The key to effective cover-letters is story-telling. Most people write cover letters like resumes, with cold, hard facts, and that’s the problem.
Cover letters are much more effective if they contain stories capturing the burning spirits of candidates. In this article, I’ll tell you how to install such stories seamlessly into your consulting cover letters, and land a case interview yourself.
What are cover letters for?
Cover letters are documents accompanying resumes, to provide further insights into the qualities and motivations of a candidate, as well as portray who he/she is as a person.
In consulting cover letters, there are three essential qualities you must always display:
- Leadership skills: the ability to influence people’s decisions.
- Achieving mindset: the continuous, relentless push for the best results.
- Analytical problem-solving: the ability to solve problems in a structured, methodical manner.
Regarding motivations, there are two questions you need to answer:
- “Why consulting?”: Do you really understand the consulting world, and how it fits with your long-term plans? Is there something unique in the consulting track to explain your choice?
- “Why this firm?”: Out of all the consulting firms, why ours? There should be something uniquely attractive about this firm to you, isn’t there?
And last but not least, don’t forget to show that you have an interesting personality that fits with the firm’s culture.
Cover letters vs Resumes – What’s the difference?
Because so many candidates confuse between the two, then end up writing boring cover letters resembling “paragraph versions” of their resumes, I feed the need to differentiate.
There are four marked differences:
Cover letters go deep, resumes go wide
In cover letters, you should select one or a few most notable achievements, and describe them in detail to reflect your three defining aspects (values, competencies, motivations).
This stands in contrast with resumes, where you cram as many relevant achievements as possible into the space of one or two A4 pages.
Cover letters are “soft” stories, resumes are “hard” bullet lists
The content format of cover letters is much less defined, leaving room for a lot of creativity, unlike resumes which are almost always bullet lists of cold, hard facts.
Your goal as the candidate is to fully utilize that loosely-defined format and make your cover letter as attractive and memorable as possible.
Cover letters describe personality, resumes do not
A crucial role of the cover letter is to portray who you are as a person. Resumes don’t do that, they focus on your achievements.
Your personality does not only come directly through the contents, but also reflected in the style of the letter – so take time to make your cover letter more attractive, and you’ll make a better impression with the screener.
Cover letters touch on future plans, resume concerns mostly the past
In cover letters, you have to answer the motivation questions (why consulting, why this firm). In resumes, that aspect is barely mentioned.
The most credible answers to those questions connect the job with your future plans – as such, the cover letter is not confined to the past like resumes.
The vibe inside the screening room
Busy, tiring, and boring – that’s the vibe inside the screening room.”
Picture this in your mind:
A junior consultant is in the office on a Friday night, going through hundreds of applications. He has to do this as a form of goodwill for the company, on top of his ongoing project.
Everyone’s application looks the same, following one set format; a somewhat extraordinary resume catches his attention, so he checks the cover letter to see if there’s anything interesting, only to be disappointed because the letter is an exact recital of the resume.
If you want to grab the screener’s attention and make memorable impressions, you have to break that negative vibe, using an unordinary cover letter.
Most cover letters are just listings of achievement and cliched motivation statements – they feel like unoriginal walls-of-text that offer nothing new – and that’s the exact reason why many screeners don’t like cover letters. Write an exciting story instead – the screener will love it.
Why they read your cover letter
There are two main reasons why the screener reads your consulting cover letter:
- He wants to know more about your motivations and personality because your resume is both impressive and interesting/unordinary at the same time.
- He wants to clarify some ambiguous points in your resume – this happens if you appear highly competent, but your writing is not clear enough.
In both cases, there’s no excuse to repeat your resume in a paragraph format and disappoint the screener. You have all the reasons in the world to present an attractive, detailed, focused narrative – tell a story and get your interview.
Both the background and the purpose of cover-letter-screening suggest that an innovative story-telling approach is much more beneficial than the common, formulaic, overly-formal cover letters.
Such an approach will definitely make your cover letter stand out from the heap of some 200 other applications. It helps you grab the screener’s attention, and impress him in a memorable way.
