After the success of our guide to writing a consulting resume, it only made sense to write one about composing consulting cover letters as well :)
Here we go!
Why cover letters matter
Cover letters bring a personal voice and story to the recruiting process.
Resumes are the “quantitative” – they are descriptive in nature and showcase your achievements, skills, and experiences.
Cover letters are the “qualitative” – they give you an opportunity to:
- Showcase your personality through your tone, voice, and diction
- Tell one or two stories in more detail than the resume allows for
How they’re read
*Disclaimer: this differs firm to firm, and even recruiter to recruiter. I should also mention that some firms don’t read cover letters*
Typically, a cover letter is read before the resume. I wouldn’t even call them read – from what I’ve seen, recruiters typically scan the cover letter, looking for keywords (eg, firms, roles, accomplishments). The first paragraph is typically the least important, since everyone says the same thing:
“Dear X, I’m applying for Y position at Z firm. I believe I’m qualified because of A, B, and C reasons.”
The meat of the cover letter – the 2nd and 3rd paragraphs – are where recruiters will usually spend the most time.
By reading the cover letter, recruiters are really looking for whether you have something interesting and different to say that gives them a glimpse into who you are as a person. This helps them build a fuller profile of you.
I’ve often known consultants who read the cover letter after a quick scan of the resume. What they’re doing here is getting the CliffsNotes version of your background (who you worked for, what skills you have, what you studied in school), and then reading the cover letter to get more insight on your personality.
How to build from scratch
Here’s what I think all cover letters should have…like the resume, this is a source of debate, so realize that peoples’ opinions may differ and adjust your own accordingly.
- At least 3 paragraphs, preferably 4, but no more than 5 (this is important).
- An address box at the top which includes the firm name and address (if you don’t know the specific address of the office you’re applying to, use the corporate HQ address).
- A mention of the position you’re applying for (after all, these recruiters can read hundreds of these in a day and it’s good to remind them!).
- One paragraph which describes, in at least 3-5 sentences of detail, a key work experience/accomplishment that you’ve had and how that relates to consulting. If that one paragraph is well developed and well-written, a second one is not needed. However, if you feel compelled to include a second, comparable paragraph, make sure it demonstrates a different skillset/area of expertise.
- A concluding paragraph which something to the effect of:“Thank you for your time. Don’t hesitate to call me at [phone number] or email me at [email address] if you have any questions or would like to further discuss my candidacy.”
- No typos. No grammatical errors. Seriously! No typos! No grammatical errors! It makes you look dumb, and will seriously hurt your chances.
Bonus points for:
- If you have big brand names on your resume (eg, Google, Proctor & Gamble, Morgan Stanley), mentioning them in your cover letter in a non-obtrusive way (doesn’t hurt to advertise it several times in case they forget).
- Keeping it lighthearted. Even a light joke is fine (and recommended, in fact, if you can pull it off).
- Keeping it short – it should be, at most, one page with 12 point Arial font and 1″ page margins. Brevity always wins.
- Mentioning names of people you’ve met in the process, in a non-obvious way…see below.
Obvious and not helpful:
“At the networking event, I met Donald Chan from the Los Angeles office. We talked about life at BCG for 30 minutes, and I learned a lot about the firm and it solidified my interest in working there.”
Non-obvious and very helpful:
“My interest in nonprofit consulting dovetails nicely with the work that Bain has done in this space. I had an opportunity to speak with David Cain from the LA office, who had just wrapped up a nonprofit project, and as he described the impact their contributions had made, it only confirmed my excitement in the job.”
What the best cover letters have in common
- Demonstrate fit with the intended position. While you should highlight the accomplishment(s) and skill(s) that you’re most proud of, it’s even more important to connect that back to why you want to be a consultant and how it’s the right fit. Including a sentence or two that truly demonstrates your understanding of the firm’s unique culture and history are major pluses!
- A personal tone. The goal here is to get recruiters to relate to you while being impressed with your accomplishments. Don’t use too many formal words. Write as you would talk, but without “uhs” and “ums”
- Short. Brevity always wins. Recruiters and consultants usually spend less than a minute per resume, and around the same per cover letter. They may spend more time in additional review cycles, but the first pass will be quick. The less extraneous words on the page, the more time they’ll spend reading about your key experiences and accomplishments.
- Create curiosity. After reading, they should want to learn more about you. They should be so impressed with how you built a middle school in Sri Lanka that they want to interview you and learn more. They should be so wow-ed by how you single-handedly saved a major M&A deal from disaster that they want to hear the story in person.
Top mistakes to avoid
DON’T name drop in an annoying way, especially if you’ve never talked to or met that person!
DON’T let your cover letter run to more than one page.
DON’T be ridiculous about fitting it on one page, either, such as using extra small font, changing the kerning, margins, etc.
DON’T be too enthusiastic and use multiple exclamation points.
DON’T have typos and grammatical errors.
DON’T list the wrong firm name and/or position (!!!). This can ruin your chances.
DON’T just rehash your resume. That would be a total waste of your time, and of the recruiter’s.
DON’T be too direct or assuming. Avoid use of the second person. Example: “You may think I’m not an ideal fit for this position…”. You have no idea what they’re thinking.
Example cover letters are here
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What am I missing? What do you agree/disagree with? What have been your personal challenges in writing cover letters?
As a former McKinsey resume screener, I've read a lot of consulting cover letters for consulting roles of all types.
