A graduate engineer’s guide to cover letters and CVs

Don't get it wrong: here is your guide to crafting the perfect cover letter and CV for graduate engineering programs.
Ryan Matthews
Team GradAustralia
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First impressions are lasting, so it pays to ensure that the cover letter and CV that you submit as part of your graduate application give prospective employers a reason to reach out to you. By investing time in your cover letter and CV, you can draw attention to your relevant academic credentials and work experience, as well as any soft skills or personal interests. To help you put your best foot forward, we’ve assembled some tips on how to create a killer cover letter and resume.

Creating a standout cover letter

The basics

A cover letter is like a sales pitch and what you’re trying to sell is your own suitability for a target job. Successful cover letters:

  • Highlight the important parts of your resume.
  • Provide a sample of your written communication skills.
  • Show how your skills, education and experience are relevant to the position for which you’re applying.
  • Address any specific selection criteria in the job advertisement.
  • Draw attention to your achievements.
  • Use appropriate formatting and a professional and confident tone of voice.
  • Encourage prospective employers to read further.

Why invest time in writing a good cover letter?

Your covering letter is an opportunity to convince the engineering employer in question that you want to work in their industry, for their specific organisation and in the role they have advertised. For example, why do you want to use your mechanical engineering degree in the rail industry specifically? What’s the appeal of following a commercial route rather than a more technical one? How are you more suitable than other candidates? A cover letter should answer all of these questions, while also providing the basic information that recruiters might need to get in touch with any further questions.

The contents

A cover letter should include the following:

  • Your personal/ contact details  
  • The date  
  • 'A salutation/greeting  
  • How you heard about the job/company  
  • What attracts you to the job or company'
  • (you can mention recent projects or significant staff)
  • Why you believe you would be an asset to the team  
  • How you will follow up  
  • A closing/signature.

Structure and tone

Your cover letter should have a clear structure with an introduction that highlights your key reasons for being an eligible candidate; a summary of your relevant skills and experiences, organised into clear paragraphs; and a closing statement that reiterates your interest in the job, thanks the employer for their time, and includes a ‘soft pitch’. For example, you might write something like: ‘I look forward to speaking with you further about how I can make a positive contribution to your team’.

Throughout the letter, your tone should be polite and professional. This doesn’t mean, however, that you should tie yourself in knots trying to sound overly formal. Simply avoid colloquial language wherever possible and focus on providing evidence of why you should be hired (as opposed to simply claiming to be ‘excellent’ or ‘talented’).  

Keep your cover letter succinct – it should be no longer than one A4 page and have your details clearly written as part of a letterhead. Related points should be organised into separate paragraphs to facilitate reader comprehension and prevent the appearance of ‘busyness’ on the page.

Using the ‘STAR’ method to write a cover letter

The trick to writing a successful cover letter is to have a clear idea of what the company does and what the job entails. You can then draw out evidence of your own relevant skills, interests and experience. Here, the more specific you can be, the better. For example, instead of simply writing that you’ve ‘interned at a leading structural engineering firm’, you could say ‘as an intern, I contributed to a project that led to savings of $X’.  

A popular and effective way to present such information is by using the STAR technique. STAR stands for ‘situation, task, action, and result’. In other words, you briefly summarise the context in which you confronted a challenge or opportunity; identify what it required you to do; describe the steps you took; and share the results.

Get to the top of the pile: writing a successful CV

A curriculum vitae (CV or vita) is a written overview of your experience and other qualifications for a job opportunity. Writing one can be time-consuming. However, the good news is that, once complete, the same CV can be submitted with minor tweaks to multiple employer.

The basics

A CV should concisely outline your relevant educational history, work experience, professional accomplishments and qualifications. It may also include details of referees (if requested). A successful CV:

  • Use a clear font in a reasonable size.
  • Guides the reader with logical headings and well-structured bullet points.
  • Presents information in a skills-focused or chronological format.
  • Emphasises skills or job experiences that are particularly relevant to the job description.

Why invest time in writing a good CV?

The role of a CV is to provide recruiters and prospective employers with an easily scannable summary of your achievements so that they can decide whether or not to progress your application by offering you an interview.

As an engineering graduate, you’ll often find that your educational pedigree is similar to other applicants, many of whom will have completed near-identical degrees at equivalent institutions. Consequently, it’s worth taking the time to figure out what differentiates you from the crowd before subtly emphasising it in your CV.

For example, you might bill yourself as an engineer with strong communication skills and include, in your CV, the fact that you volunteered for a student radio station. Or perhaps you speak another language, love coding or have a specific five-year goal that the role you're applying for will help you to achieve. Giving your CV a novel ‘twist’ is a surefire way to make sure it doesn’t get lost in all the noise.

The contents

An engineering CV should include the following:

  • Your contact details, including your phone number, address and email
  • Your residency status
  • A short personal statement
  • A career overview (with an emphasis on industry positions, or on the transferable skills of other jobs you’ve had)
  • A summary of your education and training
  • A list of any professional accreditations/other qualifications you have (this is where you should mention if you’ve received, say, a certificate for the completion of a coding course)
  • Details of your referees (or an explicit offer to provide them)

Education

Your educational history from your university years should include your predicted or actual degree grades, information on group projects and your dissertation, any units relevant to the job, and relevant academic awards. Engineering employers don’t need to know the specifics of units that don’t relate to them.

Work experience

You should prioritise any engineering work experience you might have, and highlight specific accomplishments that are relevant to the position for which you’re applying.

Of course, as a graduate, your experience in engineering may be limited. Fortunately, many engineering employers look very favourably on achievements and experiences outside engineering. Examples worth mentioning include fundraising, voluntary work, independent overseas travel, sporting achievements or leading roles in university clubs or societies. You needn’t go into too much detail – a summary of your achievements and any relevant transferable skills (eg. leadership, teamwork or problem-solving skills) will suffice.

Structure and tone

The most common CV format is the reverse-chronological approach, which presents your most recent work experience and educational accomplishments first. If you follow this approach, make sure that the chronology is clear and that there are no large gaps which could confuse or concern employers. For example, if you took a year off to go travelling between jobs, you might even include that as a CV entry.

As with your cover letter, your tone should be polite and professional, and your entries as specific and detailed as possible. Here are some tips to get you started:

  • Describe achievements, not just job titles. Don’t just say that you were ‘an intern at Arup’ – mention specifically what you accomplished, learned or contributed.
  • Emphasise more recent jobs and achievements.
  • Be honest – you should expect that your CV will be read critically and that important points will be cross-checked with referees or industry databases.
  • Keep paragraphs to three or four lines maximum and space them well. This helps the reader pick out the main facts and assimilate a number of points quickly.
  • Use bullet points wherever they add clarity and visual style.
  • When writing bullet points, use direct action words such as  ‘designed … ’, ‘built ... ’ and ‘organised … ’. This has the effect of assigning credit to you for your achievements and enhances the CV’s overall credibility.
  • Prioritise relevance but also leave some room for hobbies, sports activities, or other personal interests that have the effect of emphasising your well-roundedness.

Next up: a graduate engineer’s guide to assessment centres and interviews.