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Engineering Cover Letter Vacation Work Humor

It's never too early to make a bad impression

A cover letter or introductory email is often the first thing a potential employer sees when reviewing a job applicant. It's the first opportunity to impress recruiters and hiring managers and, therefore, the first opportunity to disappoint them. Everything from copy mistakes to inappropriate jokes in a cover letter could derail an application.

Here are the top ten worst things to put on a cover letter...

(These are words you should never, ever use in a cover letter.)

Next to nothing


While writing something that's too long is a common cover letter mistake, what can be even more damaging is a cover letter that's too short.

Bruce Hurwitz, President of Hurwitz Strategic Staffing, Ltd., a New York-based staffing firm recalls a cover letter he received a few months ago for an entry-level IT sales position. It read simply, "Here's my resume. Call me. (Phone number)."

"I cracked up," Hurwitz says. "This person had only just graduated with a Bachelor's degree. It was ridiculous."

A good cover letter should be somewhere between 200 to 250 words, Hurwitz says, and should answer the question of why a recruiter should look at the resume. "The key is to highlight one success," Hurwitz says. "For example, 'I successfully increased sales 500% over two years, resulting in increased, sustained revenue of $25 million.' Once I read that, I look at the resume."

If you send in your cover letter and application at this time of the day you're more likely to get the job.

Criticism of a prospective employer


Thumbtack.com, a San Francisco-based site that connects customers with small business services, asked potential employees to submit in their cover letters feedback about their website. One candidate, a contender for an entry-level position in April, didn't pull any punches.

"The engineering of your site looks lazy and ineffective," the applicant wrote, proceeding to describe the color scheme of the site as "disconcerting to my eyes."

Needless to say, he was not considered for the position, though not before the hiring manager got in some laughs around the water cooler at his expense.

"We forwarded the cover letter to our managers sort of as a joke," says Sander Daniels, co-founder of the site. "It was the most caustic feedback we received. But we responded kindly to him -- we didn't suggest any improvements to him in approaching other employers. We don't see it as our role to counsel failed candidates."

Daniels observed that while many strong candidates turn in well-written cover letters, some have let the demand for engineers get to their heads, as Silicon Valley romances them with six-figure salaries and other job perks.

"Maybe they think they can get away with it -- but in our company, culture is a very important factor." Daniels says. "Even if Facebook's best engineer came to us, we wouldn't hire him if he was a jerk."

This is how you should really be formatting a business letter.

Personal stories

While employers are sometimes interested in personal stories, especially if they give some idea about work ethic, it's best to save these stories for the interview, says Lindsay Olson of New York-based Paradigm Staffing, who specializes in recruiting communications and marketing professionals.

"I think my favorite of all time was the salesperson who poetically told me about how he decided to run a marathon, climbed to reach glaciers to have a taste of pure water, ran at heights of 5,000 meters in Peru, and biked down the world's most dangerous road and survived (over 300,000 have not)," says Olson, of a candidate who was applying for a business development position at a recruiting firm in June last year. "All this in his opening paragraph."

If you are asked in an interview about your hobbies and adventures, be prepared with a strong answer, says Olson. "What a (job candidate) likes to do outside of work might show how they are in their job," she says. "As a hiring manager, what you don't like to hear is, 'I just like to sit around at home and read books all day.'"

Here's how you can secretly look for a new job while you still have one.

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Awkward language

Rachel Levy, director of marketing at Just Military Loans, a Wilmington, Del.-based personal loan service for military personnel, got a letter last week from a candidate who seemed to be expressing lukewarm interest in an IT analyst position.

"My name is xxx. I am pretty interested in the IT analyst position at Just Military Loans," the letter began.

Levy says she sees many applications, especially for IT jobs, to have grammatical and other language flaws.
"What I've noticed is that there are a lot of people applying to these jobs, for whom English is a second language," Levy says.

"So the connotations of certain words and phrases may not be clear to them. Which is fine, but they should get someone to help word their intentions correctly."

In this case, Levy thinks the applicant meant "very" instead of "pretty," but she'll never know because that applicant didn't get an interview.

This is the most misspelled word on job resumes.

Someone else's words

Monkey Business Images/Shutterstock

Frank Risalvato, a recruiting officer for Inter-Regional Executive Search Inc., is deluged with cover letters from different candidates that all obviously use the same template from the same career coaches.

