Student story: My first assessment centre group exercise practice

Nadim1Nadim Ahmed, second year BSc Accounting and Management student, recently attended the Grant Thornton group exercise practice. He tells us more about his experience below…

What happened?

We were given an assignment brief which outlined the objectives of the project and the main questions we were required to answer; this was supplemented with theoretical data. Then we were given 30 minutes to discuss the case study together and prepare a short five-minute presentation and discuss our answers with colleagues from Grant Thornton.

How useful was the experience you had?

We were all given one-to-one feedback, and I believe this was very important and has highlighted attributes and skills which I demonstrate clearly and also highlighted areas where I could potentially improve. Overall feedback was very positive and has boosted my self-confidence.

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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.

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?

Tips to improve your numerical test score

The short answer is practice. The long answer is… more practice.

student 3

That might sound simple enough, but getting the right type of practice is key to effective preparation that will hopefully ultimately boost your test score.

Careers & Enterprise have a subscription to full length psychometric tests, which provides feedback on your performance with tips on how to improve. An answer sheet is also available if you want to see the workings out for any questions you didn’t get right. Register using your @qmul email address at

I need to improve my maths:

Word and number puzzles like Sudoku are great ways to help build on your verbal and numerical skills. The BBC bitesize and skillswise websites are useful for revising basic maths and comprehension for example. There are also lots of videos and tutorials online.
For finance roles, study the charts and tables in the business pages of newspapers and do some basic calculations to familiarise yourself with this type of data.

I need to improve my exam technique:

Trying example questions will help to improve your exam technique and will familiarise you with the way the questions are phrased. Reading the question thoroughly is important. Often they are phrased in a way that can catch you out if you are not careful. Remember also that

  • Speed and accuracy are important, so work as quickly and accurately as you can.
  • Do not spend too long on any one question – if you are stuck, leave it and move on. You can always return to it later if you have time. Sometimes a quick estimate can help to rule out some of the options, but avoid guessing.

I need to control my nerves:

The countdown clock doesn’t help if you are already feeling nervous. Do not worry if you do not finish all the questions – these tests are meant to push you. The more sample questions you do, the more used you will be to the technology and the calculations you could be asked to do, which will help you feel more in control of the situation.


Spotlight on assessment centres

After the rush of Autumn application deadlines, Winter is when successful candidates go through to the next stage of the selection process and are invited to take part in an assessment centre. But what is an assessment centre and how should you prepare?

In answer to the first question, an assessment centre normally takes place at the company’s office and involves taking part in a range of work related activities or tasks, which are either completed on your own (e.g. a case study or written task) or with other candidates (a group presentation or group business problem solving exercise).

Why do recruiters like them?

Seeing how potential candidates respond to different tasks is almost like having them work for you for the day. It is allows recruiters to observe how you behave with others and how use your skills in simulated work environment. You can argue that this is a fairer and more accurate way of getting to know a candidate, rather than simply hearing how they respond to questions at interview. It’s an opportunity for you to demonstrate your abilities, knowledge and motivation for the job and company. The key to doing well is all in the preparation.

How should I prepare?

To start with, think about what the employer is looking for. Look at the job description and consider the competencies they require, as this is what they will also be looking for on the day. For example, if you are applying for a job involving data analysis, you will probably be tested on your accuracy, speed, and attention to detail in a data task. Whereas for a job that involves dealing with clients, you may be asked to give a presentation and take part in a group negotiation exercise.

Whatever the role, team work and communication skills will always be valued. Speak clearly and make considered contributions, actively listen to others’ ideas in any group work and ask the opinions of those who aren’t speaking for example.

Be prepared to be assessed from the moment you step through the door, so be polite and professional to everyone, starting with the receptionist. You will continue to be assessed during ‘informal’ sessions such as a drinks reception or dinner – so prepare questions to ask and don’t drink too much!

Recruiters are also keen to see that you have done your research into the company /
organisation, so make sure you know who they are, what they do, and who their clients are for example. Don’t just look at the area of the organisation that you are applying to.
Have they won any awards or prizes? Has anything been written about them in the press recently?

For further information check our calendar of events for our assessment centre workshops. Helpsheets with tips and advice on Assessment Centre activities are available here. We’ve also written posts about specific elements of Assessment
Centres that you can browse also.

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