Good and bad sample application answers for construction jobs
Aman Gill, a graduate recruiter at Arup, reviews example answers to application form questions for civil engineering, quantity surveying and construction jobs. Find out how to write the best application form.
Recruiter from Arup: 'I'd like to see more than one reason for wanting to work for us.'
If you are applying to the top engineering, commercial management and construction employers – such as Balfour Beatty, Arup, Atkins, Mace, Laing O'Rourke, BAM and Jacobs – it is likely that you will need to fill in an online application form. Some employers, including AECOM, have moved towards shorter forms, focusing on basic biographical details and online tests. However, for many others, you will need to answer application questions and/or upload a CV as well as providing biographical details and taking online tests.
To help you become a successful applicant, we’ve:
- asked Aman Gill, early careers leader at Arup, to review example application answers and to say whether, based on that answer alone, the candidate would get invited to an interview.
- provided extra tips on how to answer the trickiest application form questions – whether you are applying for graduate construction management, civil engineering, structural engineering, building services engineering, acoustics engineering, quantity surveying, building surveying or sustainability jobs (to list only a few).
- given you tips on preparing for online aptitude tests and links to practice ones.
TARGETjobs provided the answers, based on what we’ve seen from real applications; Aman provides her instant reactions.
Application form question: Why do you want to work for our company?
Candidate’s answer: I want to work for you because I’ve been impressed by the work you have done and I’d really like to contribute to your projects. The way in which you managed the costs on the South Asian road development project, ensuring that the project was delivered to budget, indicates that I would be working with some of the best construction workers in the world. It would be fantastic to gain chartership alongside such professionals.
Recruiter's assessment: I like the fact that this candidate mentions a specific project and says what impressed them about it, as it shows they’ve done some research. However, they could have expanded on this a little more. It’s also good that they mention chartership as most employers will be aiming to get their graduates professionally accredited. I’d like to see more than one reason for wanting to work for us though and, although ‘projects’ is a good answer, it’s a little obvious so they should back it up with other points – for example, liking the focus on a range of clients or the company’s strategy.
Verdict: Yes – an invitation to interview is sent out.
Application form question: Give an example of a difficult problem that you had to overcome.
Candidate’s answer: I once had 3 assignments to hand in in one week and because i was working on the other 2 i hadnt finished the 1 worth 50% of the module the night before, and i didnt have enough reference material, on top of this i also had a bar shift to do. i didnt know what to do, but i spoke to my friend who worked for the pub too and switched shifts. i then did some more internet research and stayed up all night to get it done.
Recruiter's assessment: This candidate should have used a spell check or had their application proofread before submitting it. The spelling and grammar that we see on application forms does not go unnoticed, and it’s important to avoid errors. Although the candidate provides information on the problem they experienced, why they experienced it and what they did to resolve it, it also shows that they struggle to manage their time and may have difficulty in prioritising their workload.
Verdict: No – they're not invited to an interview.
Application form question: Describe a time when you’ve worked closely with others.
Candidate’s answer: Since my first year at university, I have been part of The Thespians Club. I was lighting designer for three productions. In each of these, I worked closely with the director and set designer to decide which lighting effects to use and when. I spoke with the director about any moods he wanted to create and any dramatic moments that would be enhanced by a lighting change. I consulted the set designer to work out the best place to position the lights. I then worked out a plan of the lighting to be approved by the director.
Next, we had to hang the lights in the appropriate places and I coordinated a team of three helpers to do so. Together, we arranged a system of how we were going to safely climb ladders and attach the lights. On the nights of the production, I worked out a rota of people to operate the lights. Before each show, I tested the lights and tried to solve any problems. For example, one night one of the lights was broken but I managed to replace it in time for opening curtain.
Recruiter's assessment: This is a good response as it provides several examples of when the candidate has worked with others. For example, we see that not only can this person liaise with others to reach a common goal, but also that they can take direction and coordinate others’ work. This demonstrates the ability to lead a team as well as work within one. It also briefly illustrates the candidate’s ability to work on their own by testing and fixing issues without the need for support from the wider team.
