Assessment Centres | The Careers Service Assessment Centres – Oxford University Careers Service
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The basics

Many employers believe that individual interviews can’t tell them enough about candidates and so prefer to use a range of selection techniques – this series of selection activities is often known as an assessment centre. Assessment centres are considered by many employers to be the fairest and most accurate method of selecting staff, because they give different selectors a chance to see candidates over a longer period of time than is possible in a single interview. It gives them the opportunity to see what you can do, rather than what you say you can do, in a variety of situations. Selectors at assessment centres will measure you against a series of competencies that are relevant to the organisation, and each activity will be carefully designed to assess one or more of these areas.

The length of assessment centres can vary, however they typically last from half a day to two days. The type of activities vary according to the employers, but can include aptitude tests, personality questionnaires, business games, case studies, group discussions, presentations, one-to-one interviews, socialising and meeting current employees. Assessment centres are usually held either on company premises or in a nearby location. Depending on their size, organisations are likely to run a number of assessment centres, and will invite a set number of candidates to each.

It is also worth remembering that you are usually being assessed against specific competencies and not against the other candidates. In organisations making multiple hires, it is not unheard of, for every candidate from one assessment centre to be selected and nobody from another. Rather than trying to compete with other candidates, make sure that you demonstrate the qualities that the organisation has highlighted as important to them.

Once you have been invited to an assessment centre, make sure that you understand the structure of the day(s) beforehand eg: will it involve interviews, group exercises, presentations etc?. If you don’t have this information, contact the recruiter to find out, as you will need it to prepare properly.

Activities at assessment centres

A combination of the following activities may be used:

Psychometric & aptitude tests

These are timed (often multiple choice) tests, taken under examination conditions, and designed to measure your intellectual capability for thinking and reasoning. The tests will be carefully designed for the role you have applied to and although challenging, will not usually depend on any prior knowledge or experience. Firms will sometimes provide links to sample questions, alternatively you can look for some on-line. Even if the firm doesn’t provide you with sample questions you should still be able to find other practice tests on-line that assess the same or similar competencies.

Prior to sitting a test try to ensure  you:

  • Practice beforehand, in similar conditions that you would face on the assessment day eg: time yourself, with numerical tests – practice without using a calculator
  • On the day of the test:
    • pay careful attention to the instructions and ask for clarification if you don’t understand them
    • be aware of the time limit and work as quickly and accurately as you can.

For more information, see our webpage on psychometric tests.

In-tray / e-tray exercises

This exercise is now commonly carried out on a computer, but may be on paper. You will have access to an email in-box where messages, reports and telephone queries will appear. You will be expected to take decisions on each item: deciding priorities, drafting replies, delegating tasks, recommending action to superiors, and so on. The exercise is designed to test how you handle complex information within a limited time period, so organisations will be looking to see how you perform under pressure. Some organisations will also want to know why you have made certain decisions and may ask you to annotate items or discuss your actions in a follow-up discussion.

Case studies

In this exercise you will usually be set a task/problem that is reflective of the type of work you will be expected to do if you were to join the firm. The case study can take place within a range of different contexts eg: an interview, a group exercise, presentation or as a written exercise.

In this exercise you are being tested on your ability to analyse information, to think clearly and logically, to work under time pressure, to exercise your judgement and to express yourself on paper or verbally (see ‘Presentations’ below). Case studies are often designed so there is not one obvious right answer and the selectors will be looking to see how you have come to your solution / decision and that you can justify your recommendations.  For further information see our Case Studies webpage.

Interviews

Although you are likely to have had at least one interview by the time you get to an assessment centre, you will probably encounter additional one-to-one or panel interviews at this stage, these could be competency based or technical (depending on the roles). These interviews are likely to be much more in-depth than those you experienced during the first stages of selection and could be with someone from the department/division to which you are applying – or even with the person with whom you would work if you get the job. Interviewers may take the opportunity to probe further on the answers you gave at an earlier interview, so reflect back and think about answers you have previously given. Questions may also refer back to other assessment centre activities you have taken part in or to aptitude test results. Be prepared to be challenged on your answers, but keep calm, consider your answers, and avoid being defensive. You may be asked many of the same questions that you were asked in the first round; don’t assume that your interviewer is familiar with the answers you gave at that stage: treat this subsequent discussion independently. See our interview webpages for further information.

Information sessions

These provide you with more information about the organisation and the job roles available. Listen carefully, as such information is likely to be more up-to-date than your previous research and may be useful for subsequent interviews. If you are unclear about anything – ask.

Social events

These give you the opportunity to meet a variety of people – including other candidates, the selectors, recent graduates, and senior management. They are excellent opportunities for you to find out more about the organisation, and to ask questions in an informal setting. Although these events may be billed as informal and not a part of the assessment process, you should still behave in a way that will reflect well on you.

Presentations

You may be asked to give a short presentation to the other candidates and the selectors at your assessment centre. Sometimes you will be asked to have prepared one in advance, but usually it will have to be prepared on the day. You may be given a subject or have a completely free choice. Whatever the case, try to avoid talking about anything too commonplace or technical, but remember that you could be asked supplementary questions, so pick a subject on which you have further information to hand. Although the content of the presentation may be relevant to the role you have applied for, the organisation is likely to be primarily looking for whether you can structure a talk and communicate information effectively.

