At the elite generalist firms you can be hired directly out of undergrad or business school, or through small specialized recruiting programs which typically target experienced operators, Ph.Ds, and MDs. At mid-tier or more specialized firms it varies a lot
I came directly from undergrad, where many companies recruit top students from a pretty wide range of schools. If you want to work for the New York or San Francisco office at many of these companies you may need an Ivy League or other elite university background. But all the offices pay the same and offer roughly the same experience, and outside the coasts the offices recruit at top schools regionally.
In the entry level roles, you are assigned to temporary projects (anywhere from 4 weeks to 9 months) with various management structures. Firms that emphasize travel will typically ask you to travel to a client on Monday-Thursday, with Friday spent in the firm’s office. This effectively means that you will work four 12-hour days and one 5-6 hour day each week, on a medium-intensity project. Some firms will emphasize local staffing, which typically means less travel but a more even workweek. When you’re on a more intense case, expect to work closer to 70-80 hours per week (including weekends)
At the low level positions, these jobs are boot camps for business careers. They specialize in hands on training for young employees with hard business skills (e.g. Excel, PowerPoint) and soft business skills (e.g. taking feedback, working with a variety of teammates, clearly communicating). They are extremely attractive launchpads for broader business careers, and the vast majority of low-level employees leave amicably for great jobs after 2-5 years. Additionally, this means that your outgoing network is incredibly strong as well.
Typically a lot of travel benefits such as alternate travel opportunities, points, and airline/hotel status (all untaxed)
These jobs have excellent work-life balance as far as elite professional services companies go, but that just essentially means it beats investment banking and big law, which isn’t a high bar. You should be prepared to work long hours and travel frequently, which is great if you’re young but more challenging if you have a family. As a result, the majority of people entering this field at the low level (and the vast majority of the most competent people) do so without any intention of staying in the field long-term
If you do elect to stay in the firms, the earning potential is very good - a typical partner is making $800K+ and top partners can make north of $10M depending on their tenure and sales abilities. Many top employees leave before reaching this point though, because the real upside is in the exit opportunities. I knew multiple Partners who left to become C-Suite executives at public companies in my 3 years working at the entry level.
One thing that is not immediately obvious is that many top firms - BCG, Bain, McKinsey, Deloitte, Accenture, Altman, and a handful of others - will interview using the case method. You’ll need to study and practice the specific interview format to give yourself a chance in the interview.
If you’re young, there are tons of other young people hired yearly, and at times the environment can feel like an extension of college. It is not extremely family-friendly, as it tends to attract people who are willing to travel frequently.
It is easier to recruit outside of the coastal offices, and the pay and experience is near-identical. Arguably the pay is better, given the cost of living.