Do you really need to write a cover letter when you’re applying for a job in an investment bank? These days, it’s surely all about the skills in your CV – who’s got the time to read that extra blurb saying how perfect you are for the role?
Not recruiters working with experienced hires. Most of the banking recruiters we speak to treat the cover letters (or ‘cover emails’) they receive from experienced candidates as an irrelevance. “For experienced roles, we rarely look at cover letters,” says Logan Naidu, CEO of London-based financial services recruitment firm Dartmouth Partners. “I don’t really read the cover letter, I just go for the CV,” agrees Richard Hoar, director of banking and financial services at Goodman Masson. “I look at the CV and then I phone them. – If the CV is relevant, I’ll get everything that would have been in the cover letter from that call.”
Before you start sending CVs and resumes for banking jobs without any preamble whatsoever, though, it’s worth bearing in mind that there are some situations in which cover letters can make all the difference.
- When you’re applying for graduate jobs in banking.
- When you’re applying to banks directly (without going through external recruiters),
- And… when you happen to be using a recruiter who simply likes cover letters (hard to tell!).
“For graduate hires, cover letters are very important,” says Naidu. Just how important is reflected by the fact that some banks specify them as a must-have in their graduate recruitment process.Banks like Goldman Sachs, Citigroup, Barclays, Morgan Stanley and Macquarie all demand that their would-be analysts in Europe write cover letters or something very similar, says Victoria McLean, a former Goldman Sachs recruiter and founder of banking CV specialists, City CV.
Goldman Sachs is particularly demanding – it requests that graduate applicants write a personal statement which is effectively a cover letter in 300 words or less. In theory, Goldman Sachs is ditching its cover letter process and will soon be using HireVue digital interviews to select all its student hires, but for the moment the 300 word killer cover letter is still an integral part of the Goldman recruitment process. A former recruiter at the firm told us it’s very important. “Some students were excellent until they got to the cover letter,” – those 300 words let them down.
What makes a good banking cover letter? Mai Le, a former Goldman Sachs investment banking associate runs CoverLetterLibrary, a community which houses a collection of cover letters that have enabled juniors to get jobs at banks in the past. Le says the best cover letters have two things in common: narrative structure (they emphasize your story and show the choices that brought you here) and facts and figures that underscore your background and achievements. By comparison, Le says the worst banking cover letters suffer from key-word stuffing, irrelevant information and spelling and grammatical mistakes.
It can help to follow a general template…
You need to tailor your cover letters for each job you apply to. But this doesn’t mean that you can’t write a cover letter that follows a template. It does mean that each time you apply for a new job, you will need to fill in the template all over again.
McLean suggests your template follows the following format: Introduction. Why me? Why you? Why this job? In total, the text within the template should be no more than 750 words, or one A4 page, long. Le says some candidates also use a format that’s ordered as, Why this job? Why this bank? Why me? “It’s a matter of personal preference,” she says. Ultimately, you want all these elements in the cover letter and should go with which ever you feel comfortable with.
Either way, here’s what to include.
The easy introductory paragraph
The first paragraph is all about explaining why you’re writing. If you’re applying for a graduate job in a bank, keep it short and sweet.
“The first paragraph is just to say who you are and why you’re writing the letter,” says McLean.
This paragraph might read something like. “I am an X with X year history of X at global banking firms including X as well as X. I have been working for X for the past X years.”
If you’re writing a Goldman Sachs cover letter that’s 300 words or less, you can ditch this style of opening paragraph. – There’s just no space for it.
If you’re writing to a recruiter, there’s less need to be quite so brief with your introduction. Say who you are, and explain why you’ve approached that recruiter in particular: “If someone says they’ve been referred to me by someone I know and respect, I will sit up and pay attention,” says Branthover. “The same applies if they say they’ve learned that I mentor women and that this is something they’re interested in too.”
In other words, when you’re writing a cover letter to a recruiter, you need to know who you’re writing to. Use this introductory paragraph to address them in person. Flattery will get you everywhere.
The selling yourself paragraph. ‘Why you?’
The second paragraph is usually harder. This is where you need to start selling yourself, expressing your personality, and explaining why you’re such a hot catch. It’s here that you can add in some of the narrative explaining how you came to apply for this role, plus some of the substantiating figures that Le says make successful cover letters so effective. Don’t use bland and empty phrases like, “I am a determined, motivated person.” Do look at the key words and skills used to describe the job you’re applying for and (without too obviously reiterating the ad) explain how you match them. Focus on the results and on outcomes you’ve achieved in similar situations in the past. You need to be specific and you need to bring yourself to life.
