The interview process in the Commercial Sector Graduate Jobs

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Many of the articles on the career development section are concerned with jobs in the academic sector. However, this piece will focus on the interview experience of a particular part of the commercial sector: that involving so-called ‘milkround' jobs sought by university graduates.

What is the milkround?

In their third year of undergraduate study, the thoughts of many students turn to the world of work and their careers once they leave the security of university life. Universities and employers provide a service known as the ‘milkround' in which key employers from the commercial sector showcase their company at presentations and careers fairs held on campuses around the country. The name comes from the service where a milkman delivers milk to your door step, graduate recruiter deliver jobs to your university.

Students will be advised on how to get a job in that institution and the lucky few may even be head-hunted on the spot. However, for most graduates, the job market is incredibly competitive, more so now than ever, because more of the population is graduating from university. People often pursue jobs that are relevant to their degree, for example finance posts for those who have done maths, but it is possible to acquire these jobs with any good degree, including in the arts and humanities. Often at least one hundred people are chasing one position in the larger companies. For example, Umair Sajid, a business development assistant at reported one case where he went for a graduate place at Siemens. Six hundred people applied, and only two were eventually given positions!

How to apply

So, how can you most improve your chances of being recruited on to a graduate scheme? Part of the secret is to make sure you are familiar with the process of selecting candidates so you know what to expect in each hiring scenario.

There are two main ways of putting yourself in the running for a graduate job. First register with a specific employment agency dealing with those sorts of roles. You would probably provide your CV and a general covering letter on paper. These would then be forwarded to various companies who would screen these documents for suitable applicants. 

The other way is to apply direct to the company, almost always using online application forms. These could be screened using automatic software, so it is important to fill these in correctly.

What questions are asked on the application form?

The usual sorts of questions about your education and job history will be asked, but most of the application form is taken up with questions about ‘competencies' where candidates are asked to give examples of occasions when they used teamwork, initiative, communication skills, leadership skills, motivation or drive. It is important to get in as many ‘buzzwords' as possible when answering these sorts of questions, so it is worth practising beforehand. Many Careers Centres based in universities will offer you the opportunity to do this.

Some employers, such as the Big Four (Deloitte, KPMG, Price Waterhouse Coopers and Ernst & Young) will require you to do a numerical and verbal tests, either online or prior to interview, to prove that you can achieve the minimum standard they require.

What questions are asked in the interview?

The obvious first question is ‘why do you want to join this company?'. Make sure you have a strong answer prepared for this, as first impressions do count. Find out what this particular employer wants to hear by doing extensive research into the ethos of the company and the roles they are hiring for. Once you know what they are looking for, it is easier to make yourself sound like exactly that person. And make sure you do not come across as desperate: ‘because it's a job and I need the money' is not a suitable answer, even in jest! Similarly, the question ‘why have you applied for this graduate programme' gives you the opportunity to explain why you are a perfect fit for this job and where you see yourself going in the job. Be ambitious but realistic.

There will be many more ‘competency' type questions in the interview as well as on the application form. These include:

    • Give me an example when you had to solve a complex problem in a team-working environment? (this is extremely common)
    • Give me an example of time management, where you have had to deal with a number of commitments? How do you organise yourself?
    • Give me an example when you had to be creative?
    • Give me an example of leadership?
    • Biggest achievement? Biggest Regret?
    • Challenging situation? Risky Decision?

These questions are encouraging you to think about your career and educational life from a different angle. Your qualifications prove that you have a certain level of education to fit in at the company, but they want to know that you have an analytical brain and aim towards career development. Provide strong examples for each competencies, make them real examples if you can because these will come across better. Questions which ask you to view yourself negatively, such as asking about your biggest regret, or a risky decision you have made, require you to dispassionately explain the situation and ALWAYS put a positive spin on it. Emphasise what you learned from a mistake, or how you endeavoured to put it right. And of course, as with any interview, coming across as confident is vital.

Getting the results of your interview

As in all sectors, it depends on the company and their human resources department as to how quickly you will hear a reply. Successful candidates usually hear between a few hours and a few days after their interview. Larger companies such as ‘the big 4' are very good at getting back to candidates. If you have been unsuccessful make sure that you ask for some feedback from your interview. This will be invaluable when you come to prepare for your next interview. Hopefully you will be advised if any area came across as particularly weak in your interview, and some companies will offer advice for improving that aspect.

Tips for improving your chances

Holding mock interviews is a good way of preparing for the real thing. Friends or members of the careers service can bombard you with practice questions, so that when it comes to an interview, you are used to being ‘grilled'. Also, if you are having little success in the U.K. it is worth thinking of alternatives. Many of the companies you want to work for will now have global offices, all of the ‘big 4' work in Ireland too, so try applying there. It is an extremely competitive sector, and sometimes the odds can seem overwhelming, but persistence and confidence will pay off in the end, and performing well at this sort of interview is a skill that can be easily learned.


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