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Assessment centres

The majority of larger organisations, and an increasing number of medium sized companies, use assessment centres as the final stage of graduate recruitment. They can last from half a day to a full day, and involve individual and group exercises to assess skills and competencies that are hard to judge from an interview alone. These include:

  • Interpersonal skills such as teamwork, leadership, social awareness, listening and public speaking
  • Problem-solving and analytical skills such as prioritising, decision making, planning, working under pressure and commercial awareness

Being invited to an assessment centre means the employer already knows that you have many of the qualities they require and you’ve got a good chance of receiving a job offer. You will be assessed on your own performance, you are not in competition with the other candidates there. Working together as a team is likely to benefit everyone.

On the day, focus on each task in turn. Most people do better in some tasks than others. Don’t dwell on any that don’t go well and move on to the next. Offers will be based on your all-round performance. If a task doesn’t go well (as long as it doesn’t reveal a weakness for a key competency in the job) an offer may still be made.

Preparation

  • Remind yourself of the employers’ selection criteria and prepare examples of how your skills meet them
  • Research  the company and its business sector
  • Update yourself on current affairs
  • Prepare thoroughly for tasks which can be general or simulated to mimic business activities.
  • If you have a disability you may want to notify the employer ahead of the assessment centre so you can arrange adjustments, such as additional time for any assessed exercises. Disclosure is purely your choice but may help you give the fullest account of your abilities on the day

Typical Assessment Centre Activities

Group activities 

Assessment centres generally include a variety of group activities to see how well you interact with others, the role you play in a team, and how you tackle specific tasks.

Group discussions

You may be given a business topic that is related to the job role, such as ‘What do you think our marketing strategy should be over the next five years?’, or a topical issue, such as the impact of increased tuition fees on higher education. Assessors will look for your ability to listen, include and assess other contributions, deal sensitively with others, contribute new ideas, and focus on key issues in the brief.

Group exercises

These include leaderless activities, chaired discussions, business games, leadership tasks and other work related scenarios. Examples include practical exercises such as building a Lego tower, case studies such as a new product launch, and role plays where individuals have a specific management role. Helpful behaviour includes:

  • Assessing the task and deciding on strategy and planning
  • Ensuring that all team members are making useful contributions
  • Making best use of expertise and resources
  • Presenting arguments, listening, negotiating and co-operating

Individual exercises

In-tray/e-tray exercise

These exercises assess your ability to work efficiently and as effectively as possible while processing information, analysing problems, making decisions, and taking action in a business context.

You will be presented with either a range of typical paperwork or an email inbox. These are likely to include: documents, reports, phone messages, memos, letters and/or emails. You will be expected to work your way through the information within a specified time frame (typically 30-60 minutes) and prioritise the order for action, explain what action is required, and how you plan to deal with it, e.g. delegate an action to someone else, return a call, arrange a meeting, deal with a complaint, and so on.

Make sure that you understand the instructions and then read through all of the documents quickly but carefully before prioritising. 

Online practice tests:

Interview

This could be a chronological interview a case study interview, a strengths based interview, a competency based interview or a combination of all of these. See the Interview section for further details.

Presentation

You might be asked to prepare a presentation pre-interview, or given a problem to analyse and then present on at the interview. Either way, the interviewers will be looking at your ability to analyse, order information, and present confidently. Remember to structure your presentation with a concise introduction, main body of evidence (with a clear, structured argument) and conclusion.

You will find information on presentations at TARGETJobs.

Psychometric testing/Personality questionnaire

While you might have undergone psychometric testing prior to the assessment centre, some organisations ask you to complete additional testing on the day. Remember to practice the basics and see our guide to psychometric testing for further information.

Individual case study exercises

These are commonly presented as a hypothetical business problem that you will be asked to analyse and make recommendations on in a brief written or verbal report with an assessor. No previous experience of the business is needed and they will not be looking for management level skills but the ability to assess a large amount of information, think logically, and identify a solution. These exercises tend to be used in business consultancy, banking, financial services, accountancy and management consulting recruitment. Case study exercises can be used as a group or individual activity.

    • Case Interview Free videos, handouts, and list of frameworks providing step-by-step instructions on how to tackle cases (registration required)
    • Inside Careers Applications and interviews: case study tips
    • Wikijob Includes some case study interview questions
    • Bain & Company (Management consultancy) The interview preparation section includes three online practice interactive cases
    • Marakon Practice case study included in the Careers section – Sample cases to help you familiarize yourself with the format, as well as test your problem-solving approaches
    • Case in Point: Complete Case Interview Preparation Marc P Cosentino, 8th Edition, 2013, Burgee Press, in the PDC. (The book aims to  demystify the consulting case interview, exploring the various types of case questions, and includes 40 strategy cases and ten case starts exercises)

Social event

Some assessment centres will involve an overnight stay, or incorporate breaks between activities for you to meet staff - from recent graduate entrants to senior managers. Networking will help you understand the culture of the organisation, and how you would fit in there. It's an ideal opportunity to find out what it's really like to work for this organisation. You may not be formally assessed but recruiters are bound to be interested in how you use the networking opportunity, and whether you demonstrate real motivation for the job and organisation. It seems obvious, but don’t over-indulge if alcohol is offered.

Find out more

  • See our Job hunting resources section to watch the 'At the Assessment Centre' DVD
  • PDC workshops cover topics such as selection tests, interviews and assessment centres and feature graduate employers
  • Assessment Day has expert advice written by assessment centre designers and graduate employers on what to expect and how to perform well in each exercise. It also contains a free practice in-tray exercise, situational judgement tests and psychometric tests
  • AssessmentCentreHQ gives information to help you prepare for assessment centre activities
  • Chartered Institute of Management Accountants (CIMA) Guide to Assessment Centres. This guide has been supplied by CIMA but the information can be applied to other disciplines
  • PSA Peugeot Citroen Assessment Centre Survival Guide. (Note that this information is older and may not represent the activities you may encounter at a current Peugeot Citreon assessment centre.)