If you’re writing a cover letter to accompany a graduate application, McLean says you can use the second paragraph to talk about what you’ve studied and how it’s relevant. If you’ve studied finance and know how to do a DCF, now’s the time to mention that. If you haven’t studied finance but have good relationship management skills and you want to work in M&A (a relationship-focused business), say that here. Provide EVIDENCE for the skills you’re claiming to have.- List any awards you’ve won. Never, ever, make empty statements. “Many successful trading cover letters feature the candidate’s trading return profile and their rationales for their success or failure,” says Le. ” – Cover letters for sales positions highlight the candidate’s track record that evident their ability as a natural salesperson.”
The motivational paragraph. ‘Why thisjob (in this sector?)’
If you’re an experienced hire applying through a recruiter or applying directly to a bank, this is where you explain why you want the job you’re applying for. If you’re a student applying for a first job, this is why you need to explain why you want this job and why you want to work in this sector. Be specific – you’ll need to know about the job and the sector before you start this section.
As a student, you’ll need to link your skills back to your motivation for working in that area of banking above others, says McLean. Why M&A? Why not sales and trading? Why not compliance? – If you want to work in operations, for example, explain how you have a passion for building systems and improving efficiency, as evidenced by your system for serving customers in your weekend job…
The flattering paragraph. ‘Why this bank?’
The fourth paragraph is all about explaining why you want to work for that particular bank. Again, you need to be specific. McLean says graduates often copy and paste from banks’ own websites. For example, it’s not unheard of for them to write, “I want to work for Goldman Sachs because you have 170 locations across 90 cities in over 30 countries.” This will get you nowhere.
The other ex-Goldman Sachs recruiter we spoke to said she particularly looked for, “creativity and effort and writing about Goldman Sachs,” when running through students’ cover letters. People were expected to say exactly why they wanted to work for Goldman rather than, say, J.P. Morgan.
Instead of just reiterating what you’ve read on banks’ websites, therefore, you need to cite some unusual reasons for choosing that bank that will make you stand out. If you’re a student, it helps to say that you’ve met some of the banks’ staff and were impressed by them. Citigroup, for example, suggests that student cover letters reference encounters with the bank’s staff at recruitment events. – Make a note of the staff you meet and explain what they said or did that impressed you, and what made you think you’d like to work with them.
Mark Hatz, a former M&A associate at Goldman Sachs and Perella Weinberg Partners who now helps people get jobs in banking, says stressing your rapport with people you’ve met from the firm is particularly important when you’re applying for a job in M&A or capital markets: “These are advisory businesses and they want to see that you can build a rapport and work in a team. If you get the job, you’ll also be spending a lot of hours in the office with these people, so showing you like them is very important.”
It also helps to reference the bank’s strategy, to mention any awards the bank won, and to cite any conversations you’ve had with or comments you’ve read from other industry professionals and analysts who’ve given concrete reasons why it’s good place to work. Everything in this section needs to be positive. – You need to explain why you want to work for Deutsche Bank specifically without writing anything that denigrates its rivals. The more senior you are, the more you will need to reference solid strategy points at this stage.
“Show a grasp of where they are going, what the plan is and why this appeals to you,” says McLean. Show that you know their strategy and that you agree with the way they’re addressing challenges.
The call to action
Finally, you need to end the cover letter with a call to action. McLean suggests completing the letter with the following sentence: “I really look forward to hearing from you. I am available for interview and contactable by X.’
Simple. Except all of this has to be written in 750 words – or just 300 if you’re a student applying to Goldman Sachs. It’s not so easy after all.
You’ll read plenty online about how investment banking cover letters are never read, aren’t important and are used by recruiters as bog roll (we might have made that one up). One internet commentator even labelled the investment banking cover letter a “barbaric and sadistic requirement.” Sadistic and barbaric they might be, but if an investment bank asks for a covering letter you probably won’t get the job sending in a letter written in comic sans with just “giss us a job”. Whilst the recruiter won’t spend ages reading your cover letter, they might give it a quick scan through.
