How to survive Assessment Centres – expect the unexpected

Can you think on your feet?
Are you good at coping with a range of tasks?
Do you enjoy being challenged?
Do you work well in a team?

If you answered yes to the above then you will probably thrive at any Assessment Centre.

What is an Assessment Centre?

qpIf you are in your final year or have just graduated, the chances are that you are applying for Graduate Schemes that may involve taking part in an Assessment Centre (AC).

The employer will invite you for a day or half a day to take part in a set of activities that have been tailor-made to show how you deal with work related situations. This will also probably include one or sometimes two interviews – either with a panel or an individual. You will be invited as part of a group of other students ranging from just 4 to as many as 30 applicants to demonstrate that you have the specific skills and abilities required by the employer.

Hopefully, you will have already demonstrated this range of skills in your written application – the employer is now looking to see if you can deliver these in person at an AC.

Why do companies hold ACs?

Competition for graduate schemes is very tough. ACs are the most effective way for employers to assess whether you have not only the exact skills they need but, most importantly, whether you will fit with their individual work culture.

Applications to graduate schemes has risen 40% since 2012 according to a recent FT article. In addition the article reported that JP Morgan only hires 2% of graduate applicants to its investment banking division and Citigroup appoints just 2.7% of all applicants. These figures clearly reveal why companies are increasingly using even tougher ACs to identify the best candidates for their Graduate Schemes.

What happens at an AC?

acThe important thing to know is that the format, order and content of every AC will always vary. Normally the allocated sessions will include some or all of the following:

  • In-tray or e-tray exercise
  • Written test
  • Case studies
  • Presentation(s)
  • Practical communication exercises
  • Individual interviews with a panel of executives or individuals, often including a Senior Manager, Partner or the HR department

Detailed information about how to prepare for each of these exercises can be found here.

How to succeed at an AC

It’s difficult to prepare 100% for all of the above as each employer creates their own tailor made activities. Presentations, for example, can involve being given a topic on the day and having just a short time to prepare, or some employers send a suggested topic a few days or even weeks before.

The exact number and length of any interviews on the day will also vary from 10 minutes or up to an hour for legal Graduate Schemes or Training Contracts.

Careers & Enterprise provides one to one support with interview techniques and help with practising the STAR technique for any competency based interviews. To book an appointment, click here.

Why expect the unexpected at an AC?

Always be prepared to step outside your comfort zone if you are invited to an AC. An example of the unexpected could include taking part in various communication scenarios that demonstrate to the employer how you might deal with challenging situations at work.

A very high profile accountancy firm recently used professional actors to create real life scenarios that tested each candidate’s ability to deal with difficult and demanding clients. Imagine having someone you have never met before shouting at you in front of a panel of employers who are observing your body language and communication skills to see how you cope under pressure.

This type of experience can be very daunting even if you are a confident individual who has considerable work experience. The best advice is to treat this session as if it were a real situation and always present a calm way of dealing with any challenges by remaining totally professional.

How should you view an AC?

drivingAttending an AC should be seen as a unique opportunity to prove that you have the exact skills, temperament and motivation to join the company who has invited you. Employers want you to enjoy the experience and feel that it has enhanced your understanding of what it would be like to be part of their team and deliver the combination of skills and values they are looking for in applicants.

Remember the more ACs that you attend, the better equipped you will be to deal with the range of challenges they can deliver.

ACs are like learning to drive –   just make sure you are in control and ready for anything!

Deborah Scott Anderson, Careers Consultant


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