After the success of our guide to writing a consulting resume, it only made sense to write one about 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?