Before you even get to the case interviews to which this blog is dedicated, you’ll have to apply to the firm you’d like to work for. When applying for a consulting firm such as McKinsey or BCG, you’ll probably be asked to send them three things:
- A cover letter
- Your resume
- Your grades from high school and university
Aside from falsification, there is little you can do about nr.3 on this list, so we will focus on the cover letter and resume. Since so much can (and does) go wrong with these basic elements of your application I’ll cover both on this blog, starting with the cover letter.
The first step
Let’s first debunk a myth here: sending your application to the firm’s recruitment manager is not the first step in the interviewing process. At least, it should not be, even though it is the case for 90% of applicants. Your application process should start with networking: visiting recruitment events, having coffee with consultants and searching through the alumni network of your university for (ex-)consultants. All with the goal of having your application recommended by one of these people. Even if they aren’t able to recommend you, you can still refer to these meetings in your cover letter, easily differentiating you from 90% of the applicants who did not take this opportunity.
The 30-second rule
Referring to a previous event or a (former) employee shows you did your research and directly sets you apart from the rest of the applicants, who send typical letters in which they link personal characteristic X to firm benefit Y. Since these companies get hundreds and sometimes thousands of applications each month, not every cover letter is read: they are scanned. So don’t expect them to read a four-page document in which you elaborate on why you are the perfect consultant. You just proved them otherwise. The limited timeframe is why (positive!) differentiation is so important: you only get 30 seconds to prove you need to be invited for the interview.
Step into their shoes
So, every application gets about 30 seconds worth of attention. Those 30 seconds will determine whether your application ends up on the ‘reject’ or the ‘invite’ pile. You’ll want to make that decision as easy as possible for the person scanning your cover letter. Think about the poor guy sifting through those endless piles of boring letters, trying to decide whether every candidate is a consultant or not in a minute or less (or do you want to spend the evening reading these letters as well?). How would you feel? What would the perfect cover letter look like?
The perfect cover letter is one in which the decision is made easy, where you can be sure that rejecting candidate X with the 7 page cover letter saves both the firm and the candidate precious time and where candidate Y has to be invited to the interview because we risk losing his or her talent to a competitor. So you need to do two things in your cover letter:
- Stand out
- Communicate effectively
There are multiple ways of standing out from the crowd and differentiate from the bulk of applicants (in both negative and positive ways). In my book I discuss five proven methods in great detail and help you secure that interview invitation. In our next post, we’ll focus on that other important document that you send with each application: your resume.