Do You Need an MBA to Be a Management Consultant?

An MBA can be a good route into a consulting firm as an associate. Associates receive training and on-the-job apprenticeship at many of the big firms. Associates are the ones performing background research and analysis. Combining problem solving skills and technical experience is common for associates. Well-performing associates then often receive promotions after a few years of experience. However, to succeed as a consultant, experience is what counts.

While many consultants entered firms such as McKinsey holding MBA degrees, not everyone who consults has an MBA. While education is important, it does not solve complex problems the same way experience does. Those serving as consultants rarely go to business school to get the job. On the other hand, consultants with years of real-world experience sometimes go back to get their MBA degrees. Why? For one, holding an MBA commissions a higher salary. MBA degrees combined with real-world experience bring together the best of both situations.

Someone with five or ten years of experience and an MBA degree is more capable of handling complex projects and has more tools at her disposal than someone with either the experience or the MBA. Second, the MBA degree helps garner respect from those not familiar with a consultant’s experience or industry. When a new client or firm sees the combination of experience and degree, it helps build their confidence. An example of a place where having an MBA in addition to experience helps is when applying to a consultancy like McKinsey & Company. When hiring, McKinsey looks for strength in four areas: Problem solving, achieving, personal impact, and leadership. Holding an MBA helps with problem solving skills, and can help with personal impact (especially if service projects or volunteer work was completed).

Experience is irreplaceable and demonstrates a history of achieving and leadership positions. Some companies, like BCG, will sponsor high performing associates wanting to pursue MBA degrees. This is a valuable option for those wishing to pursue an MBA, but who aren’t sure how the degree will be paid for.

The downside is that many experienced consultants apply to top MBA programs. While employment at a top management consulting firm is helpful, those who are self-employed, or who work at smaller consultancies must work hard to make themselves stand out. Having a specific focus, leadership experience, and clear goals all are helpful.

Moreover, if you are self-employed, be sure to write detailed accounts of whom your clients were and how you served them. This demonstrates to employers that you were employed. If deciding to obtain an MBA is on the table, be sure to study for the GMAT and carefully research prospective schools (and the companies recruiting from those schools). Carefully construct the application and essay. Make sure you recognize, going into an MBA program that it is a demanding career move and a large financial investment and plan accordingly. While an MBA degree is not necessary for a management consultant, obtaining an MBA can help your prospects of finding gainful employment-especially when combined with industry or consulting experience.