The art of a perfect investment banking cover letter
A cover letter is the most useless part of your application process. It’s almost never read. It’s barely even opened. In essence it’s similar to GPA. The good one won’t say much about you – but the bad one can disqualify you immediately.
So, here comes the main rule of the investment banking cover letter: don’t screw it up. Simple, right? Just don’t write anything too stupid. You can be boring, you can be unimaginative, and it won’t matter. Because 99% of cover letters look absolutely the same. All you have to do is ensure you don’t kill your chances by making grammatical mistakes, talking about your gym performance or writing a 2-page essay on your incredible skills. Just look through the top-10 mistakes most applicants make (from small slips to epic fails). Follow the guidelines, download the template in the end of this post and write a short and clean cover letter that won’t destroy your application. Easy.
Investment banking cover letter: 10 epic fails
Fail #10: Making it all about yourself.
“I”, “me”, “mine” etc. Of course you cannot skip on these pronouns – but you have to agree mentioning them more than 35+ in one single page is a bit too much. You don’t want to come of as too self-centered. Mix it up – use passive tense and talk about the firm you are applying to. If you have a chance – put a name on top. Nothing sounds worse than “Sir / Madame” salutation.
Fail #9: Writing in clichés.
“Hardworking”, “enthusiastic”, “smart”. 99% of applicants write these clichés about themselves. Don’t think this will make your application any stronger. Use real examples instead to demonstrate investment banking skills – or how you can bring value to the firm. This is the only language that will really get to reader’s mind.
Fail #8: Repeating your resume.
There is 99% likelihood the reader has already looked through your resume. No reason to tell the same story again. Use cover letter for that one thing that is so difficult to show on your CV: reasoning to apply to a particular bank / division and motivation to work in finance field.
Fail #7: Not explaining your motivation to applying.
Don’t waste one page talking only about what you have done. Instead, shortly explain why you are interested in the job. What you makes you draw to a certain division or field? Why do you want to join M&A group or Energy team? The more specific your explanation will be – the greater is the chance you will get invited for an interview.
Fail #6: Ignoring to tell how your skills will apply to the job.
Listing your accomplishments is an easy thing to do. More difficult is to explain how they will add value. Show in examples how you contributed to previous employers. Take a minute to look on bank’s websites what kind of skills they are looking for. Demonstrate in a short sentence how you applied these skills in your previous internships or extracurricular activities.
Fail #5: Kissing reader’s ass.
I have no clue why people assume this strategy works with bankers.
“I know that Goldman Sachs has the smartest individuals in the industry”.
“It is without doubt that Morgan Stanley is the best investment bank to work for.”
“It’s only in JP Morgan you can work on such exciting and noticeable deals.”
Bankers are not stupid. They are actually working in investment banking themselves. And there is no bank that can consistently boast being the best. Trying to persuade them otherwise will make you come of either kiss-ass, or naive. And I don’t even know which one is worse.
Fail #4: Writing a cover letter over 1 page long.
Recall the rule I mentioned in the beginning: don’t screw up. Writing a long cover letter just means there is more space to put in something that potentially might hurt you. Besides, even if the reader skims through your letter – he won’t spend more than 45 sec doing it. Save his and your time. Keep the cover letter short and up to the point. No more than 750 words, 1 A4 page. And always check if the bank has specific requirements on the length of cover letter. Goldman Sachs limits its applicants to write no more than 300 words. It’s a no brainer that if you cannot follow this simple rule – you will be a fast one to disqualify.
Fail #3: Not checking spelling and punctuation.
Sometimes I feel the only reason bankers read the cover letter is to disqualify someone solely on the basis of grammatical mistakes. After all, if an applicant cannot spot a mistake in his 500-word essay – how the hell will he manage to check endless PowerPoint and Excel documents? Always proofread before sending- and make sure your formatting looks clean and consistent.
Fail #2: Overselling yourself.
Your resume is meant to demonstrate if you are accomplished enough for the job. Of course you should try to highlight your skills nonetheless. But. There is a line. Between humbly reinforcing your achievements and looking like a complete douche.
Case in point. NYU undergraduate, Mark, whose investment banking cover letter became a laughing stock of Wall Street. If his goal was to draw attention – he definitely succeeded. Seriously – it was shared by everyone. His cover letter made rounds among all the banks, university alumni and ultimately millions of internet users. Here is just one fragment:
I am unequivocally the more unflaggingly hard worker I know, and I love self-improvement. Once I realized I could achieve a perfect GPA while holding a part-time job at NYU, I decided to redouble my effort by placing out of two classes, taking two honors classes, and holding two part-time jobs. That semester I achieved a 3.93, and in the same time I managed to bench double my bodyweight and do 35 pull ups.
If you think that is bad, read his closing paragraph:
Please realize that I am not a braggart or conceited, I just wanted to outline my usefulness. Egos can be a huge liability, and I try not to have one.
Needless to say – he had difficulties getting a job. Don’t do that. Don’t oversell – and don’t list any skills not relevant to the job. Keep your cover letter professional – it is not the right place to bond with the reader over your passion for wine-tasting or love of soccer. And, besides, you have the bottom of your CV for that.
Fail #1: Putting a wrong bank’s name on the cover letter.
You won’t believe how many times this has happened to me. I have to confess – I was dumb enough myself to submit a cover letter to Goldman Sachs where I praised Morgan Stanley. Too often candidates just forget to change the name when re-using the cover letter. If you are too lazy to re-read the whole thing over – at least use Ctrl+F for a quick check to see if the names are consistent.
And it is more that just a name. Ultimately – you have to at least try to show the reader that your cover letter is customised. I don’t say you need to write a whole new letter from scratch. Have a good and clean template. And then tweak it a bit every time you submit your application. I always had one short paragraph (2-3 sentences) that would explain why I decided to apply to a particular bank.
I would recommend researching quickly the bank beforehand and rewrite it slightly to fit a company applying to. A good point to start: some banks have stronger presence in particular divisions (energy, retail, TMT), geography (Asia Pacific, Emerging Markets) or a particular expertise (corporate finance, restructuring, fixed income securities). Maybe they’ve recently closed a huge deal or been all over the news because of an industry report. Spend some time googling it. Take an easy road and browse through company’s press releases (after all, there is a reason why they publish those). Find something unique about the bank. “Best-in-field” or “international dynamic company” simply won’t cut it. Even if no one reads your cover letter after all – this information will definitely come in handy for interviews later on.
How to structure your investment banking cover letter
Keep it simple. Don’t write more than 4-5 paragraphs.
1. Start with a strong opening paragraph (2-3 sentences max). Explain the purpose of the letter and position / company applying to. Mention how you got to know about the company.
2. Explain your background and link it to why should they should hire you. Give a few examples on specific skills: “demonstrated leadership, managed the team, won awards” etc. Include results and contribution you’ve made (quantify this whenever possible). Try to highlight those skills and qualities that are related to finance / position in question.
3. Explain your motivation for applying to particular bank / division. Make it clear why you would be a good fit with the company. Mention anything unique about the employer.
4. A short closing paragraph (1-2 sentences) thanking for consideration, and, if necessary, outlining next steps.
If you need some guidance – download an investment banking cover letter template here. Or just check our writing services – we will be happy to help you out. And remember – as long as you follow all the basic rules, you’re going to be alright. Focus most of your efforts on perfecting your resume – ultimately, it is the latter that will determine if you get the job.