An ex-Goldman Sachs salesman's guide to writing a cover letter that works

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Applying for roles in the world of finance, investment banking, business and consulting can be an arduous and lengthy process. Whether you’re an undergrad, postgrad or an experienced professional the one thing that’s more grueling than putting together a CV: creating a cover letter. Get it wrong, and your inbox will be hit with the dreaded ‘Unfortunately...’ email. Get it right, and it can be your golden ticket to an interview. Your cover letter is where an organization can get a glimpse of you as an individual rather than bullet points containing your achievements from your CV.

Below is an insider’s list of the things you should (and shouldn’t) be doing when writing your cover letter. Keep in mind it’s not only human resource/recruitment professionals that review your cover letter. It’ll also be reviewed by junior and senior employees within the division/team you’ve applied for.

Do’s

Do keep it succinct. Your cover letter should never exceed 1 page. A good rule of thumb is to keep it between 70% and 90% of A4 (standard paper size). This is important as they’ll likely have hundreds to read through.

Do structure your cover letter appropriately. Your cover letter should (I) include a brief introduction about yourself and what you’ve been up to over the last 1-3 years, (II) explain why you want to work for that specific company, (III) describe why the specific division/business area is an area of interest to you and (IV) illustrate why you, as an individual, are suited for the role.

Do mention firm events you’ve attended and name drop employees you’ve metIf I’m reading your cover letter and I notice you’ve attended a networking/insight event or met colleagues of mine, immediately I’ll think you’re proactive, engaged and interested in this field of work. This makes a big difference especially if you don’t have a lot of work experience. It also builds a greater connection between you and the reader as opposed to a candidate who hasn’t proactively networked.

Do include relevant experiences and/or transferable skills. Relevant experiences give the reader peace of mind. Highlight your relevant experiences and emphasize what you’ve achieved in them and the specific skills learnt and/or developed that’ll be useful and required in the role you are applying for. This will help the reader buy into your story. If you don’t have relevant experience, use whatever experience you do have to highlight relevant transferable skills.

Do explain why the organization stands out. What is it about that specific organization that stands out to you? Was it the people you met at the firm? A social initiative that stood out? The firm’s expertise and specialism in a specific area of the market? Find your reason and stress exactly why that means so much to you. The key here is to not make it generic and applicable to other organizations.

Do share your story. Take the reader on your personal journey and let your personality come through on your cover letter. A strong cover letter can differentiate itself from the pack and tells a story well, and in doing so leaves a lasting (positive) impression on the reader.

Do be strict with your use of sentences. You have a finite number of words to use in your cover letter in order to sell yourself to the reader. Thus, it is vital that every point has a purpose i.e. identifies a skill learnt, positive outcome, etc. Ask yourself “So what?” at the end of each point you make.

Do speak the firm’s language. Every organization has a mission statement, key principles and beliefs they abide by. Find these on their website and pay particular attention to the language used. If your cover letter speaks the organization's ‘language’, the reader is more likely to believe that you’ll be a good fit for the organizations culture.

Don’ts

Don’t come across as if you’re owed this job. Everyone hates an arrogant applicant. Don’t boast or show off. Be humble in your approach. Remember, you’re asking for an interview and job, thus it’s important that you come across as likable.

Don’t be generic and vague. One of the most common mistakes candidates make (I’m guilty of having done this once upon a time), which costs valuable space, is highlighting generic information from the company’s website. Examples include the number of locations the firm operates from, number of employees working for the firm, etc. Don’t use easy to obtain information – all of the ‘basic’ cover letters do this.

Don’t shoot yourself in the foot. Spelling mistakes and grammatical errors cost candidates interview offers all too often. Such errors display a lack of attention to detail and care – two very important qualities in the world of finance. I’ve seen a cover letter spell ‘great’ as ‘grate’, and it isn’t uncommon for many cover letters to miss full stops. Printing out your cover letter will likely display errors that you would have missed on screen.

A large part of a hiring manager’s role is risk management. They need to hire the right people for their team and the company as a whole. Hiring is an expensive and lengthy process, and therefore it is important for you as a potential hire to minimise the risks associated with hiring you. Simply follow the above tips when writing your cover letter, pair it up with a strong CV, and you’ll be receiving interview invitations in no time!

Afzal Hussein is the Founder and CEO of Official CV Doctor. Prior to this, Afzal spent 4 years in Sales at Goldman Sachs. Afzal currently sits on a number of charity boards and will be launching his millennial consulting company in the summer of 2018. Click here to join over 34k students and professionals following Afzal’s posts on careers, millennials and productivity on LinkedIn.

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