It’s a good time to be a job seeker: U.S. job growth is strong, unemployment is on a steady decline, and openings are at an all-time high.
That doesn’t make the search any less daunting. Differentiating yourself from every other job seeker on the market is no small feat, and the monotony of filling out online applications can make the task downright exhausting. That’s where a killer cover letter comes in.
Done right, a great cover letter is like a secret weapon for catching a hiring manager’s attention. Next to your resume, it’s one of the most important, underutilized tools at your disposal.
Here are some cover letter writing tips, and a free, downloadable template, to make yours stand out.
Every cover letter you write should be tailored to the job you’re applying for — just like your resume. Study the job posting carefully, and make a quick list of any essential qualifications.
“Job seekers really struggle with what to say on a cover letter,” says Jessica Holbrook Hernandez, President and CEO of Great Resumes Fast. “Taking a second to think about why you’re applying, and why you’re a good fit for the company, makes the process a lot easier.”
If you’re adding a cover letter to an online application, use a business letter format with a header and contact information. If you’re sending an email, it’s OK to leave out the header, but be sure to provide a phone number (and an attached resume, of course). Make sure you’re clear about the position you’re applying for.
Avoid nameless salutations — it might take a little Google research, and some LinkedIn outreach, but finding the actual name of the position’s hiring manager will score you major brownie points. “Do not start a cover letter with, ‘to whom it may concern,’” Holbrook Hernandez says. “It concerns no one.”
2. Tell a Story
To grab a recruiter’s attention, a good narrative—with a killer opening line—is everything.
“The cover letter is a story,” says Satjot Sawhney, a resume and career strategist with Loft Resumes. “What is the most interesting thing you’re doing that’s relevant to this job?” Use that to guide your letter.
Ideally, the story that drives your resume will focus on a need at the company you’re applying for. If you’re a PR professional, maybe you have a list of clients in an industry the team wants to break into. If you’re in marketing, a successful promotional campaign might be the ticket in. “A hiring manager wants to see results-driven accomplishments with a past employer,” says Holbrook Hernandez. “If you’ve done it before, you can deliver it again.”
If you have a career gap or are switching industries, address it upfront. “If there’s anything unique in your career history, call that out in the beginning,” says professional resume writer Brooke Shipbaugh.
(Here’s a downloadable sample.)
3. Use Bullet Points to Show Impact
Hiring managers are usually slammed with applications, so short, quick cover letters are preferable to bloated ones, says Paul Wolfe, Senior Vice President of human resources at job site Indeed.
“Make your cover letter a brief, bright reference tool,” he says. “The easier you can make it on the recruiter the better.”
Bullet points are a good tool for pulling out numbers-driven results. Job seekers in creative fields like art and design can use bullets to break down their most successful project. Those in more traditional roles (like the one in the template), can hammer off two or three of their most impressive accomplishments.
4. Highlight Culture Fit
It’s often overlooked, but a major function of the cover letter is to show a company how well you’d mesh with the culture.
As you research a potential employer, look for culture cues on the company website, social media, and review sites like Glassdoor. Oftentimes, employers will nod to culture in a job posting. If the ad mentions a “team environment,” it might be good to play up a recent, successful collaboration. If the company wants a “self-starter,” consider including an achievement that proves you don’t need to be micromanaged.
The tone of your letter can also play to culture. “The cover letter is a great place to show [an employer] how you fit into their world,” Shipbaugh says. “Show some personality.”
5. End with an Ask
The goal of a cover letter is to convince the person reading it to make the next move in the hiring process — with a phone call, interview, or otherwise. Ending on a question opens that door without groveling for it.
“You have to approach this with a non-beggar mentality,” Sawhney says. “Having an ‘ask’ levels the playing field.”
Related: What Your Resume Should Look Like in 2018
Management ConsultingNetworking Success Story:
I just want to drop you one additional thank you e-mail, as I heavily relied on your preparation sources throughout my interviewing journey (and the corresponding case interview preparation).
It's been a while now, but it is only now that I found the time to write.
I interviewed last autumn for a post-MBA/PhD position at the top firms in Germany.
I applied to nine firms, and I had networked heavily with the four major players here in Germany, which are McKinsey, BCG, Roland Berger Strategy Consultants (which are huge here!), and Bain.
