Where does experience come from?
August 11, 2012 10:31 PM   Subscribe

What projects could I work on and tactics could I employ to make myself a compelling internship candidate in consulting? I have little relevant experience but significant passion and interest.

I'm a rising college sophomore in NYC.

I've realized that I really enjoy research and problem-solving, and I would like to pursue consulting as a future option. I know it's a broad category, so internships are the obvious way to figure out what I am capable of and enjoy. I actually think I could be pretty good at it, given the chance - problem is, I don't know how to mold my experience to make myself a compelling applicant.

Internships are, of course, supposed to be a way to build experience. But everything I see seems pretty competitive and intimidating (and I have an irrational fear about my applications being ridiculously stupid and therefore having burned bridges with only a resume and a cover letter). I have small amounts of retail, political campaign (including managing volunteers and taking leadership roles, if only in the short term - no strategy/research work though really), and public interaction/education experience, but none of that seems especially relevant, although I do think I have strong references from those. I didn't really go above and beyond in any way academically last year, maintaining an A- type average and not really interfacing with or impressing professors in any way, so I don't have any spectacular recommendations there.

I don't think "I prepare extensive spreadsheets to allow my dad to easily pick economical cellphone plans" is adequate proof of passion, but it is truthfully the way I am about things and the reason I think I'd be great. It's not something I've done in an academic or work environment nearly enough (in retrospect, I may have missed out on certain opportunities in the past, but hindsight is 20/20).

What avenues would make sense to pursue to make myself an undeniable candidate tomorrow, or next semester, or in a year? Here's what I've thought of:
-independent projects (ie blogging or something, although I can't think of relevant topics)

-structuring my schedule and working academically in a way that my professors will know who I am and how above-and-beyond I occasionally went come next semester. (definitely doing this. Specific tactics welcomed.)

-pursuing extracurricular/club leadership - I didn't really pursue extracurricular activities last year (I kind of coasted and went numb), so no leadership opportunities as of yet, but I'm looking forward to getting seriously involved in the fall. (again, specific guidance welcomed).

-political involvement - I have somebody pretty powerful (boss of former boss) currently reaching out about leadership opportunities near school on the same national campaign for me. I think they hold me in pretty high esteem, so this seems like the easiest avenue. I don't know what will pan out, but campaigns seem like a pretty great opportunity to do anything and everything.

-informal internships - I'd love to help someone getting their shit together for their kickstarter-bound project, but I have no idea how to find such a person. I worked for a small business all summer, and I've come to recognize the fantastic opportunities of working for a small team.

-formal internships - again, like above: how can I distinguish myself from other applicants with leadership and project experience, or great professor recs, or really any part of the solid background I lack?

I have probably 25 hours a week to comfortably spare for extracurriculars and internships combined. It's certainly not a lot, which I realize.
posted by R a c h e l to Work & Money (10 answers total) 3 users marked this as a favorite
I do consulting now. I started this way: Make all of the skills you could be ready to practically deliver and what your baseline consulting fee will be and put it on two sheets of paper, preferably printed on one sheet of paper back and front. I can do a one-off seminar but I also offer an eight-session training programme and I make that the centerpiece of my work. Your offer may be different. Once the flyer is made, put on some clothes you are comfortable in and go out to businesses door to door.

The reason I do this is that I have people face to face for five to seven minutes. They are facing someone who is telling them something they don't know that they don't know about something you think you are an expert in. I suggest that you start with the the places that might want to hire you, like the boss of former boss. However, I also wonder if you need to build up your going-to-work muscles. If you think you do, then by all means go cold approach businesses you have never been in contact before. I am sure they will take your flyer. It doesn't even have to be fancy. Start out with seven or eight flyers, thinking of holding a client load of two or three for now by yourself. Do not go home until you have given those flyers away and agreed with them on a day you will follow up with them. I suggest that you drop over to see them the next week. If they balk on price of something like that, I ask them to tell me what they could pay me and negotiate. It usually works. Do not work for nothing.
posted by parmanparman at 10:59 PM on August 11, 2012

Sorry, a few other notes - while theoretically I agree with all of the reasons that unpaid internships are problematic, I'm lucky enough to be able to live on babysitting earnings and parental support during the school year. So those are more than fine, although I recognize the hypocrisy and immense privilege embodied in that.

And while I have yet to progress past intro-level classes, my prospective major is economics/mathematics. I'm fascinated by marketing and business strategy/development as well, although I know next to nothing about either.
posted by R a c h e l at 11:01 PM on August 11, 2012 [1 favorite]

IANAC but I helped my spouse prep for interviews, one of which landed him an offer.

If by "consulting" you mean you want to intern at a consulting firm like McKinsey or similar, I'd say if you don't go to Harvard, Yale, Princeton, or Stanford you have a pretty uphill battle ahead of you as an undergrad, but it is not impossible. Network heavily, study case interviews like crazy, and take leadership positions wherever you can. Get PILES of quantitative experience - take statistics classes and try to get really good at working with numbers in your head. Case interviews are really a skill unto themselves. Your school's career center probably has practice type situations where you can hone your skills.

Definitely the right course is to get an internship as former interns who convert have dibs on new positions for fulltime hires in a lot of places. Of course this means internships are insanely competitive.

