The following field report is from a McKinsey new hire from a Top 200 U.S. university. While McKinsey and the other top firms are heavily represented by graduates of Ivy League universities (and their international counterparts), it is not staffed exclusively this way.

The story that follows is very instructive for anyone applying from a non-target school. Please read and see my comments that follow as there are certain subtle aspects of the story that I want to point out as important — even though they may not seem that way.

Field Report:

I graduated less than three years ago with undergraduate degrees in business from [Top 200 US University].

I started working for a small company two years prior to graduating, and I worked my way to the top of the company.  I had tremendous success there and helped rapidly (and profitably) grow the company, but I was ready to move on.

I had my eye on management consulting for some time, so I decided to give it a shot.  I started by applying to a few top firms online (mistake) and was quickly rejected.

I wasn’t ready to give up, so I decided to reach out to some recruiters that were listed on the firm’s websites (mistake).

Again, I was quickly rejected or told to apply online.  Frankly, nobody seemed interested in my story.

Then I got started with LinkedIn.  Very quickly, I found that a close connection of mine was connected to a McKinsey BA (“Business Analyst”).

I got in touch with her, she had me add my GMAT (770; I should have had it on all along) to my resume, and got me in touch with the recruiter.

After talking with the recruiter, I was set up to do a practice case over the phone with an ex-McKinsey consultant.

I prepared by reading Case In Point.  It didn’t help at all; I bombed miserably.  I really didn’t even understand what interviewer-led was.  Lucky for me, it was just practice.

After that, I decided to purchase some help (I didn’t have anyone to practice with).  I passed the first phone interview case easily.  It was a very easy case, but I still wasn’t confident.

I purchased LOMS before Round 1, along with many (50+) hours of live practice over Skype.  I breezed through the cases and actually only stumbled during the non-case interview questions.

I was invited back and, again, I put in many more hours with live practice and LOMS.

With practice, the cases became so easy.  It got to the point where colleagues would joke about starting some type of business, and I would start analyzing the market size in my head.

Enjoying the process also confirmed to me that I would likely enjoy the position, as well.

I would strongly recommend LOMS to anyone preparing for interviews.  I don’t believe I could have passed the McKinsey cases without additional practice, but that was before you added the additional interviewer-led cases to the LOMS program.

I did read several of the popular books and read nearly every management-consulting website, but, frankly, that was a waste of my time.  Some of the structures in the books can be helpful to someone with little business background, but being comfortable and practicing a lot are much more important.

Thank you for your help.  I am excited to start at McKinsey!

My Comments:

This field report is probably one of the most instructive examples of how consulting firms perceive candidates.

First, the top firms DO favor BBNs (big brand names) on the resume. This means: top universities, well-known employers, or well-known accomplishments of other types (Fulbright scholarship, etc.)

In this case, this individual did not have any BBNs on his resume. I am not surprised in the slightest that the online application did not work well.

The online application works well when you have BBNs on your resume. That’s because most initial resume screens are done either by a keyword search algorithm or by a human being who is essentially doing the same thing.

If you graduated from Harvard, your application goes into the “read more carefully pile.” If you don’t have any BBNs on your resume, and you don’t have any stellar GPA or test scores, you go in the “statistically unlikely to be worth our time to interview” pile.

This individual’s application ended up in the latter pile.

I’ve covered this topic of what should go in a resume here and you will find this individual’s experience is consistent with the guidelines I’ve stated previously:

You might wonder why McKinsey didn’t contact this person to ask for a GMAT score?  Because the candidate was already in the “statistically not worth interviewing” resume pile.

Had this person graduated from Harvard, he might have gotten a courtesy call to ask for a GMAT score.

If you don’t have BBNs on your resume, and you don’t include a standardized test score of some sort, it’s somewhat assumed the score must be low.

Is this fair?

Probably not, but look at it from McKinsey’s point of view.

They receive probably 50,000 – 100,000+ resumes a year. From a resume screener’s standpoint (either human or automated), the goal is to get rid of as many resumes as possible to get it down to a manageable number.

BBNs, GPAs, and standardized test scores are all easy ways to accomplish this initial goal.

So, what’s the conclusion here?

If you’re applying from a non-target school without BBNs on your resume, the online application process is biased against you… as it was for this person.

But (and this is important), if your career experiences are exceptionally strong, but for some reason do not translate into BBNs on the resume, there is an alternative way to apply.

Amongst many, it’s called the “back door” into McKinsey. This “back door” refers to having someone inside the firm you’re targeting recommend you to the recruiting coordinator.

The key is to establish contact with a consultant, not with a recruiter (at least in applying this strategy).

When I was at McKinsey, it was my experience that any consultant with a decent reputation in the firm could get any candidate outside the firm an interview.

You will be surprised at how this process works.

The actively working McKinsey consultant takes the candidate’s resume, walks to the recruiter’s office and says, “Hey, I just met this person who looks very strong. I think we should interview her.”

