Only 1% of MBB consulting applicants receive the offer. Passing the screening stage with a strong consulting cover letter and resume is the second step in the recruiting process (after networking and securing a referral). 75% of candidates at McKinsey, BCG, and Bain are eliminated in the screening stage already.
How can you make sure to belong to the 25% that progress to the aptitude tests and interviews?
In this article we cover exactly that and answer all your questions related to:
- Why you should not underestimate the importance of the cover letter (but also not overestimate it)
- How you should structure your cover letter
- What content you should include in the cover letter
- How you should design the cover letter
- What pitfalls and common mistakes you should avoid
The purpose of your consulting cover letter
First things first. The cover letter is important but most sources overestimate its importance. If you were to rank it in order of importance for an interview invitation it would look like this:
- Resume. A proper resume that demonstrates the right experiences and skills is key and THE door opener for McKinsey careers, BCG careers, and Bain careers
- Referrals. Referrals can push your application to some degree. The more referrals you get from different sources and people up the hierarchy, the more diligent your application will be looked at. With the right support, deficiencies in the resume can be overcome to a certain extend
- Cover letter. If recruiters spend 20 seconds per resume, how much time do you think they will spend on a 1-page wall of text? You guessed it…and that is exactly the reason why you should put effort into the creation of it. Doubts from the resume can be eliminated, stories and skills that are especially relevant can be highlighted.
While the resume is a chronological display of your experience and skills, the cover letter tells a more personal story to demonstrate three core questions:
- Why are you a good candidate?
- Why do you want to work in consulting?
- Why do you want to work for this firm?
Lastly, the cover letter is your chance to demonstrate two meta skills:
- Are you able to draft and structure a proper professional document
- Are you able to write to the point and in a way a consultant would like to read it (top-down, concise, etc.)
While you see that a cover letter is an element in your application you should not neglect, most McKinsey offices don’t even require a one for their application and interviewers will generally never see it before interviewing you. For more on this and how you should deal with it, see below.
The structure and content of your consulting cover letter
In general, a cover letter for MBB needs to consist of three parts:
Introduction – 1 short paragraph
The introduction section should awaken the interest of the recruiter or consultant reading your cover letter. Highlight what role you are applying for, what office you want to work in, and who referred you to the role (very important networking detail).
Fit – 3 paragraphs
First, talk about why you are the perfect candidate.
This is the core of the cover letter and should link your personal experience and skills with the demands of the role. Move into storytelling mode and describe how different experiences prepared you for the role you are applying for.
This is your time to shine and include all important details that you think are beneficial for your application. Limit the highlight reel to 2-4 stories. It can be a combination of education and job experience.
It is especially important in this highlight-reel to celebrate and quantify your successes. You need to make sure to incorporate stories that make you a memorable character (”ah Sarah, she was the one biking through South America with a tent, raising money for charity”).
Second, discuss why consulting is the best industry for you to work in.
Link your experience and skills to the type of work and qualities needed in consulting. For instance, if you write about how you led a project team on reducing carbon emission in your local community during university and build specific skills, link this story to the analytical, leadership, and communication skills needed in MBB as well as to the type of high-impact work. In general, consulting is a good industry to work in for the following reasons:
- Type of projects and type of work
- Learning curve and training
- Big impact at an early stage in one’s career
- Talented and exceptional colleagues
Third, highlight why you want to work for McKinsey, BCG, or Bain.
This is the part you need to tailor specifically for the firm you are applying to. List 2-4 characteristics or qualities of the firm of your choice that make it an especially attractive employer for you. You can refer to things such as
- type of work and type of projects (depth and breadth)
- training programs
- development opportunities
- reputation and prestige
- friends, peers, and your network that is working there
- stories you have heard
- the research published by them
- travel policy
Closing – 1 short paragraph
The last paragraph should summarize your motivation, fit, and reiterate why you are the ideal candidate for the role. Keep it short, simple, and polite.
The format of your consulting cover letter
The cover letter is one of your first opportunities to highlight your professional attitude and sincerity about the application. Ensure that the format meets the standard requirements.
- Your name and address are at the top of the letter. It can be positioned at the left, right, or center
- The address of the recipient, including the name, is written next, on the left-hand side
- The date of a cover letter is written on the right-hand side
- Always write the month as a full word. You can either write: 1 April 2009 (UK) or April 1, 2009
- lf there is a reference number for the application, write it on the left-hand side, e.g., Ref: Job Application XYZ123
- Start your letter addressing the recipient properly
- End your letter with “Yours sincerely” (UK) or “Best regards” / “sincerely” / “sincerely yours” (US)
- Always spell your name below the signature
- At the end, write a list of enclosed documents (Enclosures: …)
- Stick to a normal font size 12 and a font such as Times New Roman
- Standard margins, don’t overload the page
Checklist of pitfalls
There are a few things we have seen a lot when reviewing application documents. The most common mistakes candidates make when drafting their cover letter are the following:
- New information: Introduces something (a degree, a job, etc.) that is not visible on the resume
- Old information: Reiterates what has already been stated on the resume with no added benefit
- Length: Goes over 1-page in length
- Personal connection: Does not build a personal connection with the firm or recruiter (through a referral and addressing HR personally)
- No backup: Skills developed, displayed or learned are not backed up by a corresponding story
- Faulty emphasis: Puts an emphasis on an experience or skill that has little or no relevance for the job
- Lack of storytelling: Does not include proper stories to highlight experiences and skills
- Tailoring: Little or no reference to the company, its values, culture, and USP
- Copy and paste: Keeps the wrong company name and info when batch-processing applications
- Diligence: Includes grammar and spelling errors as well as typos
Avoid those at all cost!
Drafting your cover letter
Drafting your cover letter should be an iterative process.
- Organize your high-level structure as outlined above
- Collect all details you want to include (names, references, dates, etc.)
- Write the first draft using bullet points and get some feedback from a friend or colleague
- Transfer the bullet points into full paragraphs and again, get some feedback
- Fine-tune the content and adhere to the key principles for consulting-like communication
- Make sure that everything you discuss is also covered in the resume
- Trim the fat. Write shorter sentences, eliminate all that adds no value
- Adjust the formatting (1-page, proper font, proper font size, formalities such as name or address, etc.)
- Error-check it with MS Word and proofread it multiple times yourself. Also, send the cover letter sample PDF to a friend to proofread it for you
Does McKinsey require a cover letter?
No. In most McKinsey offices, the cover letter is optional and adding it will make no difference to your application. Still, if you have prepared one for other firms, change a few elements (referral, office, role, company name), and include it. It certainly won’t hurt your application. However, be aware that the consultants conducting your case and PEI interviews will not have seen it.
How we can help you
If you want professional help to tailor your application and pass the screening stage, check out our cover letter and resume services. As former McKinsey consultants, we have screened 100s of application documents and know exactly what you need to include to move to the interviews.
We offer dedicated guides with templates on the perfect consulting resume and cover letter as well as resume and cover letter editing services for McKinsey, BCG, or Bain, and any other consulting firm.
We discuss every aspect of the perfect consulting resume and cover letter in much more detail, including ready-to-use samples and templates to both give you the stories, phrases, and keywords needed to get to the interview as well as shorten your application preparation time significantly.
Additionally, we offer resume and cover letter screening to create the perfect hand-crafted application documents for you!