Cover Letter: a comprehensive guide

An excellent cover letter is one of the first and most crucial steps towards a consulting job. More than half of consulting candidates are rejected before interviews based on their applications alone. This means that, for all the emphasis on case interview prep, your resume and cover letter between are the single greatest determinant as to whether you land your dream MBB job or not.

This being the case, you should be willing to put in the hours to make sure that these documents are absolutely the best they can be. Many candidates have some realisation of this fact, but make the mistake of devoting all their time to the resume as they assume it is the "important one" and that cover letters are fairly generic or merely a formality.

However, it is a total misconception to think that you cover letter is less important than your resume. If you want to get an interview, both have to be excellent. In this article, then, we'll explain the various demands on your cover letter before going through how you should draft the document itself. Writing a good cover letter is like playing chess. Once you know the rules you can play along, but it takes effort to be really good - and you need to be really good if you want an MBB role. Let's learn how!

Close up of intricate cogwheel mechanism illustrating our gaining a better understanding of consulting cover letters

1. Understanding Consulting Cover Letters

To write a good cover letter, we will need to understand the demands which it has to meet. That is to say, we need to understand what exactly the function of the cover letter is and how exactly it will be assessed. Let's start by going through some important points:

1.1. Function

The basic function of a cover letter, then, is to tell recruiters three things:

  • Why you are worth employing
  • Why consulting is a perfect fit for you
  • Why you are interested in the target firm in particular

As we will see later, a standard cover letter is broken down into three paragraphs which address each of these issues more-or-less separately.

In many ways, the demands of your cover letter sit between your resume and your fit interview (which you be invited to if your resume and cover letter make the cut - read more here). Your cover letter has a function in demonstrating the same consulting skillset as your resume and you will effectively be selecting a few of the key points from your resume to amplify in the cover letter.

However, the objective of the cover letter is not restating the facts on your resume, but rather creating a persuasive link between your personal story and the job you are applying for. In effect, the main purpose of your cover letter is to show that you and the job you are applying for are well matched in all aspects. As such, it must convey something of you personality and motivation to do the job you are applying for - things which are not readily assessed via your resume alone. These are exactly the qualities which are also assessed in your fit interview. Indeed, a lot of the material covered in our article on the fit interview is also relevant here - worth a read!

Just as with the Additional Information section of your resume, the information in your cover letter is very likely to form the basis of questions in your fit interview - where your personality and motivation are assessed once more. This overlapping function again means that our article on the fit interview is especially worth a read here. Certainly (and just as with the Additional Information section of your resume), when you are drafting your cover letter you should be keeping half an eye on how you would be able to work the items you select into compelling fit interview answers.

1.2. Motivation

Consulting is a tough life and the average consulting recruit only stays in the industry for around two years - which means that many of those whom are lucky enough to land jobs will have left within 12 months. Many of those who go into consulting only ever intend to stay in the profession for a couple of years before bailing out into another industry, where consulting experience will enhance their employability.

This constant loss of talent is a big problem for consulting firms, who don't want employees disappearing as soon as they have finally accrued all the training and experience required to be genuinely useful to the company. As such, recruiters will be trying to identify candidates who are genuinely in it for the long haul - who want to make partner some day and who have the motivation to do so necessary to push them through the years of long hours and tight deadlines on the way there.

Of course, we realise that you the reader might well be one of the candidates who only really plans to stick with consulting for two years before parachuting out into another industry. Realistically, this is a perfectly sensible career trajectory and we're certainly not going to tell you not to. However, if this is the case, your cover letter and subsequent interview are really not the time to discuss this. If you have ever had any inkling that maybe you would perhaps consider sticking around and making a career in consulting, then this is the inclination to channel during the selection process.

We return to discuss more about your rationale for entering consulting in our section-by-section breakdown of the cover letter.

