Starting your career in a consulting firm

Aug 12, 2019

If you’re a recent college graduate, there’s a good chance you’re interested in consulting work. As a matter of fact, there are a projected 1,265 soon-to-be graduates that will work in the management consulting industry. And this popularity is not surprising, given that consulting companies like ICF have built a strong market for college graduates by creating a variety of roles to match the skills of their candidates.

But with this popularity comes intense competition. You might be wondering how you can stand out among other candidates applying to similar positions. That’s why our team is sharing some tips and tricks to getting through the hiring process and landing your dream job in consulting.

Listen to the podcast below to hear advice from Rachelle, T, Terry, Estephanie, and Celine on…

  • The skills you need to have to be hired by a consulting company
  • What you can do to develop these skills if you don’t already possess them
  • How to format your resume to market your best and most important skills, as well as what to include in an effective cover letter for jobs in the consulting industry

See the full transcript below:

Rachelle: Hey, everyone. Welcome to "The Spark," the podcast that provides perspectives on industries and issues that matter. I'm Rachelle Roberts.

T: And I'm T Clark.

Rachelle: And in today's episode geared specifically towards recent grads and students who will be graduating college soon, we're going to discuss starting your career in a consulting firm. We're gonna cover topics such as the skills needed to join a consulting firm, what to do to acquire any skills that you might be missing, and how to go about marketing your skills when you're ready to join the workforce.

T: And today, we're lucky to be joined by three ICF employees, who are going to take a few seconds just to introduce themselves. Terry?

Terry: Hi, everyone. I'm Terry Unger, the college and university recruiter here at ICF. I have been with the company for over nine years now, first as an environmental regulatory consultant. And for the past five years, I have been a recruiter. Thank you guys so much for having me on this podcast.

Rachelle: Yeah, you're welcome. And Estephanie, can you also introduce yourself?

Estephanie: Hi, I'm Estephanie Aquino, and I have been at ICF for about a year now. I graduated from Dartmouth College, and I'm so happy to be sharing, you know, my experience here so far.

T: And Celine, tell us about you.

Celine: Hi, I'm Celine Colin de Verdiere. I'm an employer brand specialist here at ICF. And I've been here for eight and a half years. I can't believe it's been that long already. I'm in charge of our recruitment marketing efforts here. Thank you for having me.

Rachelle: Yeah, it's great to have you guys.

T: Thanks, everyone. We're so glad to have you on this podcast today. So let's dive in.

Rachelle: Absolutely. So T, did you know that in 2019, according to the National Association of Colleges and Employers, the number of projected recent and soon to be graduates in the management consulting industry will reach a little over 1,200?

T: Okay.

Rachelle: Twelve sixty five to be exact.

T: That's a better answer for me.

Rachelle: You know, that's over 13% more than last year.

T: No, that is interesting, and it's one of the signs of a strong market for a college grads.

Rachelle: Absolutely. And I also found out that the management consulting remains the preferred destination of choice for graduates in the UK. And I found this to be really interesting, because ICF is a global consulting firm.

T: Well, and, you know, as I was doing research for this podcast, I found that ICF, we typically hire around 100 or so recent grads into junior consultant roles.

Terry: That's awesome.

T: And that's a global number. So every year, we're doing that, and we're expecting this number to grow as we continue to develop our college and university programs.

Rachelle: Such great numbers here. So Terry, since you're a dedicated college and university recruiter, tell us, what kind of skills are you looking for when you're hiring at junior consultants?

Terry: Yeah, great question. Well, since we're a company that is incredibly diverse in our expertise in various market sectors, it follows that the skills that we're seeking vary as well. So each team will really wanna see that their candidate has some type of demonstrated interest in their market, and whether it be energy, environment, public health, IT, or one of the other target markets.

Rachelle: Lots of options.

Terry: Right, but some of the general skills and attributes that we're looking for that would make someone a good consultant are to be self motivated, good at time management, juggling different priorities, working well in teams, but also alone, and being intellectually curious. And I think this one is really important, because you'll constantly be applying your skills and your experience to new projects here.

