5 ways to catch a recruiter’s eye with your consulting cover letter

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This is the third post in our series of resume and cover letter Q&As we collected during our Consulting Resume and Cover Letter Bible giveaway contest last month, where we asked our newsletter subscribers for one thing they wanted to know about consulting resumes and cover letters and what they thought the answer was.

In this post, we focus on consulting cover letters – everything from how to catch a recruiter’s eye and nailing format to what recruiters are really looking for. If you have another perspective on consulting cover letters – we’d love to hear from you! Subscribe to our newsletter, add your comment below, or send us an email.

75% of the questions we received about consulting cover letters centered around how to stand out when you’re competing with so many other candidates. Here’s the bottom line. You’re not going to get an interview just because you have an incredible cover letter. You’ve undoubtedly got to back up your story with networking – getting personal – and a resume – experience and credentials – that’s just as or even more amazing.

Therefore, you can’t use your cover letter to explain away sub-par results or whine about why you should be given a chance – ever.

That said, don’t assume the cover letter is insignificant. It’s an important tool that recruiters and interviewers use to substantiate your resume, to give context to your story, and to get a sense of who you are as a person. Will you fit into their culture? Will you thrive in their training programs? Will you mesh with their teams? Your cover letter will give the firms indicators to all of their personality questions about you.

On your end, the cover letter offers prime real estate for name dropping, awards boasting, and simply showing them you know how to write well (not to be underestimated).

Hopefully this set of Q&As – 5 tips to catch a recruiter’s eye, plus 11 bonus suggestions – will give some definition to the gray area of consulting cover letters to all of you consulting candidates out there. Our guess? Many of the answers will surprise you – big time.

HOW TO GET MY COVER LETTER READ

What you want to know:

“How to write a cover letter that actually gets read.”

Your answer:

“Focus on quantifiable achievements in various positions I’ve been in that were due to my actions.”

Getting a recruiter to read your cover letter, believe it or not, doesn’t start with your cover letter – it starts with networking. Especially at the super competitive firms like MBB, ranking systems or computer programs are used to filter through the thousands of applications they receive every recruiting season, separating the great from the good from the not a chance candidates. Networking – and the name-dropping that goes along with it – helps to flag your cover letter more than anything else.

After that,  your entire consulting cover letter, just like your consulting resume, should focus on quantifiable achievements related to actual things you did.

What you want to know:

“I would love to know the best way to make a connection to a recruiter with a cover letter, even if a position is not currently available. Companies have the ability to create positions and bring people in, and convincing a hiring manager to consider that possibility in a cover letter would be awesome.”

Your answer:

“I think you need to be convincing about being able to handle the work, and clearly identify why you are an excellent fit for the company.”

We don’t disagree, but your cover letter alone certainly isn’t what’s going to get a recruiter to look at your application out of cycle. Getting a current employee to forward your application – including a strong resume and cover letter – is a much stronger strategy for landing an interview off season. Besides, recruiters aren’t too likely to look at applications unless they’re really hiring.

So your cover letter made it past the first screen and you’ve joined hundreds of other applicants in competing for a first interview. Now what?

STANDING OUT FROM THE CROWD

What you want to know:

“I want to learn how to really make my cover letter stand out. Whenever I write a cover letter, it always seem like a repetition of my resume.”

Your answer:

“I heard that cover letters serve as a bridge between the resume and the real world (my experience). But that’s too broad and vague for me, especially when I’m writing it up. I have problems regarding how deep to delve into my experience in cover letters.”

We’ve helped so many clients with this exact question! Many candidates make the wrong assumption that the cover letter is a summary of your resume – NOT TRUE! If you’re using your cover letter to reiterate things you’ve already said on your resume, you’re making 2 mistakes: 1 – you’re wasting valuable space that could be used to sell yourself, and 2 – you’re telling the firm that you’re inefficient. What a waste!

Use the cover letter for major highlights in your experience. Include name brand schools and companies, selective awards or programs, and key degrees, then tell your story – how you accomplished what you did and what kind of leader/team member you are. Highlighting one story in depth will be more memorable than a recap of your resume.

The recruiter already read your resume – don’t make them read it twice!

What you want to know:

“How can I write a convincing cover letter to a highly prestigious firm without sounding too desperate?”