Additionally, it makes reading the cover letter easier and more enjoyable. The screener is already tired, so there’s no point in making his life harder.
Whatever the reason, as the cover letter is opened AFTER the resume, the implication is that you need to perfect your consulting resume first!
If you haven’t read it, here’s an A-to-Z guide to writing the perfect consulting resume, from a former McKinsey consultant and resume screener!
All these elements must be presented in a coherent storyline and concise language.
Keep in mind this is a consulting cover letter – as such, your story should be backed up by impactful, specific, verifiable results.
To write impressive, fact-based stories that demonstrate all three necessary aspects of the candidate, I advise you to follow these four steps:
Step 1 – Self-reflect for storylines
Search your memory for events, experiences, ideas… that can serve as a basic storyline – the backbone of your cover letter. For each storyline, consider the following six criteria:
- Uniqueness: The base story should be something unique to you. If it’s something common or universal, you won’t have the screener’s attention.
- Attractiveness: Your story should be attractive and entertaining – only then can you trigger the screener’s curiosity. Usually, it’s something “big” and impactful, but not controversial
- Positiveness: The story should have a positive “vibe” to it. If it’s something sad or negative, don’t include it in your cover letter.
- Qualities: All three consulting qualities (leadership, achieving, analytical problem-solving) should be illustrated in your story. Otherwise, consider that story irrelevant.
- Motivations: Your story should at least help explain why you’re applying, if not providing direct answers to that question. Firms don’t like to hire candidates without clear motivations.
- Personality: Make sure you exhibit a likable personality. On the other hand, if that story suggests negative traits (pessimism, short temper, cynicism, etc.) you have to modify it.
Let’s see if these storylines of my own could match the requirements:
“I escaped from a near-death experience during a paragliding session using my gliding skills.”
This is not something you hear every day, and near-death stories are often quite attractive, so you have those two boxes checked; and for now, there’s no sign of “bad” personality traits.
However, it’s a near-death experience, so it does have a negative vibe. Additionally, it shows neither consulting qualities nor relevant motivations.
=> This story only meets 3 out of 6 criteria. Out!
“I founded an entertainment business which attracted lots of attention, but ultimately failed.”
Not everyone is a startup entrepreneur, so this story does meet the “uniqueness” criterion. It’s relatively easy to draw attention with startup stories, and it’s easy to explain a consulting career choice from a former entrepreneur perspective, too. No negative personality trait is visible.
While being a business owner suggests some leadership and problem-solving experience, as well as an achieving mindset, a failure story like this might raise some questions on the “qualities” aspect; it also creates a negative vibe.
=> Overall, 4.5 to 5 out of 6. Not really the best storyline for a consulting cover letter, but usable with some modifications.
“I broke McKinsey’s code of conduct, convinced a client to pay their long-overdue service fees, and was celebrated for it.”
Is there anyone who doesn’t like those “breaking rules” stories? I’m quite confident this experience is quite unique and attractive. Because this is actual consulting work, it’s undoubtedly easy to point out all the important consulting qualities, as well as to provide a basis for my motivations.
However, this “breaking the rules” story may suggest rebellious tendencies, so if I’m going to use it I’ll again need some modifications.
=> This story scores 5.5 / 6. Quite good but I do need to be careful with it.
Step 2 - Add and classify details
Rack your memory and jot down everything related to your storyline; don’t worry about having too many details, you will be trimming the story later.
Pay special attention to the details best illustrating relevant qualities, motivations, and personality, because you will need to emphasize them.
Step 3 – Structure and enhance
Arrange the details of your story in a logical, intuitive structure; the most common method is:
1. Describe a notable, relevant experience using the problem-action-result structure to impress the interviewer with your qualities first.
2. Try to link it up with the present/future parts of your story (ideas, philosophies, plans) to explain your motivations.
Trim all non-essential and technical details, they do nothing but confuse the reader and bore them to death. Your story should be told in a way even your grandmother can understand.
