I’ve advised thousands of international students pursuing careers in consulting. Most of these students initially wanted to work in the U.S. before returning to their home countries. While many were successful, like their American classmates, most were not. Consulting jobs are very competitive and highly sought after. There are other variables as well, the US economy, the political climate in Washington, and geopolitical events. Thus, I offer three additional pieces of advice for international students.

1. Be honest about your communication skills. Much of the interview process is driven by communication skills. Are you truly fluent in English? Do you have an accent? How pronounced is it? A couple of years ago, I worked with a brilliant Chinese student. He did well in the mock case interviews I gave him; however, his language skills, particularly his presentation skills, were poor. While his understanding of English was excellent, his verbal and written skills left much to be desired. Against my advice, he applied to the Boston offices of all the top firms. While he received a number of first-round interviews, he didn’t get a single second-round interview. He found himself competing against American students, and he didn’t stand a chance.

2. Think long-term and play to your strengths. I met several times with a Russian student. Her English was excellent, she could articulate her thoughts, and she had a good command of “business English.” While she had an Eastern European accent, she was easy to understand. Her grades, work experience, and extracurricular activities were just okay, but nothing great, so she faced some pretty stiff competition from her American classmates. She wanted to work in New York. Her problem was in landing that first-round interview. We talked about thinking long-term. If she applied to the Moscow offices of these firms, she would have a significantly better chance of being hired than if she focused just on New York. She knew the language, the culture, and the economics of the region, and she had a degree from a prestigious American university. She could work in Moscow for two years, then transfer back to the U.S., which is exactly what she did.

3. Come back to campus in case-fighting form. Summer internships are tough to get, so don’t be discouraged if you don’t land one. I have a pocketful of stories about students who didn’t land a summer internship but did find a full-time consulting job upon graduation. There are many more full-time opportunities than summer positions, but they are still very competitive. Don’t waste your summer; use it to become a better candidate come autumn. The first step is to secure a summer job where you will be developing some of the same skills you would if you worked in a consulting firm. The second step is to practice your cases over the summer. I had a brilliant student from the Caribbean who had no business experience but plenty of great leadership experience. He received four first-round summer internship interviews. He made it to the second round with two firms but did not receive an offer. He spent the summer working for a large international financial agency in Washington, DC, where he wanted to settle. He spent the summer contacting alumni who worked in the DC offices of the two major consulting firms and invited them out for lunch, coffee, or a beer. He learned about their firms, and he made great connections within those offices. Every time he sipped a coffee or drank a beer with them, he asked them to give him a case question. This went on all summer long. When he returned to campus in September, he was in case-fighting form and had many supporters within each firm. He ended up with full-time offers from both McKinsey and BCG.
To summarize:

  • Strengthen your communication skills.
  • Think long-term and play to your strengths.
  • Come back to campus in fighting form.

Read more about preparing for case interviews in

Case In Point 10