Job Application 101: How to Prepare Your Application?
November 23, 2016
What I often find when working with aspiring management consultants is that 100% of their efforts are focused on the case interview portion of the recruitment process. While I would argue that this is indeed the most difficult part of recruiting, one cannot disregard the other phases. You have to earn an interview before all of that case preparation even comes into play!
In my experience, being selected for an interview has two main components—how well you’ve networked with the firms, and how good your application is. There is a good chance that you will not get selected for an interview if you haven’t devoted enough attention to both of these aspects; however, I’ve seen a few exceptions made for “wild card” candidates who we’d never heard of before, but who had outstanding applications. I have also seen candidates who we thought were “shoe-ins” because of their extensive networking not even get an interview, because their applications were riddled with problems. That being said, you need to devote attention to your application if you want a shot at an interview.
Preparing a good application is not difficult, but it is surprising how many candidates disregard this portion and then never get the chance to show off their impeccable interviewing skills. I have broken down the various aspects of Big 3 applications below; while small variances exist between the firms, the advice I’ve provided is fairly standard. Hopefully you find it helpful.
1. The basic online form
This portion of the application is the easiest to ace, provided you spell your own name correctly. It is just a generic online form you fill out with your basic information—name, contact information, major, GPA, etc.
The one portion that can require a little bit more thought is weighting your office preferences. The thought process that goes into this could be an entire article in itself, but I’ll provide a brief overview. Each of the firms handles office assignments a little differently. For example, at Bain, candidates are funneled into specific offices based on their college. While you can preference an office outside of your college’s typical office(s), you will be identified as a “non-core” candidate and recruiting with them will be more of an uphill battle. In my opinion, it is better to preference one of the offices allocated to your college, then you can transfer offices after couple years if you so desire. Bain has its reasons for recruiting this way (much to do with the staffing model, inter-office relationships, and a few other aspects that actually appealed to me), but you have to decide if you’re ok with this model. McKinsey is on the opposite end of the spectrum—you can preference whatever office you want, keeping in mind that it can be more difficult to network with an office across the country, and that there might not be as many alumni from your college in that office to pull for you. The best advice I can give without going into more detail is to discuss the office preference process with your contacts at each of the firms, and follow their advice. They know better than anyone how their firm’s system works, and they’ll help you identify the best option for you.
2. The resume
Arguably the most important part of the application is the resume. Most of this information you probably already know, but I’ve put together a few tips based on common mistakes I see on candidates’ resumes.
Keep it to one page. Yes, I know this can be difficult to do—believe me. But whenever I review applications and come across a resume greater than one page, it usually tells me that the candidate is not able to identify their top strengths, is not able to be clear and concise, and number of other red flags. There are a few exceptions to this rule (for example, non-traditional candidates such as doctors or lawyers), but 99% of applicants should keep everything on a page.
Choose an organizational scheme, and stick with it. The common sections of a resume I see are “education,” “work/professional experience,” and “leadership/interests/involvement.” You can name them whatever you would like, but I recommend having at least these three. Most people organize chronologically within each section, while some sort each section based on relevance. While I recommend chronological organization as it is the easiest to follow, the most important thing is to have each section organized in the same manner.
Create strong sub-bullets. Under each job/activity, you should elaborate with sub-bullets. Use these to explain what you personally contributed/learned/etc. Use action-driven words, and quantify whenever possible—for example, instead of saying “Led a committee performing service projects,” say, “Selected a committee of 20 people from over 150 applicants, and organized and led the group in over 1,500 community service hours over 9 months.” In addition, ensure your sub-bullets are grammatically congruent. It does not matter if you decide to make them complete sentences or just phrases, but ensure they are all the same structure throughout your entire resume. For activities in which you’re currently involved use the present tense, while for past activities use the past tense.
Include your test scores. Thought you’d never have to look at your SAT or ACT score again after graduating from high school? Think again. The Big 3 actually put quite a bit of weight on these standardized test scores as a measure of consistent intellectual horsepower. If you were like many high school seniors and completely disregarded these tests resulting in a less than stellar score, I highly recommend taking the GMAT and including that score instead.
