“Engineering is about solving problems in a disciplined fashion. Anything you’ve done that demonstrates that skill will stand out to recruiters,” says career advisor Randy Iliff.
Emily Bernstein, senior recruiter at Pennoni Associates, reviews hundreds of applications every week. For her, there’s no question how important projects are. “Projects are a major plus,” she says. “Applicants should always show examples of things they worked on or built, even if they’re collaborative.”
What Employers are Looking For
Your senior project isn’t just like completing any other assignment. It’s a test of how you approach problems, your work ethic, your personal qualities, and how you are likely to fit in with a potential employer.
Kevin Walsh of Lockheed Skunk Works sums up how he evaluates resumes. “We have minimum GPA requirements, but grades are less important than attitude. Senior projects are really important to us. We want an understanding of their thought processes in how they identified their project and solved the problems.”
What your project says about you is far more than just whether you got the results you wanted. For example:
- How did you come up with the idea for your project? This is a great opportunity to express your personality, particularly if you’ve worked on something really unusual or challenging.
- Show that you have skills with relevance to your intended career. You can demonstrate about the techniques you used, and the equipment you’re familiar with, all of which will convince an employer that you’re ready to start work.
- Show your research ability. Your project isn’t simply a set of questions with a known answer, where you’re either right or wrong. You’ll be forced to find out things that weren’t in your syllabus, and to do experiments to see what works. Your employer will usually be more impressed by how you find out what you don’t know, than by how well you can remember what you’ve already read.
- Demonstrate your teamwork and leadership potential. Teamwork & communication is an essential part of any engineer’s job. If you took a senior role in the project, this shows an employer that you’re able to handle responsibility and management, in either a technical or planning capacity. Show where you took key decisions, and how you worked with others to decide between different options.
- Do you have valuable practical project management skills? Employers want candidates who deliver on schedule and understand effective project planning. In addition, your logs, specifications, and progress reports show that you know how to keep records for safety or compliance purposes.
- How do you deal with the unexpected? You will inevitably face unexpected problems, in the real world as well as in your project. It’s important to show how you managed these, both in terms of prior planning and preventative measures, and what you did when something went wrong. This will demonstrate your calmness under pressure.
- How well do you work with real world clients? If you’re really lucky, your senior project will involve working with people already in the industry. That’s the perfect way to show an employer that you have the maturity and ability to be a professional engineer.
So don’t just focus on the engineering side of your project. Use it as a springboard to show how you’ve developed other valuable skills that an employer will find useful.
Using Your Engineering Project in Your Cover Letter
When you write your cover letter, make sure that you make the most of your project work. Don’t just talk about what you worked on, but emphasize what qualities this demonstrated and what you learned.
These examples of cover letters from the School of Engineering and Applied Sciences at the University of Virginia show some good ways to bring out the things that employers want to know about. This one stresses the candidate’s leadership experience and teamwork, as well as his ability to work with multi-disciplinary teams. Immediately, a potential employer will treat this applicant differently to one who just presents a good degree.
“My work on this research project has also allowed me to develop proficiency working within a cross-functional team to solve complex engineering problems. I am highly self-motivated and have been given substantial latitude in developing my own engineering solutions. I believe, through my research experience and also serving as the Team Lead for my undergraduate senior design project, that I have gained extensive leadership experience and further developed my strong research and problem solving abilities.”
When you embark on your senior engineering project, don’t just think of it as another thing you have to do in order to get your degree. Think of it as the best opportunity you’ll get – short of an internship – to impress your first employer. It could make the difference between getting hired and getting ignored.