How graduates can engineer great online job applications
Before launching into an online application, consider what engineering graduate employers are looking for and how they will assess you. Recruiters judge online applications not only on evidence that you meet their requirements, but also on the quality of your writing: think clear, concise answers and good grammar. If written English isn’t your strong point, consider drafting in help. Don’t risk giving the impression that you are slapdash (what will this imply about your calculations?) or that you won’t be able to communicate clearly with suppliers or clients.
Ensure also that you answer every question, as failure to do so will be viewed negatively. As engineering recruitment specialist Felicity Marsh puts it: 'If you are asked a question on an application you should try to answer it; do not answer N/A or redirect to your CV. There will be a good reason we are asking the question!'
Tailor your online application to the specific graduate employer
Good research is vital - the best applications are focused and tailored to the organisation you are applying to. Use the employer insights and our engineering employer research advice to help you. Don’t be tempted to use a set of generic responses for all your applications: you need to respond to the specific questions presented on each employer’s application form. The questions may seem similar but there can be subtle differences and greater importance placed on different aspects. Take a look at each employer’s graduate website to see if it provides any instructions or tips.
Which examples of your experience to use
If you have engineering work experience, examples from this are a good bet. However, non-engineering experience can also be impressive. Relevant examples from sporting activities, committee or charity work, university societies or part-time jobs can help you to provide different examples for each question.
Before you start, make a list of all the types of activities you have participated in, to help you draw on the most relevant experience for each question. If possible, print off a copy of the application and read through the entire form before starting, to avoid using scenarios in your initial answers that are better suited to later questions.
Typical online application form questions – and answers – for graduate engineering jobs
Q: Why have you decided to apply to XX?
What the engineering recruiter wants to know: Here the employer wants to be convinced that you genuinely want the job. This includes whether you know enough about the role and company to make that decision, and whether your skills and interests tie in with its business.
What to include: Show that you have researched the engineering company in question. For example, you might want to name a couple of its projects or other business activities that interest you. Tie this in with evidence of your own skills or interest in this area – for example a work placement or project you’ve completed, or a module you’ve particularly enjoyed.
What recruiters say ‘We have recently introduced a motivational question into the application process – we are trying to probe exactly why the applicant has chosen that career path and why they have chosen Network Rail. We have found that those who have thought about this tend to be the most committed to Network Rail, which is very important to us – we want to ensure that the employees we train are genuinely interested in staying and developing their careers with us.’ Melissa Amouzandeh, graduate campaign advisor - emerging talent, Network Rail
Q: Describe a time when you have identified a potential improvement and successfully brought about change. Why was this change beneficial?
What the engineering recruiter wants to know: Technical skills and knowledge by themselves aren’t enough to make a successful professional engineer. A positive, problem-solving mindset is vital. The recruiter wants to know whether you identify and initiate improvements of your own accord, and whether you approach problems creatively. He or she is also interested in whether you can plan the necessary steps to reach a desired outcome, and whether you are good at overcoming problems, including disagreement from others.
What to include: Provide a concise description of the initial situation, how you came up with a solution and the steps you took to achieve it – keep it brief. Give details as to why the solution you achieved was an improvement: for example, what were the benefits and who did this affect? Quantify these benefits if possible. Also give details as to how you solved any problems encountered, while keeping others on board.
What recruiters say: ‘Why would an engineer on a tunnelling job need an active imagination? We want people who can come up with new ideas, new processes and new designs. Our graduates aren’t recruited into a role where they’re expected to follow everyone else. By encouraging them to lead employees, we get an edge over the competition.’ Melissa Hopper, graduate recruitment manager, Mott MacDonald
‘Applicants need problem-solving skills for long-term technical projects and unforeseen issues that need immediate attention.’ Julie Moore, programme and analytics manager, National Grid
Q: Give an example of a time when you worked successfully as part of a team to reach a shared goal
What the engineering recruiter wants to know: Engineering is all about teamwork. As well as liaising with technical colleagues to design, test or manufacture a product, it’s also necessary to work with other business functions such as finance, sales and marketing to ensure that it is a commercial success. And there’s contact with suppliers and clients to consider. Recruiters therefore want reassurance about your people skills.
What to include: You can choose an example from any aspect of your life – it doesn’t have to relate to engineering – so pick a situation where you can give plenty of detail about your own contribution. You don’t have to have been the team leader, but it’s good to give evidence of your skills in areas such as persuasion, empathy, building team spirit, assigning roles and communication.
Q: Describe a time when you had to complete an important project under tight time constraints
What the engineering recruiter wants to know: Life as a professional engineer will be project based, and often deadline driven. The recruiter wants to be confident that you’ll be able to achieve your goals under pressure.
What to include: Choose an example that allows you to showcase your prioritisation skills and forward-planning. Again, it can be drawn from any area of your life. Many applicants will write about a university project, so selecting something a little different could help you stand out.
Demonstrate your competences with the STAR approach to online applications
Questions about your skills and competences usually have a word limit. Read each question carefully so that you answer the actual question asked and provide concise, well-structured, specific answers. Use the STAR approach to structure your responses: Situation and Task: Describe the situation or the task that you had to accomplish. Use a specific event or situation. Don’t devote too much space to this bit. Action: Describe the actions you took, focusing on your own input even if you were working as part of a team. Talk about ‘I’, not ‘we’ or ‘they’. Result: Describe what happened, what the outcome was, and what you achieved and learned.
Engineers need professional, accurate writing skills
Click out of social network mode and switch on your professionalism. Accuracy is important in the life of an engineer, so recruiters want to see evidence of attention to detail.
- Write full, grammatically correct sentences – it’s worth buying a basic grammar book and brushing up your skills before you start typing.
- Use a capital letter for ‘I’.
- Don’t let text speak slip in – if U want 2 get the job a smiley wink won’t work.
- Prepare longer responses in a word-processing document so that you can use the spell-checker and review your text more easily.
- Check the sense of your responses to make sure you have expressed yourself clearly and your responses say what you mean them to say.
- Check your spelling carefully.
- If you can save your work, take a break. When you return later you’ll be more likely to spot errors.
- Before you send your application, read it through carefully and get someone else whose judgement and opinion you trust to look over it as well.
Finally, print out a copy for your reference and to revise from before an interview or assessment centre.