The complete guide to interviews and assessment centres for engineering graduates

Tony Hadlow - GradAustralia
Tony Hadlow
Team GradAustralia
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The process of securing a graduate engineering job brings to mind a fundamental lesson of engineering itself: there are few processes that wouldn’t benefit from simplification. It can be daunting to realise that, in addition to submitting a paper or online application, you’ll have to complete an interview and possibly also attend an assessment centre. But take heart - we’ve brought together everything you’ll need to know to ace your interview and stand out (in a good way!) during any assessments. Read on to learn more.

Interviews

A job interview can be a nerve-wracking experience, especially when it’s a job you particularly want (or need!). As an engineering student, you’re likely to be asked a range of questions about your academic history and technical abilities, as well as more conventional questions designed to reveal your personality and work ethic. If that sounds intimidating, well, it is - but with sufficient preparation, you can be confident of success.

Technical interview questions

The basics

During a technical interview, employers will want to assess several things:

  • Your experience and knowledge
  • Your suitability to the role
  • Your technical competence
  • How easily you can get your head around unfamiliar scenarios
  • How well you can explain technical concepts that are unfamiliar to your audience
  • How you react under pressure

Preparation

Many technical interviews will start off in familiar territory, with questions about aspects of your degree that relate directly to the organisation's work. You won’t be asked to calculate factors on the spot, but you should be ready to explain important concepts from your field of engineering.

Recruiters are also likely to test on areas of particular relevance to the role they’ve advertised. For example, if the employer works in commercial construction, they may ask questions about steel structures or the relative merits of different building materials. Again, this is something you would do well to revise.  

Types of technical question

You’re most likely to be quizzed about areas of engineering that relate to your academic speciality and also to the advertised position. However, interviewers will also want to see that you’ve developed the generic skills required to tackle unfamiliar problems with confidence and creativity. To this end, they may present you with a brain-teaser or show you a diagram and ask you to identify a product’s basic components and processes.  

What should I do if I’m stumped?

It helps to remember this general truth about technical interviews: employers are less concerned about whether you know the right answer, and more interested in seeing whether or not you can work towards it.

So if you’re not sure how many ping-pong balls fit inside a seventeen-story elevator shaft, or briefly forget how to calculate tensile strength, be honest and communicate your efforts to answer the question using logic and reasoning. You can ask for clarification, and if it would help to draw things on a sheet of paper, then ask for one. Even if you don’t arrive at a definite answer, you will have demonstrated your enthusiasm and resolve - and those are even harder to teach than fluid mechanics.

Pro-tips

  • Listen to the full question before answering
  • When discussing projects, focus on your own contribution
  • Avoid jargon and acronyms

General interview questions  

The basics

In a way, a job interview is like an open-book exam. Recruiters will sometimes throw a few curve balls, but the bulk of their questions will be based on a document that’s already available to you - the job description.

Preparation

You should read the job description closely to ensure you can discuss any graduate attributes that are mentioned as ‘essential’ or ‘desirable’. It can help to create a document in which you list these skills or attributes along with evidence that you’ve obtained them (or have the ability to do so). This evidence might include projects you’ve worked on, awards you’ve received, or even extracurricular activities in which you’ve participated.

With creativity, you will find a way to make your experience relevant, so don’t be disheartened if it isn’t immediately obvious that, say, you’ve developed ‘leadership skills’. Perhaps you haven’t - and that’s an excellent opportunity to discuss how enthusiastic you are about assuming more responsibility in the future.

Questions about questions

One of the most important opportunities you’ll get during the job application process comes (usually) at the end of the interview, when you’ll be asked if you have any questions for the employer.

This is your chance to clarify any job requirements that haven’t yet been discussed, demonstrate your knowledge of any challenges (or opportunities) faced by the company, learn more about the company’s culture, and demonstrate your passion and curiosity. It can be difficult to know where to start, so we’ve included some suggested questions below:

  • What does success look like in this role? (Be prepared to show how your skills are relevant to their answer.)
  • Could you give me an example of a typical working day?
  • What options are there for advancement?
  • What opportunities are available for on-the-job education and training?
  • How will my performance be evaluated?
  • What's the one thing I could achieve in the first six months that would have the most impact?
  • Is there anything about my application that concerns you? (Be prepared to address their concerns in a realistic, understanding and positive way.)

