As an Application Adviser who works primarily with the School of Engineering and Materials Science at QMUL, I meet a lot of students who are writing covering letters for jobs and internships. The problems these students encounter are by no means specific to SEMS, nor even to science subjects in general, but there are some specific challenges that science students face when writing covering letters.
One of the main difficulties is finding a balance between technical detail and marketing your more general skills and competencies. Many jobs in engineering require, as you might expect, a high level of technical knowledge and expertise. If this is the case then you need to demonstrate that you have these skills in your covering letter by detailing relevant experience. The trap that some students fall into, however, is to spend most of the covering letter describing, in precise technical detail, the projects they have worked on.
This would be less of a problem if the student explained how these related to the skills specified in the job profile, but more often than not, students assume that whoever’s reading their letter will know what they’re talking about, and furthermore, will know how these experiences relate to the job in question. Unfortunately this is rarely – if ever – the case! The first person to read your covering letter, along with your CV, will most likely be someone from the HR department of the company you’re applying to, and as such may not know anything about the technical aspects of that particular job. Therefore, if it does not meet the specifications laid out in front of them (usually a tick-box list), your application is likely to be rejected before an expert gets the chance to read it.
It’s not overconfidence that causes students to become too technical and/or not explain their work experience, but rather a lack of understanding about what sort of document a covering letter is and what makes it successful. If you think your covering letter might be too technical, try to take a step back from it and read it as if you were someone who didn’t know anything about engineering/biochemistry/physics or whatever it is you’re studying. Would what you’ve written make sense to a non-expert? Would it be clear to them what your skills are and that they match the ones set out in the job profile?
Science students often find this advice frustrating, and understandably so! If you’ve spent years honing specialist skills, then why should you be forced to explain them in general terms, tying them to ‘soft’ skills like teamwork and organisation in the application for a job you’ve spent your entire university career working towards? But the truth is, this is the only way you’ll get your application far enough to be able to demonstrate your skills more fully.
Finding the right balance in your covering letters is something that’s best worked out on an individual basis, so if you’re working on an application and would like some advice, feel free to book an appointment with the Careers & Enterprise Centre. You can meet with a member of the team who will help you tailor your application to make the most of your skills, and make this clear to whoever reads it. You never know – it could be one of the best decisions you make!
Joe Cronin, Application Adviser