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.

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How to Smash the Fast Stream Assessment Centre

You’ve sailed through the online tests, you’ve done the e-tray, you’ve passed the video interview- and now it’s on to the Fast Stream Assessment Centre. Well done for making it so far! Read on to find out how to give the FSAC your very best shot, and don’t forget to read the FSAC Guide (*updated 2018 version) for practice exercises.


  • Get to know the competencies (Fast Stream ones are Level 3). Each exercise will highlight different ones. See the competency framework below.
  • Take a look at the practice scenarios in the FSAC guide – they’re very similar to the actual exercises you’ll get on the day.
  • Make sure to unwind and get a good night’s sleep- you can do it.

fsacOn the day:

  • Eat breakfast and stay hydrated.
  • Dress professionally, but prioritise comfort.
  • A digital watch is useful for keeping track of time in the exercises.
  • Remember that you aren’t directly competing with the other candidates- if all of you perform well, you could all get through. Be friendly and collaborative, and don’t get intimidated.
  • Keep your spirits up- every exercise is scored individually. If you feel like you weren’t at your best in one, regroup before the next challenge.
  • Don’t neglect the self-assessment that they’ll ask you to complete after each task. Take time to correctly identify the competencies you demonstrated effectively and which ones you need to develop- it’s important to show your own awareness of your strengths.
  • Enjoy it! It really helps if you pretend that you’re already a civil servant during the exercises. The day is tiring but it can be a lot of fun if you get into it.

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Preparing for an Assessment Day presentation


If you have been invited to an assessment centre, you might find that you will be asked to give a presentation. Usually you’ll be given information about how long the presentation should be and, in most cases, you will also be given a topic to present on. If you are not given a topic in advance, don’t panic – this simply means that you will be told on the day, in which case, the presentation will be testing your skills under time pressure, rather than looking for perfect delivery. All candidates will have been given the same instructions, so you’ll all be in the same position!

Common topics for presentations include issues or challenges facing the organisation you are applying to, a particular innovation or form of technology which might shape the future development of the organisation, how to sell a particular product or service or, if you are applying for a position in the civil service, it could be about a recent political, economic or social issue which is of relevance to the position you are applying for. This is also a way that recruiters can assess your commercial awareness i.e. your understanding of the organisation and the broader challenges and opportunities it faces.

In the main, however, the choice of topic is not as important as the way you present on it. Employers use presentations as a means of testing a candidate’s ability to relate information clearly, succinctly, and in a well-structured manner. They’ll also be looking at your body language, your enthusiasm, and, in some cases, your use of appropriate technical and/or professional language.

If you’ve been given a topic to prepare in advance, employers will be looking at your research abilities – how much can you find out about a topic in the time you’ve been given, and how well have you understood it? This doesn’t mean that you should cram as much information into your presentation as possible, but you do need to show that you’ve grasped the main aspects of the topic. You may also be asked to provide a slide presentation to accompany your talk (usually with a maximum limit on the number of slides). If so, then be sure to use the slides well, including relevant accompanying information but without cramming each slide with lots of text. As with your main talk, the slides should be clear and well-organised.

Make sure that your presentation has a clear beginning (introduction), middle (key points) and end (conclusion). To ensure that you don’t run over the time you’ve been given, it’s perfectly acceptable to use prompt cards. This can also help with nerves – but be sure not to rely on them too much. Looking down at your cards too often will hinder the connection you’re supposed to be making with your audience.

You may be asked some questions after your presentation: these will probably be requests for clarification or elaboration on certain parts of your presentation. So long as you have a decent understanding of what you’re talking about, you should be fine. Remember – they’re not trying to catch you out here, but are just testing your ability to think on your feet.

A few final points, which can be applied to all presentations: don’t turn your back to your audience, make as much eye contact as possible, sound enthusiastic and – also importantly – smile! You may feel anxious, but remember that your audience wants you to do well.

Technical Interviews

What are Technical Interviews?

If you are applying for a technical job, employers may well ask you to attend a specific Technical Interview (or they may ask you some technical questions as part of a general interview). This is so they can find out more about your technical skills and abilities, whereas competency interviews will be looking at behaviours and skills like teamwork and communication.

What might they ask?

Technical Interviews are not just about which programming languages you are familiar with. The aim is to uncover how you think,  how you approach problems, and how you deal with learning new areas.

Be prepared to talk about technologies that are relevent to the company or industry. This could include your ideas about how they will be using technology in the future.  You could also be given a scenario and asked how you would tackle a particular problem. Often interviewers will want to know which decisions you would make and why, rather than be given the exact answers.

You will be asked about your experience of technologies from your degree course and from any other projects you have been involved with outside of studying. Remember when talking about projects to be specific about what your key responsibilities and actions were.

Technologies You Haven’t Studied

You wont necessarily have studied or be familiar with all of the technologies that an organisation is using. However it is important to show an interest in the area and a willingness to learn.

Employers don’t expect you to know everything. They may deliberately ask you a question about something you are not familiar with to challenge you and see how you respond under pressure. In these situations keep calm and show them how you would deal with the problem.