"Some of these (cover letters) we see are very obviously not written by the individual," says Risalvato. "We get 15 to 20 of these a month, and it sounds disingenuous and insincere, seeing these cover letters from Seattle one week, Chicago another, and it's all the same style."

Some career experts also warn against the tired stand-by opening lines in a cover letter. "Opening a letter with a passive and clichéd statement such as 'Enclosed please find my resume highlighting my experience and skills that would help your company to grow and succeed,'" is a no-no, says Ann Baehr, certified professional resume writer and president of New York-based Best Resumes. "It's best to use something catchy and more specific such as, "If your company could benefit from the expertise of a hard-charging sales producer with a flawless record of success for closing tier-one Fortune 500 prospects in the healthcare technology market and capturing millions of dollars in revenue, please take a moment to review the attached resume."

If you're uncomfortable with that approach, make your cover letter unique to you with insights about the company you're applying to, advises Darrell Gurney, Los Angeles-based founder of career coaching site Careerguy.com and author of Backdoor Job Search: Never Apply For A Job Again!.

"Put in a note saying something like, 'I've been following your company's progress in the last year and in February and I noticed your company was mentioned in the Journal of such and such,'" Gurney says. "That's the amazing thing about the Internet. You can spend 15 minutes online and look like you've been following them for a year."

Gurney reminds applicants to do their full research on the company if they do get called in for an interview after.

This is how many people lie on their job resumes.

Irrelevant experience


As noteworthy as an impressive Girl Scout cookies sales record may be, it's not worth trumpeting that experience when trying to break into a field like software sales. Rich DeMatteo, co-founder of Philadelphia-based Social Media Marketing firm Bad Rhino, remembers a candidate who did just that when he was working as a corporate recruiter at a software company.

"I was recruiting for a software sales position and one candidate was sure she was qualified because of her success selling Girl Scout cookies when she was a young girl," DeMatteo says. "I think she was young and didn't realize how important it is to state the right experience. Younger applicants tend to reach for skills, and try to find them anywhere in their life."

Some candidates take it even further, acknowledging they have no relevant skills, but pushing to be hired anyway.

"I read one for an IT analyst position that says, 'Although my qualifications do not exactly match your needs, the close proximity to my home is a big bonus for me,'" Levy of Just Military Loans recalls. "You have a lot of underqualified people just out of college just throwing resumes at the wall, and hoping something sticks."

DeMatteo suggests trying to focus on specific sales figures or experience in relevant projects. "A lot of sales, for instance, is numbers-based. Stick to that."

This is the most important section on your resume.


It's one thing to promote yourself favorably in a cover letter, but watch that it doesn't degenerate into overt bragging.

This is especially true when it comes to ambiguous skills, says Jennifer Fremont-Smith, CEO of Smarterer, a Boston-based tech startup aimed at helping IT applicants improve their resumes.

"People claim to have things like, 'superior Internet skills.' What does that even mean?" says Fremont-Smith. "I saw an application from a Web developer about a month ago where he described himself as a 'rockstar in design tools,' and an 'expert in developer tools.' That kind of inflated language doesn't really tell your employer much about your skills."

Fremont-Smith recommends carefully personalizing your cover letter to the employer and listing the most relevant of skills for the job you want, and why you want it. "The cover letter is the place to tell your story about why it is that you're the right person for the company," she says. "It's about really crafting a narrative that answers the question of why the employer should talk to you."

These 9 resume mistakes could cost you the job.

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Wrong company name or wrong cover letter

Syda Productions/shutterstock

Talk about mistakes that are easy to avoid.

"The biggest mistake I see on a regular basis is that candidates either misspell the name of the company or get the name wrong," says Gary Hewing of Houston-based Bert Martinez Communications LLC. "If it's a small misspelling like 'Burt' instead of 'Bert', I'd be willing to overlook that. But the big, unforgivable mistake is when someone copies and pastes a cover letter without the name or address to the correct company. That, to me, is someone who's lazy and not paying attention."

Hewing says sometimes it's hard to tell if a cover letter was meant for a particular job, even if the candidate got the company name and position right, if they talk about disconnected experience without explaining themselves.