So you should put some effort into the cover letter, but doesn’t tear yourself into pieces attempting to create the perfect specimen of investment banking covering letter. Neither is it the time to break out amazingly creative cover letters that defy conventional narrative structures: keep your cover letter relatively conservative and formal. Instead of channelling your inner Shakespeare, you’ll need to put together a concise, businesslike letter than does exactly what it says on the tin, convincing the recruiter that they’d be mad not to interview you.
Tailoring your investment banking cover letter…
JP Morgan, Nomura, BarCap, Morgan Stanley… they are all the same right? Wrong. Sending the same cover letter to every investment bank isn’t going to get you anywhere. You should be able convey why you’ve applied for that particular bank and that particular position in your cover letter. Implicit in your letter should be an understanding of what an investment bank does and the realities of the role that you are applying for. You should know more about the bank beyond what they say in the “About Us” section of their website.
You should also scrutinise the literature surrounding the graduate scheme or the opportunity advertised. There’s no point starting a cover letter until you have a clear idea of the competencies they are looking for and the qualities you need for the role. Then you can set about showing these attributes in your investment banking cover letter. Typical competencies they might be looking for include: attention to detail, communication skills, initiative, ability to work under pressure, leadership and team work skills.
Short but sweet…
Recruiters are pressed for time and don’t want to be confronted with great long essays. Keep your investment banking cover letter to a single page, perhaps three or four paragraphs long. Don’t feel like you have to fill the entire page: really it should be somewhere around 300 to 400 words.
Remember that CVs and covering letters have different functions. Everything important should be in your CV, whilst you can use the cover letter to highlight the best parts of your CV. Essentially, your investment banking covering letter is a sales pitch: you want to persuade the recruiter that you’ve got the competencies and experience to do the job.
Hit the right tone…
It’s all too tempting when writing an investment banking cover letter to adopt a brash city boy/girl persona, but try not to brag or be too aggressive in your letter, e.g. “I’m simply the best at everything I do. I’ll be calling you next Wednesday to schedule a meeting.” Equally, don’t undersell yourself. Quiet confidence in your skills and experience is the way to go. Your letter should be formal and professional at all times and try to avoid the temptation to gratuitously litter it with IB jargon.
Structuring your investment banking cover letter…
Here’s a basic structure for putting together a cover letter, but you can play around with it:
Addressing your cover letter
Try and address your cover letter to a named person (find out who you are writing to). Use a formal business letter template: your address and the name and address of recipient should be at the top of the letter. If you are emailing them, put the cover letter in the body of the email and omit the addresses.
This is where you tell the investment bank who you are and why you are writing. Mention the role you are applying to and how you heard about the position (particularly if you were referred by a mutual acquaintance). Give a unique reason why you personally would be great for the role.
Here you should outline why you want to work for this particular investment bank and you might also want to touch on what attracts you to investment banking in general, citing, perhaps, relevant work experience, academic or extracurricular activities. Try to come up with reasons that sound genuine and unique.
Above all, investment banks will want to know that you have the right skills and attributes for the job. In this paragraph, you’ll need to draw parallels between the skills, qualifications and knowledge you’ve picked up during your degree course and/or placement and the role you are applying for.
Make sure you showcase the skills that they ask for in the job or internship brief. This is the paragraph to really hammer home why you’re an excellent candidate for the role. Be confident, but no bragging.
This should be very brief. State when you’re available for interview and cover any practical issues they ask about. Be positive: “I’m looking forward to your reply.”
You should end the letter “Yours sincerely” if it’s being sent to a named person; if you haven’t managed to find out a name then use: “Yours faithfully” followed by your name (obviously!).
Go through your investment banking letter and scrutinise it for mistakes. It’s not just spelling and grammatical errors you should be looking out for, check you’ve correctly spelt the names of the companies and people and that your sentences make sense and the letter reads well.
1. You should personalise and tailor your cover letter to every job application. And we mean every job application.
2. Your cover letter should be short, sharp and sweet. One page. Two or three paragraphs of snappy sentences.
3. Your cover letter isn’t your life story; it’s your case for why they should interview you for the role.
4. Relate your experiences to the role. So you set up your own finance society at university, why does that mean you’d be an excellent candidate for their scheme?
5. Investment bankers need great attention to detail so formatting errors, dodgy grammar, typos and spelling mistakes won’t wash with the recruiter. Sort it out.