We judge books by their covers and resumes by their cover letters. What does your cover letter say about you? Those first few seconds could determine if your resume goes in the trash, or if you’ve intrigued the hiring manager enough to read on.
Cover letters are a crucial aspect of every job application process. From detailing your relevant experience to expressing your passion for a specific company, this critical component cannot be overlooked — especially in such a competitive job market. Let’s make sure yours stands out and showcases why you are a perfect fit for the job.
Here are seven tips for writing a cover letter so that you can get a callback for the next stage of the interview process.
1. Understand That Your Cover Letter Is a Sales Pitch
No matter how qualified you might be, your application is just one of dozens that hiring managers will sort through during the hiring process. Bland, uninspired, or even boring writing can land yours at the bottom of the pile.
The solution? Be a salesperson.
That means you’ve got to hook your audience within the first sentence; every word should focus on how your skills can help the company — not a regurgitation of the skills on your resume.
Cover letters for civil engineering positions should quickly answer some of these questions:
- “Why should we hire this applicant over another candidate?”
- “What qualifications does this applicant have that could help our company?”
- “Why does this applicant want to work at our company?”
2. Know Your Audience
You wouldn’t perform Shakespeare (or tell engineering jokes) at a comedy club, would you? Your cover letter should be handled the same way: You should know everything there is to know about the position and company before touching your keyboard.
For starters, investigate who’ll be setting eyes on your cover letter for the position. Avoid impersonal basic greetings, like “To whom it may concern,” or “Dear hiring team.” Instead, find specific names — even if this means calling the company directly — and address your cover letter accurately.
Additionally, take a look at the company’s website to get a feel for their tone and workplace culture; matching those factors in your application proves you’re both already a good fit.
3. Demonstrate That You’ve Done Your Research
Filling your cover letter with information about your experience and qualifications can diminish your chances if you fail to express the same passion about the company itself. To get the attention of hiring managers, they must recognize your dedication.
One of the best ways to do this is by linking your interests and experience to the role. If you have excellent time management skills, express how you might assist the workforce with specific projects; you can even take it a step further by mentioning a project they’ve done in the past. This demonstrates your abilities while also proving you have more than a surface-level understanding of the organization.
Here is one example of the cover letter of someone who has clearly done their research and understands the needs of the firm to which they are applying: https://www.monster.com/career-advice/article/civil-engineering-cover-letter
4. Include Keywords in the Job Description of Your Cover Letter
Besides highlighting your qualifications, keywords are vital for getting you through automated applicant tracking systems, which many large companies use for screening applicants.
Designed to help hiring managers sort through large volumes of candidates in half the time, ATS systems will scan your application documents, searching for specific keywords. Cover letters and resumes lacking these keywords may be eliminated from evaluation altogether, even if you are the perfect candidate for the job.
To find these keywords, examine the job description and highlight what makes you the most qualified candidate. Then, incorporate those exact words and phrases in your cover letter. Every cover letter should be customized to a specific job application, even if an ATS system is not being used.
5. Use Data
Numbers can speak more than words when it comes to demonstrating your expertise. Your cover letter should reflect some level of hard data (i.e., numbers). I shared a number of examples of transforming a tired, cliche phrase into a data-driven one in this Member Voice on resume mistakes . An obvious route is using numbers to reinforce the skills described in your application.
Some examples include:
- Oversaw 12 projects over 5 years with budgets ranging from $500,000 to $5 million.
- Collaborated on a $12 million project, managing 2 team members.
Replacing phrases like “Team player” or “Leadership abilities” with proven statistics won’t only remove filler, it will also help employers visualize what contributions you could make to the company.
6. Be Concise
Whether you’re aiming for an entry-level job or a top position, you have a lot you want to say and valuable experience you’d like to share. Trim down that information to only the highlights that the manager MUST know and save the rest for discussion during the interview. You only have a few seconds to gain a hiring manager’s attention, and an application bogged down by too much information could eliminate you from consideration.
Think of your cover letter like a highlight reel, where you only have a minute (or less) to share enough information to make the hiring manager think: “I need to talk to that engineer more.”
Cover letters should be one page or less, with every word vetted to determine if it is absolutely necessary. I suggest 3-4 paragraphs maximum following this format:
- Paragraph 1: Hook and reason for contacting them.
- Paragraph 2: Qualifications (with data included). These should be easy to read and in bullet points if possible.
- Paragraph 3: Demonstrate you’ve done your research, prove why you’re passionate about the industry, and express why your qualifications are the best fit for the company.
- Paragraph 4: Closing statement and/or a follow-up statement.
7. State When You Will Follow Up Via Phone in the Letter
You’ve followed the tips listed above, worked hard to hone your most relevant qualifications, and produced an excellent cover letter. Congratulations!
You now move to the most important and often-overlooked part of writing a cover letter and resume: Following up.
No matter how polished your cover letter might be, there’s a fair chance it could get lost somewhere along the way between you and an employer. Many engineers are managing projects AND responsible for hiring, so they are very busy and may have even gotten a phone call while reviewing your information that forced them to put it to the side.
Stating your intention to follow up in your cover letter — and actually doing so — could keep your application from going unnoticed altogether. Furthermore, this proves to companies you’re willing to be proactive. I can say from experience that proactiveness has gotten me hired, and it will get you hired too.
An example of closing your cover letter with a proactive statement is: “I would love to speak with you further about what I can do for the company. I will call on [day] to follow up on my application.”
A poor cover letter: HERE and HERE are two examples of many civil engineering cover letters we find online. They don’t make you stand out and are filled with cliches and no data. Notice how often these both use the word “I.” It’s clear the applicant either doesn’t know or care about the actual company/position they are applying for.
A good cover letter: HERE is an example of a cover letter written to sell yourself. Notice they frame all of their qualifications with data, and speak directly to the employer needs. “I” is used much less frequently than in the previous example, and bullets make the cover letter visually appealing and quick to read. The only thing we don’t like about this cover letter is that the last sentence isn’t particularly proactive; replace it with the suggestion in tip #7.
Stephanie Slocum, PE, M.ASCE, is the founder of Engineers Rising LLC and is a career + business strategist. Stephanie shines light on the barriers to the retention of engineers and provides practical training, inspiration, and mentorship through her online platform and programs. She is a champion of inclusive work cultures and specializes in helping frustrated women in engineering.#Resume
Stephanie is the currently serving on SEI’s Board of Governors and is the chair of the SEI’s Business Practices committee, and has been involved in the past various in other ASCE groups like the task committee on the code of ethics, the ASCE Collaborate Editorial Board, and her state’s infrastructure report card. She is the author of the Amazon.com best‐selling book She Engineers and a winner of the 2020 Connected World’s Women in Technology Award for her work empowering women in engineering. 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.