by Victor Cheng
As a former McKinsey resume screener, I’ve read a lot of consulting cover letters for consulting roles of all types.
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.