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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Most candidates severely underestimate the importance of a well-written consulting cover letter. Because the cover letter is read BEFORE the resume (and before the case interview), it is chronologically the most important step in the application process because it is the FIRST step.
If your cover letter is extremely weak, your resume will be discarded UNREAD. If your cover letter is mediocre, at best your resume will be skimmed for a few brief seconds as the reader is moving the letter to the reject pile.
The cover letter plays two key roles.
First, it conveys a well-reasoned ARGUMENT as to why you are a strong candidate, why the reader should actually look at your resume, and why they should interview you. Many cover letters summarize a candidate’s entire career history. Your “life story” is not an argument for why the firm should interview you! Don't assume that since all the information is in your life story that surely the recruiter will be able to figure out why they should interview you.
Second, a consulting cover letter is an (unannounced) writing sample test. If you can not write an effective cover letter when your career is on the line, how can the recruiter trust you to write a memo to a client when the firm’s reputation is on the line. Answer: They can't. If they can't trust you, they will not bother wasting their time to look at your resume, let alone grant you a case interview.
Consulting Cover Letter Tips
1) Do not use a form letter! Write a personalized letter explaining why you are a good fit for that SPECIFIC firm.
(Recruiters hate form letters. It signals you are too lazy to do your homework about the firm, aren't that interested, and are unwilling to put in the time to apply properly. Also it's glaringly obvious to us when you use a form letter.)
2) State in the first sentence of the first paragraph that you are applying for a job (you'd be shocked how often this isn't done) and WHICH job you are applying for and in which office.
(Don't write to a firm with 1,000 job openings in 50 countries saying you are applying for any job you are qualified for.)
3) Make a well-structured, evidence-based ARGUMENT for why the firm should interview you.
(I don't need a three-page letter on why you think McKinsey is a great place to work. I need to know why YOU would be a great consultant for McKinsey.)
To help you write an effective cover letter, I've put together my Consulting Cover Letter Toolkit. This toolkit explains in detail what recruiters are looking for and why. In includes 20 actual cover letters that secured interviews and job offers at McKinsey, Bain and BCG.
In addition, I took 100 actual candidate cover letters and screened them using the same standard I used when was at McKinsey. I created accept / reject piles of cover letters; and provide you with the cover letters that I accepted and explain why.
Further, I took several cover letters that I rejected and I rewrote them to a level where they met the criteria to be accepted. You see the “before” versus “after” versions, and I provide a screen-sharing video explanation as to what I changed and why.
To my knowledge, this Consulting Cover Letter Toolkit is the most comprehensive compilation of successful consulting cover letters that have been verified to work (I have an archive of the actual offer letters by the applicant that wrote each cover letter that worked).
Finally, I've distilled all of the knowledge and lessons learned and distilled them into an editable consulting cover letter template. Simply follow the template and you will automatically avoid 80% of the most common errors applicants tend to make in their cover letters.
Consulting Cover Letter Toolkit Contents
- OverviewVideo - My tips on the objective of a good cover letter, insights into who is reading your letter, their mindset and what they are looking for so you can effectively write your cover letter to that audience;
- Actual Cover Letters - real candidate cover letters:
- 20 Successful Cover Letters, proven to work so you can study and learn from what worked;
- Top 20% Cover Letters from the candidates I would interview with my notes on what stood out in their letters so you can apply them to your own;
- Cover Letters that needed improvement, with before vs. after my edits versions so you can see what mistakes people make, how to fix them, and the improvements recruiters look for;
- Commentary Videos -- my commentary on each of the three groups of cover letters, what I noticed, why I noticed it, why I made the changes I did, so you can learn from these improvements;
- Editable Cover Letter Template with an Explanation Guide so you can use a proven approach to create your own successful cover letter.
- The investment for the Basic Cover Letter Toolkit is $97.
- The investment for the Deluxe Toolkit, with both the Resume and Cover Letter Toolkits, is $145.50 (25% off of both).
- The investment for the Deluxe Toolkit + LOMS with both the Resume and Cover Letter toolkits and LOMS is $437 (a $54 discount)
- The program is delivered digitally. You will get download instructions within 15 minutes of purchase.
- We use industry-standard Mp4 and Adobe Acrobat pdf files that can be used across all major computing platforms.
Deluxe Resume and Cover Letter Toolkit with LOMS
- Look over my shoulder program
- Consulting Resume Toolkit Program
- Cover Letter Toolkit Program