Art installation of telephones to illustrate the different ways in which your cover letter conveys information to the recruiters of your target consulting firm

1.3. A Test in Itself

Your target firm uses your cover letter to learn more about you in a couple of different ways. Obviously, they receive all the information you communicate explicitly - all the achievements and experience and positive character traits you tell them about. However, your cover letter is also used by the target firm as an implicit (but very real) test of your writing skills and other qualities. It is important to realise this dual function and bear it in mind as you are drafting your letter.

At a basic level, using correct, industry standard formatting etc shows that you have the professionalism and diligence to find out and follow the rules. As we will discuss later, writing a cover letter specific to the firm you are applying to also demonstrates your commitment to that employer.

More directly, though, cover letter is used by consulting firms as a test of your writing skills. Writing covers letters is not an easy business - if it were, you wouldn't be reading this guide! Composing a good cover letter requires you to assemble a body of information, synthesise it and present it in a compelling form. Importantly, this is a set of skills which consultants will use every day. Firms need to make sure you are capable of doing this and your cover letter is one of the main ways they check for your competence in this area.

Similarly, your target firm will be very interested in your ability to use are able to use your cover letter to market yourself. In effect, consultants must constantly sell themselves, the company and their recommendations to clients. As such, the ability to communicate persuasively is a key consulting skill.

1.4. The Reader

When actually composing any piece of writing, your first consideration should always be the identity of the intended reader. This is especially important when it comes to consulting cover letters. Your cover letter will be placed with one or two hundred others and passed to a junior consultant (often one who went to your university) to assess for HR. Generally this will be in addition to the consultant's normal workload and often they will end up with very little time to get through this mound of letters. As such, your reader will be tired, possibly slightly grumpy and in a hurry - probably only skimming what you written. You should keep this reader in mind at all times and your cover letter should be written in a way that makes the reader's life easier. This means making everything as clear, easy to read and precise as possible.

Hand about to write on a blank piece of paper, illustrating you beginning to write your cover letter

2. Practicalities of Writing Your Cover Letter

So, we have a good idea of the basic job of a cover letter, what ground it needs to cover and how it will be assessed. Now it's time to get down to business and actually get the thing written! To this end, we'll look at a few practical points about how to meet the requirements mentioned above before focussing one-by-one on the five main segments of your cover letter.

Sheep standing in pens, illustrating the importance of conforming to standard formatting rules when drafting a consulting cover letter

2.1. Format - Doing the Same as Everyone Else

Just as with your resume, formatting you cover letter is really not the time to embrace your creative side. Failing to stick to the standard rules of formatting risks being rejected immediately without your letter even being read. The tired junior consultant tasked with ploughing through a pile of cover letters is unlikely to be in the mood for a strange font or weird layout and will simply send your application directly to the bin.

As mentioned above, standard formatting shows that you are professional enough to take the application seriously and that you have bothered to find out what the expected form of letter is. The best way to understand how you should format your cover letter is simply to take a look at our examples below, which are formatted in a standard "safe" manner.

In particular, though, you should make sure your cover letter conforms to the following basic points:

  • Standard typeface at a normal size
  • No longer than one printable page
  • Normal size margins etc - no extreme formatting to pack more words on the page!
  • Name, contact information and date at top, in the manner of a traditional letter - you can include a postal address if you like, but an email address is sufficient nowadays (and will save space)
  • Standard structure explained below - opening, three main paragraphs, closing

A peacock with spread tail, illustrating the importance of your cover letter content being unique and making a strong impression on recruiters

2.2. Content - Being Unique!

You might have to keep the format of you cover letter strictly in line with everyone else, but it is absolutely crucial that the actual content of the letter is unique! Always remember that your cover letter will be part of a stack 1-200 deep. The content of your cover letter needs to really impress the reader if it is to stand out from the pack and earn you an invitation to interview.

To achieve this, you are going to have to both draw on your most impressive achievements and experiences and then portray them in the best possible fashion to really make your reader pause rather than toss your letter towards the bin with the others.

