About two months into my freshman year, an upperclassman gave me the classic advice on how to walk through Sproul Plaza: Headphones in, eyes straight up front. Don’t shift your gaze to either side. Minimize eye contact, if any at all. I nodded, absorbing his words, and I resolved to re-enact “Bird Box” on my daily walks to Evans for the remainder of the semester. That resolve, unfortunately, lasted for an entire five seconds before I succumbed and accepted a flyer.
UC Berkeley’s reputation for academic rigor and caliber is heard of across the world. Yet this scholarly prestige often overshadows the vibrancy of Sproul and the wonderful culture of clubs on campus. Students walking back through Lower Sproul at the end of a long day can expect to witness practicing AFX Dance teams or perhaps snuggle with the friendly canines over at De-stress with Dogs. But among the myriad of student organizations, there is a subculture that involves not just students but entire organizations beyond the university: consulting. Walking through Sproul, one of the first flyers I accepted this semester was from Net Impact Berkeley, or NIB, as I watched the plaza fill with tents of similar organizations and Patagonia-clad students at work setting them up. Two long weeks later, I was lucky enough to join the organization as a “NIBlet” — a new member of its class.
The concept of consulting, defined as offering advice and solutions, is so broad that it can be seen in every profession. Doctors can be thought of as medical consultants, lawyers as legal ones, and so on and so forth. It emerged as a profession in its own right in the early 20th century with the rise of management consulting firms such as Arthur D. Little and McKinsey & Company that provided analysis of managerial decisions made by firms to help them improve. What was initially a niche profession for management professionals has transformed into a viable career path for college graduates from majors all across the spectrum; regardless of whether one studies EECS or economics, one can find employment suitable to their interests within this wider field.
And the variations on consulting that exist within colleges aren’t new by any means. Business schools have long had traditions of students forming groups, sourcing clients and providing solutions to said clients by applying the techniques they pick up in the classroom combined with their personal intuition and hard research skills. What perhaps sets UC Berkeley apart is that consulting clubs here are not limited to the Haas School of Business or the MBA program.
The UC Berkeley campus, which 15 years ago had only three consulting-based organizations — Berkeley Consulting, NIB, and The Berkeley Group — now has more than 20 student-led consulting clubs on campus. These clubs have branched out to specialize in different forms of consulting, ranging from working with startups to big tech firms to nonprofits.
What was initially a niche profession for management professionals has transformed into a viable career path for college graduates from majors all across the spectrum.
Among many students, these clubs are notoriously competitive and have come to acquire cult status, with the recruitment process being viewed almost as a sink-or-swim rite of passage. Last semester, I was overwhelmed by the sheer number of flyers thrown at me, all labeled with the names of companies these clubs work with. Amid the flurry of info session dates and case workshop timings, I lost sight of the actual purpose of the clubs.
So why consulting?
There are plenty of opportunities to go beyond academics at UC Berkeley, so why the craze around these clubs? I’d be lying if I said I didn’t partially buy into the consulting hype when I first decided to apply. I didn’t have a full understanding of what I was getting into, but it honestly seemed like the best thing one could do outside of studying for hours at Moffitt, owing to the sheer enthusiasm with which I saw members flyering on Sproul. I may not have understood what they were talking about initially, but I could see they were passionate about it. That was what I wanted when committing myself to a community. Many individuals I spoke with feel that the info sessions and persistent tabling are extremely effective in marketing the clubs to prospective applicants and served a pivotal role in convincing them to apply.
It’s difficult to describe the specifics of each club because each builds out a niche for itself. In club missions ranging from encouraging socially responsible business practices to maximizing profit in certain markets, one begins to see the diversity of student interests present at UC Berkeley. Some are interested in public policy; others want to further their skills in data analytics. I’ve certainly noticed that myself, being surrounded by people in clubs from divergent majors –– many of whom are looking to work in fields that have nothing to do with said majors through consulting.
Ritik Batra, a freshman in Venture Strategy Solutions, a club that focuses on startup consulting, described his past involvement in DECA, a program that guides students to role-play in business scenarios and resolve set challenges.
“The problem-solving aspect of DECA is what I found enriching within my current major as well as consulting, which is (how) I knew I wanted to pursue that line of thought and work,” Batra said.
I may not have understood what they were talking about initially, but I could see they were passionate about it.
Batra went on to point out that working on projects with professionals within the scope of the club has augmented his social skills in a way that classroom learning merely wouldn’t have. His understanding was echoed by many others I spoke to, and also mirrors my own experience. The degree of responsibility involved plays a key role in helping club members mature and become more adept at handling themselves in professional settings. Members are given the chance to design their own approach to work based on client requirements, all the while keeping in close contact with said clients who are often experts in their industries.
