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Business and commercial awareness


"Too many candidates are applying to jobs but clearly have no knowledge of how the industry or the company works"

- Brian Hood, Head of Campus Recruitment at Citigroup Corporate and Investment Banking

What do recruiters want?

Many recruiters complain about the lack of business or commercial awareness in applicants, even though they are impressed with the candidates other skills. This can often be a deciding factor at selection. But what are they looking for?

  • “You should bring to your role a genuine interest in business…”
  • “Someone who can put the customer at the heart of everything they do”
  • “Want to deliver business results”
  • “Have the confidence to challenge existing business practices and improve market share”
  • “Motivated to be better than our competitors”
  • “We want graduates with entrepreneurial spirit...”
  • “You’ll possess strong influencing and business skills…”

These quotes are all taken from adverts for graduate roles. As you can see, they don’t use the term ‘commercial awareness’, but all these recruiters are looking for the same thing. They want candidates who can prove that they have the skills and the personal qualities which will enable them to contribute to the overall success of the organisation; candidates who have an understanding of the market place in which their business or service operates. This is equally important whether the organisation operates in the public or private sector.

This might involve proving that you:

  • understand the organisation’s mission and aims
  • are aware of the political and economic issues affecting the organisation
  • are aware of the major competitors
  • understand the sectors the organisation operates within
  • understand the commercial priorities of the organisation

What are the elements of business and commercial awareness?

They are varied, depending on the organisation and the sector, but can include:

An interest in business – do you, for example, know the difference between a private limited company and a public limited company? Do you read financial news on the web or in newspapers? Having an interest in business and commerce is essential to many recruiters.

Customer care skills – understanding the needs and concerns of the customer and having the essential communication skills of listening, questioning, verifying and explaining to ensure customers get excellent service is critical. You also need to understand how customers make their choices and how organisations attract and keep new customers.

Economic and political awareness – are you aware of how the current economic and political issues, nationally and internationally, affect businesses and public services?

Creativity – being innovative and seeking different ways of doing things, having ideas, and being able to provide practical solutions to issues are important skills in helping an organisation to succeed.

Strategic thinking – having the clarity of vision to set realistic aims and objectives, and knowing what you need to do to achieve them are key elements to both personal and career success. 

Knowledge – good information, whether this is on finance, markets, customers, competitors, communities, technologies, or anything else relevant to the organisation and your work is essential. Having the ability to research new information and use it, is a key element in proving commercial awareness.

Gaining and demonstrating commercial awareness

You can gain business and commercial awareness through work or volunteering experience and also by researching the industry and organisation and staying up to date with developments:

Practical experience

At a very basic level, any recruiter will expect you to have gained an insight into any organisation you have worked or volunteered for. You may have had a part-time job in an organisation but the expectation is that you will have asked questions to find out more, so make the most of your work experience and be ready to give examples.

For example, if you've worked at McDonald's you should be aware of:

  • what were the biggest sellers and why
  • which advertisements and offers produced the best results
  • which organisations were the biggest competitors and how their marketing and special offers affected business
  • the importance of customer service

Being able to talk about issues like these will prove to a recruiter that you have an interest in how business works and an understanding of the importance of commercial awareness.

As well as the above relating to part-time work, below are some examples of how you may already have gained business and commercial awareness at the University of Bradford and in your personal life. There may also be some useful suggestions here if you are looking to develop your skills further:

  • any summer internships, placements or work shadowing
  • be treasurer of a society
  • take part in workshops and activities, such as business games, entrepreneurial competitions and events, and employer-led skills sessions which often have a commercial focus. 
  • fundraising for charity
  • organising events
  • buy and sell on online auction sites or car boot sales
  • have taken part in Young Enterprise at school
  • have researched savings accounts and loans, or a large purchase such as a computer or car


You should have an awareness of what is happening generally in the marketplace. Read the Financial Times (the University has a subscription so you can create an account with your UoB email address) or the business pages of the broadsheets, read the quality Sunday papers, and check out the BBC Business and Money section of the which is a good source of business and topical news. The Insider has business news by region, including Yorkshire

Read the quality press

Such as the Society Guardian, or Media Guardian, or the Times Educational Supplement, and any relevant professional journals such as New Scientist, Nature, Broadcast, The Actuary, etc. The Careers Information Room and the JB Priestley Library have a range of publications which may be useful.

Social media

The vast majority of companies are on Facebook and Twitter, so use their search facilities to find companies in the field you are looking to enter, plus industry experts, job sites, recruiters, graduate / placement specialists, alumni groups, and careers specialists. You may well gain insights from employees and other industry experts on social media that aren't available anywhere else, and there may even be the opportunity ask questions if there's specific points you'd like to know more about (read our Social and Digital Networking info for more). 

Industry and company-specific knowledge

If you are applying to a bank, for example, you need to know general information about the financial markets worldwide and you need to know specific information on where your targeted organisation fits into the market place.  Who are their major competitors, what market share do they have, do they have any unique selling-points, what are their priorities and aims?

This is just as important if you are applying to the public sector, for example, a University. What are the University’s main strengths, what are their immediate priorities, which other Universities do they benchmark themselves against, how does the University interact with its community?

Good research demonstrates a practical grasp and understanding of the pressures organisations face and an awareness of external influences. It also shows you have a genuine interest in the organisation. Most of this research can be done on the internet. You should check out the organisation’s website and read their annual report, you should also look at the websites of relevant professional associations.

You can log your findings with a SWOT analysis- see the details in our preparing for your interview section.

Practical help

We run regular workshops on employability skills, and you can book a careers appointment and discuss how you can improve your employability in relation to your career choices.

Further reading

 Other relevant websites with general information on skills are:

  • Prospects – features articles on skills and how to evidence them.
  • TARGETjobs – has details on essential skills and competencies.