Do you have an engineering dream job? You know, the one for that company you’ve been following online for months, if not years?
Three years out of college, I knew exactly where I wanted to work. Unfortunately, when I graduated there were no job openings available there.
One night after work – and frustrated with my current position - I clicked through the company’s website where there were still no job openings listed.
I decided to take matters into my own hands. I poured over the online information available. I spent time determining what skills I could showcase that would make me a great fit for this company next time a position opened.
I then designed a cover letter and resume, overnighting them to the owner of that small business. I followed up with a (cold) phone call the next week. I remember feeling nervous, my hands clammy as I slowly typed the phone number into my cell phone, thinking I likely wouldn’t make it past the company’s gatekeepers to anyone in a position to make a hiring decision.
On that day I made it through to the owner. It turned out that they did have a job opening but hadn’t had time yet to post it. I ended up working at that company for more than 10 years.
That dream position started with a well-written resume. It opened the door to a conversation, next an interview and ultimately a job.
Since then, as a structural engineer turned career coach, I’ve reviewed, edited, and proofread my fair share of resumes. The overwhelming majority of them have been for students, early-career and niche-changing civil engineering professionals.
I see a lot of the same mistakes made over and over again. Mistakes that, if not corrected, exclude engineers from consideration for jobs that might be perfect for them.
Additionally, my team and I have done a deep dive into the research available from top engineering job search platforms and experts in engineering resume writing. The results paralleled the common mistakes I’d already seen in my own review of civil engineering resumes.
These mistakes are easy to fix, so we’re pulling back the curtain so you can craft a winning resume that gets you a job. Here are the top seven mistakes civil engineers make on their resumes (and what you should be doing instead), as shown by our collective research and experience.
1. Not tailoring your resume to each position
Every resume should be unique to the specific position and company for which you are applying. With the sole exception of job fairs, the only place for a generic resume is as your own template that starts the resume-creation process.
Quickly create a customized resume by printing out the job description and highlighting each item for which you have a qualification. Then, modify your resume template with those exact words, phrases and keywords that showcase how well your qualifications align with the advertised position.
You often have less than one minute to grab the attention of those with hiring authority before they move to the next resume. In large organizations, your resume will be put through an automated system and will be eliminated from consideration – often without even contacting you – if the resume does not include phrases and keywords from the job description.
Give yourself the best chance for making it to the interview process by crafting a unique resume for every position.
2. Too much information
Overwhelming a potential employer with irrelevant and unnecessary information puts that resume on the fast track to the “no” pile.
The purpose of a resume is to help you move to the next step in a company’s hiring process. Increase your chances for a callback by demonstrating that you are a match to the job qualifications and eliminating all other unnecessary information.
Every resume word should be critically vetted to determine if it is actually necessary from the perspective of the person hiring you. This is especially true for things like certifications, non-engineering-related experience, college coursework, volunteer activities, publications and awards.
Similarly, if your resume says “References available upon request,” delete that line right now.
Ask yourself: “If I was the hiring manager and had 40 more resumes to review, would I care about this particular detail?” If the answer is “no,” eliminate it.
Be concise, and eliminate unnecessary information.
3. Telling, not showing
The stakes are high when you’re writing a resume. Sometimes it’s especially challenging to determine how to phrase a particular achievement or skill. For that reason, we often see civil engineering resumes with overused clichés, weak adjectives and generic corporate-speak that has no real meaning.
Examples include: “Driven technical professional with excellent work ethic;” “Increased efficiency as a project manager;” “Team player with great communication skills;” “Go-getter with leadership ability;” “Trained and supervised work crews;” and “Completed site visits and wrote field reports with supervisor oversight.”
A better approach is to demonstrate to potential employers what you have done in quantifiable ways (i.e. numbers). For example:
“Driven technical professional with excellent work ethic” becomes “Regarded as one of consulting firm’s most highly requested engineers, maintaining 89% or higher billable utilization for the past two years.”
“Increased efficiency as a project manager” becomes “Co-developed an automated project management spreadsheet that saves $10K per project.”
“Trained and supervised work crews” becomes “Trained and supervised five personnel utilizing 2,500 man hours.”
“Completed site visits and wrote field reports with supervisor oversight” becomes “Completed 15 forensic investigations on commercial buildings. Co-authored technical reports identifying seven major defects found during investigations.”
4. Lack of detail
A lack of detail in a resume sends the message that you do not have sufficient qualifications.
Engineers love details, especially project-specific details. Make it easy for the hiring manager to invite you for an interview by demonstrating that the types of projects you’ve worked on make you an ideal candidate for a position.
