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.
You must stand out.
There are a few things you can do to stand out, listed in no particular order:
1) Get your brand names into the first sentence or paragraph (You know... Harvard, your Olympic Medals, etc...:)
2) Show you did your homework about the firm (very important). Why do you want to work for that particular firm? What's your unique reason? How sure are you of your preferences? Why?
3) Talk to people at the firm (google: informational interviews) to see what the firm is about. Do your homework. Then in the cover letter, name names... mention the names of people in the firm you've spoken to, what they said about the firm, and why what they said got you interested in the firm.
4) Explain why you'd bit a good fit for the firm. It's not good enough to be qualified. There are lots of qualified people out there. Consulting firms and employers in general like to hire people who are both qualified and motivated by legitimate and sincere reasons.
A good phrase to use in your cover letter is something like this.
"Unlike other candidates you're seeing that probably have XYZ trait, I have ABC trait because of my experience at XYZ company."
Unlike other candidates you're seeing who probably seem enthusiastic about consulting, I am certain of my interest in consulting because of my recent internship at ABC consulting firm.
The purpose of this kind of language is to make it EASY for the resume screener to figure out HOW YOU ARE DIFFERENT than the other applicants.
Don't assume the person will figure it out by reading your resume. POINT OUT the difference and make it EASY for the person to tell.
This is especially true if you come from a non-traditional or non-business background. If going to consulting would be a big career shift for you, you'd better do a darn good job explaining why the shift makes sense.
Otherwise the assumption is a little bit, "he/she's applying just for the heck of it." And if your background is amazing, it's possible you'll get an interview with a lousy cover letter.
Personally, I had networked like crazy to meet people in consulting before I ever applied for real. I knew them. They knew me. I knew I wanted to do consulting... and I think it came across.
My resume wasn't amazing. It was a B+.
Every cover letter I wrote was different from the other ones I wrote. I regularly quoted memorable things from specific people I spoke to from those firms and explained why I was impressed by them.
Even to this day, I still remember what impressed me about certain people at each firm... and what I thought it showed about the firm.
In short, I most definitely had my reasons for why I was applying and I was very deliberate in sharing those reasons. And, most importantly, my cover letters didn't look like any of the other ones.
After consulting, for every job I got after consulting, I probably averaged applying to only two or three companies for each job offer I received. I was very selective in who I wanted to work for. I did my homework. I explained my reasons in a good cover letter and more often than not got a meeting with the CEO.
Is this a lot of work?
Do most people take this much effort?
Why does it work?
Precisely because most people aren't willing to do the extra work to stand out.
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5 Tips for McKinsey Resume (CV) Screens and Cover Letters
If you're not in business school but are applying to a job that requires an interview with and resume screen by a former McKinsey consultant, these tips should still be helpful.
WHY I WON'T JUST GIVE YOU THE ANSWERSIn my years at McKinsey, I reviewed and scored thousands of resumes - hundreds of resumes from multiple schools, two times per year. I know enough about the resume screening process and criteria to help anyone rewrite their resume to pass the resume screen, but I won't do that for two reasons - (a) quality - I want the Firm to interview the best possible candidates and (b) fairness - I don't want someone to get a resume just because they read a blog post.
However, in this post I will share some resume tips that are either generally accepted knowledge, common sense, or freely shared by consultants with potential applicants. You might also find this related post (on how the McKinsey resume screening process works) to be helpful
CAVEAT - YOU HAVE TO HAVE THE GOODSIt's important to note that these tips are intended to help candidates who are qualified to pass the resume screen. My underlying assumption will be that you are good enough to get an interview, do well, and get a job offer, but that you might need some guidance to make sure that your resume sufficiently conveys your potential. Please do not use these tips to manufacture content just to get past the resume screen - you'll eventually falter during the interview process and you'll be taking a valuable interview spot of someone who is actually qualified.
1. DON'T GIVE US A REASON TO DING YOUMcKinsey consultants are incredibly busy and never have enough time. Those who participate in recruiting do so on top of their usual 60+ hour work weeks and business travel so they are trying to get through your resume as quickly as possible. It takes time to review hundreds of resumes per school - if you give a resume reviewer a reason to ding you, they'll gladly take it and move on to the next resume. Misspellings, typos, poor grammar, and other errors reflect poorly on you and the fact that they made it to the resume screen will call your attention to detail and judgment into question. Use spell check, proofread, and have others review your resume for you.
A note on cover lettersLet's go ahead and get this out of the way - they will not make or break you at McKinsey. I'm not even sure if McKinsey even asks for cover letters. I've gone through dozens of business school resume books and thousands of resumes, but I've never seen a candidate's cover letter during the resume screen process.
If you're asked for one, follow tip #1 and focus your efforts on your resume, case prep, and doing well on the personal experience interviews.
2. UNDERSTAND THE FOUR TRAITS WE'RE LOOKING FORMcKinsey makes it very clear what they're looking for:
- Ppersonal impact
If your interviewer is looking for these traits, it's a good bet that your resume reviewer is, too. Read your resume again and ask yourself if your resume reflects these traits. Better yet, ask a friend to read it with those four traits in mind.
3. GIVE US EVIDENCE THAT YOU'RE DISTINCTIVEAny management consulting firm is going to be recruiting for the best of the best. So it's not just enough to show on your resume that you have these four traits - you have to come across as being distinctive in them. This is not the time to be humble!
Your fellow applicants are all accomplished, impressive professionals. Make sure your resume communicates why you stand out from the others and support with evidence. For example, don't just tell us that you're a distinctive problem-solver - highlight examples from your career that show us that you are. Don't just tell us what a great leader you are - list some examples of your distinctive leadership.
4. ADDRESS POTENTIAL RED FLAGSIf you think there are aspects of your resume that will raise concerns and give us a reason to ding you, make sure you highlight evidence to the contrary. For example, if you have no relevant work experience, include the consulting case competition you just won or your leadership position in the consulting club to reflect your commitment to your career change. If your background is lacking in quantitative experience, you can include your exceptional GMAT scores.
5. LEVERAGE YOUR RESOURCESOne reason I'm comfortable sharing resume screen advice is because McKinsey is already doing it. Their Careers page has a section specifically for "Improving your resume" - read it and update your resume accordingly. McKinsey will also make consultants available to you via forums like coffee chats and on-campus "office hours". Your b-school's career office, consulting club, and former consultant classmates are also likely to have advice and resources that you will find helpful.