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Assessors at a Costain gradaute assessment day: Costain gives their tips on how to impress

Graduate assessment centre and interview advice for quantity surveyors

At an assessment centre for a job as a graduate quantity surveyor, cost consultant or commercial manager, recruiters want to find out whether you have the skills and motivations to succeed at that company.
The Apprentice has skewed how candidates feel they have to behave. You don’t need to be bombastic for us to notice you.

‘At an assessment centre, we want to see how graduates work in a team,’ Raheel Khan, a commercial services manager at Costain (a ‘smart infrastructure solutions’ company) and an experienced assessor, told TARGETjobs. ‘Some candidates think quantity surveying is all about numbers. What they don’t appreciate is that it’s actually more about managing relationships.’ Intrigued, we asked him for more insights into assessment days.

What happens at a quantity surveying assessment centre?

Costain’s assessment centre is fairly typical of quantity surveying and other similar industry employers and features the following activities:

  • a welcome
  • a group exercise, followed by a presentation on the group’s findings
  • a one-to-one interview
  • an individual presentation.

Other companies’ assessment days may also include a technical assessment, a written exercise and/or a repeat of online aptitude tests. All assessment days should include opportunities to meet and talk to the company’s employees who are acting as assessors, who may be anyone from a graduate to a director.

In the past, such assessment centres would last a full day but now it is more common for them to be shorter, lasting just a few hours.

Companies typically hold their assessment centres at one of their offices: either their head office or the office in the region you’ve applied to. Some companies run one assessment centre for a mix of jobs (so you might find yourself with candidates for civil engineering or site management roles, for example) but others, such as Costain, run discipline-specific assessment centres. Costain typically invites eight to ten candidates, but other companies may invite as many as fifteen.

Do not feel that you are in competition with other candidates: ‘While we do have an overall number of roles that we want to fill, we don’t want to miss out on a range of diverse, talented individuals. Costain’s propensity is to hire more if we are able to do so,’ Raheel assures us.

About group exercises at quantity surveying assessment days

‘We find that many candidates are often a little thrown by the group exercise because it is not something that you can prepare for,’ says Raheel.

Each company will have its own group exercise. In general, they will fall into one of three types:

  • an icebreaker – sometimes light hearted, usually non-industry-specific
  • a discussion about a topic affecting the industry, quantity surveying, such as skills shortages, health and safety, or sustainability
  • a case study, in which small groups are given an industry-related project scenario for which they need to devise solutions or recommended courses of action.

‘In our group exercise, the assessors observe how candidates deal with other personalities, to see if they pull their weight and can encourage others,’ says Raheel. ‘What impresses me is when people show skill when dealing with people. I often find that The Apprentice has skewed how candidates feel they have to behave. We had one candidate who went in aggressively and proclaimed himself the leader of the group and started telling people what to do. Another candidate quietly and politely told him that there were a number of people in the group and that they should first discuss everyone’s ideas. This showed finesse; you don’t need to be bombastic or loud for us to notice you. In the end, we hired both candidates and they are now great mates and often chuckle about their “stand off”.’

About individual presentations at quantity surveying assessment days

If asked to give an individual presentation, you will often be either given a topic or allowed to make a presentation on a topic of your choice; either way you will know in advance what it is that you are being asked to present on. ‘Candidates typically feel much more confident about their individual presentations than group exercises because they are familiar with the content. The key here is to be enthusiastic about your topic,’ says Raheel.

Costain – and other employers – will try to make you feel comfortable. ‘We are not there to catch anyone out. We give candidates a choice about whether they want to give their presentation before or after an interview and ask them if they’d prefer to sit or stand,’ he confirms.

About interviews held at quantity surveying assessment days

You are likely to be asked about your reasons for applying and about your skills and experiences during your interview. You might also be asked about how you would behave in certain situations. If you are feeling nervous or are unsure how to answer, don’t feel you have to rush in. ‘Just stop and take some water,’ advises Raheel. ‘In the workplace – even at a board meeting – you have time to consider your responses. If a candidate is flustered, we will often advise them to take the time to think.’

Raheel has told us that when asked to give examples, candidates are often tempted to ‘dress up’ or even make up an example. Don’t – partly because it is difficult to sustain your example when asked about it.

‘The examples you choose do not have to be big or flamboyant examples,’ says Raheel. ‘I once asked a candidate to tell us about how he solved a problem and he gave an example of his girlfriend’s bins being stolen. The waste management service for the borough said that they would be replaced in seven weeks. He emailed the head of department in the borough and the wait was reduced to six weeks. He then wrote a letter to the chief executive of the waste management service and the wait was reduced to 72 hours. The candidate wasn’t sure if this was too small or personal example to give, but it was brilliant because it showed tenacity, determination and creative thinking.’

About assessment day small talk

Many candidates can feel a bit panicked about the thought of the small talk parts of the day. Raheel’s advice is to be yourself. ‘Don’t pretend to be something you are not – have confidence that we will see the positives in you.’ But what if you are really stuck for a conversation topic? ‘Research the company and find something interesting to talk about, such as projects. I’ve been asked what my particular “romance” with Costain was.’

The skills and behaviours quantity surveyor assessors watch out for

‘We want to see whether candidates can communicate well, articulate themselves, put forward a lucid response to a question, work with and motivate others, and to be creative when problem solving,’ says Raheel. ‘We don’t assess technical competence because we place more significance on softer skills: you can develop your technical knowledge on the job.’ However, other employers may want to assess your technical knowledge and you may be given a technical problem/case study or be asked technical questions during your interview.

Before you go to an assessment centre: know your motivations

Before you go to an assessment centre, spend time reflecting on your reasons for applying to the company and for wanting to be a quantity surveyor, cost consultant or commercial manager. ‘We do expect candidates to have researched the company, but a mistake they often make in an interview is to parrot data about the company in a clinical fashion, listing details about turnover and the annual report,’ says Raheel. ‘When they do this, we will often say “It is great that you know this, but what does this mean to you personally?”’. We are looking for a personal connection with the company: a “romance”, if you like.’

In many interviews – or even during small talk – you might be asked about what attracted you to a quantity surveying career. ‘The most compelling answers are down to earth and truthful ones,’ observes Raheel. He also points out that although the boundaries are now more subtle there are still differences between the work of a private quantity surveyor (at a traditional cost consultancy) and the work of a quantity surveyor at a construction/engineering contractor or a ‘smart infrastructure solutions’ company like Costain, and that you should be aware of these.

Before you go to an assessment centre: know yourself and your USP

Review your CV: your skills, experiences and achievements. Practise talking about them. ‘Always ask yourself what your unique selling point is,’ says Raheel. Think about what differentiates you and has ‘formed’ you. Once you know this, it will boost your confidence and help you to perform at your best. ‘Your emotional state of mind is the biggest resource you have open to you, so take time to consider your strengths and achievements,’ he adds.

Before you go to an assessment centre: work on your teamworking skills

‘It’s worth spending some time practising how you work and build relationships with others,’ says Raheel. ‘Get into the habit of working with people you don’t know because you are unlikely to know other candidates at the assessment day or, when you are on the job, to know the clients and other stakeholders.’

You can do this by actively seeking out opportunities to work with others: by joining a new sports team or student society or volunteering in the community, for example. Many careers services also run practice assessment centres or group exercises, so see what is available at yours.

One final thought: use the day to make your own decisions

We’ve discussed in this article how you can impress on quantity surveying assessment days, but remember that the assessors will want to impress you, too. They want you to want to work at the company. Use your impressions of the day to help you to decide whether you would accept an offer, if it were given to you.

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