Your answer:

“While writing to a top firm, it is important to press the things that you can offer to the firm, not what they can offer you.”

Very true – you want to demonstrate to the firm how you can contribute to their success, not how they can help you climb the corporate ladder (even if that is your goal).

Confidence is key – for any firm, big or small. Stay away from using terms like I feel, I think, or I believe – state clearly your position without qualifying it. Own it!

And remember, the folks reviewing your application are people too. They respond to simple psychology and are attracted to confident candidates. If you truly believe that you have what it takes, and you portray that in your cover letter, you’ll show them you can play with the big boys.

What you want to know:

“How to demonstrate that I am a problem-solver at heart, because I have heard that any potential consultant who can illustrate their strong ambition to begin a consulting career will overcome other candidates who simply have better qualifications.”

Your answer:

“Talk about any jobs that I’ve improved performance on since I began working. These are indicators of a motivated and analytical thinker.”

Self-motivation and analytical are 2 key characteristics of a management consultant, so yes – any chance you have of giving examples where you’ve demonstrated these qualities is awesome. Your cover letter is a great place for this. Use it to put words around the accomplishments and results you’ve listed on your resume. 

Don’t underestimate your competition, however. You can’t just be good in one role – you have to be consistently amazing, and demonstrate this theme in your cover letter.

HOW MUCH WEIGHT DOES THE COVER LETTER CARRY?

What you want to know:

“How much does the cover letter really matter when applying from a target/semi-target university?”

Your answer:

“I have been told by some that an excellent cover letter can get you an interview, but heard from others that the firms rarely, if ever, read your cover letter.”

Both rumors have truth behind them. There are some candidates with such a strong resume that their cover letter is only briefly glanced at. In cases where a candidate is more questionable, the cover letter may be read in more detail to determine their fit for the firm or position. For candidates that offer a terrible resume, the cover letter won’t even get a sniff. 

At the end of the day, you will give the best impression if you have both your resume and cover letter perfectly packaged. If you’re in the “limbo” category, you want to rise to the top. 

What you want to know:

“Can a bad cover letter hurt you, even if you have a great resume?”

Your answer:

“A bad cover letter can hurt you but a good one will not merit you. However, it’s a must to have a cover letter to even be considered for an interview.”

Yes, a bad cover letter can hurt you, even with a great resume. A poorly written cover letter sends the recruiter mixed messages about your professionalism. And see our answer above – a good cover letter can make the difference between getting the interview invite and getting rejected.

So what are some characteristics of a bad cover letter? Here are just a few:

Poor grammar Focus on your weaknesses Long, complicated sentences Tiny, unreadable font Too boring Too aggressive Too many acronyms

Get our Consulting Resume and Cover Letter Bible for more cover letter dos and don’ts. 

What you want to know:

“How significant is the cover letter to your progressing to the interview process?”

Your answer:

“More than 50% perhaps?”

Like we’ve said, consulting reviewers do actually read cover letters. They don’t read them for everyone, but if you have a mild chance of being a borderline candidate anywhere, expect the cover letter to be used as both a writing sample and, as necessary, a tiebreaker. It’s not 50% of the application – more like 25%, we’d say – but make it count!

What you want to know:

“How important is a cover letter in an interview through campus placements in an Indian context? To maximize chances should one insist in a cover letter even if only resumes are being asked for?”

Your answer:

“I think cover letters are not very important in an Indian context. Also, they might be seen as a rule breaker if no one is submitting them.”

In the U.S., a cover letter is expected – so always plan to submit one with your application, whether it’s for an MBB, a boutique, or a Big Four. In India, follow accepted protocol. That means if cover letters are discouraged, don’t make a bad name for yourself by going against the grain.

COVER LETTER FORMAT

What you want to know:

“What’s the standard format for a cover letter?”

Your answer:

“Each paragraph should have a point starting with skills already acquired to what you hope to do/gain from working for a particular company.

In terms of content, the standard order of operations goes like this:

  • Introductory paragraph and thesis statement – state the position you’re applying for, what you’re currently doing, and what skills/experience you will contribute.
  • 1-2 strong example paragraphs with a deep dive on 1 or 2 specific accomplishments that highlight your consulting-related skills.
  • 1 paragraph about why you want to do consulting and why you’re interested in the specific firm.
  • Conclusion – 2-3 lines where you summarize key skills, your interest in the job, and your desire for an interview

What you want to know:

“What is the best way to start a cover letter?”

