Updating Results

The complete guide to interviews and assessment centres for engineering graduates

Tony Hadlow

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 a