Cover letters need to do three things: prove you can do the job, differentiate you from other candidates and not attach a red flag to your application. Sadly, the third component is just as critical as the first two.
When it comes to cover letters, there are catastrophic errors, like the student who spent his few paragraphs quantifying his ability to bench press while applying to the wrong firm, and then there are your smaller mistakes, which won’t embarrass you publicly but will still not earn you an interview. These are the ones we’ve detailed below. Avoid them and you’ve bettered your chances.
1. It’s too long
Length is the first thing recruiters and hiring managers mention when it comes to cover letter errors. Decision-makers don’t have the time or patience to read a novel.
One hiring manager at Barclays said that he spends between 15 and 30 seconds reviewing a cover letter, and will completely ignore those that look are too long. Mostly, he spends the time scanning for obvious errors that help him shorten his stack of applicants.
A good cover letter should be made up of three fairly short paragraphs containing between 300 and 500 words, according to experts we talked to.
2. It’s littered with typos
It's doubtful that the position to which you’re applying will place an emphasis on optimal sentence structure and superior grammar, but avoiding typos and mistakes are something on which every recruiter and hiring manager focuses.
“If your cover letter has mistakes, then it shows that you may not care how you present yourself and therefore may not care how you present yourself when representing the investment bank, PE firm, hedge fund, family office or insurance company either,” said Alyssa Gelbard, the founder and president of Resume Strategists.
3. You’re too egotistical
Conceivably the most difficult part of crafting a good cover letter is touting your own accomplishments while not appearing arrogant and narcissistic.
“Typically, it’s guys, and that is a major turn-off to investment banks,” said Heather Katsonga-Woodward, a former banker and author of To Become an Investment Banker. “Banks love themselves and people that stroke their ego by showing they have read their annual report and found out how well they are doing,” she said.
So, summarize your competencies but also direct attention to the bank and the division and explain how you’d fit in.
4. It’s too generic
A boilerplate cover letter filled with clichéd language – like “hardworking,” “self-starter” and “dedicated” – is another sure way to limit your chances of a callback.
A cover letter shouldn’t talk about you and your background – that’s what a resume is for. Rather, it should focus on why you fit the job in question, with specific examples of how you can provide unique value to the firm in question, said Jesse Marrus, founder of search firm StreetID.
Mention the company in the cover letter and include a tidbit of recent news that affects them, showing you pay attention to the market, Marrus added. Focus on results and outcomes as much as possible.
While you may have customized your letter for a particular role, it’s also important to state why you’re interested in that specific bank, PE firm or hedge fund, Gelbard said. Why that firm specifically – how do you connect with the person who’s interviewing you?
“This goes beyond saying you like their mission, philosophy, overall business or investment strategy, Gelbard said.
A cookie-cutter cover letter may cause hiring managers to assume that this job wasn’t even important enough for you to take the time to write a personalized note.
5. Not having a name
“To Whom it May Concern” and “Dear Sir or Madam” are lazy greetings, experts say.
“In this digital age, a minimal amount of research can tell you who to address your letter to – use this information and what you can gather about the resume reviewer to garner interest,” said Suzanne Havranek, senior recruiter at headhunter Wall Street Services.
6. You fail to mention a referral in the beginning of the letter
Referrals get you noticed and can help you stand out. Omitting the name of the contact who led you to the position, and whose name can be helpful and influential, can result in a lost opportunity to get your resume to the top of the pile, Gelbard said.
Plus, if your contact is in touch with the hiring manager, either at your request or on their own, you can appear ungrateful if you haven’t acknowledged their role in bringing the position to your attention or recommending you. Worse, you may blindside the hiring manager that a third party is involved, Gelbard said.
7. Your claims aren’t backed up on your resume
Few recruiters would recommend purely functional resumes, but spinning it to prominently display your skills over experience is a good tactic.
If you claim an important role in a transaction but can’t talk through the strategy or many specifics, then you will be found out in the phone screening or in-person interview, if you do eventually make it that far.
“No one cares about unverified skills,” said Katsonga-Woodward. “If you say you’re great at something, you have to identify something on your CV that validates the claim.”
There’s a delicate balance though. While you shouldn’t talk about your valuation skills if there’s nothing pertinent on your resume, you also don’t want your cover letter to be a carbon copy of your CV. Refine the information in your resume and explain how it fits their job, at their company.
It's great that you designed a new cost model for a project or structured a specific deal, but it’s important to start with relevant overall contributions and value first, Gelbard said. For example, mention that you drove market share growth], increased profitability, streamlined trading processes and spearheaded entrée into new sectors or geographies – and include figures.
“Hiring managers in most areas of financial services first want to know about your overall attention to the bottom line and relevant experience driving revenue growth, profit, risk mitigation and cost reduction,” Gelbard said. “Then they’d like to know some specifics that contribute to the value you bring to the role.”
8. You sent it via snail mail
This one is actually up for debate, so you’ll have to make your own choice, depending on the situation. Recruiters say that formal cover letters aimed at specific jobs should always be sent via email. But the Barclays banker believes a hard copy cover letter can be beneficial when it comes to networking.
He and his colleagues have mailed signed cover letters to smaller companies – newly launch hedge funds or private equity firms – to stay on their radar.
“Do some research, tell them you’re interested in what they’re doing and toss in a business card,” he said.
Photo credit: Thinkstock