Remember some questions may be deliberately open-ended and broad e.g. “how can we make this process run faster”, so there may not be one right ‘textbook’ answer . If you really don’t know something be honest. It is much better to do that and keep a professional image, rather than try and blag at an answer. You could always ask the interviewer for further information before you jump straight in and go off topic.

How to prepare

Make sure you read the job description thoroughly so you are familiar with what the requirements of the role are. they are unlikely to ask you about things which are not relevent to the job.

Read about the projects that a company is involved in (this information is often available on their website). This will help you anticipate the questions they might ask you.

Look at industry news and professional association websites to find out about what is happening in the industry. What are the latest trends and growth areas?  Browsing the websites of the company’s competitors can also give an indication of what is happening in the sector.

Psychometric Testing: Preparation

The term psychometric testing can sound a bit daunting. This is partly because it has become a catch-all phrase applied to any kind of assessment activity used to evaluate skills, knowledge, abilities, personality traits, and attitudes.

Many companies who require you to complete some form of psychometric testing will make practice tests available to you via their website or in links sent directly to test candidates. If you are given the opportunity to practice the specific company style of test don’t pass it up. Different companies will use different types of tests from different providers, so don’t only practice one brand of test and hope it will prepare you for them all!

Aptitude Tests

These are, most commonly, numeracy and literacy tests, and/or verbal and logical reasoning tests.

Verbal reasoning
For verbal reasoning tests practice reading sections of text from a range of newspaper articles and websites (200-300 words) that deal with content for the relevant industry. Then summarise your reading. This will enhance your vocabulary and reading speed.

Numerical reasoning
Refresh your memory of a range of mental arithmetic calculations such as addition, subtraction, multiplication, division, percentages and ratios.

Look at charts, graphs, and data tables on relevant content. Then have a go at interpreting the data before you read the accompanying explanatory information. Think about trends and patterns in the data.

Inductive or logical reasoning
These tests vary across industries but it is likely that you will be asked to analyse a series of linked images and predict the next in the series.

You will need to work out the ‘rule’ or ‘rules’ that govern the pattern linking the shapes or other objects.

Useful things to consider include, are the objects changing in colour or shading? What type, shape and size are the images? Are they rotating?

Personality Tests

The most important thing to remember, particularly when it comes to tests focused on behavior and personality, is that you cannot cheat or second guess these questions. This will produce an inconsistent profile and be ultimately unhelpful to you.

Work style preference
As mentioned above you can’t practice for these tests but you can reflect critically on the sorts of thinking and behaviours that the job role is likely to require.

You can then turn your attention to your own past experience and working style. Try to relate these reflections to the position you are now applying for.

Situational judgment
 These are designed to test how you would deal with work placed situations in a variety of interpersonal scenarios: with peers, managers and customers. You will rely on your personal experience, knowledge and reasoning.

Prepare by considering a variety of conflict and problem solving scenarios.

 Leadership and motivational
Such questions test for qualities such as accountability, responsibility, and team-working abilities. They will be considering your decision-making, risk management and interpersonal skills. Unilever (for example) consider positive and realistic competitiveness to be an attribute of a capable leader.

Prepare by researching the kind of qualities generally accepted to be the sign of a good leader and then relate these to your own experiences.

Practice full length numerical, verbal, inductive, logical and diagrammatic tests online, with downloadable answer sheets that explain the solutions to each question. Register at using your @qmul email address.

Visit and type the work ‘psychometric’ to access a list of resources including advice and sample tests.

Assessment Centres – the group part

At some point in your career journey, you may find yourself having to attend an assessment centre. This is where employers assess how suitable you are for a particular role, by seeing you use the skills / competencies they require for the job.

On an application form or at interview, employers will ask you questions to get a sense of your skills. At an assessment centre, on the other hand, you will be asked to take part in a series of practical activities or tasks (often using mock business scenarios) so recruiters can actually observe how you use skills like team working in a business context. These activities may include presentations, debates, e-tray exercises, written exercises, psychometric tests, analysing case studies or group exercises. An assessment centre could be for an hour or for 2 days and could include any combination of the above tasks.

Group exercises tend to be the most misunderstood of tasks at assessment centres, as candidates struggle to find the right balance between
a) taking charge, making their opinions heard and trying to take the lead
b) taking a step back, listening and allowing others to take the lead.

Too much of one and you are too dominant, too much of the other and you could be seen as a doormat.

Working within a group is never as straightforward as it seems, due to the range of character types you could be working with… and let’s face it: some people may be more comfortable with working independently. Nevertheless the ability to work effectively as part of a team is an inescapable necessity when it comes to the work place – so it is important to become aware of what employers will be looking for!

Why a group exercise?

Group exercises are used by employers to assess much more than just your ability to work within a group or as part of a team. They are also used to assess your social, communication, leadership and critical thinking skills as well as how confident and influential you can be. This is not to forget those all-important interpersonal skills – i.e. listening, persuading, diplomacy, mediation and patience!