Content which is unusual can sometimes also be helpful in making your application memorable and might prompt interview questions which you can be well prepared for. During an application process with so many competitors, it pays to have something unique to you - a USP - to differentiate you from your peers. However, this will only add value if it is relevant consulting! In our discussion below on how to introduce yourself and your abilities, we will mention how you can emphasise your personal "spikes" which help make your letter more unique.

2.3. Be Specific!

Your letter needs not only to be unique, but also specific. Many candidates think that they can save a bit of time by just writing one really "good" cover letter and use that for all their applications. This might be true (or almost true) of a good resume. However, we can tell you now that if you think that cover letter you wrote for one firm will be able to be used without significant changes to for another, that cover letter wasn't good enough to get you a job with either company.

As we noted above, a major function of your cover letter is to gauge your motivation to stick with the company if you are lucky enough to be hired. Your recruiter wants to make sure that you are genuinely keen to work for their firm for the foreseeable future. Any suggestion that your cover letter is just a generic chunk of text sent out to everyone in scattergun fashion obviously makes this idea pretty difficult to maintain - and will see your application rapidly heading towards the bin.

To avoid this, then, you must take the time to write a separate cover letter for each firm you apply to. In these letters, you should include content that is specific to your particular target firm.

What is more, this specific content should not be something generic or some kind of empty platitude. If the best you can come up with is an obvious truth - or even a common misconception - you will betray only a very shallow level of engagement, and will only succeed in vexing those who read your cover letter. Instead, you should be able to make specific remarks which show genuine insight. This will clearly demonstrate both your commitment to and knowledge of the firm.

Will be particularly relevant to the section of the cover letter where you explain your decision to apply to your target firm, and we will pick up this discussion there. However, there is room for material specific to your target firm in all sections of the cover letter.

Disassembled smartphone, illustrating our section-by-section breakdown of the cover letter writing process

3. Section-by-Section Breakdown

Let's go through the different sections of a standard cover letter one-by-one. We will give examples as to how you might approach each section - however, it is imperative that you don't simply copy what we (or anyone else in any other source) have written. These examples are only a guide as to how you should approach the different elements of a cover letter, not components to be lifted as-is. Your cover letter needs to stand out from a very strong field. Think about it - how can you possibly stand out by copying others? Beyond this, though, any hint that you are just copying from another source will see your whole application rejected immediately.

As we noted earlier, there are three main questions which your cover letter must answer - why you, why consulting and why that firm in particular. The three main paragraphs of your letter will answer these three questions in sequence. Provided you are careful to link everything together properly, there is actually some flexibility to vary the ordering of these paragraphs. You will always introduce yourself first, of course, but you can then state why you are interested in the specific firm

before you explain what drew you to consulting or deal with these in the reverse order. In the interests of simplicity here, though, we will just deal with why-consulting-in-general first, followed by why-that-firm-in-particular.

3.1. Opening

The opening to your letter is very straightforward and is pretty much impossible to mess up if you follow basic rules. First, you should record your name, email address and the date of sending. You can include a postal address if you like, though this is no longer a strict requirement and takes up a lot of space. Your first sentence should state the specific position to which you are applying at the relevant office and firm.

The only issue which should give you any cause for concern here is who the letter is addressed to. Where possible, you should be addressing the letter to a named person - usually the recruiting manager of the office you are applying to. However, where you cannot find a name to address your cover letter to, it is perfectly acceptable to begin "To whom it may concern" or "Dear Sir or Madam".

An example would be:

3.2. Introducing Yourself

After this brief opening, proceed straight introducing yourself. Don't be shy - this is not the time for understatement or modesty! Top consulting firms are looking for exceptional individuals. Here, you need to leave the reader in no doubt that you are just such an exceptional individual.

To do this, looking at all the information you assembled for your resume, ideally you should recount the three most impressive achievements in your life so far. Of course, do this with an eye to achievements which are particularly relevant to consulting (your golf handicap might be good, but nobody in the workplace cares). Also note that the things we are most proud of personally might not actually be the ones that are most impressive to others (your golfing probably isn't great anyway). Try to look at your resume as if you are reading one from someone else. Alternatively, ask a friend what stands out to them.

