Assessment centres

The basics

Many employers believe that individual interviews can’t 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. 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, and each activity will be carefully designed to assess one or more of these areas.

Assessment centres last from half a day to two days – and sometimes longer. The type of activities varies 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. Depending on its size, an organisation is likely to be running a number of assessment centres, and will invite a small number of candidates to each.

It is also worth remembering that usually you are 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 no-one from another. Rather than trying to compete against other candidates, make sure that you demonstrate the qualities that the organisation has highlighted as important to them.

Activities at assessment centres

A combination of the following activities may be used:

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 – don’t use drink as a crutch for failing nerves!

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.

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 another one-to-one or panel discussion at this stage. These could range from competency based to technical (depending on the roles). 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 any doubtful areas that emerged at a first interview, so reflect back and think about how to handle them. 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.

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 environments 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 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.

PSYCHOMETRIC & APTITUDE TESTS

These are timed, generally 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 for which you have applied and, though challenging, will not usually depend on any prior knowledge or experience. You should be given sample questions with your letter of invitation – or else an example test will be available online – so spend some time practising these. In addition, before the testing session begins, you will have the opportunity to work through some example questions. These will not be taken into account when the tests are marked, but are there to ensure that you understand what is expected of you

Make sure you:

  • pay careful attention to the instructions
  • ask for clarification if you don’t understand the examples
  • work as quickly and accurately as you can. For numerical tests, practise working without a calculator, as you may not be allowed to use one, and revise basic mathematical operations if you haven’t done numerical work for a long time.

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. See the Fast Stream and Assessment Day‘s webpages for practice exercises.

CASE STUDIES

In this kind of exercise you will be given a set of papers relating to a particular situation, and be asked to make recommendations in a brief report or presentation. The subject matter itself may not be important – 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. Sometimes a case study will be used as the basis for other aspects of the assessment centre; a presentation, role play or group discussion. For information see our Case Studies webpage.

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 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

  • Plan your presentation carefully along A-B-C lines:
    • A tell them what you’re going to tell them
    • B tell them
    • C tell them what you’ve told them.
  • Limit your points to three to six main messages.
  • 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 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 For some assessment centres you may be able to prepare visual aids ahead of the day and bring them with you, for others you will need to prepare them whilst you are there.
  • 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

Handle any questions using the mnemonicTRACT:

  • Thank the questioner
  • Rephrase the question for the rest of the audience
  • Answer the question to the group
  • Check with the questioner that they are satisfied
  • Thank them again

Doing group activities

Most graduate jobs will involve you working with other people in some way, and most assessment centres include a substantial 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 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 their objective and time limits.
  • Keep your cool and use your sense of humour where appropriate.

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 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 and 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.

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.

Having problems with assessment centres?

Do not worry if you think that you have performed badly at any one stage of the assessment centre. It is more than likely that you will have the chance to compensate later on or at least have the opportunity to mention this as something you would have done differently, demonstrating your self-awareness. 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 at future assessment events.

If you were faced with a similar situation again, ask yourself whether you would react differently, and how you could better demonstrate the qualities for which they were looking. Talk with a Careers Adviser if it isn’t obvious how you could improve your performance in the future. You’ve done well to get so far and you’re getting very close … so stick at it!

Our resources

RELATED PAGES

  • Most of the advice given in our Interviews webpages will be useful if you are preparing to attend an assessment centre.
  • Our Interview Feedback 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 one of the assessment centre workshops given in Michaelmas and Hilary Terms at the Careers Service.

We also regularly run these events:  search CareerConnect for dates:

  • Assessment Centre practice
  • Psychometric tests
  • Core numeracy training
  • Improving your interview technique
  • How to impress at interview
  • How to demonstrate commercial awareness

 

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

VIDEOS

We have several videos about assessment centres, produced by AGCAS, which require you to login using your Oxford Single Sign On details.

External resources

External links

Related Events

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