Then, arrange and enhance the remaining details so that the story feels more dramatic, i.e the uniqueness and difficulty of the problem should be emphasized.
On a related note, consultants dislike lengthy cover letters – in fact, one A4 page is the maximum length – so there’s one more reason to start trimming.
Step 4 – Amplify consulting features
First, make all three key consulting traits stand out from your story – leadership, achieving mindset, and analytical problem-solving.
Then, make subtle references to consulting work using the industry’s terminology and concepts. Most screeners, being consultants themselves, will subconsciously appreciate this. However, avoid buzzwords and slangs found on the Internet, or you’ll appear superficial and unprofessional.
To write the best cover letter, you must thoroughly understand the industry, its major firms, and even the very office you’re applying into.
To achieve such an understanding, there is quite a bit of research to do – and here are three tips for you to ease that process!
Tip 1: Networking
Successful networking goes a long way in the consulting recruitment process and in cover letters.
Firstly, management consulting firms are relatively publicity-shy, so having a connection within these firms allow you to gain very specific and authentic insights about the firm, the job, as well as the consulting world in general, helping you make better choices and deliver more convincing reasons.
Secondly, you may earn a referral! The screening stage is harsh – it’s where most candidates are filtered out, both in absolute and proportional terms – and referrals help a great deal with that.
Remember to show your networking efforts by mentioning the names of consultants at the office you’re applying into, as well as their projects. The screener will know you really do care about the job, and you’ve done your homework.
Tip 2: Read consulting news
The websites of major consulting firms all have countless articles on current affairs as well as their own projects – read them frequently and regularly.
For one thing, those articles will deepen your understanding of management consultants and their work, helping you make better choices and explain them more effectively to the screener.
Additionally, reading consulting articles regularly will help you know more about the specific projects of each firm, which you can bring up in cover letters.
Tip 3: Build “cheat sheets”
A few ready-to-use “cheat sheets” containing all the important details on the consulting industry and major firms will significantly ease the writing process.
I recommend making three different groups of sheets – one for the consulting world in general, one for the firms, and the last one about the specific offices you’re applying into.
Be implicit and “smooth” when using these sheets. Make sure to sound as natural and seamless as possible when mentioning your references; avoid putting them at the focus of your sentences, but to use them as supplements to the main idea (e.g: I was awed by the network of experts supporting our project with McKinsey back in 2016).
Consulting cover letters are not the place for creative, colorful designs. Format your letters in a conservative, text-dense, black-and-white fashion – that’s how actual consultants do it.
One A4 page is the maximum length for consulting cover letters.
Inside the busy screening room, nobody has the time and energy to read a two-page worth of story, no matter how attractive it is.
If your cover letter exceeds that maximum length, trim away the less important details and shorten your expressions; you can also tweak your font size, spacing, and margins to squeeze the most content into one page.
Use formal, conservative fonts, such as Times New Roman, Calibri, Cambria, Garamond, etc.
Keep your font size at 10-12. Larger text tends to feel somewhat “messy”, and they’re space-consuming. Smaller text, on the other hand, feels difficult and tiring to read.
Additionally, the typeface in your cover letter should match that on the resume.
Spacing, margins, and alignment
Use spacings of 1.15 between lines and 1.50-2.00 between paragraphs. Consulting cover letters are quite text-dense, so it’s important to use these white spaces to ease the visual strain.
Always align your text on the left side. Left-aligning is the standard in the United States, where most major consulting firms are based; additionally, left-aligning keeps the horizontal spacing between words even, unlike justified where that spacing varies considerably between each line.
All four margins should be equal at 1 inch. That should keep your letter neat and tidy while maximizing the amount of text on one page.
If you know who’s screening, address them by name. Otherwise, generic salutations are fine.
I’ve come across pages claiming it’s no longer acceptable to write generic salutations (“To whom it may concern”); however, in consulting firms where the screening process is assigned to junior consultants on an availability basis, you don’t always know who’s reading your letter, so such salutations are okay.
