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Commercial Awareness: Understand it, develop it & use it to your advantage

In this day and age, you will no doubt have noticed that many employers seem to be talking about ‘commercial awareness’. If you’re confused by that phrase, then you’re in the right place! This article is aimed at students who have very little understanding of what companies want when they seek 'commercially aware' candidates.

What is commercial awareness?

Put simply, commercial awareness is all about having some understanding of the business world. It is all about being able to look at situations from a commercial perspective. This can mean understanding what makes a business successful and appreciating the factors that influence success.

Why do I need it?

As your career progresses, it’s likely that you will become more involved in decisions which directly affect your company or organisation. However, even at a student level, employers will usually be looking for you to have some appreciation of commerciality. This is likely to be tested at interview level; whether in the form of direct questioning or in a group exercise. You might be asked questions on topical issues or you may be required to apply commercial considerations to a given scenario.

Without any preparation, you may find yourself struggling with this side of the interview. This can be the difference between getting that crucial job offer and getting a one-way ticket to filling out your next job application; so prepare, prepare and prepare again!

How do I get it?

Commercial awareness is not something that you just suddenly ‘get’. You have to work hard to build it up over time. However, you can develop your commercial awareness in a number of different ways.

Work experience…

Any kind of work experience, either voluntary or paid, will enhance your commercial awareness in some way. For example, even if you just worked in a retail or telesales role over the summer holidays, you should be able to answer the following questions:

  • What did you learn about the company?
  • How were the needs of clients or customers met?
  • How did the organisation market itself?

It’s important to gain the right amount of work experience. You could undertake some short periods of work experience that last for a week or so, internships that last for a few months or a ‘sandwich placement’ that lasts for a whole year. When you’re working at these companies, ask plenty of questions and try your best to understand the inner-workings of the business. This will also show the company that you’re genuinely interested in their industry. You never know, if you impress them with your enthusiasm and inquisitiveness, you may automatically be considered for future vacancies!

Extra-curricular activities…

Think about the various extra-curricular activities that you have been involved in, take a step back and look at them from a commercial perspective.

Did you manage a student society? Did you publicise any events or deal with budgets and cost considerations? How did you attract new members? 

The more you question your actions and their motivations, the more comfortable you will become when it comes to discussing their commercial implications.

How can I improve my commercial awareness?

We may sound a bit biased, but one of the best ways to develop your commercial awareness is to head over to the AllAboutCareers News section and check out the daily news feeds that are hand-picked and posted on the website to help you develop your industry knowledge. If you register with AllAboutCareers and create your own profile, you can even get news feeds sent directly into your Noticeboard every single day. We’re trying our very best to make the tricky task of building your commercial awareness easier and easier!

Alternatively, if you like the look and feel of ink on your hands, you should read broadsheet newspapers, such as the Guardian, The Times, Financial Times or Telegraph. You could also watch the news. Some people find it easier to understand and remember information which is delivered in an audio-visual format. Whichever medium you use, the trick is to make sure you develop a great general knowledge of what is going on in the business world, as well as finding out about the specific issues and developments that are influencing your industry of choice.

If you’re applying to a particular company, take a look at their website. This may seem obvious, but before going to an interview, you should research the company’s current activities. Check out any publications that they have recently released and read any articles about them in the press. Pick one or two things that are particularly interesting to you and do some more detailed research into them.