How do you prepare?

Many people struggle to understand how it is that you can actually prepare for this kind of activity – and the answer is there is no simple technique! A lot of what you’re expected to portray within a group exercise is much to do with the kind of person that you are. Nevertheless, an awareness of what they are looking for will help. Start could be to put yourself in the position of the employer and ask yourself what it is that YOU would like to see from a candidate. Do not base this on personal expectation, but on what you have gathered about the company through your research. This leads perfectly on to the next point, RESEARCH! Know the employer and know what sort of skills they may be looking out for. It is very important to establish a familiarity with your potential employers – browse their websites; read their publications follow them on twitter!

As an end note, always remember that an important part of working within a team is being able to make valid contributions,  but is also being able to encourage others to contribute – show the assessor that you can do these things, because the assessors can only judge you on what they see!

So, in a nutshell….

What is it?
Working with a group of candidates to make an object or discuss a given topic

What do they want?
Time management skills, an awareness of others, problem-solving skills, creativity

Get it right by…
Working with the best ideas even if they aren’t yours, encouraging other candidates, maintaining a sense of humour

Get it wrong by…
Not listening to other candidates, not saying anything, running out of time

Commercial awareness: how do I show employers I have it?

What is commercial awareness?

Commercial awareness is sometimes also referred to as ‘business focus’, ‘client focus’, ‘business understanding’ or ‘passion for business’. Basically it is about having an interest in, and an understanding of, the business world that organisations operate in.

This includes:

  • familiarity with the company (its customers, competitors and suppliers)
  • knowing what is happening in the industry (and how this impacts the company)
  • an awareness of the importance of business issues such as efficiency, cost-effectiveness and client care
  • an awareness of broader economic and global issues such as the current economic climate
  • an ability to see the ‘bigger picture’ and appreciate  external challenges, pressures and opportunities

Why is it important to employers?

Organisations need graduates who can quickly understand the company and their customers, and be able to make good decisions on how best to develop their business. Students may have learned the theory at university, but need to be able to apply this in practice in the real world!

Recruiters will also want to know that you have a genuine interest in the commercial world and in particular they want to know that you are passionate about their business and the industry they work in.

How you do this will depend on the industry that you are applying to. If you want to get into finance then you should follow the financial news and know what is happening in the financial markets. If you want to get into healthcare or medicine then you should know about the changes taking place in the NHS. Interested in teaching? Then you must be aware of the current trends in education. Thinking about journalism, then you should know about the move to multi-format and web journalism… and so on for each industry…

How do employers look for your commercial awareness?

On an application form and at interview, the following type of questions are designed to test commercial awareness:

  • What do you know about this company?
  • What do you know about our competitors? What are the differences between them and us?
  • Who are our clients? What are our main products/services?
  • Tell me about a recent business story that took your interest?
  • What are the greatest challenges facing our sector in the next five years?
  • What changes have there been in our industry recently?

Business / Finance specific questions:

  • How do you keep up to date with what is going on in business?
  • What is the current Bank of England base rate?
  • How many euros would you get today in exchange for £10?
  • What is the FTSE 100? Did the FTSE go up or down yesterday?
  • What was our share price this morning?
  • If we were to open a new office abroad, which country would you choose and why?

At an assessment centre you could be given case studies or business scenarios, where you would be asked to analyse and make recommendations on how you would tackle particular business situations.

Employers would assess how you interpret data, consider risk and financial implications, offer creative solutions and make sensible recommendations. These exercises could be done individually or as part of a team (where they would also be looking at your team working skills).

How can I develop my commercial awareness?

The first step is to read the company’s website thoroughly. Check the ‘news’ and ‘about us’ pages, as well as the sections for clients, potential clients and staff. Review their annual report. Find out the size of the workforce, the turnover and profits of the company, its share price and key activities which interest you. Know who the organisation’s competitors are.

Keep up to date with business news. The business section of the major broadsheet newspapers should cover most of the information you need. The FT and the Economist will be essential if you are applying for a research/analysis role.

One student told me that she found it initially difficult to follow the FT.  So she would read a financial news story on the BBC website first to understand the background information, and then read the version in the FT to get more in-depth details.

Don’t leave this research until you get invited to interview. You could be asked a question about current affairs from 6 months to a year ago. Try building keeping up with the news into your weekly routine (this could be a good New Year’s Resolution!). Think about how what you read may directly (or indirectly) effect the organisations you are applying to.

Read specialist magazines and industry related blogs and follow relevant people on Twitter to keep up-to-date with developments in the relevant sector. An internet search such as ‘marketing industry blog for graduates’ is a good place to start, as once you have found one you like, it will often recommend or link to others that are useful. You can also ask people from the industry who you might meet at events / through online networking how they would suggest you build your industry knowledge (see our other blog posts about networking for tips on this).

Don’t underestimate your own work experience. You may have done part time retail work to earn some extra money, but this can also be used to gain an insight into business. What are the good and bad points about the business? Who is its target market? Who are its main competitors? How would you improve the company’s image or profitability?