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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The cover letter is a required component of any job application – but often the biggest headache for applicants. In this post, I discuss the top 10 tips for consulting cover letters (from content to structure to syntax) that will avoid embarrassing mistakes and strengthen your candidacy.
For the complete guide to consulting cover letters, click here!
1) Your opening paragraph should include:
- The position you’re applying for.
- Qualities that make you a good fit (e.g., leadership experience, analytical thinking skills).
- Optional: very brief highlights on work experience.
2) Your body paragraphs (no more than 2) should include:
- Work highlights if not in the opening paragraph.
- A section to describe one experience in detail (work, student group, etc). Focus on the impact you had and the skills you learned that would make you a good consultant. This should be your “star” experience and the one you want every reader to remember
- A section or paragraph on your interest in the job, your career goals, the research you’ve done to learn more about the firm.
3) The closing paragraph should be brief and restate why you’d make a good consultant. Include your contact information here as well:
Please do not hesitate to contact me with further questions. I can be reached at (123) 456-7890 or via email at email@example.com.
4) Avoid an elaborate discussion of your educational background. A sentence about your school and major should suffice. It’s OK to expand this section if you have a very high GPA, nationally-recognized scholarships, and fellowships, etc.
5) It’s OK to drop names of current firm employees – but integrate them well.
Here’s a poor example:
I had a conversation with Sarah Foster, a current case team leader at Bain, at the on-campus presentation. I learned a lot from her about consulting and gained a deeper appreciation for the company.
Why is this a poor example? It doesn’t make a point. The interaction was generic, and it feels like a setup to name-drop.
Here’s a good example:
Bain is not only a prestigious firm, but one that really invests in the development of its consultants. My conversations with Sarah Foster, a current case team leader, reinforced my belief that this separates Bain from the other firms, and is my central reason for applying.
Why is this a good example? The name-dropping occurs in the context of a broader point – that Bain focuses on the development of its people.
6) Use anecdotes in consulting cover letters. Instead of saying “my past experiences have allowed me to become a strong leader of teams,” say this:
My projects at Oracle – where I led groups of up to 5 analysts on implementation projects – have made me a strong team leader and partner for my colleagues.
7) Include current contact information at the top. Don’t assume it’s unnecessary because the information is on your resume.
8) Never use more than one page and use PDF format when possible. In the words of Consultant99 (a kind commenter):
Resumes and cover letters should be submitted in PDF whenever allowed. Every resume screen finds us holding a half-dozen resumes where the font isn’t found, the margins are messed-up, it’s set for A4 rather than 8.5 x 11, or any of a million other problems that wreak havoc on your careful formatting. Worst of all, “track changes” might be turned on! Putting it in PDF avoids all these problems.
9) If it doesn’t fit with size 12 font and 1″ margins, it’s too long. This is not an iron-clad rule but a guiding principle. Cover letters with size 10 font, 0.5″ margins, and minute paragraph spacing hurt the reader’s eyes and hurt your candidacy.
10) Make sure the consulting cover letter is addressed to the right firm and person. Back to my initial thought – the risk is greater of messing up than standing out, and this is mistake number one. Label and save each cover letter by a firm, and double-check to ensure the firm name, address, and position applied for (eg, Associate vs Senior Consultant) is correct.
The last thing you want to happen is for an Accenture recruiter or consultant open your cover letter and see that it’s addressed to Deloitte HR. At best, you’re incompetent. At worst, your application may not see the light of day.
In ourConsulting Resume and Cover Letter Bible we’ve got 12 cover letter templates you can use to create your own best-in-class cover letter.
Click here to buy it now and start landing consulting jobs!