Rachelle: All really, really important. And Estephanie, why would students be attracted to consulting in the first place? As someone that's a recent college grad in the market, you know, for a year working at ICF, what attracted you to go into consulting?

Estephanie: Yeah, I think, well, speaking for myself, I was really interested in policy research. And I think a lot of the times, when people are looking into jobs, it is hard to get into that area, because you don't have, you know, developed specific expertise there. And I think the benefit about working for a company like ICF is that there are a lot of different roles and a lot of different projects going on. And so for me, that really attracted me that I was able to sort of get onto a team that was doing a lot of the work that I was interested in, but also wasn't asking for, you know, 10 years of experience. Because as someone who just graduated college, there's no way I would be able to have that. So they seemed like they would allow me to explore different interests, while also narrowing in on some of the work that I had already had exposure to.

Rachelle: Yeah, that sounds really good, good points. And I know when I have a group of my hiring managers are typically looking for those who have spent some time interested in looking at ICF. And understanding what are we passionate about? What do we do in the marketplace? What kind of products do we bring to the market? And how are we really impacting sustainability and energy and transportation? And so that's being able to show passion for ICF and what we do, and understanding that really goes a long way.

T: And being able to take on all of the various different projects that we do have the opportunity to work on, you know, you can really hone your skills in various aspects of our projects, because clients are always going to be requiring new things, projects are always going to change. So being able to be nimble, taking on your experience that you do have coming out of school can really be a really good benefit to a new hire.

Terry: Folks that will grow to be experts here. But then they're coming in and joining us, where they are able to what Estephanie said, where they're taking their role in school. And it's a fantastic transition from academia, where they're constantly juggling all their various projects for their different professors and their different deadlines. But here, they're gonna be juggling all their different projects for the various managers and the various clients. So working on two to five projects the same way, they're probably gonna be taking three to five classes. And I always love to tell college candidates that we have both our CEO and our COO are hired directly out of college recruiting.

Rachelle: Isn't that amazing? I love that.

T: So we talked about consulting skills that are needed. But what if some of our listeners don't quite have that particular skill set?

Rachelle: That's a really good question. What can they do? Estephanie, what are some ways that students still in college can start to develop these needed skills?

Estephanie: I think three main ways people in college can start doing this is is by, one, getting involved in extracurriculars. So we talked about a little bit, how it's important to sort of find an area that you're passionate about, you wanna explore more, I think, a company like ICF. And in consulting, it's important to sort of have that background knowledge and that hands-on experience, so you can have you know, more of a background and how to get involved in creative problem solving. And so such, just give yourself that exposure, whether that be in sustainability or in finance. Additionally, the second thing, I think it's important to look into, you know, different professional societies. A lot of the times these are good resources to sort of just go to and talk about your academics and also just seek out career advice as well as how to go about navigating the workplace in general. And the final and, I think, most important, one of the more important things is just your coursework. So you just get that exposure and get involved on research projects, if that's something that would be useful in consulting as well.

T: All good points. And this is why Estephanie is on this podcast. Terry, what are your thoughts on things that students can do now to help prepare for consulting?

Terry: Sure. So to build on what Estephanie said, really, in addition to your coursework, at least for your major, I think you need to be really strategic in selecting your minor and all of your electives, so that you're really prepared skill-wise and experience-wise, just within your coursework, as well as you can be. And sometimes exposure to a subject matter through either a group project, or a capstone, or a thesis through one of these courses is actually what really makes you stand out as a candidate for us or one of our positions. Other times, I think, it's really strong internship or externship experience. I definitely know that sometimes students can’t be choosy, and they just need to take, you know, whatever they...

Rachelle: Whatever they can get.

Terry: Right, right, whatever pays. But you know, when it is possible, I think you should be as strategic as possible with those summer and the part-time employment opportunities as well. Just a few examples for some of the markets that we're looking to hire into. If you're interested in public policy, I think that government agency experience is fantastic. If you're looking to join us in maybe one of our marketing or communications roles, then agency experience is really valuable.

