The key to aceing any job interview is being prepared: researching the company, practising model answers, working out what you’re going to wear.
But if you’re applying for your first engineering job you’re likely to face some particular challenges that other applicants in other professions may not encounter.
Here are the key things you should remember to do when getting ready for your first engineering interview.
1. Revise your university work – all of it
What sets engineers apart from many other professionals is their specific technical knowledge. Even if you’ve completed your degree already, a prospective employer is going to want to know your level of ability so be prepared for technical questions that assess your understanding of engineering concepts.
“Remember that the questions could relate to subject areas from any point of degree, not just most recent work,” says Elspeth Farrar, director of the careers service at Imperial College London, the UK’s biggest engineering university. “Be familiar with and able to talk about the concepts and the knowledge you’ve gained at all stages of your degree.”
2. Learn how to deal with unfamiliar scenarios
An interview isn’t an exam: your questioner isn’t just trying to find out what you know about specific topics but whether you can apply that knowledge to real-word problems.
To do this, they may ask you how you would address problems that are way more complex than anything you’ve dealt with at university. They’re not looking for a perfect solution, just at how you deal with the question.
“Often students get in a bit of a panic if they can’t come up with solution they regard as the correct one,” says Farrar. “But there isn’t necessarily one right answer.
“You need to think about the various parts of your expertise, meld them together and adapt them to come up with practical solution … Be brave enough to come up with ideas and recommendations even if you don’t know the actual answer.”
Simon Stoker, head of graduate recruitment for Arup, agrees that your answers don’t need to provide an exhaustive explanation. “When we set a technical exercise, we’re not looking for War and Peace [the famously long novel],” he says. “We just want you to give us a feel for how you think.”
3. Research the company’s big issues
If you’re applying for a job with a firm it’s essential to understand and be reader to discuss what they do and the challenges you would face if you worked for them. For engineers this, of course, includes the technological issues: what kind of engineering problems would you be expected to solve?
But don’t forget to research the wider challenges facing the company, whether they’re political, economic, social or environmental. “You have to think slightly more commercially,” says Farrar. “Think about what else is important to a company, whether it’s their clients, suppliers or competitors. Have some knowledge of how that company fits into its industrial sector.”
For example, today’s oil companies have to develop new technologies to retrieve fossil fuels from increasingly difficult environments. But the sector is also struggling with lower oil prices, conflict in the oil-rich Middle East and the public’s concerns over climate change. If you were applying for a job with an oil firm you should be prepared to discuss how your role might be affected by all these issues.
Lorna Bullet, head of GE’s early talent recruitment team in the UK, says lack of knowledge about the company is easy to spot “Some people are able to demonstrate an absolute passion for the job but can’t articulate anything about why they’d want to come and work for GE,” she says.
“Those sort of things are very easy for people to do before a telephone interview: basic Google searches on the company, understand who we are. You can never do too much preparation for it but that’s where we often see people fall down.”
4. Line up examples of your engineering achievements
Interviewers will expect you to give examples of where you’ve put your engineering skills into action, whether in a degree project, during work experience or even in extra-curricular activities.
Preparing specific, concrete examples and being able articulate them in a succinct way is vital. But it’s also key to remember that just saying you’ve taken part in something isn’t enough: you have to show what you achieved and what you learnt from it.
“Students spend so long talking about the task they forget to say what they did and what was the end result was,” says Farrar. “The other aspect is what did they learn, what would they do differently next time, and being able to show that reflective process goes down quite well.”
5. Be yourself
For all this preparation you need to do, it’s also important to remember that companies want to find out who you really are, not what you can recite from memory. This means you shouldn’t try to pretend to be something you’re not and also that you should try to relax.
“Try to be as natural as possible,” says Farrar. “Be you but on your best day. If you’ve had to pretend to be someone else to get a job it’s quite likely the job isn’t suited to you.”
Also be careful not to exaggerate you achievements – or tell outright lies. “If you do you will get found out in early stages of the job,” says Farrar. “Companies are pretty hot on things like integrity. Irrespective of what you see on TV in things like The Apprentice, if you lie in an interview or application they will not want you.”
If you do suffer from excessive nerves, try to remember that interviewers aren’t trying to catch you out: they want the interview to go well too. “We all remember our first interviews and we know it can be a daunting prospect,” says Miranda Davies, director of emerging talent at Thales. “We don’t want people to fail; we want you to be the best you can be.”