3 Reasons Why Your Investment Banking Cover Letter is Making You Look Like a Fool and What to Do About It

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UPDATE: While the information in this article is still good, there is now a full investment banking cover letter template right here. That template, along with the tutorial here should answer all your cover letter questions.

“I have read Monkey Business, Liar’s Poker, and When Genius Failed each 3 times and consider them my collective bible. I know I have the eye for perfection and artistic vision to create truly immaculate pitch books. I am a Microsoft Certified in Excel, and I know all the shortcut keys (alt-i then r, that will insert a new row).”

-RE: Lehman Brothers Recruiting, The Leveraged Sellout

Despite my claims that “we never read cover letters,” some readers have pointed out that almost all banks require them. And some places might even pay attention to them.

I’ve seen lots of cover letters lately – and nearly all of them suffer from the same problems.

Here’s how to avoid these common mistakes and how to structure your cover letters properly, so you can avoid looking like The Joker.

Let’s Set the Record Straight: Who Actually Reads Them?

In 99% of cases, only small boutiques (or small private equity firms) actually care about cover letters.

Big banks don’t have the time to go through stacks of cover letters. Remember the 30-second rule: if only 30 seconds are spent reviewing your resume and making a yes/no decision, you can imagine how much time is spent on the cover letter.

Small places care more because:

  1. “Fit” is extremely important when there are only 4 people in the office; and
  2. They actually have time to read cover letters (occasionally).

The True Purpose of Cover Letters

Cover letters are similar to GPA / test scores: a great one doesn’t help you much, but a poor one can kill your chances if someone happens to notice it.

And there are a few mistakes that come up repeatedly – no matter who you are or what you’re applying to.

Mistake #1: Writing a Life Story, Not a Cover Letter

I’ve seen some really long cover letters before. Keep it to 1 page – 500 words or less – and ideally 300 words or less.

Yes, I’m sure you have a very interesting life story about how you were abandoned by your parents and raised by wolves on the outskirts of a tribal village, but please don’t tell me any of this.

Get to the point – who you are, what you’ve done, and why we should pay attention to you.

Mistake #2: Telling Me Your Favorite Book is Monkey Business

Microsoft Certified in Excel? Extra in American Psycho? Know the bank’s market share in Mongolian M&A deals?

Great, but don’t waste my time with this trivia. All I care about is whether you can do the work.

If you have a relevant skill, such as fluency in another language, that’s ok to bring up. But almost every other Skill/Activity/Interest is pointless.

Mistake #3: Writing The Sound and the Fury, Not a Cover Letter

Logic is key when you’re selling someone on yourself – and that’s what a cover letter does.

So don’t write a letter using stream of consciousness.

An amazing number of cover letters skip around and don’t present the applicant’s background coherently.

Just like any other type of writing, you need an introduction, a body, and a conclusion.

The Ideal Cover Letter

So how do you actually write a solid cover letter?

Follow the tips below, and then copy the investment banking cover letter template once you’ve figured out what you’re going to say.

The Information at the Top

Nothing too fancy here. Your name and contact information could go on the right side, and the recruiter’s / firm’s name and contact information could go on the left.

If you don’t have a name, don’t panic – just use the company name and address instead. Yes, it’s better to have a real name and send it to a real person, but it’s not a deal-breaker.

Similarly, “Dear so-and-so” works better if the “so-and-so” is someone’s name but if you don’t have it, “Dear Sir or Madam” is acceptable.

Paragraph 1: Introduction

Here’s where you say who you are and how you learned of the opportunity – from networking, from an event, from a friend or however else you found out. Then you say what attracts you to the company and the specific position.

Keep this short – 2 to 3 sentences is best.

Paragraph 2: Your Background

This is usually your longest paragraph. Start out by writing what you’re currently doing, and then give the relevant internships/jobs you’ve had. Focus on useful skills (e.g. financial analysis) and whatever you did that’s applicable to banking, trading, or whatever you’re applying for.

A reverse chronological structure works well because most of the time, your most relevant experience will also be the most recent.