Showcase the projects you’ve worked on in one of two ways: 1) If you’re a student or have worked on only a few projects, simply include them within each section of your resume; 2) If you’ve worked on numerous project types (common for professionals with a few years’ experience), create a “Relevant Project List” section in your resume, in a table format. List project types similar to those in the job description. Types of details to consider including (assuming relevancy to the position) are overall project construction costs, industry sector, type of project, materials designed and project delivery methods.
For students, this can be a really helpful way to showcase a thesis project or other class group or individual projects that will make you stand out from other applicants.
5. Hard-to-read format
First-job resumes are typically one page; second-job (and beyond) resumes are typically no more than two pages. Because of this, engineers often attempt to cram too much information onto the page (see #2) and compensate by making the font size or margins too small.
Civil engineering is a very visual field. Construction drawings are the primary tool we use to bring our designs from imagination to reality. As a result, most civil engineers are extremely visual. Make your resume stand out visually by using the following guidelines:
- Include the most important information first. Hiring managers are not going to dig through your resume looking for information relevant to them. If critical qualifications are not near the top of the page, they are likely to be missed. For students, that usually means education is above experience. For experienced professionals, experience is higher than education. I can’t tell you how many professional resumes I’ve seen that still have education placed first.
- Use professional fonts in 10-12 point. Do not use script or custom fonts (and that includes your name!).
- Limit or eliminate blocks of paragraph text. Use bullet points.
- Use white space judiciously. It’s sometimes difficult to see on a screen if a resume has too little white space. Solve that problem by printing your resume before submitting it (even online). Resumes should look clean and not-overcrowded, both on screen and in print.
- Align headings (seriously, if you don’t align them, it drives a lot of engineers crazy!). Use tables with invisible borders to align.
- Use the chronological resume format if possible. Many engineers view non-traditional resume formats with suspicion (as if you are trying to hide something). If you have circumstances such as employment gaps, career sabbaticals, or are changing engineering niches (i.e. going from transportation to water), consider a hybrid format, as opposed to a functional resume.
Spell-check and grammar-check is only the first step. There are numerous errors that neither will catch.
Engineering-specific acronyms, software, and certifications are primary culprits. Common grammar/spelling mistakes include “their vs there;” “it versus it’s;” “write vs right;” “than vs then;” “preform vs perform;” and “principal vs principle.”
Additionally, double-check that all the contact information on your resume is valid. I have seen contact information with one letter wrong in the email address, and phone numbers from out-of-state applicants that did not include an area code. I have seen links in resumes that did not work.
Errors also include actual or perceived dishonesty. Don’t exaggerate your qualifications. Even if it was an honest mistake, if the person interviewing you believes you submitted a resume with exaggerated or false qualifications, you will immediately be disqualified.
Details matter. We’ve seen a surprising number of resumes with these types of errors. We are engineers – lack of attention to detail can cause a design to fail. If you can’t take the time to make sure your resume is error-free, why would an employer trust you to pay attention to the details on the job?
7. Creating the perfect resume and stopping there
As I shared in my own story, my resume opened the door, but it was also accompanied by a cover letter (also tailored to the specific company and position I wanted) and follow-up. Without the follow-up, specifically, it’s likely that I would not have received a call-back until much later in that firm’s interview process, if at all. My resume would have been placed in a pile for “later.”
Completing a well-written resume is just the start of the job-application process. Want to increase your chances for an interview? Try these:
- Send your resume via an employee referral if at all possible. According to this Forbes article, 85% of respondents found their job through networking. Ask for introductions, and don’t be afraid to make new connections on LinkedIn (that can be nurtured long before you apply for a position!)
- Craft a cover letter that shows (not tells!) why you are great candidate for the specific position for which you are applying.
- Follow up. In my example, I added a line at the end of that cover letter that said I would follow up in one week to confirm receipt of my resume and ask if they had any questions about how I could help them.
- A phone call follow up – especially for small or mid-size firms – is generally more effective than an email follow up. Those hiring are bombarded with emails daily; it’s likely your email will get buried in day-to-day work.
Stephanie's Civil Engineering Resume Checklist
Stephanie's Interview Question Prep Blog
Examples of Do's and Don'ts for Civil Engineering Resumes
Stephanie Slocum is an engineer, author, and entrepreneur. As the founder of Engineers Rising LLC, she helps engineers own their influence and worth so they can be recognized as the superstars they are and rock their careers on their own terms.
Stephanie is the volunteer Director of the ASCE Collaborate Editorial Board, a member of ASCE’s Task Committee on the Code of Ethics, and co-champion for the schools category in PA’s 2018 ASCE Infrastructure Report Card. She is the current chair of the Structural Engineering Institute’s (SEI) Business Practices committee and a member of the NCSEA SE3 committee on retention and engagement. Prior to founding Engineers Rising, she worked in structural engineering building consulting for 15 years. She holds a bachelor’s and master’s degrees in architectural engineering.