The cover letter is a required component of any job application – but often the biggest headache for applicants. In this post, I discuss the top 10 tips for consulting cover letters (from content to structure to syntax) that will avoid embarrassing mistakes and strengthen your candidacy.
For the complete guide to consulting cover letters, click here!
1) Your opening paragraph should include:
- The position you’re applying for.
- Qualities that make you a good fit (e.g., leadership experience, analytical thinking skills).
- Optional: very brief highlights on work experience.
2) Your body paragraphs (no more than 2) should include:
- Work highlights if not in the opening paragraph.
- A section to describe one experience in detail (work, student group, etc). Focus on the impact you had and the skills you learned that would make you a good consultant. This should be your “star” experience and the one you want every reader to remember
- A section or paragraph on your interest in the job, your career goals, the research you’ve done to learn more about the firm.
3) The closing paragraph should be brief and restate why you’d make a good consultant. Include your contact information here as well:
Please do not hesitate to contact me with further questions. I can be reached at (123) 456-7890 or via email at firstname.lastname@example.org.
4) Avoid an elaborate discussion of your educational background. A sentence about your school and major should suffice. It’s OK to expand this section if you have a very high GPA, nationally-recognized scholarships, and fellowships, etc.
5) It’s OK to drop names of current firm employees – but integrate them well.
Here’s a poor example:
I had a conversation with Sarah Foster, a current case team leader at Bain, at the on-campus presentation. I learned a lot from her about consulting and gained a deeper appreciation for the company.
Why is this a poor example? It doesn’t make a point. The interaction was generic, and it feels like a setup to name-drop.
Here’s a good example:
Bain is not only a prestigious firm, but one that really invests in the development of its consultants. My conversations with Sarah Foster, a current case team leader, reinforced my belief that this separates Bain from the other firms, and is my central reason for applying.
Why is this a good example? The name-dropping occurs in the context of a broader point – that Bain focuses on the development of its people.
6) Use anecdotes in consulting cover letters. Instead of saying “my past experiences have allowed me to become a strong leader of teams,” say this:
My projects at Oracle – where I led groups of up to 5 analysts on implementation projects – have made me a strong team leader and partner for my colleagues.
7) Include current contact information at the top. Don’t assume it’s unnecessary because the information is on your resume.
8) Never use more than one page and use PDF format when possible. In the words of Consultant99 (a kind commenter):
Resumes and cover letters should be submitted in PDF whenever allowed. Every resume screen finds us holding a half-dozen resumes where the font isn’t found, the margins are messed-up, it’s set for A4 rather than 8.5 x 11, or any of a million other problems that wreak havoc on your careful formatting. Worst of all, “track changes” might be turned on! Putting it in PDF avoids all these problems.
9) If it doesn’t fit with size 12 font and 1″ margins, it’s too long. This is not an iron-clad rule but a guiding principle. Cover letters with size 10 font, 0.5″ margins, and minute paragraph spacing hurt the reader’s eyes and hurt your candidacy.
10) Make sure the consulting cover letter is addressed to the right firm and person. Back to my initial thought – the risk is greater of messing up than standing out, and this is mistake number one. Label and save each cover letter by a firm, and double-check to ensure the firm name, address, and position applied for (eg, Associate vs Senior Consultant) is correct.
The last thing you want to happen is for an Accenture recruiter or consultant open your cover letter and see that it’s addressed to Deloitte HR. At best, you’re incompetent. At worst, your application may not see the light of day.
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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
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What am I missing? What do you agree/disagree with? What have been your personal challenges in writing cover letters?