It is the job of your resume to paint a balanced picture of you as a well-rounded candidate with all the skills required to excel in consulting. However, in your cover letter, it can be beneficial to emphasise one or two particular strongsuits, where you are particularly gifted. These are what consultants call "spikes". What recruiters are really looking for is well-rounded, generally capable candidates with a few "spikes" which might be especially useful.

The following personal introduction is a good example:

3.3. Why Consulting is a Good Fit

Your job here is generally to provide a strong narrative demonstrating why consulting is a good fit for you and why it makes sense at this point in your career as a natural progression from what you have done before. This is much the same as what is required from your answers in any subsequent fit interviews you receive. As such, our article on the fit interview, as well as our more comprehensive fit interview course and/or lessons in the MCC Academy, are relevant here.

Now, as we noted above, it is important to remember that there are some reasons to get into consulting which your target firm will be happy to hear about and others which they will very definitely not be impressed by. We're not here to judge your reasons, whatever they are, for wanting a consulting job. However, there are certain reasons which you should probably not highlight if you would like to actually get that job.

Some candidates are not sure what career they actually want yet and think consulting would make a good first step, exposing them to different industries and keeping their options open for future. The worry would be that these individuals will not be sufficiently motivated to actually stick with consulting when they are met with the realities of the high stress levels and workload that come with the job.

Alternatively, some applicants are fully intent from the start on bailing out into another industry after two years - when a sufficiently long stint in consulting has given them transferable skills and increased their employment opportunities elsewhere.

Many candidates actually state these kinds of intentions - though they will certainly not be hired! As we noted above, firms want to retain staff and are looking for candidates that are committed to consulting for the long term.

3.3.1. Proving You Know What You are Getting Into

Given how many recruits drop out, firms want to be sure that you know exactly what you are getting into when you apply. When you explain why you have decided that consulting is a great fit for you, you obviously need it to be clear that you are doing so with a real understanding of what the job entails.

Ideally, you will have done an internship in consulting or a closely related industry. Alternatively, you might be moving sideways from a parallel industry, such as finance or tech, having worked alongside consultants in past roles and observed what they do first hand.

In either such case, it is clear that you understand the demands of the job. However, many of you will fall into neither of these camps and won't yet have any firsthand experience of the consulting world>. If this describes you, be aware that there is a particular onus on you to demonstrate that you know what is required of a working consultant, whilst re-assuring the reader that you do indeed have what it takes to meet those requirements.

Don't dismay, though, as this is definitely possible - it just requires a bit more thought from you. Really, you are limited to a strategy of identifying key consulting skills and showing that you have already have significant past experience (and ideally achievements) which demonstrate that you are already capable and comfortable in these areas - and importantly, that you enjoy this kind of work!

This is similar in principle to some of what you should have already done in bullet point form in your resume and you will find our article on that subject here useful here in listing the relevant consulting skills and giving examples which demonstrate them.

However, your cover letter differs from the resume here in that the focus will be somewhat less on technical skills and more on matters of personal character. You also cannot be so schematic as in the resume, but must weave everything into a compelling narrative which leaves your reader in no doubt that you are well suited to and prepared for the job.

3.3.2. Finding Things to Say

Some candidates feel the need to embroider their accounts when they explain why they want to be a consultant. Maybe they genuinely think that the only reason they have chosen consulting is for the high salary and good future employment possibilities in other industries. Since they can't include either of these (as discussed in below), they then cobble together an insincere-sounding road-to-Damascus story about how they had an epiphany that they should work at BCG or Bain.

However, introspection on the reasons that informed your own decision making can actually be a very good source of material here. You might not be able to explicitly state them just now, but there is probably a more robust rationale than you think underpinning your own choices. Think about what exactly is was that led you believe that you could do a consulting job and why have chosen to apply to jobs in that sector, rather than going into something else.

If you want to be totally pragmatic, remember - something approximating the truth is a lot easier to answer questions on in an interview than a tissue of lies!

