If you have been invited to an assessment centre, congratulations! It means that the employer likes what they have seen so far and wants to find out more about you and what you have to offer. Understanding what assessment centres are, how employers use them, and what they might involve, will help you perform at your best.
- What happens in an assessment centre?
An assessment centre is a process designed to assess whether candidates have the skills required for a job and the future potential the organisation is looking for. It comprises a range of activities or simulations designed to test these factors. Some elements may replicate the tasks and demands of a particular job.
Assessment centres generally last between half a day and two days and they take place at employer premises or another suitable location, such as a hotel conference centre or training facility.
Common features of the assessment process are that several candidates are observed by a team of trained assessors, against pre-identified competencies, in a variety of different situations and exercises. Candidates usually work in teams of four to eight, but some exercises will be performed individually.
All of this may sound scary, but remember that:
- Having a number of candidates present makes the selection process more meaningful as you can be assessed both individually and as part of a team.
- Using several trained assessors should make the process fairer as the decision on who to hire is made by consensus.
- Assessing against pre-identified competencies means that you are being tested to see if you can demonstrate the skills that are important to do the actual job.
- Using a range of assessment techniques ensures that you are given several opportunities to demonstrate your skills in different situations instead of only being selected on the basis of your CV, motivation letter and interview.
- Typical activities
Selection activities might include any of the following, as appropriate to the job:
- psychometric tests
- in-tray or e-tray exercises
- written exercises
- role plays
- group exercises
- business case studies
- physical challenges
For more examples, check out the Sample Assessment Centre Exercises.
- Why and how employers use assessment centres
Employers are not looking for you to excel at every exercise, but rather to perform satisfactorily across all exercises. If you are less good at some, you will have the opportunity to make up for it in others.
Employers value the objective nature of the assessment centre process. Several assessors have input into selection decisions, which limits any personal bias. It should also result in better hiring decisions for the employer and fewer new recruits finding it difficult to perform or fit into the working environment.
Assessment centres are also an opportunity for employers to give potential recruits an insight into the company culture and attitudes. Employers will often use some of the sessions to share more information about the business and the positions on offer and to market themselves to candidates.
- How are selection decisions made?
The assessors come together at the end of the assessment centre for a 'wash up' session. They consider each candidate, noting their observations of individual performance during each exercise. Using all the evidence they have collected from the different exercises, they discuss whether you have demonstrated the skills and qualities they require and to what extent.
You will be assessed against a particular level of skill or behaviour, often called a benchmark. You are not in competition with other candidates. If you reach the benchmark, you will normally be offered a position or go forward to any further recruitment stage. There is rarely a quota of how many candidates can proceed.
At some assessment centres no candidates will be offered jobs. On other occasions all candidates can be successful.
- Individual selection activities
This exercise is usually concerned with your planning and organisational skills and your ability to prioritise and make judgments.
Most jobs now involve a significant element of managing information and making decisions on how to react to it. The in-tray (paper based) or e-tray (computer based) exercise is designed to test how you would cope with this element of work.
Exercises are becoming increasingly sophisticated, but the typical features remain the same.
You will be given a wide range of material to work through in a limited amount of time and probably some background to the business and your role in it. Some items will be interconnected. You will need to make decisions about how to respond to each of a list of tasks, and in which order. You may also receive additional items of information, or other interruptions, to manage as the exercise progresses.
You will also be working under significant pressure as there is rarely time to complete everything. The nature of the information in the tray may be representative of what you would be dealing with in the job, so it is a simulation of realistic working conditions.
Tips for in-tray exercises
- Read through everything you have been given as quickly and effectively as you can.
- Think about the relative urgency and importance of each item.
- Look for links between items to see where you might need to deal with things together or in a specific order.
- Keep a brief record of each decision you make and the reasoning behind it.
- Stay calm when you receive additional information and assess its impact at that point.
- If you start to feel pressured, breathe deeply for a few moments before continuing.
This exercise is usually concerned with your planning, organisation, and communication skills, as well as your impact on an audience.
Presentations are common at assessment centres. Presentations make many people nervous, but assessors will expect this. And the adrenaline which comes with nerves can also prompt you to give an effective performance and stop you looking overly relaxed and casual. Remember, too, that this is the one time when you control the proceedings.
You could be asked to prepare a presentation on a specified topic, or one of your choice. You may be given material or a topic in advance of your presentation, to focus your preparation. At an assessment centre you might be expected to conduct a presentation based on material you are given on the day.
The lengths of presentations vary, but you can expect to talk for five to fifteen minutes before taking questions from the audience. This may sound like a long time but you will be surprised how quickly it can go.
