Wednesday, January 16, 2013

Cover Letters for non-Consulting jobs - 4 common mistakes

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As I mentioned in a previous post about consulting resume screens, cover letters are not critical when applying for a job at McKinsey.  However, in my pre- and post-McKinsey experience, I've found that non-consulting hiring managers rely heavily on cover letters to differentiate between candidates with similarly impressive resumes.  In this post I'll discuss the most common cover letter mistakes I've seen from candidates for non-Consulting jobs...

Why cover letters don't matter for Consulting resume screens

At McKinsey, there were a couple of factors that allowed us to make our interview invitation decisions without cover letters.  First, we sent an army of consultants to interview at our core schools so we had enough interview slots to invite most of the candidates with compelling resumes.  Second, we had a resume scoring methodology that we felt enabled us to make good assessments of candidates without cover letters.  Finally, we didn't really filter for interest in management consulting or McKinsey.  There was an underlying assumption - right or wrong - that if a candidate was willing to go through the case prep and interview process, that they would seriously considering accepting a job offer from us.

The only exception to this might be for the few "experienced hires" - candidates with significant industry experience who are not applying out of business school, JD, MD, or PhD program.  In those cases, a cover letter would help us assess why you want to go into consulting and what specific skills and expertise you could bring to the Firm.


Why cover letters DO matter for non-Consulting resume screens

For most job postings, a hiring manager is reviewing dozens of resumes.  This is especially true during interview season at a top business school.  Some of the resumes are, in McKinsey terms,  "clear turndowns" or "clear passes" - it's easy to see from just the resume that a particular candidate is one of the best or worst applicants.  That leaves a big pile of resumes left that often have similarly impressive credentials.  Cover letters can help candidates stand out as hiring managers try to differentiate between those remaining candidates.

The stakes are higher for the non-consulting resume screen because those companies usually have fewer interview slots available to offer.  A "false positive" (a candidate we think is great but turns out to be a dud) represents proportionally greater opportunity cost for a non-consulting company with 14 interview slots than it would for a consulting firm with hundreds of interview slots.  Furthermore, many non-consulting companies want to know how interested candidates are in their industry or company, something that's usually not readily apparent from just a resume.

Four common cover letter mistakes

1.  Not submitting a cover letter

Without a cover letter, your hiring manager has no way of putting your resume into context.  That might be fine if your academic, volunteer, and/or professional background are tied to the job for which you're applying.  Otherwise, you need a cover letter to help your hiring manager understand why you're a good fit for the job.  If you have an opportunity to submit a cover letter for a non-consulting resume screen, DO IT, especially if you're a career-switcher or you've bounced around between multiple industries.  Unless you do so, you're relying on your resume to tell your entire story.

Many companies use scoring rubrics to assess resumes.  The more information you can convey to the resume screener(s), the greater the likelihood you'll address what they're looking for, and the more opportunities you give them to increase your resume screen score.

Failing to submit a cover letter also forces your resume reviewer to wonder why you didn't while other candidates did.  Even if a cover letter is "optional", you should submit a cover letter.  Otherwise, it might come across like you couldn't be bothered to put one together while your competitors did.  My omission, you will have chosen the option of seeming less interested in the job than other applicants, which brings us to the second point...

2.  Not conveying genuine interest in the job

The hiring manager's goal is to fill open job postings.  The last thing a company wants to do is go through the effort of screening resumes, interviewing candidates (often at great expense), and make an offer, only to have that offer declined.  Therefore, many companies want to understand how likely you might be to accept a job offer, which is hard to tell from just a resume.  At the non-consulting companies where I've worked, we look for genuine interest in the industry, company, and location.

In order to do this well, it's critical to research the company and industry well enough to articulate your interest.  At the very least, this will show your hiring manager that you're diligent and are interested enough in the job to do your homework.  Communicating how excited you are about a job opportunity can help set you apart from other, similarly qualified candidates.  

Hiring managers for very attractive jobs are flooded with applications so any means of differentiation is helpful.  They also want to know that you actually want to do the job, not just something prestigious on your resume.  Hiring managers for less attractive jobs might want to know that you're not just using them as a back-up plan or the professional version of a "safety school".  Other hiring managers might be concerned that candidates aren't interested in working in a certain geography or a specific role.  For example, if you've always lived and worked big, coastal cities, you might want to let the hiring manager for that job in an industrial town in the midwest know why you're truly open to moving there.

3.  Insufficiently customizing your form letter

Hiring managers are not naive - we understand that you're applying for a lot of jobs.  It's also inefficient to write a letter from scratch for every potential interview, and efficiency is something we like in our employees.  That said, there are plenty of things you can do that don't take that much time or effort to make your form letter feel less generic.

The worst-disguised form letters are the "insert company name here" variety.  Nothing about the letter is specific to the job other than the company name.  The second least-disguised form letters are those with the "company specific paragraph".  It's very apparent when one paragraph is highly specific to the job and everything else is completely generic.

The letters that come across best, from the perspective of feeling company-specific, are those where the customization is peppered throughout the document.  This is especially powerful when it's done in parts of the cover letter where most candidates cut-and-paste.  A good example is the bullet point list of relevant skills or experiences that many candidates use.  These are often highly applicable across a number of jobs, so it makes sense to recycle this text.  However, candidates who explain how each item relates to the specific company or job might stand out as having tailored their cover letters.

When I was applying for jobs, I did this by having several different cover letters and resumes, with a boilerplate set written specifically for each industry I was considering.  Then, I would heavily customize for each company and job.  I felt it gave me the right balance of being customized and efficient.

4.  Poor attention to detail

Your cover letter and resume are often the first impression you make on a company, so the stakes are high.  If you can't be bothered to get the details right on such important documents, your hiring manager will have to wonder how much attention to detail you'll exhibit once you're in the job.  You have plenty of time to get your cover letter and resume right - if you screw that up, what will your hiring manager think of your ability to execute on last-minute issues or against tight deadlines?

Common mistakes here include:

  • Wrong company name
  • Typos
  • Misspellings - especially of the company or your interviewer's name
  • Addressing to the wrong gender
Proofread with these things in mind.  Better yet, get someone else to do it for you.  If you're the right kind of candidate, it's likely you've been writing and refining your cover letter and resume countless times.

This recruiting season, a candidate emailed us a resume and cover letter that was addressed to the wrong company.  We thought about forwarding the email and attachments to the other company with a note saying "we think this meant for you" and cc'ing the candidate, but decided to not torpedo the candidate's chances at a second company.  But not all hiring managers will be so forgiving!


  1. In those cases, a cover letter would help us assess why you want to go into consulting and what specific skills and expertise you could bring to the Firm.

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