It is true that consulting firms love to hire candidates with direct experience in business. Many don't have it. The good news is that you can strengthen your resume significantly by reframing your experiences in consultant language.
Keep in mind how consultants think: they assess the situation, define the problem, identify the solution and execute. They also look for management potential, leadership qualities and soft skills. You wouldn't be interested in consulting if you hadn't had similar experiences in your life, would you? For example, how did you research and identify your history thesis topic? You had to invent a methodology and answer an interesting question. Are you a doctor? Then every day you use situation assessments and hypotheses. Did you tutor a student part-time in calculus? Then you will likely be a solid people manager.
The following is an excerpt from a resume of an MBA student. Prior to business school, he worked for a fictitious investment bank called Smart Brothers as a computer programmer. He is knowledgeable in C++ and Oracle and spent 80 hours a week in front of a monitor coding financial software engines and Windows applications. His challenge was to reflect skills that would interest a consulting firm. Here is how he wrote up his work experience:
SMART BROTHERS New York, NY
Project Manager - Information Technology
June 1995 - July 1999
- Managed project teams to develop profit and loss systems for Proprietary Trading group
- Promoted to project leadership role in two years, well ahead of department average of four
- Developed an original mathematical algorithm for trading processing module, improving performance by 1200%
- Led team of six analysts in firmwide project to re-engineer loan syndicate trading flows in firm's largest technology project of 1999. Recommendations established new firmwide standard for real-time trade processing
- Appointed lead developer of interest accrual team after just three months in department. Initiated and designed project to create customized, improved interest accrual and P&L applications for fixed income controllers
- Selected to work on high-profile project to re-engineer corporate bond trading P&L system. Reduced overnight processing time from six hours to 20 minutes and improved desktop application speed by 350%
- Devoted 20-25 hours a month instructing junior members of the team on interest accrual and trading
Note that this person doesn't speak to the content of his work as much as the process. We have no idea what kinds of software he really built or what computer languages he knows. On the other hand, we know that he managed teams, was dedicated enough to his job to achieve a fast promotion, and was committed to building the knowledge base of his team. He also worked closely with his client base of users in order to solve their problems. In addition, he wrote a very results-focused set of bullet points, for example quantifying the performance improvements or mentioning how he established a new standard. This resume suggests not programmer, but consultant.
The moral of the story is to think carefully about your past experiences and reframe them as if they were consulting projects; you will be pleasantly surprised and recruiters will be impressed.