I went through workshops offered by these firms and talked to numerous recruiters and consultants. I additionally applied to Booz, AT Kearney, Oliver Wyman, Siemens Management Consulting, and OC&C.
First observation: I didn't get invitations from three out of the nine firms, which were ATK, Siemens Management Consulting, and Booz.
However, I got invited by all top firms (McKinsey, BCG, Bain, Berger)!
The only two firms which invited me without prior contact were OC&C and Oliver Wyman.
So here's the first learning -- a point that underscores your own claim: networking makes a huge difference!
I had started preparing four weeks before applying, hence I had around two months in total before the interviews started.
I read Marc Cosentino's Book ( Case in Point ), and I watched your videos (unfortunately, LOMS wasn't available yet).
I then started crafting my own frameworks for different case scenarios.
More precisely, I built custom frameworks around your "Business Situation" Framework (Customer, Product, Company, Competition) by adding selected notions from Cosentino (and my own ideas).
I then put these frameworks to test during practice interviews. I founded a group of consulting-addicted folks who prepared for interviewing. We shared preparation material and practiced cases via Skype.
After each case that I approached with my custom-made framework variations, I slightly adapted the framework if I had missed some important issue in order to make it both more robust and more "crisp."
I did the same for resume questions, i.e., I tried to structure my answers to questions like "Why our firm?" according to different dimensions, to avoid an unstructured "brainstorming approach."
By the time of my first interview day (which was with Bain), I had around 30 mock-interviews under my belt, and I felt quite confident. And here is what happened.
I was set to have three First Round Interviews of 45 minutes.
The first interview went great. The second was even better - the interviewer directly expressed that he was very happy with my performance.
Then came the third interview and it all fell apart!
I had no problem with the case, but I suddenly was confronted with a simple calculation, which I completely messed up.
I got confused with my own notes, and wasn't able to do the division anymore. It was so bad that the interviewer interrupted the case, since there was no way he could let me through to the second round.
I was devastated.
I had no problems with the cases, had impressed all interviewers with very thorough structuring, but massively failed at a simple calculation.
I had only a few days to recover from that, and I started practicing children's math like a lunatic.
I set up an Excel sheet which generated random numbers and added them up, divided them, multiplied them, subtracted them.
I continued doing one mock interview per day in order to stay in shape with the general case process.
Then interview day with BCG. And it went fantastic.
My feedback was: "We can't give you any improvement advice; please continue in the same manner in the final round."
All I had done in the cases was basically come up with structures built around your Business Situation Framework and very interactively present these to the interviewers (turning the sheet 180 degrees, etc).
I got the BCG offer after six one-hour interviews!
And there is one thing for sure: I would not have been able to make it without your fantastic advice!
THANK YOU SO MUCH!
BCG was my clear first choice, so I didn't bother to go to the other firms.
I figured it wouldn't have been fair towards both the firms and my "competitors" during these interview days.
Thank you again! I hope we'll be able to meet one day. I will gladly invite you for dinner in case you are near Germany at any point in the future!
Congratulations on the BCG offer, and thank you for sharing the ups and downs in your recruiting process.
I think it is reassuring for others to know that it IS possible to recover from a devastatingly poor performance -- and even more reassuring for people to realize that some degree of "failure" before ultimate success is not that unusual amongst those who end up at the top firms.
So thank you for sharing the full history of your recruiting process.
I remember when I went through recruiting, the people a year ahead of me who already had jobs never talked about the jobs they did not get -- only the one they did.
So the perception my friends and I had was these people at MBB are perfect -- Geez, how do they do that?!?!?
And it was only later that I realized that everyone at MBB is human -- myself included. I got seven job offers in consulting (McKinsey, Bain, Oliver Wyman, LEK, Monitor (since acquired by Deloitte), ATK -- and I canceled my Booz final round), but I could not get past BCG Round 1! Ugh.
There is one point you mentioned that I wanted to elaborate on.
In particular there was an interesting pattern in terms of which firms you got interviews from. All the top firms wanted to interview you, yet some of the less well-known firms did not.
You cited networking as the key distinguishing factor that explains this unusual outcome.
