Assessment centres are a way of testing a number of candidates over a range of activities. They are usually used for graduate-level vacancies.
Some employers have dedicated assessment centres, but others use hotels or their own offices. Virtual assessments are now common, and employers may use a mixture of in-person and online assessment. Traditionally assessment centres last a day, but some are only a few hours long and others are over more than one day.
The prospect of attending an assessment centre can be daunting, but remember that you must have already impressed the employer during the initial stages of selection. This article will give you an idea about what to expect, and tips on how to prepare and approach the different activities.
How are you assessed?
Selectors will assess you based on the role requirements. They will look at your performance on each activity and monitor your progress/competence throughout the day.
Don’t panic if you find some activities difficult. One of the benefits is that weak performance in one task can be made up for in others. If there’s a discussion at the end, the selectors may explore your weaker areas, and you can explain your performance and what you have learned.
No matter what form the assessment centre takes, employers always want to see that you are motivated to work for them, and that you have the basic skills required for the role, the aptitude to develop job-specific skills and the personal qualities to fit in.
How are assessment centres structured?
The ‘day’ may start with a short presentation and welcome by the employer. You may be asked to introduce yourself and there could be an ‘ice breaker’ – a short activity designed to relax everyone. Try to remember people’s names.
There are usually refreshment breaks and, if invited to attend the evening before and have a meal, this is an opportunity to find out more, meet the selectors and other candidates, and ensure that you are there bright and early on the day. Even though not part of the official selection process, whenever you are ‘mingling’ make a good impression by being friendly and professional, asking questions and showing an interest. It’s best to avoid drinking too much alcohol!
Every assessment centre will be different, but most include a combination of:
- Individual tasks (such as e-tray exercises)
- Group tasks
- Case study tasks
- Role plays
We’ll look at these in a little detail below. Be aware that a theme may run throughout the day with various activities linked to one another…
1. Individual tasks
This could involve summarising a business report, reviewing product proposals, setting up a spreadsheet or an e-tray/in-tray exercise.
With e-tray exercises you are generally presented with an employee’s typical email inbox and asked to prioritise items and decide on actions. There may be staffing issues, complaints, financial figures or reports to consider.
You’ll probably find that there’s a lot to do, so read the instructions carefully, be mindful of the time available and avoid getting bogged down on one email. You may have to answer multiple-choice questions on how you would deal with items and respond to certain emails.
The selectors will be looking for such skills as planning, time management, decision making and problem solving.
2. Group tasks
Assessment centres commonly include small group tasks. You would normally work with up to five or six other candidates to, for example, debate a relevant topic or solve a practical problem.
- You will be closely observed by the selectors, but try not to let this put you off. Give your full attention to the group members and task.
- Although you’ll want to perform well, focus on your own performance otherwise you’ll be distracted. There will probably be more than one position available and the employer may be looking for a range of people who can work well together.
- Present your ‘best self’, but be natural – employers will pick up if you are not genuine.
- Communicate your ideas clearly, clarify uncertainties and, if necessary, ask questions and/or summarise key points.
- Demonstrate that you are a team player – listen, take on board other people’s opinions, build on ideas and include everyone. Give positive feedback where due and don’t be afraid to challenge points made. Aim for a constructive discussion.
- The selectors are likely to be looking at the way you approach a task and how you react in a group. Some people are naturally task- or people-focused.
- It’s useful to be aware of the skills that the selectors may be wanting to see, such as teamworking and communication skills (as mentioned above), leadership (e.g. the way you motivate and support others, and resolve any conflict), and perhaps your ability to negotiate, persuade, make decisions and solve problems.
- If you are an extrovert, use this to your advantage, but don’t dominate; try to draw out quieter people. If you are more introverted, remember that just because other people talk a lot, they don’t necessarily have better ideas or opinions. A well-functioning group will allow for different personality types and provide opportunities for everyone to have their say.
