Preparation for.... Assessment Centres

Some of you may be asked to attend an ‘assessment centre’. What is it? Basically it’s an extended interview that could involve a number of tasks... from group work to psychometric tests. Don’t be put off by it, they can generally be a good experience and a good opportunity to impress your peers as well as the interviewers!

More on what to expect is laid out below...

Why have I been invited to an assessment centre?
Congratulations! The fact that you have been invited to an assessment centre indicates that you have been successful in meeting the screening criteria for the position that you have applied for, which is the next step in the recruitment process. Employers value this method of interviewing as it gives them a broad indication of you ability and suitability to the role.

What is an assessment centre?
An assessment centre typically consists of a range of tests and exercises that are designed to assess those characteristics and behaviours (competency areas) that are essential to job success. A centre usually lasts between ½ and 2 days, depending upon the level of the role you have applied for.

How do I prepare?
Here are some good starting points:
  • Take the time to research the organisation
  • Prepare any questions that you might have (if you get stuck, refer to page 19 of the GradGuide for some ideas...)
  • Ask the organisation for a more detailed view of what they are looking for. It may help you determine you fit. I.e. person specification, key competency requirements and any practice tests available. Do this well in advance and don’t be afraid to ask.
  • Think carefully about your own strengths and development areas in relation to the role. Use the STAR model as a guide.
  • Always get a good night’s sleep the night before!
  • Find out where you need to be exactly and give yourself plenty of time to get there. (Maybe even do a test run to measure the time).
  • Think about your journey home. If you have a long way to travel, consider public transport – assessment centres can be tiring!
  • If you have any disabilities or special requirements, contact the organiser in advance
For further information about preparing for an interview, check out this article.

Ok, so they are some of the basics. Now we’d like to share with you some examples of the types of activities you could expect to encounter at an assessment centre. It is not likely that you will face all of these exercises, rather a mix that will be planned to suit the role you are applying for:

A. Psychometric tests
These are used to measure inherent characteristics with regards to ability//aptitude and personality.

1. Ability and aptitude tests
  • These tests will look to asses various areas including:
- Verbal communication skills
- Reasoning and spatial awareness
  • The tests contain problems or tasks that have right or wrong answers
  • You will be set a time limit.
Use your time effectively and take advantage of any practice tests available.

Try not to be nervous. This all sounds a little scary but they will not put you under as much pressure as your finals did!

If you wish to explore this topic further; there are a number of paperbacks available which may help. Search for Kogan Page series, as these can be particularly useful.

2. Personality questionnaires
These focus on an individual’s style of working. Typically you might have to answer questions about the extent to which you like to plan ahead, how outgoing you are etc.
  • They measure preference and not ability
  • There is no set time limit
  • There are no right or wrong answers.
Just answer the questions honestly, and not in a way you believe the organisation wants you to be.

Relax, and be yourself with this one.

B. Group exercises
These are used to assess how well you work with others, building relationships, negotiation and communication.
  • As a group you might be presented with a topic and given a short period to prepare for a discussion. 
  • Topics can vary and might focus on a particular scenario that you might encounter in the role you are applying for.
  • Individual briefs may indicate that you will need to take on a particular role within a team.
Hint: Do not assume i.e. the organisation is not necessarily looking for someone to be a dominant leader.
Tip: Participate as fully as possible and focus on the objective or task that the group as a whole has been set.

C. Presentations
Something many of you will be familiar with from uni... In these exercises, you will be given a particular issue or problem to analyse and then be asked to present your views to a panel. (Even this is not likely to be as intimidating as a lecture theatre full of other students!)

Two examples of how this might be given to you:
  • The presentation title is given in advance of the centre so that you can rely on your own resources and research the topic.
  • You might have a limited amount of time, on the day, to analyse an issue and prepare a presentation.
Hint: Your communication skills, ability to structure, analyse and recommend solutions are typically assessed.

D. Interviews
There are different types of assessment interview. You will most likely be able to find out before the assessment centre exactly what type of interview you are going to take part in.
Typically these are 1:1 and the person interviewing you will probably be taking notes to help them revisit your answers. Try not to let this put you off! It is quite common.

Hint: Telephone interviews may happen before the assessment centre.
Tip: Prepare equally for these, and keep all your notes of examples in front of you.

1. Competency based interviews
Competency-based interviews are the most commonly used interview formats as assessment centres. They need you to be able to provide real-life examples to match the criteria they are looking for in the role and behaviours.

You are likely to be asked follow-up questions; focussing on whom, why, what, when and how.

2. Structured biographical interviews
The interviewer asks questions around education and work history of the candidate, focussing on key achievements.

3. Situational interviews
These are interviews in which the interviewer proposes a hypothetical situation to the candidate and asks them what they would do in the circumstances. These sorts of questions might also appear as part of a competency based interview.

E. In-tray or In-box exercises
Here you will be assessed on how well you can; prioritise, spot links between and deal with items that have been presented to you.

The most common scenario is that you are either covering for or taking over from a colleague who has had to leave their role in a hurry and left a number of things unfinished. The items vary from important and.

Hint: There are no right or wrong answer, but it’s important to think logically about what might be more appropriate.

F. Written exercises // case study
Generally centred around one topic the written exercises or case studies contain a number of source documents that you are then asked (as a candidate) to use in order to play a role.

These are a test of your reasoning ability and how well you are able to argue a case.

G. Role play
Role plays are most often 1:1 simulations of a real-life situation that might arise in the role. For example; customer complaints.

They typically assess the candidate’s ability to follow procedure, build relationships and gain agreement on solutions.

These exercises are deemed the most ‘artificial’ of all the assessment centre exercises. Just try your best to embrace the character you are playing and behave as you would in a similar situation in the workplace.

Is there anything I should do during the assessment centre?
  • Listen carefully.
  • If one exercise does not go well – don’t worry, you will be assessed on how well you do over all exercises.
  • Use planning time well. Think through your ideas, and don’t panic!
  • Be aware of non-verbal body language such as eye contact and facial expressions.
  • Try not to make assumptions and second guess what the assessors are looking for.
  • Ask questions as you go along. Ask for clarity when you need it.

Phew! I’ve completed the last exercise, is it all over now?
The simple answer is... ‘No’! There are still some things you can do...
  • Ask for feedback. This will enable you to identify any problems or particular successes that can help your development for future performance.
  • Take some time to reflect on the exercises that you have just completed. Have you learnt anything about yourself and that that you work you might be able to use in another situation?
  • The assessment centre is a two-way process. It is an opportunity to sell yourself, find out as much about the company as possible as much as it is them finding more about your abilities. Do you really want this job!

Finally, good luck!

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