You need to nail the cover letter and resume to even have a shot of becoming a trader/banker/consultant/what have you.
Many aspirants try to "stand out" from the competition by getting creative and informal. I've seen this happen before -- let me tell you, 99.9% of the time they stand out for the wrong reasons.
Here are some humorous examples:
- Applying to a management consulting firm, a junior at a non-target school sent a PowerPoint deck -- each slide telling a different section of his resume. It was 20 pages -- or, in other words, 19 pages too long.
- Applying to a bulge bracket firm, one applicant applied for a sales & trading internship. His cover letter was filled with a list of trading ideas.
- At another bulge bracket firm, an applicant for a full time investment banking position talked about he worked 2 days non-stop on a group project at school--he used this experience as a qualification for the job. (even though this may have been true, the cover letter is not a space to talk about long hours of an IBD analyst)
Finally, here is what a cover letter should do:
A cover letter is meant to highlight your strengths and steer the recruiter to rally for you. A cover letter is compelling when it tells a marketable story -- it should pitch why a firm should hire you. At the same time, it shouldn't be pretentious and boastful -- one of the worst things is if you come off as a tremendous tool. Recruiters can sense that and won't think twice about not offering you the interview or job, regardless of how stellar you think you are.
From the firm's point of view, a cover letter is used to gauge:
1. how articulate the candidate is -- some candidates are outstanding academically, but what if you can't talk or present yourself well?
2. how polished and crisp the candidate is -- if you have typos and can't be concise, do you think the firm would entrust you with work they will show to clients?
3. the candidate's true interest in the job and the firm -- especially in later rounds, recruiters will refer back to the cover letter to make those tough decisions on who really researched the firm and is the best fit in their corporate culture
That being said, what should a cover letter have to be successful?
An excellent cover letter accomplishes three things, all within the space of one page:
1. Why are you excited about working at Firm X?
2. Why are you set on being a banker/consultant/trader/etc?
3. Why should Firm X hire you?
Though this seems like an easy task, most applicants give generic, trite, and overused answers. Successful applicants have done the research--speaking with people at their desired firms and reading up on the industry--to write a personal and memorable cover letter.
Which brings me to my next point: exceptional cover letters, by themselves, do not mean that you will land a job. Cover letters need to go hand in hand with a strong resume. Without a strong resume, it's difficult to write a strong cover letter.
The resume, like the cover letter, should tell a compelling story on why the firm should you. Recruiters often spend 30 seconds to a minute looking at your resume--what is the message and takeaways you want to get across?
- High quantitative ability -- especially for liberal arts majors
- Strong sales / interpersonal skills -- which matter a lot more as you become more senior and take on more client responsibilities
- Past achievement in a team setting -- working in a professional firm is not like writing an essay in the library alone for class; be prepared to show how you thrived and led a team in the past
- Leadership and engagement on campus -- active and involved student leaders tend to do well in a professional setting, taking charge of projects and capitalizing on opportunities
- Record of strong results in whatever you have done -- to land a job at a selective firm, you need to convey that you've driven and successful
The more of these you have, the better.
Some more technical details on the resume:
- Don't pack on everything you've done: pick and choose the most important experiences that highlight your strengths
- Include your GPA. And many bulge bracket firms will also request to see your SAT / ACT scores, or GMAT. Without these, firms will often throw out your application.
- Focus on results, not the process. No one cares if you spent your days doing data entry, compiling a PIB, answering sales calls. How did your efforts lead to actual contributions? That is what recruiters are interested in knowing.