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Music to McKinsey: The non-traditional path to consulting

Posted by Khaled Kteily on in Success Stories
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b2ap3_thumbnail_Music_Business_Program.jpgToday's success story focuses on Kevin Drennan, a music major from McGill University and MCN member who will be joining McKinsey full-time in 2014. After an initial, unsuccessful attempt at breaking into consulting, he buckled down, focused on the essentials, and secured multiple offers before deciding to join McKinsey. In this guest post, he discusses his path to consulting, and the factors that helped him succeed as a non-traditional applicant.

The following is written by Kevin, is purely a personal viewpoint, and in no way, shape or form represents the official position of any organization on the recruiting process. The image represents what we expect Kevin to look like next year. 

“From Music-Major to McKinsey”

Breaking into Consulting from a Non-Traditional Background

Last year at this time I was reeling after finishing consulting recruitment with no offers. I had a non-traditional background (music major at McGill; 3 minors in math, economics & business), but I thought that my strong GPA, extracurriculars, and ‘uniqueness factor’ would lead to at least one or two good offers.

Now that I’ve gone through the full-time recruitment process twice, landed multiple offers the second time and signed with McKinsey, I’m in a good position to reflect on what you absolutely MUST do to break into consulting from a non-traditional background. There are two major sections here: Networking and Preparation.

Section 1: Networking.

Last year in recruitment I got first-round interviews at 20% of the firms I applied for, despite having a top 5% GPA at a target school, 95th percentile GRE scores, and internships in Montreal and NYC. This year I got interviews at 80% of the firms I applied to. What changed? Networking.  

Everybody talks about it; everybody knows they have to do it; but very few people actually do it effectively. This is especially important for non-traditional applicants, since you’re not in the fray of the business school, and hence aren’t exposed to many built-in networking opportunities.

Here are a few tips that helped me build a strong and supportive network:

1. Start early. The more time you have to develop a relationship with people, the more likely they are to support you. Do not rush the process! I started networking formally about 6 months before fall recruitment.

2. Stay organized. Keep an excel spreadsheet with your list of networking ‘targets’, and detailed notes about where you are in the process with each. This makes it easy for you to see which firms you’re well-connected with, and it reminds you to follow up with people continuously.

3. Coffee chats. Do as many as possible. Have an idea of what you want to get out of the conversation before hand, but be flexible don’t just list questions. Consultants are fun people and they don’t want to be involved in a boring Q&A, even if they get a free coffee out of it. Related: Always buy the coffee!!!

4. It’s the little things. Small gestures make a big difference. The way you sign off an email (ex: ‘Cheers’ sounds more friendly than ‘Sincerely’; ‘Thanks [insert name]’ sounds warmer than ‘Thank you’). For the first few interactions, formal is better, but as the relationship develops, so should your vocabulary.

5. Never stop. It’s not an easy process to build a solid network of contacts who will support you and fight for you. Some people will randomly stop replying to your emails; some will forget about the phone call you scheduled; some will reschedule a million times. Consultants are busy people, so your job is to “keep on keeping on”, and focus on the end-goal: developing a solid relationship with a few good people at each firm. Quality trumps quantity every time.

I hope that sheds some light on the nitty-gritty of the networking process. It is the one thing you can/must do to maximize your chances of getting interviews, especially for non-traditional applicants. And remember, you’re not just developing a network to get interviews- these are brilliant people who will have very successful careers- the network you develop is long-term. Keep nurturing it even after the interview process is over!

After networking, it’s all about preparation for interviews.

Section 2: Preparation

Believe it or not, landing the interviews is the easy part. Once you’re in the interview, you need to nail your cases and impress your interviewers with stories about how you’ve saved the world, etc. Non-traditional candidates go through the same process as business candidates, and the expectations are just as high for you. Here are a few tips to prepare:  


1. Start early. I would start at least three or four months before interview season if you can. It’s a marathon, not a sprint, so starting well in advance and practicing consistently will always win against the person who crams 30 cases into the week before their first round. Non-traditional applicants typically have a steep learning curve, so the more cases you get under your belt, the better.  

2. Choose one “guide”. For non-business applicants, the amount of information out there can be overwhelming. I chose one “guide” (for me it was CaseInterview.com), and stuck to the frameworks and suggestions made in it. Victor Cheng’s “Look Over My Shoulder” program is invaluable. Also be aware that you’ll develop your own style and structures as you go along. Embrace this since it makes you unique in front of the interviewer who has given the same case 20 times by your 4pm interview slot.

3. Find your network. Don’t waste your time doing practice with people who are not as prepared as you. Find a solid group of 5-10 people who are preparing hard, and schedule your mocks with them. If you’re not at the business school, you’ll meet these people by looking out for the articulate and motivated students at info sessions. Every time you mock with someone who is strong, ask them for the name of someone they mock with. Exchange cards and get practicing. You can also ask your networking contacts to put you in touch with other motivated students who have reached out to them. Of the 10 students I mocked with this year, every single one of us has at least one offer. That’s pretty clear evidence that success breeds success.

4. Practice Mental Math every day. Caseinterview.com has a great mental math drill that benchmarks you against other users. It’s a great motivator.


1. Structure your answers. An easy structure to use is ‘context-action-result’ (or CAR for short). Walk your interviewer through the situation using this structure and they’ll get a clear insight into what you’re talking about. For non-traditional applicants, the ‘context’ is especially important since your interviewer may not be familiar with the type of situation you’re describing. Make sure they understand before moving on, or else the whole point is lost.

2. Read business publications. In a number of my behavioral interviews this year (final rounds), I got huge questions like “What do you think about the state of the world economy”, or “What are the implications of the Affordable Care Act for hospitals in the US”. These are brutally hard because they’re so broad and require a decent amount of knowledge about the subject. Subscribe to The Economist, read the Huffington Post every day (I read the US Edition because most firms do a lot of work south of the border), and pick up a few books about companies you respect. Immerse yourself in the business world as much as possible.

3. Talk the talk. Non-traditional applicants have a bit of an uphill battle since we’re not surrounded by the jargon and business-speak that a traditional BCom applicant is exposed to. Make sure you know key industry terms. What does ‘being on the beach’ mean? What is ‘the 80/20 rule’? Why does everyone toss around ‘decks’?  It’s important that you don’t stand out as a ‘non-business’ person, and knowing the jargon is a great way to show that you fit in.  

At the end of the day the interviews are a chance to show the firm why you are exactly right for the job. Once you’ve internalized some of the tips above, and put in the prep time, it’s all about relaxing and enjoying the process! Treat the interviews as opportunities to have great conversations with brilliant people, and you’re off to the races. Good luck :)


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Guest Aug 22, 2019