I've spoken to recruiters, and they've told me they actually don't read cover letters. Is that your experience?
That has not been our experience with McKinsey, Bain, or BCG. During the time our team has spent at the top consulting firms, we have taken the cover letter into account as a key component of the application.
Out of the MBB firms, McKinsey recruiters tend to be more flexible with whether they review the cover letters. They changed their requirement for the cover letter in 2018 but we would still recommend including one. We still see that Bain and BCG review the cover letter in depth.
There are three occasions where it is really important to include one:
(1) If you need to explain your office preferences, as the office recruiters will go in and look at your cover letter to make sure you have a tie or a reason to have selected that office.
(2) The second instance is if you’ve applied before, since recruiters typically will take the time to go in and look at that cover letter to see what’s changed since your last application.
(3) If you have something in your background that you are worried about (e.g. GPA, test scores, non-relevant work experienced, etc.) since you can show the recruiters in the cover letter that you do have skills to overcome whatever barrier you are worried about.
For more on the cover letter, go here.