Intuitively, most people would assume that if MBB wanted to interview you, the firms typically considered a little less prestigious as MBB would want to interview you too.
But this was not the case.
As I have mentioned before, and as you reiterate through your own experience, networking helps a lot.
The part I'd like to elaborate on is why networking helps a lot.
I do not think I have covered this point in much detail previously, so I thought I would do it now.
To understand why networking works, it is useful to understand the perspective of the person who is reading your application. When I was at McKinsey, I used to read hundreds of applications at a time.
What you have to realize about this role of reading consulting resumes and cover letters is this. It is a painful experience.
Out of 400 applications, I would say about 350 of them were clear and obvious mail merge cover letters.
I am applying for the [insert job title here] position at [insert employer name].
Now the first time I read this letter, I read it very carefully. But the second time I saw a letter that sounded like it, I start to get suspicious.
After the 200th consulting cover letter in this obvious mail merge format, it was pretty obvious to me that most applicants were flat out lazy (or perhaps didn't know better).
When you use a generic consulting cover letter, what it says to the resume screener is: you do not care enough about this position to even do a little homework to learn more about who we are, what we look for and to specifically explain why you would be a good fit for us given our specific recruiting criteria.
So the immediate bias when one reads a cover letter like this is to draw the conclusion: "This person is not genuinely interested in our company."
Keep in mind, this is the mindset of the resume screener as he/she finishes the cover letter and starts to read the resume. In other words, the contents create a favorable or unfavorable bias in the mind of the reader.
It is this bias (which is simply a function of being a human being) which then colors how the subsequent resume or CV is interpreted.
If I read a crappy cover letter, I'm basically in an irritated mood... yet another person who wants to waste my time.
Because of this, my default decision as to whether or not to vote to interview this candidate has switched from neutral to "reject." Keep in mind, this is before I even read the resume.
Now, I will still glance at the resume (the key word here being "glance," as opposed to "read carefully") to look for any AMAZING accomplishment that would veto my default decision.
And if someone did in fact have something truly amazing on their resume, I would change my mind -- but the standard of achievement for this to happen is much higher following a poor cover letter than following a strong one.
Many firms have a formal resume scoring system - one point for GPA, one point for each very strong work experience, etc.. So what I described above influences the more subjective aspects of the resume evaluation.
For example, what exactly constitutes a strong career experience is subjective. It is a judgment decision. It is this judgment decision that get colored by the strength or weakness of the cover letter.
It is precisely because the cover letter is read before the resume that I consider it more important -- for this simple reason, if you have a terrible cover letter, often the resume will not get read (or more accurately, will not get read with much attention).
Here's the general rule of thumb. That which comes first is more important than that which comes later.
At this point, you might be wondering what any of this has to do with networking -- the topic I originally started with.
Networking is in essence the "cover letter" to the cover letter. It is the step that comes before the cover letter that influences how the cover letter itself is interpreted.
So based on my prior rule of thumb, networking is in many respects more important than the cover letter because good networking can determine whether or not the cover letter is actually read! (Or more accurately, whether or not the cover letter is read carefully, as opposed to merely glanced at.)
And just like how a strong cover letter can compensate for a weaker resume, so too can networking compensate for a weaker cover letter/resume combination.
So at the start of this whole discussion, you will recall that the person who wrote it got interviews from 100% of the top firms, but only 40% of the "2nd tier" firms.
The way I interpret this is that the person's cover letter and resume alone was on the borderline of competitive for the 2nd Tier firms, and I suspect that without the networking, the same combo would be even less competitive with the top firms.
Given this individual still got interviews from 100% of the top firms due to networking, it illustrates how much of an impact networking can have.
Now let me explain why this is the case.
In the recruiting process with the case interview and math problems, consulting appears to be an analytical business. But it is not.
The business of consulting (e.g, from the partner's perspective), is very much a relationship business.
A strong client relationship with adequate analytics will beat a poor relationship with superior analytics every time.
When you network with the recruiting team and consultants at a firm you are targeting, what you are really doing (even if you don't realize you're doing it) is building relationships.
Think about it.
From the recruiter's point of view, if you want to determine if a candidate has good people and client skills, what better way than to see how they build a relationship with you!
