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
After the success of our guide to writing a consulting resume, it only made sense to write one about composing consulting 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
We’ve created an amazing Do-It-Yourself (DIY) guide to consulting resumes and cover letters, with 24 great templates!
Jump ahead of the competition with the best resource on the market – our Consulting Resume and Cover Letter Bible – 98 power-packed pages on best practices for consulting applications. The best part is – we give you 12 resume templates and 12 cover letter templates to choose from! Buy it now.
What am I missing? What do you agree/disagree with? What have been your personal challenges in writing cover letters?