Consultancy is one of the most satisfying but competitive career options. By Kate Hilpern

Both management and HR consultancy are unquestionably attractive career options. Not only are they stimulating and varied, but they also tend to be highly paid and you get the satisfaction of seeing your ideas put into practice. Ultimately, you get to make a real difference to the way businesses are run.

Judith Wainwright, president of the Institute of Management Consultancy (IMC), says: "If you relish working for many different companies, with a succession of different challenges and never quite knowing what's around the corner, then management consultancy could be for you."

Christine Williams, manager of membership development at the Chartered Institute of Personnel and Development (CIPD), says of HR consultancy: "You get to face real business issues and formulate solutions, which is intrinsically rewarding." Both roles are linked, she says. "The art of consulting is generic and a significant part of HR consultancy is about understanding business and management issues. The difference lies in the specialist knowledge that an individual carries."

The problem is that the popularity of both careers means there is always an over-supply of candidates. So what's the best way for graduates to reach the consultancy role they aspire to? The first thing to remember is that both management and HR consultancy roles are typically the second step in a fast-track career, stresses Williams. After all, in order to be marketable as a business adviser, an individual's background must show first-hand experience of relevant issues. Additionally, the often sensitive or "political" nature of a consultancy assignment requires maturity.

"Most people therefore apply for more generalist roles in HR or business, then enter the profession some years later," she says. "For HR, your best bet is to find a graduate position in an HR department of an organisation that will sponsor you through the CIPD qualifications and provide you with a range of projects from which you can gain experience. The good news is that you can do this with any degree subject."

For the majority of management consultants, entry is made between the ages of 28 and 35 following a period of commercial experience. This is often achieved as a result of completing a graduate training programme with a blue-chip employer. An alternative route is to become an accountant first, via an ACA (chartered accountancy) traineeship with one of the "Big Four" firms of accountants.

Another option is via an MBA, which is recognised as one of the most useful springboards into consultancy, not least because potential employers recognise that an MBA-qualified candidate is usually highly committed to advancing their career. Don't forget you'll still need to gain experience, though.

For the best graduates, there is always the chance of being recruited straight into a management or HR consultancy firm. The strategy houses, for example, take a few of the highest fliers - usually those with some numerical basis to their degree. These bright young things are recruited into the most junior grade, generally described as "analyst", where they support more senior consultants. After a couple of years, these graduates are likely to be sponsored to complete an MBA in preparation for promotion to their first front-line consultancy role. The IMC cautions that many graduates don't survive the early years, however, because the work is so demanding.

Among the organisations taking on HR consultants through this route is Mercer Human Resource Consulting. "The work in all our practices is demanding," admits European partner Clive Wright, who says the company takes on about 90 graduates a year. "But it's much softer than management consulting, so the turnover of graduates is less."

One of the reasons Mercer is so popular, Wright says, is that it increasingly focuses on personal development - something that is also high on the agenda for Accenture, the management consultancy and technology services organisation.

Sally Style, head of graduate recruitment, says Accenture takes on around 400 to 500 graduates a year and enjoys low turnover of graduates. She reminds graduates that, "While we look for people with good grades at degree level, equally important is a passion for something outside your studies and some work experience."