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 claiming you’re perfect for the role?
Not everyone, that’s for sure. 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 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,” she told us – those 300 words let them down.
Banks own recruiters are also partial to cover letters. “For me, the cover letter is the important part,” says Malcom Horton, head of recruitment at Nomura International. “It’s the only opportunity you have to express yourself beyond the list achievements on your CV.”
Some headhunters, working at the senior end of the banking recruitment market, are also fans of the email that essentially introduces your CV. “The cover letter is what humanizes you,” says Jeanne Branthover, a Partner of DHR International’s Global Financial Services Practice in New York City. “The cover letter tells me what your resume can’t – the resume tells me what you’ve done and the cover letter puts that in context and tells me what you want to do next.” She adds: “I get literally 100 resumes a day and the ones that come with standard cover letters go straight into the database, but the ones that have been personalized to me are the ones I’ll pay more attention to. – It’s a differentiator.”
What makes a cover letter good? Branthover says it’s all about personality and warmth: “This is going to sound corny, but a good cover letter can make me want to help you. ” For this reason, there’s absolutely no point sending out a standard cover letter that hasn’t been adapted to the role you’re applying for. “A lot of the cover letters I see have been written to accompany completely unrelated jobs,” says Hoar. In this case, a cover letter will actually do you a disservice.
You’re going to need specific investment banking cover letters that follow a general template…
So… you need to tailor your cover letters. 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 need to fill in that template all over again.
This template should follow 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.
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 second 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. 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.
The motivational third 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…
The flattering fourth 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.