As many readers will already know, traditionally the Big 4 firms specialise in accountancy, whilst Big 3/MBB firms focus on management consulting. However, increasingly these firms are all moving towards offering more comprehensive ranges of services. As such, Big 4 firms now integrate management consulting divisions. Similarly, Big 3 firms have broadened their repertoire beyond merely providing advice into various aspects of implementation.
This growing overlap makes it increasingly likely that individuals are going to find themselves choosing between pursuing jobs in the Big 4 and Big 3. There is no simple "correct" answer as to whether you should be aiming to work at one cluster of firms or the other. Rather, whether you should be aspiring to join the Big 4 or Big 3 will depend on how your own personal capacities and aspirations match up against a whole host of variables.
Let's run through some of the relevant factors which you should consider as you weigh up potential careers at these firms:
A lot of differences between the two groups of firms ultimately flow from the disparities in how they approach their engagements. Typically, the Big 4 apply specific, predetermined tools to problems within defined subsets of the client company. This is very different from the Big 3 consulting firms, which employ more wide-ranging, free-form solution-finding processes and deal with the client company as a whole.
Independence, Responsibility and Creativity
The Big 4 provide analytical tools, oversight and managerial time to aid your work. Some may find this constraining, but this support can help those who would otherwise be lost. Many also find they enjoy the ‘work stream’ system as it gives them more of an idea about where their career is going.
By contrast, at a Big 3 firm, you are very much left to come up with your own solutions. Generally, you will be given significantly more flexibility and the chance to be creative, with the agency for you to identify the real, underlying problems facing clients. As such, you are given independence, but this accompanied by responsibility to manage your own time and projects to a high standard.
Team Structure and Exposure to Big Players
Team environments are very different between these two clusters of firms. Working within the Big 3 you will be working alongside industry heavyweights on a daily basis, with the organisational structure being much flatter. Within the Big 4, your work will be much more directed by middle management where your encounters with industry heavyweights will be few and far between, most employees only encounter the top bosses during important presentations and meetings.
Work/life balance is possibly the most profound difference between the Big 4 and the Big 3. Almost invariably, those working in the Big 3 find themselves working very long hours, which impacts their social and personal lives. Indeed, it is normal to work more than double the contracted hours within the Big 3.
By contrast, workers at Big 4 firms have much more forgiving, regular hours and will generally have much more time for a life outside the office. In short, if you are willing to give up all the balance for high reward, the Big 3 is for you. However, if want a more sustainable work/life balance and a social life, you should consider working for the Big 4.
Salary and Perks
Now, whilst the Big 3 work their employees harder, those employees will generally receive significantly higher salaries. In this sense, those at Big 3 firms can be thought of as sacrificing work/life balance for a higher pay packet.However, it would be inaccurate to say that Big 4 jobs are "worse paid". In fact, the difference in remuneration between these two clusters of firms is not actually as significant as the topline figures might suggest. When one calculates payment received per hour actually worked, the figure produced for hourly rates are generally very similar between Big 3 and Big 4 firms - it's just that Big 3 employees put in more hours.
Beyond basic salary, though, one dimension in which the Big 3 pull ahead is in terms of various "perks" associated with the job. In particular, company events etc will be more lavish, with higher budgets allocated to them.
Consulting companies are all very different - indeed, the differences between individual firms can be just as significant as between the Big 4 and Big 3 clusters. We discuss some of the differences between Big 3 firms here.
Overall, as we noted above, there is no "right" answer as to which company you should be most interested in. Ultimately, your personal skillset and character will determine which option is best for you, taking into account a whole range of factors. As a general rule to of thumb, though, those who are willing to accept a challenge lean towards the Big 3, despite the long hours. Fundamentally, working in the Big 3 will yield the greatest rewards for those who are willing to put in the hard work.
Whichever of these firms you decide you want to work for, actually landing a job is not going to be a picnic, In particular, if you want to make it into consulting for any firm you are going to have to ace both case and fit interviews.
Your first port of call for the former should be our comprehensive introduction to case interviews, where we explain how consulting interviews work and how you can plan to prep for them effectively. Crucially, we explain how our infinitely flexible Problem Driven Structure method for cracking cases dramatically outperforms traditional "framework-based" approaches, whose rigid inability to accommodate novelty renders them dysfunctional in swathes of cases. You can learn more about fit interviews and how they assess both your soft skills and motivation to be a consultant in our introduction to fit interviews.
The single best place to learn absolutely everything you need to know to ace both case and fit interviews is our MCC Academy course. Nothing will get you fully up to speed more efficiently! There, we cover all the background skills and knowledge you'll need, plus how to deploy them to solve cases using our problem driven structure method. The course also includes a comprehensive set of lessons on how to prep for fit interview. Teaching is delivered in high quality, animated video lessons (with several available to preview here) and accompanied by exercises to help you ingrain and master what you learn.