Most applicants severely under-estimate the importance of the cover letter and end up paying more attention to the consulting resume/CV than they do the cover letter. I would argue the effort allocation should be reversed -- much more time put into the cover letter than the resume or CV.
Without a good cover letter it is 1) hard to stand out, and 2) easy to get overlooked by accident.
When someone like me screens cover letters and resumes, we usually do so in batches -- dozens if not hundreds of applicants at the same time. When I was on the McKinsey Stanford recruiting team, I had to go through a stack of 400 resumes and consulting cover letters in a few hours.
Keep in mind these were 400 applicants ALL of whom were in the process of graduating from Stanford. So the applicant pool was already pretty strong.
From an resume screener's point of view, reviewing that many cover letters is a very painful experience. All the cover letters look and sound the same.
It is VERY obvious that most of them are mail merge letters that look like this:
I am writing to apply for the with .
My background as a XYZ Position, I feel I would be a good fit for the position.
Blah, blah, blah... BORING.
The reason boring is a problem is because it shows the reader that YOU DO NOT CARE about this role. It doesn't show that you've done any homework about this company or role.
In other words, from an interest standpoint you have not distinguished yourself in the slightest.
This is both a problem and an opportunity. No matter how qualified you may or may not be (which is too late to change at this point), you CAN control how much interest you show to the resume / cover letter reader.
In addition, a good cover letter should pinpoint the SPECIFIC items on the resume or CV that DIRECTLY RELATES to what the employer is looking for in that role.
As a resume screener, I did not READ every resume submitted. I SCAN them looking for recognizable keywords. These keywords are basically brand names (universities and employers), Test Scores, GPAs.
The problem for you is that when a resume screener (note: I didn't say resume "reader") scans your resume he/she is prone to overlooking things you might want to emphasize. This is especially the case if what you have done is impressive, but not encapsulated in a brand name that is easily recognizable.
For example, lets say you started a company and sold it for $50 million... BUT your company's name is not well known. If you simply put that on a resume, there's a reasonable chance this accomplishment will be overlooked in a quick resume scan. BUT, if you EXPLAIN your accomplishment in a cover letter, it definitely will not.
When I screened applicants, even those just applying for a McKinsey internship, I ALWAYS read the first few paragraphs of EVERY cover letter. I usually did not read the whole cover letter, unless I read something intriguing in the first few paragraphs.
If the cover letter was mediocre, I would typically just scan the resume really quickly just to confirm my inclination to put the application in the reject pile.
If the cover letter was either impressive or interesting, I would definitely read the entire cover letter and read the entire resume very carefully.
In other words, the cover letter is the FIRST thing the employer sees and determines whether or not they will bother to learn more about you.
So what's the big lesson here?
The perfect cover letter for a consulting job (or any job for that matter) is NOT A FORM LETTER!
Trust me on this one.
Every cover letter for each firm should be unique and different than the letters you write to other firms.
I've read thousands of cover letters in my career. It is torture to read them.
You must stand out.
There are a few things you can do to stand out, listed in no particular order:
1) Get your brand names into the first sentence or paragraph (You know... Harvard, your Olympic Medals, etc...:)
2) Show you did your homework about the firm (very important). Why do you want to work for that particular firm? What's your unique reason? How sure are you of your preferences? Why?
3) Talk to people at the firm (google: informational interviews) to see what the firm is about. Do your homework. Then in the cover letter, name names... mention the names of people in the firm you've spoken to, what they said about the firm, and why what they said got you interested in the firm.
4) Explain why you'd bit a good fit for the firm. It's not good enough to be qualified. There are lots of qualified people out there. Consulting firms and employers in general like to hire people who are both qualified and motivated by legitimate and sincere reasons.
A good phrase to use in your cover letter is something like this.
"Unlike other candidates you're seeing that probably have XYZ trait, I have ABC trait because of my experience at XYZ company."
Unlike other candidates you're seeing who probably seem enthusiastic about consulting, I am certain of my interest in consulting because of my recent internship at ABC consulting firm.
The purpose of this kind of language is to make it EASY for the resume screener to figure out HOW YOU ARE DIFFERENT than the other applicants.
Don't assume the person will figure it out by reading your resume. POINT OUT the difference and make it EASY for the person to tell.
This is especially true if you come from a non-traditional or non-business background. If going to consulting would be a big career shift for you, you'd better do a darn good job explaining why the shift makes sense.
Otherwise the assumption is a little bit, "he/she's applying just for the heck of it." And if your background is amazing, it's possible you'll get an interview with a lousy cover letter.
Personally, I had networked like crazy to meet people in consulting before I ever applied for real. I knew them. They knew me. I knew I wanted to do consulting... and I think it came across.
My resume wasn't amazing. It was a B+.
Every cover letter I wrote was different from the other ones I wrote. I regularly quoted memorable things from specific people I spoke to from those firms and explained why I was impressed by them.
Even to this day, I still remember what impressed me about certain people at each firm... and what I thought it showed about the firm.
In short, I most definitely had my reasons for why I was applying and I was very deliberate in sharing those reasons. And, most importantly, my cover letters didn't look like any of the other ones.
After consulting, for every job I got after consulting, I probably averaged applying to only two or three companies for each job offer I received. I was very selective in who I wanted to work for. I did my homework. I explained my reasons in a good cover letter and more often than not got a meeting with the CEO.
Is this a lot of work?
Do most people take this much effort?
Why does it work?
Precisely because most people aren't willing to do the extra work to stand out.
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