Verdict: Yes – an invitation to interview is sent out.
Application form question: What are your career aspirations?
Candidate’s answer: I want to work for a leading construction firm, to progress in the company and to gain a professional qualification. I’d also like to work abroad if an opportunity comes up.
Recruiter's assessment: Clearly, this response is far too short. This candidate needs to elaborate on their reasons, eg why is gaining a professional qualification important to them? Which professional qualification do they have in mind? How would it benefit the organisation? Additionally, I’d leave off the aspiration to move abroad unless the role that you’re applying for gives the opportunity to work abroad. Most vacancies or graduate schemes are an investment in a UK business.
Verdict: No – they're not invited to interview.
As the more successful answers above suggest, you should:
1. Give evidence to back up your claims
Back up statements with examples or extra details. If you just provide unsubstantiated one-liners, recruiters can’t assess you properly. Don’t just say ‘I gained commercial awareness through my part-time job,’ say which job and how you gained this knowledge, using a specific example for illustration.
2. Show you are a STAR in how you structure your answers
Remember that the application form tests whether you can communicate the right level of detail in the right way. Judge the amount of detail necessary by looking at the word count. If there isn’t one, ensure you give multiple reasons for any question asking either why you should be hired or what attracts you to the role.
The STAR technique is a great way of keeping your answers free of waffle, especially when asked for an example of when you used a particular skill. Describe the Situation, the Tasks you needed to complete, the Actions you took and the Results.
It’s also fine to use subheadings and bullet points.
3. Do your research
You won’t be able to convincingly answer questions about your reasons for applying – eg ‘What interests you in working for Arup?’ and ‘Why do you want to work at Mace? What sets Mace apart from its competitors?’ – unless you’ve researched the company.
As a minimum find out:
- Is it a contractor or consultant? Who are its direct competitors?
- In which markets and service areas does it operate?
- What will you be doing in that particular job role? For example, as a civil engineer working for a contractor on highways, rather than for a consultant on bridges.
- What are the organisation's core values?
- What are some of its recent projects and research initiatives, eg off-site construction?
4. Use your research to help convey your enthusiasm for the job
Your research will help to show your interest in the job and the employer, if used properly. Demonstrate that you have considered what working in this role will involve and that your skills, interests and values are in line with those of the firm. Demonstrate to recruiters you’ve done your research by writing about recent projects they’ve completed and using phrases such as, ‘Looking at your website, I see that…’.
In answer to a question about why you want the job, discuss the aspects of the job that particularly appeal to you or any construction-related work experience you’ve done. It’s also a good idea to talk about your career aspirations, especially if you can use your research to highlight how this particular employer will help you to achieve them, as it shows you are serious about the job on offer.
5. Know that copying gets you a pasting
Applicants who get interviews have written their answers from scratch, ensuring they have answered the actual question. They haven’t copied and pasted in an answer that’s vaguely related to the question from another application, leaving in a reference to another company by mistake.
And don’t copy and paste information directly from the employer’s website – they will recognise their copy and it will make you look bad.
6. Check and check again to avoid errors
Many applications are let down by simple errors. Always draft your form in MS Word or a similar program, with a spell check, beforehand.
Before you finally press submit, check that there are no spelling or grammatical mistakes and that you have filled in every field. If the application form has uploaded details from your CV or LinkedIn profile, double check the details have auto-filled into the correct boxes.
Most large construction, engineering and surveying employers use online ability tests, particularly numerical, inductive reasoning and situational judgement tests (SJT). The main way to succeed is to practise as many as possible beforehand so that you are familiar with the type of questions and testing environment.
However, the tip above about doing your employer research is absolutely essential if you are set an SJT; you will be given various work-based scenarios and asked how you’d respond. Your responses should be guided by your understanding of the specific role you are applying for and the organisation’s values.