So networking is a great way to demonstrate your people skills. It is certainly one thing that recruiter is noticing about you.
Here is the other thing networking conveys to a firm: it conveys genuine interest in the firm.
As I mentioned previously, most applicants are lazy.
Given the choice of hitting the "print mail merge" letter in Microsoft Word (or hitting the "submit" button on the website) vs. dragging yourself to a lunch meeting, networking event, or "meet the firm" type event, most applicants would rather take the easiest approach -- not realizing the easiest approach is the least effective for the simple reason it attracts the most competition (precisely because it is so easy).
While I started my career at McKinsey as a consultant, resume screener, and case interviewer, I have been interviewing people for jobs for many years.
I have come to appreciate two things in all that time as a recruiter.
1) How much someone cares about the job is highly correlated with how well they will do in the job.
I believe this to be so true that I routinely reject applicants that are the most skilled at what they do, but the least interested in working for me. In my experience, it has never worked out.
2) Most applicants just don't care or don't take the time to show they care.
Taking the extra effort to network, even just for a McKinsey internship, allows you to substantially compensate for a weaker resume. Here's why.
When you network before you apply to a firm, and apply with either a tacit or formal endorsement, you are virtually guaranteed your cover letter and resume will be read carefully.
In addition, when you apply via a networking contact, you also guarantee that when your application is considered, you will receive the benefit of the doubt on any resume item that is good but perhaps not exceptional.
When I screened resumes, I made three piles of applicants that I would sort each application into.
3) Must interview
Of the three piles, pile #1 (Reject) and pile #3 (Must interview) were the easiest piles to create. Some candidates were overwhelmingly unqualified, and they went into the "Reject" pile, often within a few seconds.
On the opposite end of the spectrum, some candidates are so amazingly strong that they go into the "Must interview" pile, also within a few seconds.
By far the most difficult pile to decide upon was the very large "Maybe" pile.
I was recently asked by a reader if I could comment on the "fit" questions in an interview. In at least one respect, often the answer to the "fit" question is determined before the interview.
This is where most recruiters self debate and debate with others on the recruiting team.
That's because it's extremely subjective to compare someone with a 4.0 GPA, 800 GMAT, and good work experiences vs. someone who is a 3.5 GPA, 720 GMAT, with excellent work experiences.
If you and a colleague were screening resumes, and you had only one spot left, which one would you pick?
There is not an obvious answer.
So what ends up as the "tie breaker" factor in this hypothetical situation?
Often it is one person on the recruiting team saying, "Oh yeah, I remember meeting her. She's been at every recruiting event we've had for the past five months. Very nice person... good people skills."
That is called networking... and that is the "tie breaker" that gets you the interview when you otherwise might not.
An alternative form of networking is when a consultant that is well respected in the office walks your resume and cover letter down to the recruiting coordinator's office and says, "This person is very strong. We definitely should interview him."
That too is networking... and interestingly enough, in that scenario there is nobody else you're being compared against. It is simply the endorsement of someone internally that creates the interview opportunity for you.
Incidentally, some people mistakenly think you should network with people who have the most power, such as partners.
This is not necessarily true. Often you have no idea who has influence, so you network with anyone you can within the firm you can get access to.
The big secret to networking is not to ask the people you meet for a job or interview. Rather you ask them for advice on your career or to learn from their career decisions. It's called "informational interviewing," where essentially you are interviewing them for the purposes of learning more about their profession or firm.
The reason you want to use this approach is because it does not create an awkward situation where they might be forced to reject you. If you ask them for a job or ask them to get you an interview, the first reaction is going to be"Ummmm...... " (a.k.a. "How they heck do I get myself out of this conversation?").
Now if instead of asking them for an interview, you say, "I would really value your advice on something. What is the one thing your firm looks for in candidates that the candidates most often think is unimportant?"
Well that's a lot easier of a question to answer than "Can you get me an interview?"
When you do enough informational interviews, people either:
1) remember who you are during a formal recruiting process like on campus recruiting (or you can remind them in a cover letter), or
2) at some point, will decide to offer to help you somehow (offer to critique your resume, submit your application to recruiting for you, give you a quick case to see if you are worth endorsing, etc.)