Example

One way to compose this paragraph is as follows:

3.4. Why that Firm?

Now finally, you need to show that you are committed to the particular firm you are applying to. This is a crucial part of demonstrating your motivation as well as a way of showing your general diligence in doing your research before applying. The need to address the question of why you want to work at your target firm in particular is ultimately why you can't just re-use the same cover letter for all your consulting applications.

So, how to go about this? In practice, there are three main ways to generate firm-specific content:

3.4.1. Contacts

Whilst you might not have seen consultants at work first hand, there is nothing to prevent you meeting them at careers fairs, networking events and the like. The very best cover letters will grow out of substantial networking with current or former employees of your target firm - ideally from the specific office to which you are applying.

The individuals you speak to might be in a position to recommend you to recruiters. Otherwise, though, they will definitely be very well placed to tell you what is really unique about the company generally or your target office in particular. This is a surefire way for you to be able to make your cover letter specific in a way that actually rings true to those who read it.

Also, don't be afraid to drop in the names of your contacts where they are relevant (and where this is appropriate, of course). The recruiter might know the people in question and they will lend credence to your application in the same way we all tend to be pleasantly disposed to the friend of a friend.

3.4.2. Reading

Of course, this kind of networking will not always be feasible, and certainly not at short notice. If you don't have access to anyone who has worked for your target firm, you should be able to get access to some of their output in the form of reports and similar material. Being able to comment on these both demonstrates your enthusiasm to work at the target firm as well as showing your diligence. Indeed, mentioning report authors is a good way to shoehorn in the names of company employees whom you have not actually met in real life.

3.4.3. Observations

Of course, ideally you would be able to write about firsthand experience of working alongside consultants on a project at a company which had been a client of your target firm. More generally, though, if you have done your research, you will be able to discuss a successful project in which you have not been involved but have taken a particular interest (possibly in an industry you have experience in, but not necessarily). This should convey genuinely interest - and, at the very least shows you really have done your homework your target firm.

Example

An example of how to approach this paragraph is as follows:

3.5. Closing

As with the opening, it is easy to get the closing right simply by following a few standard rules. Closing a cover letter really just follows the same rules as a standard formal letter. Note that technically the form of your sign off depends on whether the letter was addressed to a named recipient or not. If you did manage to address your cover letter to a specific individual at the target firm, you should sign off your letter "Yours Sincerely". However, if you addressed the letter "Dear Sir or Madam" or "To Whom it May Concern", then you should sign off "Yours faithfully". Not everyone will pick up on this, but some certainly will!

An example closing is as follows:

Image of circuit board showing complex connections between large components. This echoes the blurring of boundaries between the discrete cover letter sections we have described in this guide

3.6. An Aside - Blurring Boundaries

For the sake of clarity, we have given quite a schematic picture of how a cover letter is structured. In particular, the separation between the content of the three main paragraphs is often not quite as clear in practice as might appear from what we have said so far.

This is something to bear in mind as you are writing. Certainly, it is not a problem that the content of the three main paragraphs somewhat bleed into one another. Indeed, it might well be that the optimal version of your cover letter gives you more bang for your buck in including points with more than one positive function.

For example, you might make mention of people or reports from your specific target firm in explaining why you chose to enter consulting in general. Simultaneously you will likely be able to include some impressive achievements, relevant to your initial description of yourself, in that same explanation as to why consulting was for you.

Mentor helping a student edit a document, illustrating the importance of receiving high quality feedback when you proof your cover letter

4. Quality Control

By now you should have a completed cover letter in front of you. However, this does not mean you are finished! Just as with the resume, quality control should be taken very seriously when you are writing your cover letter, and will almost certainly take longer than writing you initial draft did.

4.1. Check

First, you should make sure that the formatting and structure of your cover letter follows all the rules which we set out above. This is the easy bit, after all, and you shouldn't be making errors here when it's something which you can easily control for yourself.