Pro-tips

Other things you can do to prepare for the general section of an interview include:

  • Be clear about your relevant skills and experience - the more specifically you can articulate them, the better.
  • Supply examples of when you have applied these skills in a practical context, rather than just saying that you’ve studied them.
  • Consider how essential skills are described in the job advertisement. For example, if it mentions Microsoft Access, make sure to clearly reference it.
  • Familiarise yourself with the employer’s major projects. What impresses you about them? What parts are of interest to you?
  • Make sure you can talk with passion about at least one skill or personal attribute that is relevant to the role, and demonstrate your informed enthusiasm for engineering in general.

Assessment centres

If you’re going for a graduate position at a larger engineering firm, there’s a good chance that they’ll ask you to visit an assessment centre for a series of interviews or tests. There, recruiters will attempt to determine whether or not you have the skills and attributes required to succeed at their organisation. They’ll do this by observing you throughout the day, and not just during your assessments.

What are recruiters looking for at assessment centres?

Though different organisations will have different requirements, most engineering recruiters are hoping to find graduates with the same core traits. We’ve created a list of those traits, along with some tips on how you might demonstrate them.

Communication skills

Communication skills cover written and verbal abilities, as well as interpersonal skills. Recruiters will analyse your communication skills in various ways. For example, they may ask you to give a presentation, describe a piece of visual information, or complete a group exercise. Recruiters will be impressed by candidates who appreciate and respect each other, make sure everyone gets their say, while still getting the task done.

Leadership potential

Assessors for many graduate schemes will be interested in whether you have an aptitude for leadership. To lead, it’s important that you’re able to identify the most important facts and communicate these clearly, concisely and enthusiastically to your team. You’ll also need to inspire confidence, respond constructively to feedback, offer patient guidance and assume responsibility for both discipline and praise.

Recruiters will be impressed by candidates who can take responsibility, if necessary, for planning how to proceed with a task. This can involve deciding who does what. Do tread carefully though. Group exercises are a key tool for assessing your leadership potential but this doesn’t mean that you should forcefully try to take charge of the group from start to finish.

Teamwork ability

Recruiters value candidates who realise that they can achieve more as part of a team than as individuals, and who focus on working towards common goals. They’re particularly impressed by graduates who actively participate in group activities; who are open, honest and respectful; and who support others by listening to what they have to say, building up their confidence and encouraging quieter team mates.

Problem solving skills

The ability to solve problems is crucial for work on long-term technical projects. It’s also necessary when dealing with unforeseeable issues that demand immediate attention on a day-to-day basis.

The ability to extract the most important data from a mass of information is a vital problem-solving skill. At assessment centres, you may be given a task involving a lot of information, so it’s wise to note critical points in a fashion that works for you – perhaps as a chart or flow diagram.

You may also be asked to think of a problem you have solved, describing how you tackled it, what the outcome was and what you learned from the experience. It’s a good idea to prepare a compelling answer to these questions.

Planning skills

As an engineer, you’ll be responsible for planning your own day-to-day tasks, while also contributing to the organisation of longer-term projects. How good are you at breaking down tasks into achievable ‘blocks’ before sticking to a schedule and frequently reviewing your progress?

You may be asked to describe a project or event you’ve planned, with a particular focus on what you did right, what you could have done better, and what you learned from the experience.

Motivation and enthusiasm

To lead a team and inspire clients, it’s important to be enthusiastic about the task at hand. After all, you need to believe in something yourself before you can sell it to others. You can start by researching your prospective employer. What do they do, where are they located and do the roles they offer interest you? Recruiters seldom hire graduates who fail to demonstrate genuine enthusiasm for available positions. Enthusiasm leads naturally to motivation, so if you can find one, then demonstrating the other should be a breeze.

Adaptability and flexibility

Engineering projects must adapt to a range of factors that it’s difficult to control, from bad weather and shipping delays to interpersonal problems and budgetary constraints. To succeed, you’ll need to be flexible and creative. Graduate roles may also require you to travel extensively, especially in sectors like mining, which are based primarily in rural Australia.

In group exercises, assessors may throw in challenges to see how you adapt. For example, they may wait until the task is well under way before telling you that the customer has changed his mind about what he wants or revised a deadline.

The ability to build relationships

Engineers must be able to understand and build relationships with their customers, suppliers, teams, managers and other key stakeholders. It’s often not possible to choose who you work with, so you need to be able to assess others’ behaviour and adapt to it. Again, recruiters will observe how you interact with other candidates and may ask you relevant questions in interviews.