Your presentation may be watched by one or more interviewers or assessors. Knowing your audience is important for designing your content and for anticipating questions, so try to find out in advance who'll be there. Questions test not only your knowledge, but also how well you communicate information, think on your feet, and react under pressure.
You can work on your presentation skills by focusing on the structure, content and style in which you deliver your material. If the actual delivery is your biggest worry, remember that your presentation's success will rest mostly on how you prepare beforehand, away from the audience.
All good presentations have a:
- beginning, which explains what you'll be covering
- middle, where you deliver the talk
- end, which summarises the main points
Keep your points clear and simple, and don't try to cover too much. Avoid being too technical or using jargon that could confuse your audience.
If you are preparing your own topic, choose something that you feel comfortable talking about but isn't likely to be chosen by many other candidates. If you know your subject matter you are naturally more confident and an original topic will make your presentation more memorable.
Visual aids can enhance your presentation, if used effectively. You should check in advance whether they are expected or allowed. PowerPoint is a useful aid and you can take your slides along on a memory stick or on your laptop. Again, check that the necessary equipment will be available. If you are preparing on site, you could use a flipchart to summarise key messages.
The assessors will be looking carefully at how you deliver your presentation and engage with your audience. Think about your:
- Voice. Speak clearly and a little louder and slower than you would in normal conversation, making sure you vary your tone.
- Body language. Stand up straight, facing your audience. Don't fidget, cross your arms or put your hands in your pockets.
- Eye contact. Look at your audience and share your gaze around the room.
- Movement. Don't stand rooted to the spot, but move a little without pacing up and down.
- Gestures. Use your hands to stress what you are saying.
- Face. Smiling will help you look enthusiastic and confident.
Practice makes perfect
Take every opportunity to practise your presentation in front of others and to seek some feedback on structure, content and style.
Presentations are rarely perfect. You will be expected to be nervous, but:
- Stick to time. Your assessors will have a schedule to keep to and you don't want to be stopped part way through your talk.
- Focus on the topic you were given in the instructions.
- Look at the audience. Be familiar with your slides and use cue cards instead of a script.
- Speak audibly. Practise your presentation voice.
- Speak slowly enough for your audience to follow.
- Smile at the beginning and end.
- Fidget. It will distract your audience from what you're saying.
- Use too many special effects in a PowerPoint presentation.
- Look surprised at any slide which comes up, even if you are. If it's completely out of place, simply move on to the next.
- Try to be funny. Humour can easily backfire, especially with an unfamiliar audience.
Written exercises are designed to test your skills in planning and prioritising, written communication, decision making and problem solving.
Exercises can vary from drafting a response to a customer complaint, to producing a report on potential markets for a new product. In all cases you will be provided with information to read, analyse and interpret. Some written exercises are effectively case studies where you are provided with information such as reports, data, internal and external correspondence and media cuttings.
The assessors are looking at how you approach the test, your thought processes, and how you present your findings. There is often no right answer to the exercise.
Sometimes your written exercise will be referred back to in other elements of the interview or assessment centre. Be prepared to explain your strategy and your findings. An assessor may ask you to discuss the approach that you took, or question you on your recommendations.
Tips for written exercises
- Look thoroughly at the information that you are given at the beginning.
- Identify information that is not so relevant to your task and spend less time on it.
- Make definite recommendations or offer specific solutions. Don't be vague.
- Ensure that your arguments are clear and persuasive and support the conclusions that you reach.
- Leave sufficient time to write the document.
- Role plays
Role plays are used to simulate realistic scenarios that you could be faced with in the job. They require you to demonstrate your communication and negotiation skills as well as the impact that you have on others.
You will be given an outline scenario and any supporting information or documentation that you might need. You will be given some time to prepare and then a time limit for the role play, during which you will be expected to bring the situation to some kind of conclusion. The person you are role playing with will also have a brief and will have been advised how to respond to your handling of the situation. Sometimes assessors act as the other party in the role play, but professional actors are also used.
Tips for role plays
- Read the instructions carefully and consider all the information you are given.
- Have a plan for how you want the discussion to conclude and stick to it as far as possible.
- Get into your role right from the beginning and stay in it for the duration of the encounter.
- Be polite but firm when necessary. Take the role play seriously.
- Aim to get an agreement or concession from the other party.
- Make sure you properly close the discussion and clarify again what you have agreed or what is going to happen as a result.
- Finish on a positive and pleasant note.
Employers will almost certainly want to interview you as a key element of the assessment centre programme.