Rachelle: Those are all really great ideas. And I love how you're very specific. So I think our listeners are really going to appreciate that. So thank you for that. Celine, as someone that works with our internal clients from a consulting perspective, what else would you add?

Celine: Well, I would say keep in mind that you may not start in a role where you are a consultant, you may be in a support role, like I was. At the beginning of my career, I was their recruited coordinator in charge of scheduling interviews, for instance. But as you grow into your role, you may come across these amazing opportunities to become a consultant and become a subject matter expert to other individuals working inside your company. And so, for instance, for me, as an employer brand specialist, my internal clients are recruiters and hiring managers. And I help them find talent and attract the talent to their open positions. So it can be a really great opportunity. And that's valid not for just recruiting like me, but let's say you're in finance, you may be, you know, called to become a subject matter expert and a consultant for other internal clients as well. So it's just another thing to keep in mind.

Rachelle: Yeah, I've been really grateful because you have been a great partner with me. So I am viewed as one of your internal customers.

Celine: Absolutely.

Rachelle: As a recruiter. So thank you for all the help that you provide.

Celine: You're very welcome.

T: All great stuff. So to recap, we've talked about skills needed, how to get some of those skills. But Terry, what are your thoughts on how to market these skills on a resume?

Terry: Well T, I personally love to see a resume for college candidates where they list their education and any related skills or knowledge that they have right up front. That should be the first thing.

Rachelle: Attention-getter.

Terry: Right. So not just, you know, the basics, like your school, a major, minor, your GPA, I also wanna see what relevant coursework you took there. Any topics of the relevant projects, in-depth research that you conducted, or any types of long writing or lengthy writing samples that you've done. I think a lot of candidates like to place their skills in a section that's either at the bottom or down to the side of their resume. But I think you should really organize your resume in a way that lists those most important, relevant, and impressive qualifications right up front. No reason to list them chronological order.

Rachelle: Yeah, that's a great point. And what about cover letters? I wanna go kind of to take a quick poll around our table here. What's your view on cover letters? Terry, do you wanna jump in real quick?

Terry: Sure, that's a great question. I know a lot of candidates, when they are looking at a lot of different opportunities, they can spend a lot of time on cover letters. I think that if your qualifications on the face of your resume speak for themselves, don't bother. I will not probably go to a cover letter, if it is clear to me why you're interested in this position and what your qualifications are. But if you think that you really need to explain that there might be a disconnect, then definitely go ahead, take the time, because that may be your way to get your foot in the door.

Rachelle: Thank you. What about you, Estephanie? What's your viewpoint on a cover letter? Did you have a cover letter when you started at ICF or when you applied?

Estephanie: I did. I think I submitted as much as possible. So for me, I was always told that cover letters can hurt you more than they can help you.

Rachelle: That's a good point.

Estephanie: Than they can help you. So it's very obvious that you're using this like template for every single company, I don't think it's gonna I mean, I'm not on the recruiting side. But I could just imagine it doesn't communicate that you're passionate about the role you're applying to. So if it's a job, you know, that you really want, I think it's important, and especially at a company like ICF, that cares a lot about the work we do to demonstrate that you're actually interested in that.

Rachelle: Yeah, that's great. Thank you.

Celine: It is the first writing sample that you're getting.

Rachelle: Yeah.

T: I was just about to [inaudible 00:13:37].

Rachelle: Yeah, it's true.

T: Exactly.

Rachelle: T, what do you think?

T: No, I mean, well, Terry already led me there. I mean, I think, you know, a cover letter is one thing, yes. But I think a more powerful piece of writing that a new grad can submit is a writing sample. It's gonna be pertaining to, you know, a subject that is near and dear to your heart it's gonna match up to what you are applying to here at ICF. And it really shows in today's world, how important written communication skills, you know, really are. And I think that goes a lot farther than a cover letter, personally.

