Assessment centres

What are assessment centres?

Many employers do not believe that individual interviews can tell them enough about candidates, especially how they work with other people, and so prefer to use a range of selection techniques. This series of selection activities is often known as an assessment centre; they are considered by many employers to be the fairest and most accurate method of selecting staff.  This is 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.

Tick in a boxAssessment centres last from half a day to two days – and sometimes longer. The type of activities run at these assessment centres 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 trainees. Assessment centres are usually held either on company premises or in a nearby hotel. An organisation is likely to be running a number of these assessment centres and will invite a small number of candidates to each.

Selectors at assessment centres will measure you against a series of competencies, and each activity will be carefully designed to assess one or more of these areas. It is also worth remembering that usually you are being assessed against these competencies and not against the other candidates. In organisations where they are making multiple hires it is not unheard-of for every candidate from one assessment centre to be selected and no one from another. Rather than trying to compete against other candidates, make sure that you demonstrate the qualities the organisation has highlighted as important to them.

Most of our advice about interviews will be useful if you are preparing to attend an assessment centre. You may also wish to attend one of the assessment centre workshops given in Michaelmas and Hilary Terms at the Careers Service – check CareerConnect for details

Activities in assessment centres

A combination of the following activities may be used:

Information sessions

These provide you with more information about the organisation and the job roles available, and often precede the rest of the assessment centre. Listen carefully, as such information is likely to be more up-to-date than your previous research. If you are unclear about anything – ask.

Interviews

These could range from competency based to technical (depending on the roles). They may use the opportunity to probe any doubtful areas that may have emerged at a first interview, so reflect back and think about how to handle them. Although you are likely to have had at least one interview by the time you get to an assessment centre, you will probably encounter another one-to-one or panel discussion at this stage. Interviews 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. Questions may refer back to assessment centre activities or to aptitude test results. Be prepared to be challenged on your answers, but keep calm, consider your answers, and avoid being defensive. On the other hand 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, but treat this subsequent discussion independently.

Psychometric Tests

See our psychometric tests webpage for full information.

Personality inventories

These assess what you are like as a person and how you might react in different situations. They are not usually timed, have no right or wrong answers, and are often used to help ensure you would ‘fit’ with the firm’s culture or to identify the working situation that would best suit you. You cannot practise for these tests, but you should answer honestly and avoid trying to second-guess ‘correct’ answers. Pretending to be anyone other than you are during the recruitment process may later lead to disappointment for both you and the employer. There are several personality inventories available on the internet, but these are of variable quality and won’t, in any case, affect your performance in a recruitment situation.

Case studies

In this kind of exercise you will be given a set of papers relating to a particular situation, and asked to make recommendations in a brief report. The subject matter itself may not be important – you are being tested on your ability to analyse information, to think clearly and logically, to exercise your judgement and to express yourself on paper. An Oxford student wrote recently after such an experience that, “ The exercise was very time-pressured, and I made the mistake of reading all of the information given before starting to write anything down. I got the impression that not all of the information was
supposed to be relevant, and that they were testing our ability to sift through written material to extract the most important things
.”

In-tray OR E-TRAY exercises

These are business simulation exercises, where you will be expected to deal with an inbox of emails, or an in-tray of typical paperwork.

This exercise is now commonly carried out on a computer, but may be on paper. You will have access to an email inbox full of messages, reports and telephone queries. 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. Make sure that your written answers have a clear, logical structure. 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.

Giving 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 bring a prepared presentation to the assessment centre, 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 – as you could be asked supplementary questions – it will need to be 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 primarily looking for whether you can structure a talk and communicate information effectively.

Planning

  • Plan your presentation carefully along A-B-C lines:
    • A tell them what you’re going to tell them
    • B tell them
    • C … and then tell them what you’ve told them.
  • Limit your points to 3 to 6 main messages.
  • Pitch the level of your talk to your audience and keep it clear – don’t give too much detail.
  • 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.

Presentation

  • Aim for a conversational delivery and talk from notes, rather than memorising, or reading from, a full script. You may find it helpful to fold or cut notes to hand size (5″x 4″ index cards are just right).
  • Talk to the group – not at it.
  • Speak clearly, don’t gabble or mumble, and talk a little more loudly than you think necessary.
  • Keep to time. Bear in mind that your nerves can speed you up or slow you down on the day.
  • Make eye contact at some point with all members of the group.
  • Be aware of your body language, and don’t fidget as you talk.

Visual Aids

  • 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.
  • 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

  • Handle any questions using the mnemonic TRACT :
    • Thank the questioner
    • Rephrase the question for the rest of the audience
    • Answer the question to the group
    • Check with the questioner that s/he is satisfied
    • Thank them again

Group activities

Most graduate jobs will involve you working with other people in some way, and most assessment centres involve a substantial element of group or teamwork. 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 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 think is weak. 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 time.
  • Keep your cool and use your sense of humour where appropriate.

Ants carrying twigGroup activities – practical tasks

Occasionally you may be asked as a group to use unfamiliar equipment or materials to make something. The selectors are usually more interested in how the group interacts than 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 – however silly you may consider the task to be.

Group activities – discussions and 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 be looking for your individual contribution to the discussion, your assertiveness, your verbal communication skills and your interpersonal skills. You will be given some time (usually 15 – 30 minutes) to read the background information to try and pre-empt some possible challenges you may face and how you may respond. Some scenarios for role plays include: you are defending a decision you made to a client or more senior member of the team, you are dealing with an angry client or customer, or you are negotiating with a supplier.

One recent Oxford student told us that at an assessment centre he had attended, “ Everyone was given a different company to represent, all of which wanted money from a central charity fund. We had to hold a board meeting to decide which were worthwhile in the area (we were given some information about this), which met the criteria and how much to give everyone.”

Social events

These give you the opportunity to meet a variety of people – including other candidates, the selectors, recent graduates or 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 – don’t use drink as a crutch for failing nerves!

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