Big 4 Consulting Comparison Essay

Consulting used to be the top choice for business school graduates, but now the technology industry is taking many of the best and brightest new MBAs, says Vault editor Phil Stott. More consultancies are mitigating office hours while boosting travel opportunities, flex-time, and work-from-home options.

"Consulting firms have had to start competing on quality of life in a way that they never had to before—which, in turn, is leading to higher ratings from consultants," says Stott. "It's a pattern that I've seen developing over the past couple of years, and it'll be interesting to see where it goes from here."

The report also includes the second year of Vault's Boutique Consulting Rankings, an increasingly popular grouping. Insight Source Group was ranked No. 1 for its second year, but the standout for work-life balance was Eagle Hill Consulting. The firm, which advertises as a "family-run, woman-owned company," scored highest for vacation policy, hours in the office, and overall satisfaction.

The Top 10 firms to work for, based on Vault's Annual Consulting Survey, are below.

1. McKinsey & Co.


"The people, the global impact, the opportunities available."

"Scale of resources and impact; amazing colleagues."

"Prestige, people, clients, exit opportunities."


"A lot of travel."

"It's a true commitment."

"Drive to excellence can be gruelling, but it's what clients expect."

The buzz:

"Launch pad for everyone important."

"Harvard of consulting."

"Selfish culture.""Intense, competitive."

2. Bain & Co.


"We make a difference, and it feels different to work here!"

"Surrounded by amazingly talented, supportive, business leaders."

"Great people working on toughest problems."

"Great development while working with clients on their biggest issues."


"As with all professional services, the work can be demanding."

"Travel can be tough on certain projects."

"The stress (that comes with doing important work)."

"Making slides."

The buzz:

"Best place to start a career out of undergrad."

"Buttoned up, but great benefits."


"Trendy and adventurous."

3. Boston Consulting Group


"Amazing client impact and professional development."

"Health care benefits and the people."

"Learning and development are incredible at BCG."


"Frequent travel, long hours."

"Environment can be high pressure."

"Intense focus on client only."

The buzz:

"Ivy League."

"Big presence and authority."

"Innovative but no life-work balance."

"Strategy Premier League."

4. Deloitte Consulting


"Top performers are recognised and rewarded."

"Dedicated to employee training and development."

"Breadth and depth of client work; culture; my colleagues."


"Challenging hours/client demands."

"Rigid promotion structure."

"Easy to get lost in a big firm."

The buzz:

"Hard working."

"Internally competitive."

"Industry benchmark for prestige."

"Big bureaucratic machine."

5. PricewaterhouseCoopers


"The people and training."

"People taking an interest in your career development."

"Future growth and opportunity."


"Travel time commitment when away from home."

"Lotus Notes."

"Meeting high growth expectations each year."

The buzz:

"The best of the Big Four."

"International, brainy."


"Have their hands in everything."

6. Oliver Wyman


"Culture, quality of work, focus on values."

"The freedom to chart my own course."

"Not a 'program'; can stay for as long as you want."


"People don't realise how good we are."

"Long hours, high travel."

"Lots of intensity."

The buzz:

"Tough interview process — high standards."

"Very good firm. Quantitative oriented."

"Best mid-sized company."


7. Brattle Group


"Brattle has the best culture."

"My incredibly smart (Nobel prize-winning!) and encouraging colleagues."

"I'm intellectually challenged and learn a lot every day."


"Lumpy and unpredictable hours."

"Lack of a global footprint."

"Lack of long-term advancement opportunities [for Research Analysts]."

The buzz:



"Limited promotion opportunities for entry level positions."

"Very well respected."

8. Cornerstone Research


"My coworkers are great, and the work is intellectually challenging."

"Recognition and compensation"

"The learning opportunities and pleasant work atmosphere."


"Unpredictable work load."

"Some strong personalities dominate."

"Some casework can be tedious and repetitive."

The buzz:


"Top notch."


9. A.T. Kearney


"The culture and the opportunity ahead of us."

"We are growing in size and prestige. Look out for us."

"The people, the cutting edge work, the flexibility to try new things."

"You are in control of your own career, and you make it as great as you want to make it"


"The market and potential recruits are still learning about our firm and our place in the management consulting space."

"Longer promotion timelines means the compensation curve is less steep vs. MBB."

"Growth comes with challenges, but we are ready for them."

The buzz:

"Firm on the move."

"Old school."

"Great work in sourcing/procurement."

"Coming back from tough times."

10. Bridgespan Group


"Your job is to make the world a better place, one with opportunity for all and fewer inequities.""Working with passionate people.""Impact on important social problems."


"Some of the slowness of a nonprofit culture with the intensity of a consulting firm."

"The pay cut."

"We work hard, and sometimes that gets tiring."

The buzz:


"Changing the non-profit world."

"Socially driven."

"Consulting for people who care more."


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“What’s missing from your resume is a focus on the results… I see all your recommendations and the projects you worked on, but I don’t see what happened as a result of your work.”

-McKinsey Recruiter to Me, 3 Years Ago

Some of you have asked about consulting (as in management consulting, not IT consulting – who in their right mind would do that?) vs. investment banking and which is “better” to pursue.