RRR week — Recruitment, recruitment, recruitment!
Despite the various perceived and witnessed benefits of such clubs, or perhaps because of them, here’s the consulting elephant in the room: recruitment competition.
More so than the actual workload associated with consulting, the application process is one of the biggest challenges that potentially intimidate prospective applicants. During recruitment season, the softboard in my room kindly provided by UC Berkeley Residential Life looks like an Amazon catalog of campus clubs, filtered not by price but by application deadlines and the length of said application process.
The whole undertaking is rigorous, to say the least, and the process to join a club can be longer than recruitment at actual consulting firms. There’s the initial application, usually involving some kind of short essay similar to college application essays — with the 500-something word count to match. At that stage, there’s also generally a resume drop, accompanied by the humbling realization that when one removes high school activities from one’s resume, one truly understands the meaning of white space.
Moving forward, the applicant would enter the first round interviews, which are based on those of professional consulting firms and usually involve the kind of thinking that consulting is based on. Here is where the applicant possibly encounters “Google-style” questions asking them to calculate the number of bananas eaten in Minnesota on a rainy day or the number of coffins sold in Los Angeles in a week. From this point on, paths diverge depending on the club, but there’s usually some sort of a social round in which the applicant meets with current members of the club and shares with them the inspiring story of how they found their passion for social work the second they were born. After this is usually a final round of interviews, similar in structure to the first one but with a greater emphasis on deploying every technical business term ever heard on “Shark Tank.”
The whole undertaking is rigorous, to say the least, and the process to join a club can be longer than recruitment at actual consulting firms
The process is a challenge, and not just to the structural integrity of the one white shirt everyone bought their freshman year to wear to career fairs. Or to the number of times one can walk to Haas, where interviews are always held, in one day. Or to the Guinness World Record for the most info sessions held from 8-10 p.m. on a Monday night. It also challenges one’s commitment toward becoming a part of one of these clubs. Recruitment week for me was a healthy combination of multiple 10-hour days, juggling homework submissions with practicing business cases with my roommate and preparing myself to accept whatever decision appeared in my mailbox. I built camaraderie with my fellow exhausted applicants, and I learned what I was capable of under pressure. It was an absolutely incredible experience that I’d never want to repeat.
Recruitment, as such, can get competitive. It’s an undeniable fact and one that needs to be better explained. The difficulty all its factors mean that at every round, some people make it through, while others don’t. It’s easy to comfort people with the usual “you can try again next semester!” or “this doesn’t define you at all.” And these are both perfectly valid statements to make, except it still hurts. I know that from experience.
The easiest way to explain this competitiveness is probably the math. Most of these clubs are typically small by choice. As the executive team of my club announced at our first orientation, a typical recruitment cycle will see anywhere from 100-300 applicants for about 10 available spots. One could very well argue that there is an element of exclusivity to this decision, and there probably is, but club members say working in smaller groups is often the optimal way to go about dealing with a project because it gives the club more structure on the inside. It is this efficiency that gives consulting clubs here their high-powered work ethic, which in turn fuels people’s desires to apply to them.
(The process) also challenges one’s commitment toward becoming a part of one of these clubs.
An undeniable consequence of this structure is that it puts students in the position of having to make decisions regarding their peers, which by itself provides scope for a whole range of power dynamics within the larger university community. These topics are complex, posing questions of balance between the inevitability of power structures within organizations and how they affect student relations. It can get awkward. We’re all here to learn — are any of us qualified to judge one another?
The way I see it is a circle: The caliber of work is what attracted me to apply, but that caliber wouldn’t be possible without the competition.
Finding a place
Our university provides us with a plethora of opportunities. I literally had to sift through about 1,500 clubs on CalLink to find the number of consulting clubs on campus. At the risk of sounding cheesy, no matter what anyone chooses to go into, it’s the people that matter. I don’t mean to evoke “awws.” Rather, I approach the question as one about finding one’s place in a school where it’s all too easy to feel lost.
It’s been two weeks since I joined NIB, and while that’s nowhere close to being long enough for me to strongly identify whether I belong or not, I can certainly see it heading that way. Regardless of age or year, my fellow club members are always open to having study sessions, grabbing a cup of coffee or just chatting about life. It’s part of the reason why I haven’t felt like a newcomer or a recruit, but part of a wider collective.
No doubt, the system isn’t perfect. Students recruiting students, the inherent competition –– there are a host of issues that make the consulting club structure far from ideal, and there are more than a few hoops to jump through. But as I’ve learned, beyond the numerous notions of negativity surrounding the clubs, there is a warmth to them.
And that warmth can’t be beaten. Not even by those Patagonias.