Creating the perfect consulting cover letter
What is a cover letter? How long should they be? What should you include? How important are they, and does anyone actually read them?
The cover letter is an important part of the application process, and yes they do tend to be read by the consultants screening your application. By their nature, cover letters follow a less prescribed format than is the case for a CV / resume, and therefore there is much more scope to get them wrong!
Over the years we have screened many thousands of cover letters, and have formed a pretty clear view on what makes for a good cover letter. A good cover letter will be concise, clearly laid out, and will demonstrate through a small number of highly relevant examples why the applicant is a strong candidate. A weak cover letter on the other hand is likely to be unclear, poorly laid out, and probably too long. It may well also have spelling or grammar mistakes. A weak cover letter is hard to follow, and makes it very difficult to secure the interview, no matter how strong your background!
The cover letter is your first chance to make an impression on your potential employer. And with 90% of consulting applications getting rejected at the initial screening stage, the importance of a strong cover letter cannot be understated. In this article, we share with you the benefit of our years of screening consulting applications for many of the leading international consulting firms. We take you through the ideal cover letter format, and share our top tips for producing the perfect cover letter.
What is a cover letter?
A cover letter is exactly what it says! It is a covering letter addressed to the company to which you are applying. It accompanies your supporting application documents (typically an application form and / or resume / CV), and summarises your application.
The cover letter should set out clearly the role you are applying for - often companies run multiple recruitment processes in parallel so you need to make sure they put your application in the right pile!
It should also set out why you think you would be a good candidate for the role, and provide a few clear examples of how you meet their selection criteria (click here for an overview of the typical selection criteria used by consulting firms).
A good cover letter should be no more than a page long, should be clearly laid out and easy to read, and needs to make a strong case as to why you would make a strong candidate.
How to lay out a cover letter
A cover letter should follow a clear and logical structure. Each paragraph should serve a clear purpose, and collectively set out the key reasons why you are a perfect candidate for a career in consulting! Over the years, we have found this suggested structure works well as a framework for developing a cover letter.
Top tips for the perfect cover letter
Keep it to a single page
As a consultant, there was nothing I dreaded more than having to wade through a stack of a hundred applications at the end of a busy day. To be honest, if the cover letters were too long, I didn’t read them, and I know I wasn’t alone.
An overly long cover letter (or CV for that matter), sends the wrong message to the recruiter. It shows you struggle to prioritise in your communication. In an industry where clear and concise communication of analysis and findings is at such a premium, this is not a good start!
Have a very clear and logical structure
Make sure your cover letter follows a clear logic flow. Read our suggested structure outlined above - each paragraph has a clear purpose, and makes it easy for the recruiter to extract the key facts about your application.
If you follow this structure, not only will you make it easier for the recruiter to draw upon the key relevant material from your CV in assessing your application, but you will also appear highly organised and logical in your communication (both important attributes for aspiring consulting candidates).
Understand the consulting screening criteria
A cover letter is your opportunity to make the case for why you would make a great consulting hire. To do this effectively, make sure you understand the key criteria used by consulting firms in assessing candidates (click here for an overview of the typical selection criteria used by consulting firms).
Make sure you understand these guidelines, and then use the cover letter to reference your key relevant achievements. You don’t want the cover letter to be too long, so save the detail for the CV / resume. Just use the cover letter to pick out the key highlights from your background.
Make it look professional
Consulting firms place an inordinate amount of importance on the presentation of their findings - I have known some consultants who simply cannot bring themselves to look at a slide if the text alignment is not quite right! Whilst that might be an extreme case, there’s no doubt you will seriously undermine your chances of getting through the screening stage if your cover letter (and CV for that matter), does not look professional.
Make sure you use a professional font, with suitable sizing and sufficient spacing to the edge of the page and between paragraphs. Ensure you have consistent text alignment between sections of the documents. Avoid the document templates that come bundled with Word or online - these tend to look unprofessional.
If you are not an expert with word processing, consider getting some professional help, or at the very least a review of your own letter (click here for further information on how we can help you develop professional-looking consulting application documents).
Spell- (and grammar-) check your document
Whilst we're on the subject of making it look professional, obviously any spelling and grammar mistakes will count against you. Some consulting firms are now machine-reading application documents, and will pick up on every single error you make!
At the very least, make sure you use a spell and grammar checker (like the one that comes with Word). If you are applying in a second language, make sure you get your documents proof-read by someone with a professional background and native language proficiency (click here for more details of our consulting application document checking services).
Dont be generic
Most candidates write one cover letter, change the name and address at the top, and then send it out to each firm to which they are interested in applying. Whilst you definitely don't want to write every cover letter from scratch, you need to tailor each one a little to reflect individual differences between the consulting firms.
If you are following the structure we set out at the top, then when it comes to writing your "fit with firm" paragraph, try to tailor this section to each company. Each consulting firm has differences in style and approach, and the type of work they do. This paragraph is a good opportunity for you to demonstrate that you really understand these differences, and have thought about the fit with your background. Consulting websites and on campus presentations are a good way to learn about the specific differences between firms when writing this paragraph.
So hopefully this has given you some helpful guidance on crafting your own cover letter. So what now? Have a go at drafting your own cover letter (you shouldn't underestimate how long it takes to get this right, so don't put it off until the night before an application deadline!).
If you have a cover letter already, review it against the suggested structure and hints and tips above. Use them as a check-list to make sure your cover letter gives you the best possible chance of getting through the screening stage.
It’s also a good idea to get your CV and cover letter reviewed by someone with a professional background who can give you an honest assessment, and identify any mistakes you may have missed. If you need more help, check out the consulting application services we provide for aspiring consulting candidates. Also, if you found this article helpful, consider signing up to our newsletter for further hints and tips delivered weekly to your inbox.