"We're a sales organization, but at least twice a month, we'll get a cover letter with someone talking about their banking background instead of sales," says Hewing. "It's a complete disconnect to the job description and it doesn't even explain if the candidate is seeking a career change. It tells me that they're just not paying attention."

Cultural preferences

Job hunting is often compared to dating: It's about finding the right match; and success hinges on staying cool under pressure and masking anxieties to appear confident instead of desperate. But a few candidates take the dating analogy too far, subjecting hiring managers to long lists of personal likes and dislikes in cover letters.

"This one guy wrote the first part of his cover letter talking about his interests like it was an ad for an online dating site," Olson of Paradigm Staffing says, about an applicant trying for a PR job. "He likes all types of music, but 'never got into country.'"

While potentially charming to a possible mate, those tidbits are not helpful in a cover letter.


Breaking the ice with humor isn't necessarily a bad idea, but jokes in cover letters are usually a turn-off for busy employers, say recruiters. It might be better to save them for the interview, if they are to be used at all. Olson recalled a candidate for a communications executive position who rubbed an employer the wrong way with an off-color joke.

"She decided in her interview, for some reason, to compare kids to Nazis," says Olson. "She thought she was being funny, but the interviewer happened to be Jewish and didn't think she was very funny."

Recruiters agree that it's best to stick with tried-and-true unfunny, but effective conventional pitches about your education and work experience.

"The thing with trying to be chummy and funny is that you lose credibility," says Gurney of Careerguy.com. "It looks desperate. And the worst thing you can do in job-seeking is looking desperate or needy."

More: Work & CareerJob Issues

In between study, work and extra-curricular commitments, finding time to apply for vacation work is no easy task. To save you time, our Master of Engineering (Chemical with Business) student Justin Moscatelli reveals his tips for applying for vacation work:

Vacation programs are a great way to gain practical work experience in an industry of interest and provide an opportunity to apply university knowledge to real-world projects. However, in an increasingly competitive environment, this can be a challenging process – with thousands of students seeking a limited number of positions. As a penultimate year Master of Engineering student, I have been looking to find a vacation internship program over the 2015/2016 summer break. Here are some experiences and tips from my application process.

Step 1 – Experiences, Achievements and Academic Results

TIP: Make sure you get involved as early as possible, as much as possible!

For me, the process began a lot earlier than simply the application opening dates for these vacation programs. I knew I needed to submit a resume, cover letter, academic transcript and, if I made it to an interview or assessment centre, I needed to sell myself and my interests. As such, over the past few years I’ve focused on developing my experiences and improving my academic results.

In the current engineering market, companies are not only looking for excellence, but well-rounded engineers who are committed to their own professional development. So, academic grades are important, but it’s the extracurricular involvement that employers are also looking for. Focus on working hard to achieve a respectable (WAM) average, as most employers won’t consider anything below a 65%.

Make sure you are involved! As a University of Melbourne student, no doubt you’ll have an exceptional technical ability. However, you’ll also need to be involved in experiences that show off your soft-skills such as your ability to communicate effectively with a wide range of people, leadership skills, team working ability and time management. This means leading teams, participating in group assignments, holding leadership roles, dealing with conflict and presenting to audiences. Employers seek students with broad experiences, those that put themselves outside of their comfort zone and are able to adapt to foreign situations. With these experiences and extracurricular activities, you’ll be able to develop a significantly stronger resume and overall application.

Step 2 – Resume and Cover Letter Preparation (Mid-Semester Break)

TIP: Make sure your resume is up to date before beginning your applications. If you have LinkedIn, make sure this is up to date too.

With a little foresight, the mid-semester break provided a great opportunity to get ahead on the application process. I was able to concentrate on building a solid resume and an adaptable cover letter, ready for when applications opened at a later stage. My resume needed a decent update to include all my new activities and experiences over the last semester. I also needed a better format. One that I liked the look of was the STEM resume provided by the Melbourne Careers Centre. This site also listed some handy tips on developing a professional resume that best highlighted my experiences. Another service to consider is the resume and cover letter ‘Drop-In Sessions’ held at the Science Student Centre for proofreading and second opinions.

