Construction interview questions and how to answer
Got an interview for a graduate job in civil engineering, construction or surveying? Prep by practising answers to these questions, gleaned from top construction recruiters.
Don’t just choose examples from your degree – pick ones from different areas of your life.
Construction, engineering and surveying graduate interviewers are typically senior members of the team you’d be joining, and they are looking to find out more about you. Are you someone whom they could safely send to client meetings straight away? Would you fit well in a multidisciplinary project team? Can you get things done? Do your values fit with the company’s? If you have a related degree, do you know your stuff?
The best way to impress in an interview is to treat it as a conversation, rather than a grilling. Emma Hale, a chartered engineer and interviewer at Mott McDonald says, 'Everyone's a bit nervous coming into an interview. If you don't get a point across in an answer or if you think of something else you'd like to say, don't be afraid to revisit that answer later on.' Similarly, don’t be afraid to ask them questions or seek their opinions about the company or the industry. The interview is as much for you to work out whether you’d get on with the employer as it is the other way around.
Types of graduate construction, civils and surveying interviews
The most common types of interviews are:
- telephone or pre-recorded video (sometimes used by recruiters as a first interview)
- face-to-face (since the coronavirus, this is likely to be face-to-face via a live video platform such as Zoom rather than in person), based around your strengths and/or competencies, your CV and your motivations for applying
Possible interview question: ’Tell us about yourself’
This is the most likely first question of any interview. It invites you to share something about your background and is supposed to ease you into the interview. Focus on your academic and work background and why you want to work for the employer.
- Know your CV: remember the dates of your work placements and be ready to talk about the tasks you did and skills you picked up.
- Practise your pitch in front of a volunteer to ensure you sound natural and confident – you should be able to ad lib to fit the occasion.
Possible interview question: ‘What is your favourite building/structure?’
This is another question that you’ll likely be asked near the start of an interview. This is intended to partly put you at ease – as it is something that you should definitely know the answer to – but also to help gauge your interest in construction.
- Be honest: don’t feel you have to choose a project worked on by the employer you are interested in.
- Be able to substantiate your choice. Stuart Hill, a principal engineer at Mott MacDonald and experienced interviewer, comments: ‘The interviewee could talk about any building – from The Shard to a water treatment company to their local school – as long as they can explain their reasoning.'
Possible interview question: ‘Give an example of when you...’
Interviewers use competency-based questions to find out whether you have the skills for the job, so expect to be asked for example of times when you used the skills, values or behaviours listed in the job description or advertisement. Common ones include ‘Describe a time when you demonstrated leadership’, ‘Give us an example of a time when you used your initiative to overcome an obstacle’ and ‘Give me an example of when you juggled different deadlines’.
- Don’t just choose examples from your degree; pick ones from different areas of your life, including your extracurricular achievements, part-time jobs and internships.
- Try to use different examples from those that you used in your application form or covering letter – but always make sure you choose the best example of your skills.
- To ensure that you provide employers with a detailed picture of your capabilities, follow the STAR format when giving your examples. Explain the Situation, the Tasks you had to complete, the Actions you took and the Results of your actions. Place the most emphasis on the actions and the results.
Possible interview question: 'What would you do if...?’
Scenario-based questions ask you how you would tackle a likely work-based situation. Depending on the role and employer you are interviewing with, these could include: dealing with conflict or a disagreement among the team; receiving negative feedback from a manager; how you would respond to a client who has raised problems or objections; what you would do if a water pipe burst on site, delaying work; or what you would do if you observed a health and safety breach on site.
- Don’t be afraid to ask them questions to clarify what they’re asking or to find out more about the scenario before answering.
- Take the time to think. If you’re nervous about pausing for too long, take a drink of water – a useful delaying tactic.
- The aim of these questions is to see how you think and go about solving problems, so explain your thinking.
- In your answer you could call upon times when you faced similar situations in your past, if appropriate – not only from any construction-related work experience you have but also from any group work at university, involvement in student societies or part-time work.
- Consider what the company prioritises and values: if you are asked a health and safety question, for example, and you know that the company prioritises compliance, let that lead your answer. If appropriate, don’t forget to take into account commercial considerations.
Possible interview question: 'What do you know about the company?'
You may also be asked what you’d expect from the company as a graduate employee, about the opportunities and threats facing the company and about your understanding of the industry. This is where research pays dividends. Before your interview, find out:
- What does the firm do? is it a contractor or a consultant? In which markets or service areas does it operate? Is it a local, national or international company?
- What are the organisation’s core values and aims?
- Who are its main competitors? Is it generally perceived as doing better or worse than them?
- What is it currently shouting about on Twitter, in the news and on its website?
Some useful resources include:
- The TARGETjobs employer hubs (all we know about graduate employers in one place).