On the other hand, if you happen to be applying into a small, new office, and your networking efforts are successful, you may know your screener. In that case, refer them by name for a greater impact.
If you can replace the industry and the firm in your letter with something similar and it still makes sense, your tailoring is not enough.
Your motivations should be based on unique and defining descriptions – for example, McKinsey having the largest support network for consultants, or Bain being the frattiest among MBB consulting firms.
Non-unique reasons, such as “prestigious brand name” or “interesting projects” can apply to basically every major consulting firm out there, so they’re not strong bases for your choices.
Use formal language throughout, and keep standard your heading and salutation.
Show your uniqueness and creativity only through the main content sections. Other “procedural” parts of the cover letter should always remain formulaic – see the sample section.
The language in the main paragraph should also remain formal, i.e no slang, no contraction, no overuse of exclamations.
Avoid short-term motivations
Don’t say you’re in for a 2-year learning experience, or your application will be heading for the bin very, very quickly.
It’s costly to turn fresh graduates into effective consultants, so firms don’t want candidates who will bail out just after they’ve become useful. They want people who will stay in the firm for as long as they can – they want future partners.
You might include long-term plans concerning other industries, but don’t give the impression that you’re bailing out in a few years. If that’s your plan, don’t even mention it.
Proofread and edit
Writing cover letters should be a long process of continuous proofreading, feedback, and editing.
It’s best to find a former/working consultant or at least someone who’s knowledgeable about the industry to help you out. Consulting cover letters differ from normal ones quite considerably, so generic guidelines won’t be of much use.
It’s also very helpful to allow intervals of at least a few days between writing and proofreading sessions; you will find it easier to spot errors if you proofread with a “fresh” mind.
Try to avoid format, spelling, and grammar mistakes at all costs. In consulting cover letters, such mistakes are much less tolerated.
Cover letter file format
Always send your cover letters in the PDF format (most screeners expect you to do so).
This file format will make sure your cover letter appears the same on every computer, and it minimizes the damage that may occur in the file transfer process (by contrast, DOC files are vulnerable to numerous errors).
Depending on the computer, PDFs may look cleaner than DOCs – one possible bonus point for appearance.
Still not sure whether your cover letter is good enough? Book a meeting with former consultants. Our coaches will show you how to make your resume stand out among thousands of candidates.
Now that you’ve learned the secrets to the best story-telling cover letter, let’s have a little exercise and help the First President write one to McKinsey, shall we?
(The content in this sample letter is largely fictional for illustration purposes)
Mount Vernon Plantation, Fairfax County, Virginia, U.S.A
July 4, 1789
To whom it may concern,
My purpose in life is to liberate the American people and lead them to prosperity.
The revolution of the Thirteen Colonies was up against the largest military force in the world – the British Empire – at a four-to-one disadvantage – few if any country had come up against such odds victoriously. And that was the situation I was in, as the leader of the revolution.
Under my lead, the revolutionaries mobilized internal support from 2.4 million soon-to-be American citizens and external support from allies in France. This support allowed us to remain operational even after severe defeats, which would otherwise put an end to the revolution. After six years, the Colonies came out victorious and was recognized as the new United States of America.
War is over, so my new task is to steer the newfound States towards economic prosperity – and consulting experience at McKinsey will help a great deal with that.
I happen to also run a plantation business – Mount Vernon by name – which was McKinsey’s client during our expansion project in 1785. I was extremely impressed by the highly structured and data-based approach that McKinsey consultants took to deliver their solutions, and even more impressed by the incredible network of experts that was backing our project.
Through Ms. E.M – the Engagement Manager for our project from McKinsey’s DC Office – I came to be aware of the firm’s expertise in the public sector – which was recognized as being the overall best among major consulting firms.
And for that reason, I realized a consultant position at McKinsey DC will give me invaluable exposure in the public sector, both from its projects and its vicinity to the country’s capital.
I will be looking forward to speaking with you in person, about how I can put my experience as a former head-of-state and an entrepreneur to work at McKinsey.