Planning

  • You can plan your presentation along the following “A-B-C” lines:
    • A – tell them what you’re going to tell them (Introduction)
    • B – tell them (Content)
    • C – tell them what you’ve told them. (Summary)
  • Limit your points to key messages c. three to six (depending on subject matter)
  • Pitch the level of your talk at your audience and keep it clear.
  • Support your ideas and themes with (brief) anecdotes, examples, statistics and facts.
  • Consider your timing, and note how long each part of your presentation should take.

The presentation

  • Aim for a conversational delivery and avoid memorising, or reading from a full script of notes.
  • Talk to the group – not at it.
  • Speak clearly, don’t gabble or mumble, and make sure that you can be heard by all of the audience.
  • Keep to time. Bear in mind that your nerves can speed you up or slow you down on the day.
  • Try to make eye contact with all members of the group you are presenting to. If you are presenting to a large audience you don’t have to make eye contact with each individual person, however ensure that you address the different sections of the audience.
  • Be aware of your body language and don’t fidget as you talk.
  • Flipcharts and PowerPoint slides can greatly enhance your presentation, but should be used with care – let them illustrate rather than repeat what you are saying.
  • Images are generally more effective than words.
  • Don’t overcrowd your visual aids – you want your audience to be listening to you, not reading!
  • Avoid reading your visual aids out loud to your audience.

Questions

At the end of your presentation, it’s often a good idea to ask if the audience have any questions. The following mnemonic “TRACT” could be helpful when you frame your answers:

  • Thank the questioner
  • Repeat the question for the rest of the audience (clarify at this point if you are unsure of what you are being asked)
  • Answer the question to the group
  • Check with the questioner that they are satisfied
  • Thank them again
Group activities

Most graduate jobs will involve working with other people in some way and most assessment centres include a group or teamwork exercise. Whether you have to complete a practical task or take part in a discussion, the selectors will be looking for your ability to work well with the group. It is important to remember that good team work is not necessarily about getting your ideas taken forward, but also listening to, acknowledging, encouraging and following through the ideas of others in the group.

There are some basic rules to follow in this type of exercise:

  • Get a good grasp of any information you are given, but don’t waste time on minute details.
  • In light of the information given, decide your objectives and priorities, then make a plan and follow it. This will ensure the group does not stray away from the original brief.
  • Be assertive and persuasive, but also diplomatic – be tactful even when faced with an idea you do not wholly agree with. Try to speak with conviction about your ideas.
  • Listen to what everyone else has to say and try to get the best contribution from everyone in the group. Don’t assume that shy or quiet members have nothing to contribute.
  • Find the balance between taking your ideas forward and helping the group to complete the task constructively.
  • Make sure the group keeps to their objective and time limits.
  • Keep your cool and don’t panic!

Discussions & role plays

You may be asked to take part in a role-playing exercise where you will be given a briefing pack and asked to play the part of a particular person. The assessors will often be looking for your individual contribution to the discussion/role play, your verbal communication and interpersonal skills. You are usually given some time to read the background information and to try and pre-empt some possible challenges you may face and how you may respond. Some scenarios for role plays can include: defending a decision you made to a client or more senior member of the team; dealing with an angry client or customer; or negotiating with a supplier.

Practical tasks

Occasionally for roles which require a specific technical skill, you may be asked as a group to use unfamiliar equipment or materials to make/build something. The selectors are often as interested in how the group interacts as in the quality of the finished product, but they will also be assessing your planning and problem-solving skills and the creativity of your individual ideas. As with any group activity, get involved – even if you are unsure about the relevance of the task.

Top tips for assessment centres
  • Make sure you know what exercises/tests you will be be expected to complete and prepare thoroughly for them
  • Don’t worry if you think that you have performed badly in a particular exercise in the assessment centre. It is more than likely that you will have the chance to compensate in other exercises, or at least have the opportunity to mention this as something you would have done differently, demonstrating your self-awareness.
  • Remember, the aim is to perform to the best of our abilities (not to compete with the other candidates)
  • If you are unsuccessful, remember to ask for feedback; most firms will give you feedback on your performance at the assessment centre stage and this will help to enhance your performance in the future
  • If after receiving your feedback, you are still unsure about how to improve your future performance in assessment centres, book an appointment to speak to a Careers Adviser who may be able to provide additional tips and suggestions.
Our resources

Related pages

  • The advice given in our Interviews webpages may also be useful if you are preparing to attend an assessment centre.
  • Our Interview Question Database will also contain any information we may have about the exercises used by the organisation to which you have applied.

Events

You may wish to attend some of the workshops/events we run in Michaelmas and Hilary Terms at the Careers Service – take a look at our term calendar to find out more.

We also regularly run workshops that can help you to prepare for assessment centres:  search CareerConnect for dates:

Books

The following books are available in our Resource Centre:

  • You’re Hired! Assessment Centres, Ceri Roderick
  • 101 Answers to the Toughest Interview Questions (6th ed). Ron Fry
  • Brilliant Interview (3rd ed), Ros Jay
  • The Interview Book (2nd ed), James Innes

E-books

The following book is available via Solo:

  • How to Succeed at an Assessment Centre: Essential Preparation for Psychometric Tests, Group and Role-play Exercises, Panel Interviews and Presentations, Harry Tolley
External resources
This information was last updated on 11 January 2017.
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