- The employer’s website – its graduate careers section and its corporate site.
- National newspapers and trade press, online or in print. Key trade press include Building and Construction News.
- Your careers service, which has details about companies and contact details for alumnis who may work for the employer.
As part of your answer, you could ask them their opinion on the company’s direction.
‘Whenever I attended interviews and assessment days, I researched unusual information about the company to differentiate myself from other candidates, such as the share price that day (whether it had moved and why) and any new projects or construction processes,’ recalls Ashley Dunsmore, quantity surveyor at Kier Group. ‘I saw that the assessors "tuned in" when I did this and I think it made a good impression.’
Possible interview question: 'What do you know about the job role and career path?’
Questions assessing your knowledge of what the job role in that company entails and how your career path would pan out are designed to find out how committed you are to the career you’ve chosen and whether you have a realistic understanding of what the day job is like. Follow-up questions might include ‘What do you think you will be doing day to day?’, ‘What are your career goals?’, the classic ‘Where do you think you’ll be in five years?’ and ‘What do you think you will find most challenging in the role?’. This is another instance when you need to have done your research:
- Your answer should partly be based on what you know about the company – whether it a contractor or consultant and the type of projects they work on, for example.
- You should also bear in mind the typical career path of people in your role, such as a professional qualification, and relate it back to the training and development in that company. In five years' time, for example, would you usually be chartered?
- Take into consideration which areas are growing within the company and why – or why not.
Possible interview question: ‘Why have you applied to us?’
You have probably already answered this question in your application form or covering letter, but you shouldn’t assume that an interviewer has seen the whole of your previous application. The interviewers are looking to see whether you really want to work for them (or whether any construction company would do) and whether you would stay with the company at least until you have gained your professional qualification.
- Again, research on the company is essential here. In your answer, you need to explain how what you have discovered about the company makes you want to work for them. If possible, pinpoint what makes the employer special.
- Show how working at the company would help you achieve your personal career ambitions and that your values chime with those of the company – this would signal that you are a good fit.
Possible interview question: 'What could you bring to the company?'
This question could also be phrased as ‘why should we hire you?’ and is the flipside of ‘why have you applied to us?’.
- Your answer should partly be based around your skills (such as teamwork), and your enthusiasm for the industry, the job and the company.
- If you have studied an industry-related degree, consider what you can offer in terms of your technical knowledge: during your course you should have been exposed to the latest thinking in terms of sustainability and methodology. While you should not make out you know it all, your knowledge should add some value to the team.
Possible interview question: 'What are your hobbies or interests?'
Interviewers will ask this question in order to find out more about you as a person, with the aim of seeing whether you would be a good fit for the company or the team. Alternative questions with a similar aim include ‘Which degree modules did you enjoy the most?’ and ‘What motivates you?’.
- The interviewers want to know more about you and so there is little point in trying to pretend a stronger interest in something than you really have.
- But it’s best to provide the most detail about hobbies and interests that you have been actively involved in and developed your skills.
Possible interview question: ‘How do you define sustainable development…?’
’… and how would you promote sustainability in your work?’ This isn’t a common question but sustainability is such an ongoing priority in the construction industry that some graduates have reported being asked about it, particularly if you they expressed an interest in it during a previous interview answer or if they have a technical degree. Other hot topics may include BIM and off-site construction. The interviewers would largely ask you about these topics to gauge your enthusiasm for the industry (ie whether you are interested enough in the industry to explore relevant issues).
- This is a good opportunity to talk about what you’ve learned on your course (if appropriate), any wider reading you have done and any sustainable practices you’ve observed on your work experience.
- You could also bring into the conversation any initiatives that the employer is undertaking to promote sustainability – this is a great opportunity to demonstrate that you have done your research.
Asking your own questions in construction interviews
All interviewers will give you the opportunity to ask questions and this is a great opportunity to find out more about the organisation. Avoid asking about salary, anything that’s covered in detail on the company website or for help on your final year project, though. Good topics to ask about include:
- How the employer tackles issues such as sustainability
- The challenges facing the construction industry as a whole
- Landmark projects
- What the interviewer enjoys most about their job.
It’s impressive to ask a question that has come out of some of the research you’ve done yourself and that takes into account commercial considerations , for example, ‘I read that you were focusing on X sector. How is this affecting Y?’.
Tackling technical interviews
If you have a built environment degree or are going for an engineering job, expect to face some questions on your technical knowledge – how you apply basic principles to a work-based situation. This might involve a formal technical interview, a technical exercise, a presentation or some technical questions within a more general interview.
‘In a technical interview, we want to know whether you can apply the theory from your degree course in the real world,’ says Aman Gill, graduate recruitment adviser at Arup. ‘We may ask you to come up with a solution to a problem and then ask you what would happen if we changed the design in a particular way.’