 Signaling that you are excited about business

  • Read everything: macroeconomics, behavioral economics, finance, marketing, strategy, leadership, motivation, history, etc…
  • Find local startups that you can work at
  • Get business internships at companies that have a reputation for investing in people and training
  • Start your own venture
  • Experiment with investing small amounts of money
  • Start writing about business

#2 Preparation: A quick story – in 2006, when I first tried to break into consulting I spent about 3 weeks studying cases by myself. Little did I know that students at top firms had been preparing since freshman year. I’m not even kidding, my friend Josh said he did 25 case studies in his freshman year of college. So you likely need to spend way more time than you think.