Include a few relatable interests. These might be evident in your leadership/involvement section, but if not, include a bullet or two about your interests at the end of your resume. Perhaps you’re an avid runner and have completed 6 marathons, or maybe you have an artistic hobby and have entered amateur art contests. These activities might not be substantive enough to earn a nod in one of the main sections of your resume, but they make you unique and interesting (and chances are, they take a substantial amount of your time). Including these on your resume can make it stand out, and can provide your future interviewer some interesting conversation topics with you.
Save your resume as a PDF file. When resumes are uploaded to an application as a Microsoft Word file, formatting often gets messed up. Avoid this problem, and just attach a PDF instead.
Proofread, proofread, and proofread again. Then have someone else proofread it too. After you’ve stared at your resume for hours getting it just right, it’s easy to miss a slight misspelling or grammatical error. As minor as they might seem, they could be enough to just edge you out of an interview spot. Take the extra time to ensure your resume is absolutely error-free. If you have the opportunity, have a friend at one of the firms also look over it and give you advice on it. They could provide suggestions to reword something that might be just the extra touch to make your resume stand out a bit more.
3. The cover letter
Often time the least amount of advice is provided about the cover letter. In my experience, a cover letter rarely gets someone an interview, but often excludes them from one. Think of it as a box you have to check—it needs to be grammatically correct, well-written, and thoughtful—but it probably is not going to get you in that interview room. The one exception is if you are a candidate who is right “on the bubble” regarding grades, test scores, or other qualifiers. I’ve seen a handful of borderline candidates get interviews because their cover letters were compelling enough; but if you’re an outstanding candidate based on your resume and networking, just make sure your cover letter is error-free and thoughtful.
Keep it to one page. Yep, the same rule applies to cover letters as to resumes, for pretty much the same reasons.
Do not use the same cover letter for each firm you apply to. This is one of the most common mistakes I find among candidates, and there are a couple reasons not to do it. First, you’d be surprised how many times candidates forget to change the name of the firm in the cover letter. I often am reading a great cover letter explaining how much the candidate wants to work at Bain, then I get to their concluding sentence telling me that they are a perfect fit for BCG. Writing a different letter for each firm ensures you won’t make this mistake. In addition, each of the firms has pretty distinct models and “personalities,” and it is good to tailor your cover letter to each. While you might highlight the same skills in each of your letters, you probably want to explain why they’d help you succeed at each firm slightly differently.
Don’t stress about how to address the letter. Like all cover letters, it is standard to begin by addressing the letter to someone. Don’t spend too much time worrying about the right way to do this. Some of the common introductions I’ve seen are “To Whom It May Concern,” and “Dear Sir/Madam.” While it is important to be formal, I found that the exact wording doesn’t matter too much.
Use your cover letter tell what your resume can’t. Typically, you want to pick out two or three particularly interesting leadership experiences and expound on how they developed skills you believe to be essential for a good consultant. Be sure to bring in why you’d be a good fit at each firm in particular (tying back to why you should have a different cover letter for each). Another use for a cover letter is to explain an anomaly in your resume. For example, say you don’t have any employment history from the past summer because you were taking care of an ailing grandparent. You can explain that situation, and talk about what you learned and how you grew from that experience.
Don’t name-drop. It typically doesn’t help, and while it doesn’t necessarily hurt you either, it probably will elicit a good laugh from the team reading your letter.
Proofread, proofread, and proofread again. Just like your resume, you could have an outstanding cover letter and yet a few grammatical or spelling errors could disqualify you from an interview. In management consulting, you often are responsible for written correspondence or presentations for high-ranking clients; if you can’t write an error-proof cover letter, you’re not striking much confidence that you could be trusted with client materials. Like your resume, I also recommend having a contact at the firms review your cover letter too. Again, they’ll help you catch or reword small things to improve it.
Setting yourself up for a successful tenure at your firm happens much during your first year; hopefully you find these tips as helpful as I did. Always remember to keep a positive attitude and intentionally focus your work ethic and intellectual curiosity on doing the job to the best of your ability, and chances are high that you will perform well.
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