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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