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?
Recruiters working with experienced hires certaintly don't have the time. 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 the CEO of one London-based financial services recruitment firm. I just go for the CV," agrees another. "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."
This doesn't mean you should just attach a CV/resume with no introductory email. It does mean that the introductory email might not be read - but you still need to make sure you don't make common mistakes like referencing the wrong bank, or forgetting to attach your CV altogether.
However, there 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 one headhunter. 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 typically 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. "Some banks still ask for specific questions to be answered around motivation, strengths and key behaviours/competencies (these are of varying word counts depending on the bank)," she says.
Goldman Sachs historically demanded that recruits write a 300 word personal statement as a cover letter. A former recruiter at the firm told us it was 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 who ran 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 one U.S. recruiter. "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 this job (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...
"You should include what you love about the industry to which you are applying," says McLean. "Why is it important to YOU? Why does it matter to YOU? How does it make a difference to YOU? and why is it interesting to YOU? Especially valid for Graduates: Why finance? Why investment banking / asset management? before addressing the specifics of the division or programme to which you are applying. The key is to make this personal…. This is where most grads go wrong in their cover letters, they sound too generic and impersonal."
The connection 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 idea is not to flatter your potential employer but to identify what makes them a good choice for you and you a good fit," says McLean. "Telling Goldman or Citi you want to work for them because they are the best is not going to impress anyone. However, writing that it’s an opportunity to work with some of the best minds on the street and that you want to be held to those same exacting standards is a bit more engaging." But you need to put this in your own words: you need to make it personal and say what the banks strengths mean to YOU.
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. "You should also write about the future of the firm. You should be planning to be there for a few years and hoping to share that future with them," McLean adds. Look at the shareholder letter in the last annual report for information on a bank's strategy.
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.
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