Cover Letter Format 2012 Olympics
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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You might have heard that investment banks and other big financial services companies simply won’t have time to read your cover letter. That might be true, but an experienced recruiter will be able to detect a bad covering letter at a glance. So for large companies, while it might not matter so much if you craft the perfect cover letter, a noticeably poor cover letter will certainly scupper your chances.
A cover letter for a banking, finance or accountancy firm is a professional document, which should, in essence, be a sales pitch to accompany your CV. It’s your chance to sell yourself as a strong candidate for the role. That means recruiters don’t want to hear your sob story; they are much more interested in: who you are, what you’ve done and whether or not you have the skills for the job. It’s as simple as that.
Keep it short…
Since most employers in the banking, finance and accountancy sector will (most likely) only glance at your cover letter, you need to keep it short. By short, we mean one side of A4 maximum and certainly no more than 500 words.
Most banking and finance companies are pretty strait-laced, so you’ll need to make sure your cover letter is written in a professional and formal manner. At the same time, try to stem the impulse to clog your cover letter with financial jargon and business speak, although you might want to consider using a few carefully chosen buzzwords.
Tailor it to the company…
An example of a bad cover letter is one where the applicant has made no attempt to tailor it to the company they are writing to. It’s the job application equivalent of saying to the employer you simply CBA. Believe us! Recruiters will be on the lookout for any formulaic applications where it’s obvious that the applicant has sent the same letter to multiple companies. More often than not, these letters will go straight in the bin.
So to fast-track your application to the “we’d be mad not to interview them” pile, you need to make sure you tailor your cover letter to each company and each job you apply for. Research the job to find out exactly what it will involve. Scour the company literature to suss out what makes them different from their competitors and to get a sense of their company culture.
Don’t write anything until you have properly read the job advert and researched the company. You should be able to identify the key things (keywords) the company is looking for and what they value in their employees.
How to structure your cover letter…
For the majority of banking and finance employers, communication skills will be in their shortlist of desired attributes. They’ll want someone who can communicate coherently and write in a logical fashion. Send them a rambling, unstructured covering letter and they might doubt your ability to communicate. So pay close attention to the structure of your cover letter. We’ve put together a suggestion for how you might want to structure your cover letter below:
Addressing your cover letter
As it is a formal letter, your address and the name and address of recipient should be at the top of the letter. If you are emailing the cover letter, put the cover letter in the body of the email and omit the addresses. You should also attempt to find out the name of the person who will be receiving the cover letter, so you can address it to them directly.
A cover letter is also an introductory letter. The first paragraph is an ideal place to tell the recruiter who you are and why you are writing. Mention the role you are applying to and how you heard about the job (particularly if you were referred by a mutual acquaintance). Give a unique reason why you would be great for the role.
It certainly doesn’t hurt to do a subtle bit of wooing in your cover letter, so here you might want to state why you want to work for the company in particular. Try to come up with a reason that sounds genuine and unique. A little bit of enthusiasm and interest in the role certainly wouldn’t go amiss either.
Employers don’t care that you can stack 20 cups in ten seconds or that you can mould your belly button fluff into a precise replica of the Olympic torch. Ultimately, they want to know that you have the skills to do the job. Consequently, in this paragraph, you might want to showcase the relevant skills you have for the job.
Isolate the key attributes they are looking for by scouring the job advert or reading up on company literature. Then show them that you have their desired attributes by drawing upon examples of previous work experience, your degree or any relevant extracurricular work.
The final (very brief) paragraph can be used to tie up loose ends or cover any practical issues such as availability for interview.
You should end the letter “Yours sincerely” if it’s being sent to a named person; if you haven’t managed to find out a name then use: “Yours faithfully” followed by your name.
Proofread your cover letter…
One sure-fire way of getting your cover letter unceremoniously dumped straight into the rubbish bin is to send in a letter riddled with spelling mistakes and grammatical errors. Double check, nay triple check your cover letter. Get your mum, friends, granny, dog to read over the letter, looking for any typos or schoolboy errors.
Pay attention to the formatting as well. Make sure it is clearly laid out and use a sensible font (if they’re likely to read it onscreen, use a font designed to be read on a screen, such as Verdana or Helvetica).
So there you have it: a basic guide to knocking the socks off banking, finance and accountancy employers with your well-crafted cover letters. There’s only one thing left for you to do now: crack on with them!