How to Ace Your Assessment Centre Day
An assessment centre is not a place; it’s an event.
As a testing and interview process, assessment centres, sometimes known as assessment days, are used to select job candidates in every industry, from finance to IT to law, worldwide. Candidates who undergo the process include entry-job graduates as well as executives who are looking to either move laterally or into more senior positions with different competencies.
Because of the time and expense involved in conducting these assessments, they are usually held once the initial round of job interviews or online assessments have been conducted, writes the team at Assessment Centre HQ, and can take place at a company office, conference facility or hotel.
Below, you’ll find information about what to expect at assessment centres, tips from experts, example questions and links to practice tests.
Why Assessment Centres?
Global recruitment company Hudson writes that assessment centres are especially useful for large-scale and ongoing recruitment campaigns and further provide specific benefits to organisations in the hiring process:
- The process is effective in determining candidate suitability.
- The process is fair and equitable.
- The process allows insight into a candidate’s strengths and development requirements.
- The process provides candidates a preview of the role and its required competencies.
The Careers and Employability Service at the University of Kent maintain that assessment centres are “generally accepted as a fair method of selection.” Candidates are selected on merit, assessed not only on how well they performed at the interview but on how they would perform on the job.
Interviews alone have an accuracy rate of as low as 15%. “However, when scores from a number of different selection exercises are combined, their accuracy can rise to over 60%,” the University team, led by careers advisor Bruce Woodcock, writes.
What to Expect
The format of the event, which can take place in one day or spread over two days, is designed not just to see what applicants can do, but how they react to situations and how they relate to others. Those selected as top performers during the assessment will be invited for a final interview by the hiring firm.
Psychometric Success, a company that offers advice (and ebooks) on how to pass aptitude tests, confirms that the tests you’ll see during your assessment centre will include:
- An e-tray or in-tray (or in-basket) exercise. Designed to evaluate your organisational and prioritisation skills, these exercises ask you to assume the role of an employee in a firm and work through correspondence.
- A presentation exercise, which may be an individual or a group effort. Designed to assess your communication skills (and teamwork ability, if a group exercise), the presentation is usually about 10 minutes with questions at the end.
- Group discussion exercises. Designed to measure a number of interpersonal abilities, these exercises let assessors look for teamwork and collaborative ability as well as negotiation and leadership skills.
- Panel interviews. These competency-based interviews are more structured than the one-to-one interview so candidates can be assessed against the same criteria.
The management and leadership training group at MindTools note that role-playing exercises are also common at assessment centres. These may be one-on-one or group activities, but are designed to put you in a stressful situation so assessors can ascertain how you “think on your feet.”
They give a couple of role-play examples you might face:
- One is a customer call centre manager faced with an unhappy customers. This exercise might test your ability to lead a virtual team or have you come up with a plan on how to improve customer satisfaction.
- Another is a problem-solving scenario for IT candidates, which might include coaching non-IT professionals.
Alternatively, if you’re applying for an IT position, you might go through several troubleshooting scenarios. The organisation might also test your ability to coach non-IT professionals, and assess your ability to solve problems effectively.
Because elements used in assessment centres can change, depending on the employer, you should be prepared for written exercises, as well, KPMG management consultant Ga Lok Chung advises in a Guardian Careers piece. This might mean analysing a case study and drafting a response, for example.
Expert Advice on Passing Those Exercises
Experts in UK graduate careers, Prospects has a list of tips to help you perform well at an assessment centre. Some of these include:
- Show confidence throughout the day, in all exercises.
- Shake off mistakes. Just focus on acing the next task.
- Don’t dominate your group discussion. Draw others in and listen, as well.
- Ensure that you fully understand the task at hand.
In its Assessment Centres guide, the Careers & Employability Service at the Manchester Metropolitan University reminds you not to let your guard down, ever. The advice is worth quoting in full:
“You are always being assessed: Not just in the tests but also during breaks between tests. Negative behaviour may be noticed and could undermine your overall performance. In particular, don’t fiddle with your phone or cut yourself off from the others. Make sure that you talk to the other candidates, share your experiences and find out about them. This will make you look good in the eyes of the assessors, it shows a degree of confidence and it will help when you come to work together in later group exercises.”
The advice that Brian DeChesare, founder of the investment banking blog Mergers & Inquisitions, gives about American superday interviews is applicable to assessment centres, too. When you’ve made it this far in the process, he says, the interviews become more about whether the assessors would like to work with you than about what you know.
What this means for applicants, DeChesare says, is that you need to do two things:
- Improve upon any weaknesses you have on the technical side.
- Make yourself interesting and likable.
It’s the second point that many find difficult, but DeChesare points to a common quality about those who have broken into the industry: “Each one has a unique angle or a certain aspect of their backgrounds they highlight to make themselves stand out — whether it’s their interest in photography, scuba diving adventures, or theatrical productions.”
His own unique aspect he focused on was the fact that he had worked abroad in Asia. Instead of blandly describing the time as “interesting” or “cool,” DeChesare “properly positioned” it, citing specific memorable events such as dragon boating and climbing Mt. Fuji. By presenting the information this way, he says, “you have no choice but to stand out.”
More advice on how to prepare for assessment centres comes from Joanne Smallwood, a graduate recruitment specialist at the law firm of Bond Dickinson. In an interview at the Commercial Awareness for Students blog, Smallwood recommends that candidates continually research a firm’s culture to get a good grasp of its mission and future goals.
Smallwood also advises graduates to be themselves, saying that frame of mind “calms you; it allows you to figure out your natural position within a team which leads to you performing really well.”
She goes on to say that seeing the assessment as an opportunity rather than a hurdle helps again with frame of mind: “If you reach an assessment centre, you’ve already done very well. It’s an opportunity for you to show off your skill set but also to assess whether the firm is right for you.”
Practice Tests and Examples
Part of your preparation strategy before an assessment centre is running practice tests. Not only will you gain experience with the type of questions you’ll encounter, but you’ll get comfortable with the format and time constraints.
There are free practice tests available at a number of sites, including:
You can also find example questions, like these from the Bar Standards Board.
You can also try a free in-tray exercise at Job Test Prep. You get explanations for each question and a final score report. In the one linked to here, you assume the role of manager and attempt to improve your time management and prioritisation skills. The site also has samples of exercises in verbal reasoning and verbal application, a number of psychometric tests, and short tasks on inductive reasoning and spatial awareness.
On the Employer Hub section of UK graduate recruitment site TARGETjobs, you can get tips from people who have been through the interview and assessment process. Locate the company you’re interested in, and look for a section called “The inside buzz from graduates” (not all companies have it).
Laing O’Rourke, an international engineering company, did have such information about the interview process, its form and questions that were asked: “The process consisted of an application form, a phone interview and then a half day assessment centre which includes a group discussion, an interview, a small test and a presentation based upon information given on the day.”
A word of caution from the careers advisers at the University of Oxford: “Practice can help you to feel more confident about sitting these tests, but remember that the tests are intended to assess your natural aptitude. Be realistic about the return on spending a lot of time preparing for tests — especially if you are in your final year; your degree result will be more significant in your future career than an aptitude test result.”