I also prepared a cover letter that briefly outlined my skills, achievements and motivation for applying for a vacation internship program. This needed to be individually tailored depending on the company and industry I was applying for. The general approach I used included an introductory paragraph outlining my motivation as a penultimate year student seeking a vacation internship, followed by a paragraph detailing my interest in the company and industry I was applying for. Finally, a paragraph explaining my skills and experiences. An easy way to adapt the cover letter to each company is simply to include key words from the job listing. For example, if the requirements include ‘candidates with a can-do attitude, who are willing to show initiative and can work collegially within a team’, make sure these key words are included in your cover letter!

Step 3 – Applications (July/August)

The next step, now that your resume and cover letter are up to scratch – is the actual job seeking part! Most vacation program applications are open around July to August, however there are still some outside of this period. For your applications, you’ll need to consider the following:

  1. Which fields or industries interest you? Would you be interested in industry, consulting, research or business? You’ll need to tailor your cover letter to include your reasons why this area interests you.
  2. Where are you looking to work? Often vacation programs can involve travelling to different states, so it’s important to consider your interests and any costs involved in travelling for a vacation position.
  3. Are there any companies that stand out as interesting/exciting/challenging/reputable places to work? Top Intern Programs is a great way to get an idea of the best internship programs as voted by undergraduates.
  4. Start compiling a list of companies that offer vacation programs. Melbourne University Careers Online, GradConnection, SEEK and other job sites are the best places to look initially. Careers fairs held on campus, industry nights, student clubs, lecturers and your peers are also a great source of information about companies that hire engineering students in vacation programs.

The Institute of Chemical Engineers (IChemE) provides a list of companies offering vacation work to Chemical and Environmental Engineers

  1. Most vacation programs require a cover letter, CV and academic transcript. However a large majority also require you to answer a number of questions to provide more information on your work experience (industry related or part-time roles), volunteering, leadership roles, specific reasons for applying and what you hope to achieve from a vacation program. I found that compiling a list of questions and answers, which I had submitted, was helpful as I could recycle or tweak answers to save time in other applications!
  2. Further options for vacation work include submitting expressions of interest to companies and their HR departments. Some may not actively advertise vacation work, while other companies may have work suitable for students over the vacation period (while not formally providing vacation programs).
  3. Keep in mind the closing date for applications. Get in early as some companies close their recruitment process once they receive a certain number of applications. This means you’ll also need to manage your time between your applications and studies. Juggling applications with studies can be tricky so it’s important to be prepared before semester starts.

Step 4: Responses (September/October):

TIP: Whenever you receive an email stating that your application has been unsuccessful, don’t feel bad – apply for another vacation program or company instead!

If you’ve made a real effort in your applications, hopefully around September/October you are starting to hear back from a few companies. You may start to receive links to complete online abilities tests or web interviews. Make sure you set aside a time to complete these and are able to fully focus on the task – some online tests are very challenging!

After passing these stages, you may make it to an interview, often in person, but sometimes over the phone. Make sure you prepare for these as recruiters can gauge if you haven’t done any preparation, ramble or don’t fully answer the question. I found Glassdoor helpful as it lists experiences, interview questions and tips from previous job seekers. Often these are directly related to the vacation program you are applying for. Typically, interviews involve a range of technical questions, such as how you would approach or deal with a specific technical problem. Behavioural questions are also extremely common and examples include an explanation of a time when you displayed leadership characteristics, worked collaboratively within a team or resolved conflict. Many companies also have a specific structure in which they would like you to answer, focussing on the situation, actions you took and the result you achieved. You can often find more information about this requirement on the company’s website.

It’s also helpful to have a genuine interest in the company and industry. Make sure you research the company, location/industries they operate in, their current developments, past internship projects and anything else that would be considered useful. This is a proactive step and shows a passion and interest to your interviewers, signalling that you are enthusiastic about the company and industry.

Step 5: Outcome (Summer Vacation Period):

Finally, if you make it past the applications, online tests, interviews and references checks – congratulations! Your hard work during your studies and extracurricular activities as well as the application process has paid off. You’ll work hard, challenge yourself and develop your skills over the summer, but don’t forget to enjoy yourself and take in as much as possible. Treat your vacation work program as a three month job interview, if you do and are considered suitable, you could end up with an offer for a graduate position!

Tags: Biomedical Engineering, chemical and biomolecular engineering, Civil Engineering, computer science and software engineering, computing and information systems, electrical and electronic engineering, Industry, infrastructure engineering, mechanical engineering, Melbourne School of Information, MSE, Structural Engineering, teaching and learning
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