The following checklist is useful to make sure that the major elements are in order. You must make sure that your cover letter:

  • Does not exceed one page
  • Is formatted sensibly
  • Contains no spelling mistakes (double check names of the company, position, HR manager and your contact information)
  • Mentions skills that are relevant to the job
  • Has relevant examples to back up those skills
  • Reinforces skills that are not adequately explained on your resume
  • Explains how your skill set relates to the job you are applying for
  • Is tailored to the target firm

Of course, to hammer the point home, it should go without saying that spelling, punctuation and grammar should be perfect throughout. In particular, though, you should triple check spelling around the opening of the letter where you list your own contact information and stat the name of the target firm and specific role. Imagine making the cut to for interview only to have you invitation dispatched to the wrong email address!

You would simply not believe how many candidates we see making mistakes here - indeed, outside consulting, the former Graduate Recruitment Manager at City law firm Mayer Brown found that 20% of applicants got the firm’s name wrong. If so many high-flying lawyers can make that kind of mistake, so can you - check!

4.2. Feedback

As with any important piece of writing, you will want another set of eyes on your cover letter. However, a consulting cover letter is not quite the cover letter for a more "normal" job, and there is only so much that your classmate, your buddy or your mum is going to be able to tell you. These people might be able to help you with spelling, punctuation and grammar, but not a great deal else.

If you have access to a careers adviser, they will certainly be more knowledgeable and be able to give you more specific feedback. That said, though, the very particular demands of consulting and how cover letters are assessed means that there is no real replacement for someone with actual consulting experience.

As always though, real consultants are incredibly busy people and their time generally has a high price tag. You might be lucky enough to have access to a consultant who will help you out - perhaps a friend or relative or maybe one of your networking contacts who likes you enough to take the time to look at your application.

However, for those who aren't so lucky, there are still ways to get top quality feedback. MyConsultingCoach offers cover letter review and feedback both alone its own and in a package with resume review. This will give you very detailed feedback from an ex-MBB consultant with two years or more experience. This is strictly optional, but it is the best way to make sure that your application in general is as good as it can be and to close the gap with those who have the advantage of pre-existing inside contacts.

4.3. Iterate

It is easy to become attached to what you have written. Especially after you have poured a lot of time and energy into a document, constructive criticism can end up being taken personally and ignored. However, if you actually want to get a job in consulting, you need to swallow your pride and be prepared to make substantial changes if they are advised.

Once you have re-drafted the document, you need to cycle through the same stages of quality control again, always making sure that everything is formatted correctly with no typos and then getting decent feedback on what you have produced. To get your cover letter just right will likely take at least a couple of such iterations. This is precisely why MyConsultingCoach's review packages all include three rounds of feedback as standard .

Finally then, you will have completed your cover letter and be ready to submit your application. You can give yourself a pat on the back for getting everything done so far. However, you will have a lot more work ahead of you if you are serious about making it into consulting!

Man on mountain top looking across cloud covered landscape, illustrating the fact that completing one's application is only the first step in the journey to landing a consulting job

Next Steps

Once you have finished up both your cover letter and resume and finally sent off your application, it is time to start thinking about your interview. If you have followed our advice on writing here and ideally found someone to provide decent feedback, you should have every chance of being invited to interview.

However, nobody is going to do well if they prepare for a consulting interview the way they would for a more "normal" job. Consulting interviews are sufficiently difficult and jobs so heavily contested that most candidates - if they want to be successful - will have to do a fairly large volume of preparation before turning up. You might have thought that putting together your consulting resume or cover letter was arduous or time consuming, but you have only experienced the tip of the iceberg so far! In particular, you will need to learn how to solve case studies. You can start with our article introducing case interviews, which links to other useful resources.

To make your preparation as effective and time efficient as possible MyConsultingCoach has developed a comprehensive consulting interview prep course. This teaches everything you need to give your best possible showing in interview. Included is all the mental maths, business and finance theory and logical principles needed not only to solve cases, but to do so in a way that will impress the interviewer - the way a real consultant would. Also included is a set of lessons on how to address "fit" questions about your motivation and character.

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