Commercial awareness and employability

Author: John Canning


Although commercial awareness may not always be addressed in a classroom setting, it is a skill that students applying to graduate recruiters will benefit from nurturing. This short article outlines some of the ways in which employers may require potential employees to demonstrate this attribute.

This article was added to our website on 09/03/07 at which time all links were checked. However, we cannot guarantee that the links are still valid.

Table of contents


This short overview comes from the author's visit to a major graduate recruiter's day-long meeting aimed at careers advisors. This firm has identified a lack of commercial awareness as one of the greatest weaknesses of applicants to its graduate programme. Of course it is largely the responsibility of the individual student to undertake the necessary work to enhance their commercial awareness, but practitioners can play an important role in making their students aware of the extent to which employers value this attribute in their recruits. However, it is not the intention of this article to suggest that employers do not value the discipline-specific skills of Languages, Linguistics and Area Studies graduates.

Awareness of employer

Applicants need to demonstrate awareness about the firm to which they are applying and the business environment in which it operates. This includes an awareness of the industry, its regulators, its competitors and current issues facing the industry.

Using past work experience

It is not always the nature of the past work experience that is likely to advance the applicants chances of employment, but how they display awareness of the environment in which their employer operates. An applicant who has worked stacking shelves in a supermarket must demonstrate awareness of that industry - what issues are facing the supermarket industry? Who owns the company? How is it structured? An applicant who has worked in a pub may be asked about the beer industry or issues facing the drinks industry. Applicants often give answers to these questions that could be easily given by the supermarket or pub's customers - the recruiter requires an insider's perspective.

When asked how they would change things at the company they have worked for, interviewees are often reluctant to give opinions. This may be because employment self-help books often suggest that such questions are asked in order to give an opportunity to criticise past employers, which will expose an applicant who could be a potential problem in the future. However, the employer wants applicants to respond to such questions in a positive way.

Business issues

Applicants often try to demonstrate commercial awareness by reading newspaper business pages for a couple of weeks before the interview. However, just being knowledgeable of what is happening in the business world is not sufficient - employers assume that graduates know how to read! Interviewees are expected to have formed opinions on business news and to be able to talk about the possible implications for the industry, the consumer and the wider business community. What are the implications of the merger for Firm X and Firm Y for the industry? What is your view of Firm Z going into administration?

Applicants are also expected to demonstrate political awareness and the influence of politics on the company, the industry and the wider economy.

Discipline specific questions

Interviewees may also be asked questions related to the disciplines they are studying at university. Possible questions for applicants from Languages, Linguistics and Area Studies subjects may relate to the translation industry or the business environment in the country where they have spent their year abroad.


Commercial awareness is an attribute that can be developed by students and graduates of any discipline, not just those in business-related disciplines. Developing this attribute requires the student to invest a lot of time and effort, but it is highly valued by recruiters.