An assessment centre interview will be your opportunity to demonstrate your interest in the job, your knowledge of the organisation, and why you think that you are suitable for the position. You will need to take your interview preparation to a different level.
Tips for assessment centre interviews
Before the interview make sure you:
- Read through your original application form or CV and refresh your memory on the information you have provided so far.
- Find out even more about the organisation and the job using company brochures, websites, annual reports, careers service contacts, etc.
- Understand the competencies that the organisation is looking for and prepare some robust and specific examples of situations where you have demonstrated these.
- Watch out in the news and papers for any stories concerning the organisation, their competitors and other issues that might affect their business. Be prepared to discuss the impact they may have. You may wish to set Google alert so you receive company updates.
- Think clearly about why you want the job and what particular skills you have got that they will value – seek opportunities to get these across in an interview.
- Review any specific technical knowledge that you might be tested on if the role is directly linked to your studies.
- Group activities
This exercise is usually concerned with leadership, team working, communication and problem solving.
Working as part of a team or group is a major element of many graduate roles, and employers often consider it a vital skill for potential recruits to demonstrate. An important element of most assessment centres is one or more group exercises, where you and the other candidates work together to solve a problem, meet a challenge, or work through a situation relevant to the organisation and make some recommendations.
While the group exercise can never be entirely true to life, it does give all candidates a fair chance to show how effectively they can work as a member of a group. For many graduate roles this is a critical skill. Some employers consider it so fundamental that they might run several group exercises during the course of their assessment centre.
Exercises can range from organising an escape from a fictitious jungle or building towers out of Lego, to allocating lottery funding or devising a strategy for reducing traffic congestion. Whatever the subject matter, the purpose of the exercise remains largely the same – to see you work with others towards finding a solution to a problem.
There are generally two types of group exercise:
1. Assigned roles
In an assigned role exercise, each participant is given a role to play or a point of view to represent.
Some elements of the brief will be common to all and others will be assigned to particular individuals. For example, each member of the group might act the part of a manager from a different part of the organisation and have to represent that department’s position on a particular issue.
Whether you 'win' or 'lose' the debate is not important. The assessors are looking for effective arguments and positive interactions with others. This style of exercise is often used when the subject matter is relevant to the organisation or business, as it tends to replicate the realities of work.
2. Non-assigned roles
In an exercise without assigned roles, all candidates will be given the same brief and the group will be left to organise itself.
In particular the assessors are looking for how people interact within the team and what they contribute to the completion of the task. The subject matter could be relevant to the organisation. For example, a manufacturing company might ask for ideas for a marketing strategy for a new product. Or it could be completely unrelated to the nature of the work. Again the outcome of the test is not as important as the contribution that you make to the process.
Roles people play
In any group situation or exercise there are a number of different roles that people can adopt or fall into that will help the group complete the task:
- Organiser: keeps meetings focused and in order, and is determined to get through the agenda.
- Facilitator: ensures that the quieter members of the group are heard and everyone’s contribution acknowledged.
- Recorder: keeps a note of decisions (especially those relating to who will do what before the next meeting), and ensures everyone is aware of them.
- Time-keeper and progress chaser: keeps an eye on the clock
- Coordinator: sees the 'big picture' (the strategic overview), and has an eye for gaps and overlaps.
- Lookout: visualises future scenarios and is alert to issues that may be looming over the horizon.
- Encourager: brings good humoured appreciation to proceedings, and is able to defuse tensions and revive flagging morale.
Most people will demonstrate elements of several of these roles in their behaviour. If you are struggling to find a way into an exercise, watch out for who is doing what and see where there might be a gap that needs filling. This will help you to establish yourself within the group and make a good impression on the assessors.
Tips for success in group exercises
- Read the brief thoroughly at the outset and write down some initial ideas and thoughts.
- Contribute to discussions. The assessors can only score what they can see and hear.
- Avoid trying to dominate the discussion or allocating jobs and roles to others.
- Learn the names of group members and use them frequently.
- Focus on the quality of your contributions rather than the quantity.
- If you are struggling for ideas, offer to be timekeeper or to summarise the discussion to that point.
- Speak confidently and loudly enough for all to hear.
- Listen to others and do not interrupt people when they are talking.
- Respond to people around the table, acknowledging what you agree with and politely stating clearly when you do not agree and why.
- Encourage others to speak if they are very quiet.
- Remember the objective of the exercise and keep the team on track if they start to wander.
- Be prepared to change your position if new information comes to light or if compromise is needed to come to a conclusion. It is not always a sign of weakness.
- Ignore the assessors as far as is possible and keep your eye contact to those you are working with.
- Stay involved, enthusiastic, and interested throughout.