I would use no more than 5 sentences for this one. Paragraph 3: Why You’re a Good Fit

This is a shorter paragraph. You should explain why your skills / experiences match whatever you’re applying for and re-iterate what makes you interested.

If you have anything unique (for example, you’re applying to a middle-market private equity firm after having run your own middle-market company), you may also want to mention it here as another selling point.

Paragraph 4: Conclusion

Remind them that your resume is enclosed, give your contact information and say that you look forward to hearing from them soon. Keep this to a few short sentences.

Exceptions

Sometimes this exact structure doesn’t work – if you’ve had more extensive experience (i.e. you’re not just out of undergraduate or business school) or have unusual circumstances, you may want to write something slightly different.

Let’s say you’re applying to investment management firms in China and you grew up there, having moved abroad when you were 10 – in that case you probably want to use 1 paragraph for your “finance experience” and another paragraph for your “China experience” rather than just writing 1 “background” paragraph.

No matter what your background, though, keep your cover letter brief, logical and relevant.

Otherwise you look like a fool.

For Further Learning

If you haven’t already done so, you should really go and download the investment banking cover letter template right now and look at the tutorial there.

All you need to do is copy and paste and fill in the blanks with your own information – don’t you love the Internet?

About the Author

is the Founder of Mergers & Inquisitions and Breaking Into Wall Street. In his spare time, he enjoys learning obscure Excel functions, editing resumes, obsessing over TV shows, and traveling so much that he's forced to add additional pages to his passport on a regular basis.

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125 Comments to “3 Reasons Why Your Investment Banking Cover Letter is Making You Look Like a Fool and What to Do About It”

Comments

  1. Jane says

    I just submitted a CL to Goldman and there was a typo in it. The submission was through the company website for a diversity recruiting event. The typo was in the last paragraph:

    “and hope that I may be considered for given a summer analyst position”

    I know enough to know I might have just ruined my chances and may have to just apply again in a few months through regular recruiting. However,if I have the name and number of the regional recruiter (but don’t have a relationship with her) should I contact her and try to send her an updated copy, or leave it and hope for the best?

  2. Mary says

    Hey Brian,

    I have been working on my cover letter for the last few days and I have come up with a 570 piece. I can read it should be much shorter, however to me it seems like a smooth read without mentioning unnecesary stuff. Just emphasizing my experiences and results and my personality fit. Do you think such length would mean a problem? Could you give me any advice on this?, Thank you in advance,

    • M&I - Nicole says

      That should be fine as long as you’re sure that you’ve tightened your cover letter and eliminate unnecessary wordings and phrases

  3. Arnaud says

    Hi Brian,

    Thank you for all your help throughout this website!

    After graduating I started my own business and it went on for a year and a half. Now my partners and I closed for lack of business.
    I want to go back to M&A as I did an internship at a BB during my business school.

    Do you think I have a shot applying for an analyst position?
    How should I tell my story in the cover letter?

    Thanks a lot!

    • M&I - Nicole says

      If it has been a year and a half, yes I think so. You’ll have to network a lot. You can tell your story by spinning that you’ve always been interested in finance and after starting your business, you realize that you’d better suited to be in banking because of XYZ reasons (perhaps you prefer doing deals etc)

  4. Jack says

    Hey Brian,

    Quick question. I noticed on my cover letter after I sent it in that I made a small typo – somewhere in the middle, I used “an” when I should have used “a.” Is this a big deal? I thought about updating everything since I applied online, but not sure if the extra hours put into correcting the mistake, saving everything to PDF, and re-uploading is worth it, especially since I have more applications that I have to finish in the next day or so. What do you think? Thank you very much!

    • M&I - Nicole says

      I don’t think this is a big deal and should’t be an application killer, unless you have a very strict interviewer.

  5. Jackie says

    On the top right hand corner of my cover letter, where I put my address, phone number, email, etc., I noticed a mistake, where I put my phone number like

    (area code) – 564 – 3434

    So, parenthesis around area code, but another dash in between. I really can’t believe I made this mistake, am probably looking to get the cover letter services here. Just wanted to know, however, is this problem huge? I already got rejected by a few firms, and do not know if this is the reason, as my GPA and extracurriculars are all decent. Thanks for feedback!

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