Resume books (or the internet) will give you a lot of information and tips on how to write your resume, what to include, that you should try to find out the person’s name etc. E.g. try the classic ‘What Color is your Parachute’. Rather than repeating what these books/sites will tell you, I would make some recommendations from a different angle:
Put yourself in their shoes:
Think about what the person receiving the cover letter really wants (not just what they are supposed to want). If it’s an HR manager (any larger firm) they want a list of candidates they think the manager would accept, that they don’t have to spend a lot of time on (they are going to be more concerned about the new senior hires, new HR program being rolled out etc).
This means they want candidates that tick boxes. If the advertisement doesn’t list the boxes, try the boxes from the resume book. Use the words from the advert in your letter/resume. If the cover letter doesn’t grab them they won’t read the resume. So you probably have two paragraphs to convince them you should be on the list and tick – anyone I know sorts into ‘no’, ‘maybe’ and ‘yes’ piles before even looking into the resumes. The maybe pile only gets looked again at if there are less than 5 in the ‘yes’ pile – because they have to give the manager a list.
The cover letter should use succinct, clear language and be totally error free (don’t forget to spell check the ‘Re:’ line!). If you can make a sentence shorter, do so!
This means the cover letter needs to be short on waffle – you don’t have space to waste. I’ve seen letters with phrases like ‘It’s my objective to obtain experience with delivering superior customer service in an xyz environment’. My response is ‘so what’. I already know the company is an xyz environment, and claiming you want to do xyz doesn’t mean you can do it, or tell me anything other than ‘I want this’. Maybe it just demonstrates you understand what the company does – but you’ve wasted important real estate right up front. Every candidate ‘wants a fulfilling career’ etc. My question is ‘why should you have it over the other 200 people’. What I’d rather read is ‘I won employee of the month 3 times last year in my customer service front desk role at McDonalds’. Now you’ve told me some facts, which happen to demonstrate a relevant point (if customer service is involved – e.g. in an engineering sales role). You could use the same facts to demonstrate you are a hard worker (implied by being the winner), that you have good people skills, that you are organised and efficient – whatever attribute you think they are looking for. ‘I am organised and efficient, demonstrated by winning employee of the month 3 times in my part-time role at McDonalds’.
Of course, at the start of your career, you often don’t have these kind of facts to put in front of them. For an engineering job, you might point out ‘I received a credit average in (subject vaguely relevant to job) and am keen to start using this knowledge in the real world.’ ‘I am very organised and have put in place a new member management system in the student society’. ‘I use my initiative. I wrote a software program to manage orders at the pizza parlor where I work part time’. I.e. try to support claims with facts, or at least most claims. If you claim to have attention to detail, but make a typo, you claim one thing but demonstrate another.
Then think about what the engineering manager wants. I have people volunteering to work for me, for free, all the time, but I’ve never taken one on. The time it would take to supervise them would cut into my own time so badly I’d be losing a lot of money, and the work they could do for me won’t be very valuable. Most people don’t realise this until they have been the employer, and that attitude comes through (not helpful). Of course, in a lot of situations the employer is getting a chance to try out a possible graduate hire, but that doesn’t take away from today’s situation, you will be taking the manager’s time. So, demonstrating that you don’t need close supervision is a good thing.
E.g. at abc job, I was instructed to do efg. (a broad instruction or outcome). I put together a proposal of 3 options with costings, including sourcing possible suppliers and delivery time frames (it could have been buying a new office printer, the point is to demonstrate you understand business process and can plan it by yourself). My manager approved an option and I …(liaised with another department?). If a manager can tell you to organise a new printer, and you come back with ‘here are the sensible choices, which one shall I arrange’ you have saved time instead of costing it. Even though it has nothing to do with the ‘real’ job of engineering.
What do you really want, strategically, long term. Do you want to get into a large corporate company with a graduate program? International? Which industry? Don’t just jump at any old job (but any job is better than none). Researching a company is a lot easier these days than 20 years ago. Do it. Work out where you want to work when you finish your degree. Then work backwards – what do I need to get there? If you need to ‘pad’ your resume to get that job, you need to find part time jobs, student societies etc, and turn them into measureable outcomes you can put in the resume ‘I organised and ran 15 student events as Secretary of the xyz’. OR, I arranged for seminar by (visiting academic) to be given. I put together a proposal for approval by the Dean. The seminar could just be given by someone in business as part of one of your subjects – ask a lecturer if they could present next term for half an hour and arrange it – demonstrates initiative, networking, organisation – and the lecturer can prepare one less lecture for the term.
Managers and HR people will want a list of candidates who demonstrate they understand how the world works simply by the way they put together the letter and resume – you were smart enough to identify what they wanted and how to meet their needs – which makes you useful to have around. Remember that being hired isn’t really about the person being hired (graduate programs etc will talk about you, a lot, but they are trying to make sure all the top candidates apply so they can get their pick) – it’s about filling a role and about making the person doing the hiring’s job easier. You have to join the dots for them about why you are the best candidate.
Best of luck