So here’s why investment bankers dominate management consultants, and why you should do banking.

The Myth: Bankers vs. Consultants Video

On the day the infamous Leveraged Sellout video was released, I received about 10 forwards from readers and friends, so I’m guessing almost everyone has seen it by now.

But just in case you haven’t, here it is again for good measure:


Although it’s fiction, the video does a surprisingly good job of summarizing the bankers vs. consultants debate.

“Be a Burnout Banker, Teaching Math at My Prep School”

There’s a lot of burnout in both fields.  My management consultant friend almost quit after he had to work 14 hours on his birthday once.  True, consultants get uninterrupted weekends… sometimes… but regardless of whether you’re a banker or consultant, you’re going to work a lot.

To imagine the schedule of a consultant, just take my Week in the Life series and add traveling to Idaho at the beginning of the week and coming back at the end of the week.  Also delete all references to quantitative work and replace them with finger-painting.

“Nothing but Grunt Work”

Not quite.

There’s a lot of grunt work in both industries.  In banking, it’s more quantitative and no one cares about offering “strategic insight” and putting things in quadrants – they just care what the Pro Forma EPS is.

“Make a Really Significant Impact and Get Home by 7:15”

I know of no consultants who get home by 7:15.  One of my friends is an IT Consultant and even he doesn’t get home by 7:15.

So far, banking and consulting might seem similar… but let’s take a look at the first part of this claim – “Make a Really Significant Impact.”

Despite what the consultant argues, bankers typically make far more of an impact than consultants.  True, some transactions fall apart, but when they happen you get a new public company or a new conglomerate.

By contrast, you never know if the recommendations consultants make will be implemented.

Got results?

“Mining for Gold out in Saskatchewan”

“Business travel” sounds cool to people who haven’t traveled much before, but it’s less appealing when you’re flying to Saskatchewan every week in February.  Consultants are always on the road, and while bankers do travel occasionally, it is much less of a burden.

It’s fun to live in another country for an extended period, but it’s much less fun to travel back and forth every single week.

Plus, even if you are stationed in Saskatchewan you probably won’t discover any gold.

“You Try to Add Value… I Straight Create It”

At the junior level, no banker or consultant “creates value” and they rarely even “add value.”  Senior bankers who negotiate on their clients’ behalf can sometimes “add value” by getting the buyer to pay more, but even that is rare.

Both banks and consulting firms are in the business of giving advice: advice on what to do financially and what to do operationally.  Companies actually “create value.”

“House in the Hamptons and a Penthouse Loft”

Even at the market peak in mid-2007, 1st Year Analysts made only $150K ($60K base + $90K bonus).  While that’s a lot of money for someone fresh out of school, it’s certainly not enough for a house in the Hamptons and a penthouse loft – especially after taxes.

Bankers do make more than consultants, but it will take quite some time to turn yourself into Gordon Gekko.

“But You Still Can’t Buy Bottles with Starwood Points”


Consultants make a fraction of bankers’ bonuses – firms are notoriously secretive about exact numbers, but even in good times a $10K bonus isn’t unreasonable for consultants.

You could argue that they work a lot less and therefore make about the same hourly wage, but I’m not convinced.  Sure, you won’t pull consistent 100-hour weeks in consulting, but it’s a lot more than 9-5, especially when you take into account the travel.

And even if it is more per hour, good luck having enough for bottles, let alone models.

“Take This Mouse and Get Back to Making $60K a Year”

Most consultants make more than $60K, but not by much.

However, they definitely don’t know how to use Excel properly – just ask that consultant we hired after I unplugged his mouse and he almost fainted.

The Consultant Formerly Known as Banker

One year, we hired a summer intern who was pretty good as far as investment banking interns go.  He didn’t do anything stupid, he always smiled, and he even bought us drinks.  But he “couldn’t take the hours” and he went to consulting full-time instead, in search of that elusive “work-life balance.”

I spoke with him the other day and he said the hours were pretty bad and he was being dragged around between 3 continents on clients’ whims – in other words, it was actually worse than banking, and he was getting paid less.

Damn, It Feels Good to Be a… Consultant?!

I didn’t continue with consulting because:

  1. I hated constant travel.
  2. I wanted to get tangible results rather than making “strategic recommendations” to management.
  3. Oh yeah, I couldn’t tolerate making $60K a year.  Even $70K is pushing it.

That said, you may still want to consider consulting if your original plan was finance:

  1. Consulting is diversified in different industries, so the financial chaos won’t hit it quite as hard.
  2. No consulting firms have subprime anything on their balance sheets.
  3. You might still sneak into PE if you get lucky.  Golden Gate Capital, for example, hires most of its Associates from Bain Consulting.


If you’re a consultant who now feels angered, feel free to write in with a rebuttal and I’ll publish some of the most entertaining responses.  Make sure you also enclose some of those Starwood points.


About the Author

Brian DeChesare is the Founder of Mergers & Inquisitions and Breaking Into Wall Street. In his spare time, he enjoys memorizing obscure Excel functions, editing resumes, obsessing over TV shows, traveling like a drug dealer, and defeating Sauron.

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