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Referrals aren’t essential to get a round one interview, and many people with strong backgrounds get interviews without referrals.
When referrals DO play a big role in your application is when you have a weakness in your background that you’re worried about – average gpa, low test scores, no business experience for example.
It will help your application regardless, and if you’re serious about getting a job in consulting, you’ll want to put in the time to network since it will show how much you are invested in landing a job in consulting.
For more on networking, go here.