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A graduate engineer’s guide to assessment centres and job interviews

Ryan Matthews

The recruitment process for graduates can be daunting – here are essential tips to read before your engineering assessment centre or job interview.

Assessment centres: what to expect and how to prepare yourself

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. Recruiters will use this as an opportunity to determine whether or not you have the skills and attributes required to succeed at their organisation.

What are recruiters looking for at assessment centres?

Though different organisations will have specific requirements of their own, most engineering recruiters are hoping to find graduates with the same core traits. Here are the main ones, along with 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 demonstrate civility and respect, well-developed listening skills, the ability to give and receive constructive criticism, appropriate assertiveness, cooperation, and negotiation skills.

Leadership potential

Recruiters will be impressed by candidates who can take responsibility, if necessary, for planning how to proceed with a task. 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. 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

Candidates will make a good impression if they demonstrate the skills necessary for fruitful teamwork. These include a willingness to participate actively in group activities; openness, honesty, and respect; support for fellow team members; communication skills; and leadership.

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.

Adaptability and flexibility

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. Responding to such developments with practicality, patience, and open communication will demonstrate that you have the skills necessary to ‘roll with the punches’ during a professional career.

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 and comprehension 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. You may also be given passages to read, as well as questions designed to see whether or not you’ve successfully extracted relevant information.

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 seminars on exam-taking skills and related topics.

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 too long, make a note to come back to it later and then move on
  • For numeracy tests: read the questions carefully and check back over them if you have time at the end.
  • For comprehension tests: read the questions first and then read the text – this will allow you to focus on key information

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 synthesise 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’s important to start by finding out all you can about the presentation requirements. Sometimes you won’t know until the day. In any case, it’s helpful to ask the following questions:

  • What subject will you be discussing?
  • How long will the presentation need to be?
  • Will you be able to use presentation aids such as slides or images?
  • Who will be in the audience? Will they have a technical background?
  • What is the goal of your presentation? Is it to educate your audience? To share facts and figures? To persuade them to share your opinion on a controversial issue?

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:

  1. An introduction, in which you grab your audience’s attention with an interesting question, fact or anecdote before introducing your topic
  2. A body section in which you set forth your observations or arguments in a clear way, with each new argument building on the ones that precede it
  3. A conclusion in which you restate key points and, 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 wastes time and 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, take care that they too can benefit from listening to your presentation.

Confident delivery

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 – shoulders back and spine erect.
  • Avoid unnecessary pacing.
  • Don’t whisper. Practice projecting your voice without bellowing by breathing from your diaphragm.
  • Drink some water beforehand.

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.

Interviews: how to prepare for technical 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.  For example, if the employer works in commercial construction, they may ask questions about steel structures or the relative merits of different building materials.

Types of technical questions

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. 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.

Examples of technical interview questions

NB: Not all of these will be relevant to your field of engineering.

  1. In which situations would you use hydraulics instead of pneumatics and why?
  2. What are the main differences between CORSIM and VISSIM traffic models?
  3. What is extruded aluminium?
  4. How does the stress-strain curve of a brittle material differ from the stress-strain curve of a ductile material?
  5. Which software programs have you learned to use during the course of your degree?
  6. What is the difference between a mutex and a semaphore?
  7. What is the ratio of true power to apparent power in an AC circuit?
  8. How do you apply safety principles in your designs?
  9. What is the difference between bench blasting and tunnel blasting?
  10. How would you calculate the number of holes required to sink a mining shaft?

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. Prospective employers will also want to delve deeper into the specifics of yo