So you wait for the other person to initiate a direct offer of help, and you focus on asking only for advice.
Also, one more thing. When I applied to McKinsey from Stanford, my resume was the first resume submitted out of 400 classmates. I was the first person to apply. I was the first person to build a relationship with the recruiting coordinator.
How did I do it?
I was networking with Stanford alumni in investment banking and private equity. I reached out to one woman who was working in private equity who happened to be ex-McKinsey.
In my letter to her, I said I was looking at three different fields: investment banking, private equity (long term) and consulting. Since she had worked in two out of three of those areas, I offered to take her to lunch to ask her a few questions about her career choices and her perspective.
Well, it turns out she was too busy to meet with me and never responded to my request.
Instead, she forwarded my resume to the head of Stanford recruiting at McKinsey (where she used to work) in July (about two months before school started).
I suspect she said something like this to the recruiting coordinator: "Hey, this Victor Cheng guy looks pretty good and he's interested in consulting, you might want to interview him."
So the recruiting coordinator calls me back, has all the time in the world because on-campus recruiting hadn't yet started up, and we talked for about 20 minutes.
I had some general questions. She mentioned all the events she was organizing on campus, invited me to come by and say "hi" in person. I said I would (and of course I did... all five times).
I mentioned the resume, as she did not have my summer job experiences on there, and she said, "No problem. Send me an updated one at the end of the summer."
(And I did... and I called to confirm she got it... and we spoke again for a few minutes.)
And once the in-person events rolled around, I was the first person to show up at every event for every firm... because that's when there is nobody else around and you can talk to the current consultants on a 1:1 basis.
At these events, I did not go there early to get a good seat and sit there... no way. I went there early to talk to people.
And in case you have not guessed by now, I was also the last person to leave every event, because that time too is also when everybody else is gone and you are more likely to have a 1:1 conversation.
Keep in mind, I did this with every firm I targeted.
Sometimes these firms would include former consultants in their line up (often those on leave to get their MBA at Stanford). When I found out such a person was already on campus, I offered to buy them a cup of coffee if I could continue our conversation after the meeting.
Now there are two lessons to point out here.
1) When you network extensively, it is unpredictably predictable. The specific way in which networking can help your recruiting is unpredictable, but what IS predictable is that it will help in some way.
2) The other big lesson to success (in life, not just recruiting) is to do the things that others do not do, do not know how to do, or choose not to do.
You will notice that I give a lot of advice on how to do well in the entire consulting recruiting process.
Most people who send in their success stories usually reference one key piece of advice or a specific case interview preparation tool, such as Look Over My Shoulder®.
And in most cases, it was one key thing out of the many things I emphasize that put them over the top in their recruiting.
Keep in mind, when I went through recruiting myself, I practiced everything that I "preach"... and instead of just using one of the tips I've shared with you, I did ALL of it.
I practiced the most. I drilled math skills the most. I did the most research for cover letters. . I networked the most. I showed up early the most. I stayed late the most. And at Stanford, with one exception, I got more consulting offers than anyone else in the entire University.
While talent certainly played a key role, talent is something you can not control. You either got it, or you don't.
But, take notice of the things I could control, how many of them I focused on doing more than the next person.
In short, I took no chances.
Of the six things I could do to give myself a competitive edge, I didn't just do one of them, I did all of them.
Now this was not exactly 80/20, but I wasn't interested in performing merely at the 80% level. I wanted every little bit of an edge that I could squeeze out.
The more I learned about consulting, the more I wanted to do it -- so I made it a priority (and I share this story not to impress you with my talent oraccomplishments, but rather to impress upon you my commitment to the process. And hopefully you see how that commitment translated into results.
The other reason I mention this is because unlike talent, which is a gift, commitment is a choice -- nothing more.
It is a decision that was available to everyone who applied from Stanford my year.
It is a decision that is available to YOU too.
For other suggestions on networking, consider my guide on How to Network to Get a Consulting Interview, for a specific process you can start using right away towards securing an interview:
How to Network to Get a Consulting Interview
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Tagged as:bain offer, bcg offer, consulting cover lever, consulting offers, mckinsey interview process, McKinsey offer, mckinsey recruiting, networking