Your answer:

“Showing interest in the company/position you’re applying for. (I don’t know exactly how to do this).”

As we’ve outlined above, your interest in the company comes a little later. Your intro paragraph should be very straightforward, stating the position you’re applying for, what you’re doing now (school or work), and what you will contribute to the firm. Here’s a generic example:

“I am applying to become a Summer Associate at The Boston Consulting Group. I am a first-year MBA candidate at Columbia University. I am confident that my consistent demonstration of educational and professional excellence has prepared me to quickly contribute to BCG.”

Showing interest in the company is all about making it personal – which comes back to networking. If you can explain what John shared about his experience at the firm with you, and how what he said ties to your experience, you’ll convey much more interest than someone with a recap of the firm’s website marketing pitch.

What you want to know:

“I want to know what the ideal length of a cover letter is. Do short, concise letters have higher impact than longer, page-long stories/reasoning?”

Your answer:

“Based on anecdotal evidence, I’m inclined to go with short, concise letters. They get read and can have a much higher impact than a typical lengthy, standard letter.”

Your cover letter should not exceed 1 page, under any circumstances. If you’re unable to say what you want to say in a page or less, you’re not thinking like a consultant! However, if it’s too short, you probably aren’t saying enough – nothing shorter than 3/4 of a page makes sense, and a shorter letter looks like you didn’t try.

What you want to know:

“I’m completely lost as to how to keep the cover letter to 3/4 of a page whilst trying to keep all of the relevant / important information in it! Any tips you can give me on how to reduce the clutter and make every sentence count would be amazing!”

Your answer:

“I think the right answer might be dot points string together in sentences so it flows?”

By now you should know why it’s important to stick to 1 page or less for your consulting cover letter, so here we’ll just reiterate the importance of using the format outlined above – an intro paragraph, 1-2 example paragraphs, a few sentences on why consulting and why this firm, then a brief, closing paragraph. Don’t try to tell you entire life story! Stick with a few examples that demonstrate key consulting qualities like leadership, teamwork, and analytical ability, and spend some quality time writing excellent prose.

What you want to know:

“I would like to learn how to write a strong consulting cover letter including a good way of portraying the skills that I already possess.”

Your answer:

“I have been using a generic internship cover letter but I do not think it getting the best possible results.”

Templates are great for getting ideas on how to build your own consulting cover letter. However, you need to make sure you’re using an adequate template. For example, an internship template should only be used for applying to consulting internships – not to land a full-time consulting position at an MBB firm.

Our Resume and Cover Letter Bible has 12 cover letter templates (and 12 resume templates) for different professional backgrounds – from undergrad and finance guru to experience professional and MBA.

While you could pick from those, it would be even better to review all of them – and pick the parts you like best, inserting your story and building your own paragraph intros and conclusions.

What you want to know:

“What I personally want to know about consulting resumes/cover letters is more about their structure – what exactly needs to fit in where.”

Your answer:

“The key is to keep information in both your resume and cover letter at a minimum. The point is to get your core qualities and highlights across to the recruiter at one go. Recruiters have very limited time to review resumes. Paying attention to detail is an important quality required for consulting. So, make sure your resume/cover letter is devoid of spelling errors, typos or poor alignment. Lastly, develop good formatting abilities. A neat resume reflects you’re an organized person.”

Great answer – good job!

In summary, here are 5 key takeaways about consulting cover letters:

1. Consulting cover letters matter, so submit one – even if it’s optional.

2. Consulting cover letters should be structured but personalized. Networking provides great context for personalization, and will make a good cover letter so much better.

3. Adhere to a strict 1-page max, and 3/4 page recommended minimum, for a consulting cover letter.

4.  Don’t use your consulting cover letter to recap your resume – use it to tell a story.

5.  Never use a consulting cover letter to explain something negative – focus on how amazing you are and how much you’re excited to work at the firm.

Keep an eye out for our final post from the January contest!

We offer resume editing and interview prep. Through one-on-one sessions, we’ll help you stand out from 1000′s of other applicants and land consulting jobs now!

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