The recruiter says, “Okay.”

End of story.

Now, if the recruiter and other consultants on the recruiting team look at the candidate’s resume, they might say, “Hey, the resume doesn’t look that strong. There are no BBNs on it. Are you sure we should interview this person?”

The McKinsey consultant says, “Trust me. We gotta interview her. She is very impressive.”

The recruiter says, “Okay, I’ll take care of it.”

What might take you, as an outsider, months to apply (often unsuccessfully), an insider can accomplish in a two-minute conversation relatively effortlessly.

Now, here’s the kicker. If the McKinsey consultant recommends a candidate and the candidate bombs the interview, that consultant will never be taken seriously by recruiting ever again.

So, McKinsey consultants only do this for strong candidates… at least strong enough to avoid being embarrassed by them.

Now, going back to our field report, this McKinsey F1Y had two things in his favor.

1) He had a very high GMAT score — a score higher than most graduates of Harvard Business School. This suggests that despite the lack of an Ivy League university on the resume, the candidate was smart.

This is an important offsetting factor. If the GMAT score was in the low 600’s + no BBN, forget it. He would have never made it into McKinsey (though perhaps he might be able to get into the non-Top 10 firms).

2) His work experience, once you actually take time to understand it, was impressive. He had run and grown a business successfully while still in school.

I haven’t seen this person’s resume, but if he grew sales from $0-$3M in revenues before graduating, that would get my attention.

The point here is to be specific in your accomplishments, as it lends itself to easy comparison with other candidates.

In this candidate’s case, the work experience was strong but was not captured by a BBN employer on the resume. But, because this candidate found a friend of a friend who worked at McKinsey, he was able to fully explain his story to someone on the inside.

My guess is once the McKinsey BA heard the full story, he or she felt comfortable enough to endorse this candidate and suggest that recruiting interview him.

In fact, this was how I got my McKinsey interview as well. I was networking with recent Stanford alumni and found myself connecting to a former McKinsey BA (in good standing). This was in the summer before my final year in college.

Without telling me (and without my asking), she passed along my resume to the McKinsey recruiting coordinator. The coordinator called me and said, “We’ll be on campus in a few months,” and I basically got first shot at getting an interview before everyone else.

Now, the “back door”/networking approach to applying only works if your background is strong but isn’t easily explained via BBNs on a resume.

If your background isn’t strong across the board, no amount of networking will help with the top 3 firms — but the non-top 10 might still be interested.

In addition, I think the standard of performance on the case is higher for candidates from non-targets. That’s because many consultants/interviewers are from Ivy’s.

There’s a bias against candidates from non-targets.

“Can someone from [top 200 university] really be as good as someone from [top 10 university]?” That’s the skeptical question they are wondering about the non-target candidate.

They might even grumble, “Why am I even interviewing this person?”

Even though the official case performance standard is consistent across all types of candidates, in practice I think the non-BBN candidate does not get the benefit of the doubt.

If you perform at merely an adequate level, I think the non-BBN candidate will get rejected, whereas the same performance from a Harvard graduate might get passed to the second round (with feedback that they need to improve).

While both types of candidates would need to pass the bar by the final round to get an offer, the non-BBN candidate must pass that bar starting from first round.

Again, this is certainly not official policy, but my interpretation of how the biases of consultants are within the top firms.

Despite these biases, if a non-BBN candidate absolutely excels at a case, then the biases get erased. If anything, McKinsey consultants and those from other top firms recognize an exceptional case performance when they see one.

This is why the truly extensive preparation this candidate underwent was I think crucial to his success in the interview process.

He used LOMS AND did an additional 50 hours of live practice via Skype before the first round.

Note: The current version of LOMS includes sample cases and interview recordings in the McKinsey interviewer-led case format. As a result, candidates using the most recent version of LOMS would likely need less live practice than this candidate.

While it is possible for a non-BBN candidate to get a chance to interview at the top firms, it is not easy. So, when you get a rare opportunity to interview, you want to make sure you are ready for it.

In this case, this McKinsey F1Y went “all-out” in his preparation, and from what I can tell did literally everything I suggested (and then some) and it worked out.

Incidentally, this person’s “super-achiever” approach is very McKinsey. If there are five things a McKinsey person can do to succeed in any endeavor in life, most McKinsey people will do all five things + one more!

Here are the key takeaways from this example:

1) It is possible to get a McKinsey offer from a non-target school.

2) Use networking to get someone to consider your application fully, as opposed to the “easier” application process (e.g. online) that’s biased against non-target applicants.

3) This strategy works best if your background is strong, but perhaps not obviously so (and thus the online application process would not fully appreciate your background).

4) Work really hard to prepare for the interviews.

Applicants from non-target schools do have a window of opportunity to get offers from the top firms, but the window is not a big one. Be prepared to work hard to get an opportunity and to make the most of it.