Numerical Tests

The basics

At assessment centres, you’ll likely be required to complete numerical tasks designed to evaluate your ability to work with numbers, charts and graphs. Most numeracy tests are multiple-choice. A typical test might take about 30 minutes (for 30 questions) and will be carried out under exam conditions. Tests without time limits tend to become progressively more difficult as you go on, with recruiters interested to see how many questions you can answer.

Preparation

Practice tests are the best way to brush up on your numeracy skills while familiarising yourself with the format and timing of typical numeracy tests. You can practise a range of numerical tests online. Your university careers centre may also hold testing sessions or have books and leaflets that you can take away.

Pro-tips

  • Ask questions at the beginning if you're unsure about anything
  • Don't spend too long on any one question – if it’s taking you ages, make a note to come back to it later and then move on
  • Read the questions carefully and check back over them if you have time at the end.

Giving a presentation  

The basics

By asking you to deliver a presentation, recruiters hope to assess your communication skills, your confidence and your ability to synthesize various ideas before sharing them in a coherent way. For many graduates at the assessment centre, this is the most nerve-wracking task they face. They key is to prepare intelligently, focusing on both anticipated content and the general skills you’ll need to deliver and engaging and persuasive presentation.

Preparation

To prepare for this task, it helps to start by finding out all you can about the presentation. You’ll want to know:

  • what subject you’ll be talking on – your final-year project, an engineering subject of your choice, or a subject of the employer’s choice?
  • the duration of the presentation – does this include time for questions?
  • what facilities will be available – eg presentation software, projector, flip chart or nothing?
  • who the audience will be – technical or non-technical people, or a mixture of both?

Giving your presentation

The chief characteristics of a successful presentation are structure, clarity and confident delivery.

Structure

Generally, a speech will fall into three broad sections: an introduction, in which you grab your audience’s attention with an interesting question, fact or anecdote before introducing your topic; a ‘body section’ in which you set forth your observations or arguments in a clear way; and a conclusion in which you restate key points, if necessary, and discuss their broader implications.

If you’re stumped, a simple way to organise your speech is to introduce a problem, suggest a solution, provide evidence for that solution and then discuss what that solution might mean in the future.

Clarity

While listening to your presentation, an audience member should be able to follow your argument with ease. You can aid them in doing so by ensuring that your arguments are clearly expressed and follow a logical order. You must explain new concepts, but also avoid giving undue attention to familiar ideas - this can come across as patronising.

Typically you’ll be asked to present on an engineering subject, but that doesn’t necessarily mean you’ll be talking only to engineers. If your audience contains non-specialists, keep things relatively simple so that they can understand your presentation. People can always ask you questions if they want more detailed information.

Confident delivery

Delivering a presentation can make even seasoned speakers nervous from time to time, so it’s essential that you can fall back on a well-rehearsed delivery. In other words, you have to practice and practice and practice. This doesn’t mean that you should memorise the speech verbatim. However, you should aim to be confident in your delivery and know the subject well enough to require only key points on your palm cards, instead of a complete transcript.

Here are some other things you can do to project confidence:

  • Make deliberate eye contact with members of the audience
  • Pay attention to the pace of your speech - don’t rush or speak too ponderously. By timing yourself when you practice, you can get a good sense of how long the speech should take to deliver
  • Stand with good posture
  • Avoid unnecessary pacing
  • Don’t whisper. Practice projecting your voice without bellowing by breathing from your diaphragm.

Overcoming nervousness

Faced with the prospect of delivering presentations before unfamiliar peers, completing examinations and answering numerous interview questions, it’s only natural that you should feel some trepidation. If you’re worried that this might get the better of you, the best course of action is to speak to a careers advisor, counsellor or other trusted professional who can help you to develop constructive coping strategies. These might include visualisation techniques, breathing exercises, meditation programs, or ‘reframing’ techniques that allow you to keep things in perspective.

If anxiety catches you off guard on the day, it’s important to remember that recruiters understand how difficult the whole ordeal can be for graduates. You’re allowed to be nervous. Only don’t make the mistake of failing to participate at all - your best chance lies in making your voice heard (even if it’s strained). After all, you never can tell how much a recruiter might admire your courage for acknowledging your own nervousness before taking a deep breath and forging ahead anyway.