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Finance employers want graduates to have commercial awareness

Commercial awareness: what retail banking, actuarial and insurance employers want you to know

Improve your business knowledge to stand a better chance of thrashing the competition for that coveted financial services graduate position.

Commercial awareness will add an extra spark to your application and interview.

Most employers within the financial services sector will test your commercial awareness during your graduate interview. And your understanding of the bank, insurance broker, actuarial firm, consultancy or regulator to which you’ve applied, and the market in which it operates will be taken into account to decide whether you get the job.

What is commercial awareness?

Commercial awareness could be broadly broken down into three core components:

  1. An understanding of the business to which you’ve applied and others like it, and what makes it successful
  2. Knowledge of the market place in which the business operates and who it interacts with, such as clients, customers, regulators, investors etc
  3. The ability to identify competitors and factors that could impact the employer’s overall business performance.

In essence, the employer wants you to have a deep understanding of the business and its competitors, and the potential impact that financial, political and global events could have on its profitability and business strategy.  

Why is commercial awareness vital for retail banking, actuarial and insurance roles?

Graduate jobs in financial services are hotly contested by scores of qualified candidates. Commercial awareness is one of the employability skills that’ll add an extra spark to your application and interview, and set you apart.

It will:

  • help you to make the right career choices. Once you understand a business and the respective industry, you can make a wise decision about joining it
  • show the interviewer that you’re interested in and knowledgeable about the business
  • show the interviewer that you’re committed to a career in financial services
  • enable you to answer certain questions (see examples below) with confidence.

Toby Wemyss, global head of facultative business at Willis Towers Watson, said it’s crucial that graduates ‘thoroughly research the company and the industry’. The more you can understand, he explained, the more confident you’ll be in terms of making the right career decision and performing at the interview.

He said candidates who research Willis Towers Watson before they go and interview are set apart from those that don’t, as they have a clearer idea about what they can bring to the business. ‘I’m hugely in awe of people who are taking an interest in the industry I’m very proud to be part of.’

Example questions you may be asked to demonstrate commercial awareness

  • What do you know about our business?
  • Why would you like to work for us?
  • What has interested you in the news recently?
  • How could you demonstrate commercial awareness?
  • What skills have you learned from your experiences?
  • How will these skills help you in future roles?
  • What do you see as being the main challenges facing our business? And what opportunities can we take advantage of?
  • What differentiates us from our competitors?

How can I expand my commercial awareness?


  • The employer profile on TARGETjobs: the graduate employer profile will provide an overview of what the organisation does and what it offers graduate recruits. Some employers also have ‘Insider Reviews’, which provide impartial information from employees about various aspects of the business. 'What We Say' advice for all aspects of the recruitment process, which has been researched and written by a TARGETjobs Finance sector specialist, is also available.
  • The employer’s website: focus specifically on its mission statement and information about its aims, strategy and structure.
  • Newspapers and magazines (print and online): finance publications, or those with finance sections, provide general or specific advice about businesses, finance and the economy.
  • Professional magazines: specialised journals associated with an area of work, such as The Actuary magazine for actuaries, offer specific information that you might not find elsewhere.


  • Video clips: some employers have video footage on their website or on YouTube.
  • Quality TV: certain TV content – such as domestic and international news, live parliamentary footage and factual programmes – offer a great overview of topical issues.    


  • Work experience: an internship or work placement with your chosen employer, or one like it, will give you an idea of how your role contributes to the wider business and its revenue. It’s also a chance to form connections with key employees. Many students are hired by the financial services employers they did a work placement with.
  • Campus events: some employers arrange university campus events during the year, which include careers fairs, presentations, networking and skills sessions. They are an excellent way to find out about the business and meet employees of all levels.
  • Open days: some businesses hold open days, which offer prospective graduate hires a chance to find out more about the employer and meet members of staff.
  • Social media: the majority of employers nowadays have a presence on social media – whether it’s LinkedIn, Twitter or Facebook. It’s a good way to find out what’s trending, who key employees are, or to join discussions.

Follow us on Twitter @TjobsFinance.

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