Rachelle: Absolutely, I like that. And I appreciate you saying that. Because I know with a lot of candidates that we hire and the groups that I support, my hiring managers typically want some sort of writing sample or some sort of something that demonstrates the work that you have done and that you're capable of. So all really good points on that. And hopefully our listeners are finding that to be interesting as well.

Estephanie: Yeah, I definitely think that once, you know, adding on to that once you get to the interview process, it's important to sort of brag about yourself a little bit.

Rachelle: Yeah, why not?

Estephanie: I mean, it's your time to shine, you got this far.

Rachelle: Yeah.

Estephanie: So once you're there, where you can sort of further communicate those skills that you have, is by letting the interviewers understand why it is that you were passionate about the research, you may have included in your cover letter, or on your resume, go into a little bit more detail, not just what you did, but why and how that relates to this job. And so that's coming into the job. Additionally, once you're in, it's important to know your strengths and weaknesses. For example, I think, for me, something that I felt very comfortable with was technical writing.

So that's something I communicated to my interviewers. And once I was hired to my managers that this was something that I further wanted to develop. And once you're in the role, it's also important to consider expanding your knowledge of certain areas. So, for example, I was curious in energy and environment projects. But once you're in the job, you can't always focus on just trying to turn out a product really quickly. A lot of the main thing about consulting is not only getting something done efficiently, it's about doing something correctly, and really understanding the client's needs. So once you're in a role, it's important to understand what a client's background is, and how this task really relates to the whole, I'm looking at a bigger picture. So that's something you should really consider once you're in a job.

Rachelle: Yeah,

Terry: I think a gold star candidate in an interview would probably ask their interviewers, for some insight into what projects they worked on, even if it's just like specific examples. And then they would listen, and then adapt whatever their skills and experience are, and then tell the interviewer how they think that they would, "Oh, that's so interesting." I would love to do that. And then this is how I would have, you know, like to contribute given my skills and experience.

Rachelle: That's a really great example, and I actually just heard another example from an interview yesterday, where a hiring manager described a project and asked the candidate about what they thought about it. And all they had to say was, "Oh, that's interesting." There was nothing else. So the interview sort of fell flat, because there was no interest...they said, interesting, but there was no direct interest, or passion, or questions, related to what was said. So I think what you're mentioning is really spot on both of you. And I sort of looked at it as a "Choose Your Own Adventure" book. Because, you know, you get to you have this story that's lined up for you, but you get to fill in some of the blanks or turn to a different page and kind of create your own adventure. And so what you were mentioning earlier, it sounds like we have to be adaptable. But we also have to bring our own creativity to the project and to the customer, and our passion and desire, because that's why we hire people, is to bring something new and different.

T: All right, so I can sit here and listen to you guys all day. But just to recap for our listeners today, we heard from Terry, Estephanie, and Celine about the most valuable skills to have when starting your career at a consulting firm.

Rachelle: We did. And we also learned that internships can be a really great way to gain new or missing skills to become a really successful junior consultant.

T: And we had a chance to hear from Estephanie share her experience starting her career at ICF. Thank you so much, Estephanie.

Estephanie: Thank you for having me.

Rachelle: You're welcome. So T, having heard all of this, what are some of the next steps our listeners can take?

T: Well, I think we got some homework to do. But first, head over to our career site at, check out all of our open job opportunities. And don't forget to apply. Our listeners can also browse The Spark Blog at and listen to more ICF podcast. Anyone can access some great resources there, such as tips for acing your interview, how to get ahead with your personal branding, and how to use your network to land your next interview and more.

Rachelle: Absolutely. So we're so grateful that you guys were all able to join us today. We want you to head over to the ICF website to discover all of those resources and to let us know which topics you'd like to hear about next. You can submit your suggestion via Twitter by simply mentioning @JoinICF in your tweet. And of course both T and I are available on LinkedIn and Twitter should you have any questions. Until next time, guys, we'll see you later.

T: See ya.

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