If you are in senior school and expecting to leave in the next year or two you might be considering applying for an apprenticeship, a college place or even a university course. You will probably be worried by the current disruption caused to the exam process and the way in which this might affect your chances of selection for your chosen career. You might also feel that you have missed out on work experience or summer employment and that the loss of these opportunities will also hold you back. If so, take a moment and try to see things from the point of view of the selection board or the employer who is hoping to recruit you.
Interviewers have always been able to form opinions of candidates based upon a string of letters on a page but, to be honest, that’s never been a good way to get an accurate view of a person’s suitability for the job or course in question. It’s easy to do, but it’s not effective because it’s really an assessment of how good the candidate is at sitting exams. The current situation means that the interviewers will need to work a bit harder to get to know you and that means that it’s an opportunity for you to shine – particularly if you’re one of those people who don’t do well in exams at the best of times and so would previously have been at a disadvantage in an selection process that relied on exam grades for assessment.
Looking back to the way many people gained technical knowledge 300, 200, 100 or even 50 years ago in Scotland, it wasn’t handed to them on a plate – they had to have a great deal of drive and determination to educate themselves. This included self-teaching, borrowing books from libraries and long spells of evening classes, usually after a hard day’s grind of heavy labour. The University of Strathclyde, for example, has its origins in Anderson’s Institute founded in 1796 to provide technical education in practical subjects “for the good of mankind”. Likewise Heriot Watt University grew from the Edinburgh School of Arts founded in 1821, the world’s first Mechanics’ Institute.
So how can you help an interviewer to get to know you better? It’s not something that you can just turn on five minutes before the interview; it needs to be a way of life rather than a short term blip. If you show that you have been looking for ways to broaden your horizons since the beginning of lockdown, and that you have taken responsibility for your own learning then you will stand out from the crowd. Even though your exam grades, awarded at the end of the 2020-21 academic session might not provide a good basis for comparison with other candidates your CV and the stories that you can tell in an interview will potentially be far more in your favour. This is particularly true for candidates looking for a career in engineering because there is a wealth of opportunity for hobbies, learning, volunteering and communicating. Here are a few examples of things that will look good on a CV and a couple that don’t do you any favours:
• Develop an interest in how things work; show an enjoyment of taking things apart and putting them back together again, or in restoring old and broken tools, machines or equipment.
• Demonstrate a willingness to learn by digging deeper into the topics raised in maths, physics and chemistry at school. With unlimited access to the internet this is easier than it has ever been, but people seem to do less of it than before.
• If your learning has been based on internet content then demonstrate an awareness of the quality of the source and the need for a critical appraisal of information received.
• Show an interest in the history of engineering, particularly in your local area. Find out who the main characters were and what they achieved, often on the basis of virtually no technical knowledge.
• Show that you have looked into the company or college that is interviewing and use the application letter and the interview to ask some relevant questions. The quality of your background research and questions will tell the selection panel much more about your abilities than your exam grades will.
• Volunteer to help groups that promote engineering as a career. As a senior pupil in school with a desire to study engineering you could be a great help for example to Primary Engineer.
• Read a lot – almost anything from adventure stories and detective novels to popular science and philosophy; the more you read the better. Let language be absorbed and reflected in your own writing style and develop skills in the art of communication; something that is not really taught in school and was never reflected in exam grades before anyway.
However don’t put “reading” on your CV as a hobby or pastime. If you are going to mention it at all then you need to give more detail and explain why it is important to you. In a similar way I have never been impressed by people who put “walking” or “socialising” as hobbies on their CV. Use that section of the CV to build a detailed, accurate picture of yourself. Demonstrate to the interviewer that you are the type of person who is keen to learn, who relishes new opportunities and is able to take advice from others as well as to give it out.
Most of all, take the chance to make this unusual situation an opportunity for you. Bad things will happen to you and around you all through your career. The way in which you address them, deal with them and move on beyond them is what will be used to judge your performance in your career. The same applies to the interview that could start that career.
Andy Pearson, President of the Institution of Engineers in Scotland, January 2021
This essay is a personal opinion and does not reflect the policy or thinking of any organisation.