I think your political involvement will be of interest to them, especially if you can demonstrate how you put your quantitative and organizational skills to use to make the campaign more efficient or effective. You need to be able to tell coherent stories about yourself and the ways that you make big organizations better, under time pressure and stressful circumstances. Played right, a political campaign could be the perfect petri dish. I think a key skill they look for is that you are an optimizer who is constantly scanning the horizon for inefficiencies and bottlenecks and working around them before they become a problem, and a person who will step up and take responsibility for things without fretting over them too unduly.
posted by town of cats at 11:36 PM on August 11, 2012 [1 favorite]

You might also research some of the NYC-based VC firms and look at their portfolio companies - these are often small startups who could really benefit from a hands-on intern and will allow you some freedom and flexibility to figure out how you can contribute most directly. Firms that have more seed/angel stage investment are more likely to have the smaller companies that could benefit from some general assistance, and these will be great resume-building experiences for your next move.
posted by judith at 11:49 PM on August 11, 2012

Previously on AskMe.

I had a number of students who went through this process. I'm not positive, but I think getting a shot at an internship involved basically the same steps as getting a job interview, i.e. go to the career fair, give them your resume, and line it up. Getting interviewed seemed to be a matter of attending a good school (one the consulting firms already farm), presenting yourself really well, having a decent GPA, and doing some vaguely relevant coursework demonstrating analytic ability. But the interview seemed to be crucial, for which see the linked questions. I'm not sure extracurriculars or recommendations played any part in it at all.

Your choices of major sound perfect. Maybe throw in one class that causes you to practice effective self-presentation and communication, if that's something you need to polish up.
posted by Monsieur Caution at 12:09 AM on August 12, 2012

Before you embark on any of these projects, I suggest making an appointment with your university's career center. If your university is one of the ones from which the big consulting companies recruit interns, the career office will likely have information on what made their applications successful. Also check out the career center's calendar of events - again, if your university is one from which the consulting companies regularly recruit, there will be on-campus information sessions from these companies. Registration ahead of time may be required to attend, so it's good to be aware of such events early. The career center may also be able to get you in touch with alumni who can provide you with information about how to make yourself a stronger candidate.

Lastly, if you haven't done so already, pore over the websites of companies like McKinsey, BCG, etc. They provide a lot of information on what they are looking for in candidates. Pay attention to the language used, to see what kind of skills or qualities they emphasize.
posted by needled at 5:37 AM on August 12, 2012 [1 favorite]

Former consultant here. (I worked at a large consulting & audit firm. Yes, you can probably guess it). Sadly, I don't have contacts in our NY office.

It sounds like you have great plans. I would't discount things like the cell phone spreadsheet thing - you gathered data on cost and performance to find the best ROI. That's fine for internship level consulting (and frankly better than some of our MBA analysts who had cheese for brains).

I'd suggest using or developing your network to meet people who work at firms that interest you & let them know you are interested in internships. You can meet them volunteering or in your community and believe me, our firm was thrilled to find young, bright, motivated, hard working people who were interested. Show yourself to have those qualities and I think you've got a good shot.

Also seconding Monsieur Caution - polished presentation skills are so important but an incredible number of people in consulting lack them. Think about joining toastmasters perhaps.

Good luck!
posted by pointystick at 6:18 AM on August 12, 2012

Last I checked (and this was some time ago), Columbia and NYU were stops for recruiting season for all the major and minor consulting firms, and a shorter list of firms would look at the best students at Baruch and Fordham. You'd think Cooper Union would do fine but I don't know that for a fact, and Pratt ought to be considered by really creatively-minded firms.

If you're not going to these schools the sample set of consulting hires might be too small, but if you are going to one of these schools, Needled has it precisely right in referring you to the career office. They should know exactly which consulting firms recruit from your school, and have a very good demographic profile of the students who get summer analyst positions. Your job is to make your resume line up with past successful resumes. You can get a very good picture about where you want to be in terms of major, non-major coursework, GPA, extracurriculars, and sophomore summer internships.
posted by MattD at 7:06 AM on August 12, 2012

What do you mean when you say "consulting"? Are you referring to management consulting, i.e., Bain, McKinsey, etc.?

Assuming that is what you are referring to (your question does not make it clear), internships for these places are of course competitive, as is the industry itself.

For this industry, presentation, communication, people, and quantitative skills are very highly valued. The quantitative skills required generally do note exceed what a non-science major would experience in his first year of college; nonetheless, that is a hurdle that most can't master, at least in the United States.

If you're referring to a different type of consulting (it's a vague term), it would help to know more specifically what you're envisioning.
posted by dfriedman at 7:52 AM on August 12, 2012

I know consulting is an incredibly broad term - the whole idea of researching options and providing analysis and expertise to other companies on a specific project is what appeals to me, and I figured interning would be a good way to feel things out. While of course I wouldn't turn down a big four internship, I'm not expecting or pushing for that, especially not immediately.

I feel uncomfortable naming my school (though it's more than obvious from my ask history, I'm sure) but while I don't have the entirety of the Columbia name behind me, I do come from an academically competitive and relatively well connected school. Nothing that will automatically land me on shortlists, but nothing disqualifying.

Thanks, askmefi. Y'all are the best.
posted by R a c h e l at 8:47 AM on August 12, 2012

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