Consulting Cover Letters: the complete guide, dos and don’ts, and more!

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 spend usually 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?

Comment away!

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  • Alex

    Should we be including a line or two on why the firm in particular? With all respect, most consulting firms are outstanding in the clients they serve, people they have, culture they enjoy and so on, all in a very similar way. It’s pretty hard to sound ‘unique’ in each cover letter when describing MBB for example.

  • Alex

    And I almost forgot! Thanks for the article! Certainly clarifies a lot on how a recruiter digests our cover letters.

  • http://managementconsulted.com Kevin

    Personally, I don’t think its necessary. I wouldn’t veto doing that, but my preference is to include something firm-specific only if you’ve met someone from that company and have something particularly interesting/relevant to say within context.

  • http://managementconsulted.com Kevin

    Thanks Alex.

  • Cosmin

    Great article. I am just finishing retouching my cover letters in order to apply. Can you tell me if it is true that even if the company says that deadline is 12 of November they already started to interview some of the applicants? So i understand that i might be rejected because they already found the number of people they were looking for. Is this true? I have a colleague that got an investment job offer before reaching the deadline.

  • http://managementconsulted.com Kevin

    Hi Cosmin, it really depends on the firm, although I wouldn’t be surprised if they did “rolling applications” (what it means when they start reading applications before the official deadline). That is why it helps to submit your app early, although generally speaking they won’t completely finish filling their recruiting needs until at least past the deadline and they’ve had the opportunity to see all of the apps (there can be exceptions!).

  • Moe

    Any estimate on the arrival of the guide?

  • Ex-consultant

    Having read a few thousand cover letters in my day, I’d say the following to Alex. The cover letter should answer three questions:

    Why consulting?
    Why this firm?
    Why you?

    Easy, just like business school essays!

    The problem with people answering “why this firm” is that they become either bland or sycophantic. The best responses are intensely personal. Amazingly undergrads do far better with this than MBAs, maybe because MBAs have been dulled down by years in sterile companies and are afraid to say what they think.

    The general rule of thumb is that if you can write the “why this firm” paragraph the same for McKinsey and Bain, you’ve not thought enough and aren’t specific enough.

  • Kate

    Cover letter, writing the address of the office and the name of the person (recruiter): Nowadays you apply with a big consulting firm (McKinsey) via their central online application system (worldwide) and you can actually specify up to 4 preferred office locations (again: worldwide) in a drop-down list in the online form. What’s more – it says on the website the cover letter is OPTIONAL. I guess in any case and regardless how many office locations you pick in the drop-down menu, if you pass the “screen test” and your CV is good, they will just forward your application to whomever they think might be interested in you or suitable to judge you in more detail. So you really have no idea who will get your cover letter. So isn’t the advice about finding out the name and the position of a recruiter a bit outdated? And as far as I understand this, there are actually no recruiters in the classical sense, but your CV actually goes to consultants – consultants screen and recruit new consultants, HR person only gets involved at the final stage, after the case interview? So isn’t “Dear Madame/Dear Sir” just fine, especially in an “optional” cover letter?

    Thanks!

    Kate

    PS> GREAT website by the way, I learned a lot!! Keep up the good work!

  • Opheliaviolet

    Should it be only 1 page?

  • Rajaneesh Jha

    i want to write a cover letter to the job consultant, what should i mention in that?

  • Resumes and Cover Letters

    Its a perfect guide for all the job seekers. I appreciate your efforts for posting this important content.

  • ken

    nice!!!

  • Stanley WANG

    great