As a former consulting resume and cover letter reader for McKinsey, and someone who has reviewed thousands of applications, I have noticed an interesting trend.
Most cover letters stink, and many resumes emphasize the wrong things.
Between the two, the cover letter is more important for the simple reason that if your cover letter does not do a good job, your resume is either never looked at at all or is only glanced at, rather than read thoroughly.
The latter makes it extremely likely the resume reader will miss something you wanted him or her to read.
In terms of ratios, I see a significantly higher percentage of candidates with poor cover letters than poor resumes.
Most people obsess over resume format -- what font size, margins, etc... But generally got the right idea to put your biggest accomplishments on the resume.
If your cover letter is good, from the perspective of the person reading the letter, I want to interview you -- basically I am biased in your favor.
Then I read the resume for any unusually negative information that might cause me to cancel my decision to interview you.
If, on the other hand, your cover letter is lousy, as the reader, I have "decided" to reject you (or am certainly heavily biased that way), and only glance at the resume to make sure I didn't miss any "wow" factor on the resume that would cause me to change my mind.
In other words, your cover letter used properly can be the primary deciding factor on whether you get an interview. The resume gets a "veto" vote.
Most people are surprised by this.
Here's why it works.
The cover letter does three important things:
1) Highlights key accomplishments (your resume does this too)
2) Demonstrates your deep interest in the firm & role (your resume does not do this... Do not underestimate the importance of this)
3) Explains why you would be a good hire (a resume includes facts, but no explanation linking the facts and providing some context)
See the following email from a reader and my comments for more details.
*** Your Cover Letter Tips Got Me an LEK Offer ***
You might not remember me, but I must say I owe a big deal to you.
Close to a year ago, I was unsuccessful with my applications for internships with consulting firms, getting only one interview and failing that too. That was when I came across your site and sent you an email on how I should write my cover letter, which you kindly replied to as well.
As the full time recruitment season in Autumn 2010 approached, I returned to your site and subscribed to your mailing list too.
Your videos and posts on the case interview process gave me an excellent introduction to consulting interviews, and I could not have found a more comprehensive site detailing the work, life and opportunities of consulting.
After months of practice with friends and by myself (I am unfortunately not incredibly talented), and after many rounds with different firms and with varying degrees of success, I have been made an offer with L.E.K., which I have been very keen on working at.
I would like to thank you for all the success stories that you shared, the many advice that you have given, and your honest perspective on the good and bad of consulting work.
They have been very inspirational and were certainly an eye-opener. It was definitely great to hear the success stories of many like-minded individuals, the opportunities and exposure that you experience in your time at McKinsey and after, and also your wonderful answers to the many different questions posed by applicants from all over the world on all possible kinds of scenarios!
Little did I realise myself, but those emails from you contributed a great deal to my motivation to work harder to secure that job offer.
Once again, thank you so much for your help! I will be looking forward to your webinar and posts on how to succeed as a new consultant. Your materials are truly amazing. And it does feel great to graduate =)
I offered a private congratulations to the person who wrote in.
For you, I wanted to point out that a few days ago, I revised my online tutorials on how to write a consulting cover letter and a comparable guide on what employers look for in a consulting resume.
If you are in the "getting an interview" stage of your recruiting process, I suggest taking a look:
How to Write a Consulting Cover Letter:
What to Emphasize in a Consulting Resume: