Technical interviews: show off your civils degree
Read on to discover the types of technical interview questions and assessment centre exercises you might be given by a civil or structural engineering employer – and, vitally, our handy tips on how to prepare for them.
Your future employer wants to see how you approach problem solving. The final answer is often less important.
If you attend an interview for a graduate job as a civil engineer or structural engineer, your technical knowledge and understanding will probably be assessed. Whether the interview is held in person or over live video link, you may face:
- Technical interview questions.
- A technical exercise (followed by questions about your work on it).
- A case study, which may require some technical knowledge (this is rarer).
But don’t worry: the questions or topics you will be asked about will be appropriate for your entry-level knowledge. Many graduate civil and structural engineers report that their questions were closely allied to the basic principles that they learned in the first year or two of their degree.
Example technical interview questions for civil engineers and structural engineers
- Why did you choose your degree? Which modules/projects/topics did you find most enjoyable and most difficult or challenging?
- Tell me about your final-year project/dissertation.
- Tell me about a time when you solved a technical problem.
- What did you do on ‘X’ internship and what technical knowledge did you learn?
- What is sustainable development? How would you implement and champion it on a project team?
- Identify the critical points along a buried pipe running down a hill.
- How would you approach a ground investigation for a building structure?
- Sketch a strip foundation and build up to how you'd construct a suspended slab.
- What considerations must be made when building on a site of special scientific interest (SSSI)?
- What is the best solution for replacing existing lights in order to improve the lighting efficiency of a highway?
- What is your understanding of the role of BIM [for this division]?
- What do you know about the CDM regulations?
- If you were presented with a beam element, how would you go about the design process?
- What crack width limit would you use to design a diaphragm wall?
- What flow profile can you expect when water is released from behind a weir by opening the sluice gates?
- What would you do if a client phoned you to say that a pump is not working? How would you solve the problem? What if that solution didn’t work?
- What are some of the factors affecting the flow capacity of a pipe?
The above questions have been sourced from a number of anonymous internet forums. These are, of course, just example questions – there is no guarantee that they will be asked and you may be asked any technical question that is relevant to the discipline/sector you are applying to.
You can see, however, that most technical interview questions fall into three broad categories: a) what you have done on your degree course/any internships; b) technical topics relating to the specific division you’ve applied to; and c) how you would apply your engineering knowledge in hypothetical situations.
Example technical exercises and assessment day tasks for graduate civils jobs
The same internet forums report having completed the following technical exercises during their graduate job interview or assessment day:
- Being asked the following questions in an interview: ‘You are going to build the bridge that you were given as a case study earlier this morning. What are the ground investigation steps that you need to undertake? What sort of tests will you do?’
- At the end of an interview being given some beam sketches and being asked to draw the shear force diagram and bending moment diagram.
- Being asked to draw a strip foundation and build up to how you'd construct a suspended slab.
- Being asked what factors you would need to take into account if asking to site a railway station.
Civil engineering and structural engineering technical interview tips
Before you attend a civil engineering or structural engineering assessment day or interview:
- Read up on the company’s work in the division you are applying to and review any university notes you have on technical topics that might crop up in relation to them.
- Read through your coursework, project work and/or dissertation and be prepared to talk about what you did.
- Practise talking about technical solutions, your coursework and any technical knowledge gleaned from internships. If possible, ask someone from a non-technical background to give you feedback on the clarity of your explanations of technical topics.
- Practise sketching diagrams.
- Prepare a portfolio of project work to bring along to your interview – many interviewers will ask you about it and it will be easier to talk about if you have it in front of you. Graduate bridge engineer Joshua McGregor told a previous edition of the UK 300: ‘I’d recommend taking your work because you will always be asked technical questions: if they’re on a project you’ve worked on, you are likely to know the answers!’
When answering technical interview questions:
- Keep in mind that your interviewers aren’t necessarily looking for neat and tidy answers – and they are usually more interested in your thinking than whether you provide the correct answer. Engineering projects rarely present textbook problems so your future employer wants to see how you approach problem solving. The final answer is often less important.
- If you don’t understand a question, ask for clarification.
- If you don’t know the answer or you have limited knowledge of a subject, explain what you do know and then show the interviewer how you would approach solving the problem. In most cases, the interviewer will help you through the scenario to allow you to show your thinking.
- If a diagram will help you explain something, don’t be afraid to ask for paper and pen if you haven’t got them with you.
- You don’t need to rush in to answering. Give yourself time to think. If you are worried about a long pause developing, take a sip of water or say to your interviewers that you’d like time to think.
- If you reach the end of an interview and are worried that you didn’t answer a question particularly well, you can ask if you can revisit the question and amend your answer. Emma Hale is a chartered civil engineer at Mott MacDonald who now interviews graduates. She told a previous edition of the UK 300: ‘I’d be impressed if someone wanted to come back to a question they were asked previously to add an extra detail or clarify a point.’
Remember the other interview questions you might be asked
Civil and structural engineering interviewers aren’t just interested in your technical knowledge. You can expect to also be asked about what you know about the company and the industry, why you applied, and about your non-technical skills and achievements. Read our article ‘Construction interview questions and how to answer them’ for advice on tackling these questions.
Will I be asked technical questions in an engineering internship interview?
This will vary according to employers; if you are, the questions will be related only to what you have studied. However if you are given the opportunity to talk through technical problems, do try. Joshua attended an internship interview with his employer during his first year: at university ‘My interviewers also told me that they weren’t going to give me a technical exercise that they’d give to graduates because I wouldn’t have been taught the theory yet, but I said I’d like to try. I was told afterwards that they liked the fact that I was willing to give it a go.’ He also added that his interviewers helped him to work through unfamiliar topics, so it was a good learning experience.