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Technical interviews: show off your civils degree

Whether you sit a technical interview or a case study during an assessment centre, follow the top tips of a civil engineering graduate who nailed his technical challenges.
Find out what sort of work the employer does and anticipate from that the sorts of basic questions you might be asked relating to their work. - Addenno Abdul Rasyid

During the selection process for a graduate civil and structural engineering vacancy, you'll be assessed on your technical knowledge. This might involve a technical interview, completing a technical exercise, giving a presentation on a project or subject of your choice, or some technical questions within a more general interview.

‘When applying to my current employer, I did a technical case study as a group exercise at an assessment centre,’ says Addenno Abdul Rasyid, a graduate civil and structural engineer at Foster Wheeler, with an MEng in civil engineering from Imperial College, London . ‘We were given an hour and a half to read through a problem and to discuss a solution. I also attended a general interview that included a technical component.’

Technical interviews: what questions will I be asked?

Most interviewers will start off in familiar territory asking you about modules and subjects from your degree that you found interesting or that relate directly to the organisation’s work.

Projects are another common subject for discussion. Interviewers may ask about projects you have done during your degree or through work experience, exploring the work involved, the results or deliverables generated and the role you played in a group initiative.

You may also be asked about topics relating to the employer’s area of expertise. ‘My employer does a lot of work with steel structures such as oil and gas facilities, so I needed to call on my general knowledge about steel and was asked, among other questions, why they use this rather than concrete,’ Addenno recalls. His advice? ‘Find out what sort of work it does and anticipate from that the sorts of basic questions you might be asked relating to their work.’

Answering the questions

In many ways, technical interviews at graduate level focus on how you communicate technical ideas and information. Once you are settled, interviewers may stretch your thinking further by posing questions and scenarios about which you have more limited knowledge.

Keep in mind that they aren’t necessarily looking for neat and tidy quantitative answers. Engineering projects rarely present textbook problems so your future employer wants to see how you approach problem solving – the final answer can be less important.

'In my technical interview, the engineers gave me clues when I was facing difficulties, which made it less stressful.' - Yan Zhou, graduate engineer, Atkins

Top tips when answering questions

  • If you don’t understand a question, ask for clarification.
  • If a diagram will help you explain something, don’t be afraid to ask for a piece of paper.
  • Give yourself time to think before answering – take a sip of water to buy yourself time.
  • If your knowledge of a subject is limited, explain what you do know and then show the interviewer how you would approach solving the problem.

Preparing for technical engineering interviews

Doing thorough preparation for your technical assessment will help you feel more confident and perform better under pressure. Do:

  • get an insight into any issues that may be of concern to the industry or the company
  • research the company’s specialist areas of work
  • practise sketching diagrams
  • read through your coursework and be prepared to talk about
  • your project work and dissertation
  • ask a friend to give you feedback on the clarity of your explanations of technical solutions.

Don’t be a victim

The interview is as much a chance for you to decide whether you want to work for the company as whether they want to hire you. ‘I tried to learn as much as I could about the company in every interview I attended. I was particularly interested to get a feel for what the group dynamics and teamwork were like at each company,’ says Addenno.

So be an active part of the interview by asking questions yourself. ‘Generally the interviewers were happy for me to ask questions about how the company worked and have a two-way conversation,’ he confirms. ‘I was lucky to be made several job offers and this helped me decide which one to accept.’