3. Case study tasks
These may be part of various individual or group tasks. You are given a problem or scenario relevant to the organisation, such as deciding where to locate a new store or developing a product idea. You are likely to be presented with a number of options and asked to answer questions or present your ideas in a report or presentation. Your rationale may be considered more important than coming up with the ‘right answer’.
The selectors may be examining your creativity, decision-making and problem-solving skills, analytical thought processes, ability to reach a consensus (if a group task), commercial understanding, and awareness of the environment in which the organisation operates.
4. Role plays
For certain positions, especially those where you need to manage customer or employee relationships, you may be asked to take part in a role play. Some people find these embarrassing, but you don’t need to put on an Oscar-winning performance.
The employer will be interested in how you approach a challenging situation. Take your time to respond, listen carefully, think about your body language and maintain relaxed eye contact. Avoid being confrontational or defensive. Stay calm, focused, show empathy and try to build a rapport.
During the assessment centre, you may be asked to take one or more tests.
- Aptitude tests tend to focus on verbal, numerical, logical or abstract reasoning. Read the instructions carefully and, as accuracy is important, it’s usually best not to rush even if you are under time pressure.
- Situational judgement tests are designed to see how you would approach different work-related situations. They are normally presented as multiple-choice questions or an e-tray exercise (see above). Read the scenarios fully before you make decisions; you may find it helpful to underline or highlight key points.
- Personality/psychometric tests – not as commonly used as in the past. Employers need a range of personality types, so there are no right or wrong answers – just be honest. You can’t really prepare for these, but being aware of your personality traits is useful.
Doing some tests in advance can make you feel more comfortable on the day. Find advice, sample questions and practice tests through sites such as AssessmentDay, SHL, Practice Aptitude Tests and Graduates First; some tests are free of charge.
You may be able to prepare for a presentation or have limited time to do so on the day.
- Check how long the presentation should last and stick to this.
- Be clear about your target audience and address accordingly.
- Keep to the brief and think about whether your task is to persuade, inspire or inform.
- If you have time, produce brief notes but not a full script.
- If using visual aids, ensure they aid understanding – don’t cram with information.
- Be prepared to answer questions.
- Try not to rush, take deep breaths and let your enthusiasm shine through.
There may be an interview or a series of short interviews. If an interview comes at the end of a long day, keeping your focus is important. If you have already had an interview in the earlier stages of the selection process, this one may be more specific for the job. Think about the questions you may be asked and how you might answer these. Take your time to speak and make sure that any questions you have are well thought through.
General tips on preparing for an assessment centre
- Even though you should be given an idea on what to expect, be prepared for anything. Some employers publish information about their assessment centres online and the Graduates First site has information on the assessments used by certain major employers.
- If it’s possible to connect with other candidates before the day, you will be able to support each other and it’ll be easier in group tasks.
- Read any materials you have been sent in advance of the day.
- Do some more research on the organisation through its website, social media pages, literature, company reports and so on. Find out about its history, competitors, structure, future plans and challenges.
- Re-read the job description/person specification so that you are clear about the role and requirements.
- Plan your journey so that you arrive in plenty of time.
- If the assessment centre is virtual, check that your technology won’t let you down and make sure that you won’t be disturbed.
- Prepare something clean and smart to wear, even if the assessment centre is virtual.
- Find out more about assessment centres through careers services (they may even have advice from previous students) and online, such as through Prospects and Bright Network.
Assessment centres give you the opportunity to learn more about the employer and role, and you’ll also learn more about yourself. Whether or not you get offered the position, ask for feedback on your performance so that you can put it to use in the future.
Whatever you do, try to enjoy the day!
Debbie Steel, December 2022
With a background working with apprentices and teaching in further education, Debbie was employed as an in-house careers author before establishing herself as a freelancer. As well as co-authoring numerous careers books, Debbie has produced resources and web content for a range of high-profile clients. She is an enthusiastic proponent of impartial and reliable careers information.