Assessment Centres

Employers, especially large employers, may invite you to attend an assessment centre as part of their recruitment and selection process. Being invited to an assessment centre means that the employer is seriously considering you as a candidate and believes that you have the potential to succeed in the role. They don’t invite people to make up the numbers!

What to expect
The length of an assessment centre may be as short as half a day for some employers and as long as two days for others and is usually the final stage of the selection process.

The activities at an assessment centre are designed to enable employers to see how you deal with work related situations. While an interview tends to involve you talking about how you have used your skills in the past, at an assessment centre the employer has the opportunity to see you using your skills.

You will be asked to work both on your own and as part of a group on a variety of selection tasks which may include:

  • group exercises / group discussions
  • role play / simulation
  • case studies
  • presentations
  • Interviews
  • social / informal activities
  • psychometric tests
  • In-tray / E-tray exercises

What are employers looking for?
Employers will assess your contributions against a set of criteria or competencies (skills), so you are not necessarily in competition with other candidates attending the assessment centre on that day. This means that in any particular assessment centre it is possible that all, some or none of the candidates could be made job offers, depending on how each individual measures up to the criteria.
Assessment centres give selectors the opportunity to see candidates performing across a range of activities. Completing a range of activities will help your strengths to be more apparent and will put any weaknesses you may have into context
Remember that the assessors are not trying to catch you out, they want you to do well. They are interested in how you handle the tasks and to see what skills you could bring to the job.
Typical competencies that employers assess against may include:

  • adaptability
  • analytical thinking
  • commercial awareness
  • communication
  • creativity
  • decision-making
  • leadership
  • negotiation
  • organisation
  • persuasion
  • planning
  • resilience
  • teamwork
  • time management

Do your homework
You should prepare as you would for an interview by doing your homework on the job role and employer. Look at their website, social media and any relevant publications (e.g. business plan, annual report, corporate social responsibility strategy), and be prepared to share your views and ideas.

Keep abreast of current developments in the sector and any impact this may have on the employer. These topics may come up in a discussion or task and it’s an advantage if you are able to talk about what is happening in that area, will make you seem well informed and give weight to your arguments.

Review your application and the job description to help identify the skills that the employer is looking for as these are the criteria that they will assess against. Try to have these skills in mind whilst you are at the event and remember to work together with the other participants rather than compete against them.

What to wear
Plan what you are going to wear in advance, something smart and professional is best for most jobs. Check that you feel comfortable and confident in them so that you are not distracted on the day. Looking the part will help you to feel confident.

Be well rested and focussed
Make sure that you have a good night’s sleep before the assessment centre and avoid drinking alcohol.

Plan your journey
Plan your journey in advance of the event and aim to arrive with some time to spare so that you can freshen up and gather your thoughts. You may want to allow a little extra time in case you become delayed on the way.

You should tell the employer in advance of the event if you have a disability so that they can make any reasonable adjustments, which may be necessary. Employers are required under the Equality Act to make reasonable adjustments to their selection process for applicants who have declared disabilities.
Have a good breakfast
You may need to get up very early and have a few nerves but be sure to eat at a good, healthy breakfast and be careful not to drink too much caffeine.

Make a good impression – be yourself
Remember that the assessment centre begins and lasts until you have left, this includes not just the assessed tasks but also all of the moments in between. Make sure that you arrive on time, and look and act the part. Be friendly and polite to everyone you meet throughout the day, starting with the receptionist.

An assessment centre can feel like a strange environment, but it is important for you to give a good account of yourself to demonstrate what you would be like if you worked for that organisation.

It’s natural to feel a bit nervous, but try to relax as much as you can – remember that the employer wouldn’t invite you to an assessment centre if they weren’t really interested in you, they want you to do well.

Whilst it is important to behave professionally, it is also a good idea to try to relax and be yourself. Although you should keep in mind the skill areas the employer is assessing.
Don’t forget to turn off your phone.

Get stuck in
Some of the activities that you may be asked to do might seem a bit strange or silly, but it is important for you to get fully involved. The employer has carefully thought about their tasks to give candidates the opportunity to showcase their skills in relation to the competency framework that the employer is selecting against.

They want to see how you work with other people, solve problems, prioritise, make decisions and communicate so if you don’t get stuck in they won’t see any evidence of your skills.
Whatever the task is, be careful to follow the instructions given and take into account the information provided. All candidates are given the same information, so even if a task seems difficult or time pressured, everybody else will feel the same.

Is this the right employer for you
You may think that the assessment centre is just about the employer deciding if you are right for their organisation. However, this is also a great opportunity for you to get a better insight into them, their working environment and culture, to see if this is the right role and employer for you.

Employers design group exercises to enable them to assess how candidates work in a team. Typically, selectors want to see candidates who contribute to the discussion, and are not only comfortable articulating their own ideas, but also listen to other people’s ideas. Evidence of problem solving, delegation, leadership and a positive attitude are also important.

  • Assessors can only assess you on what you contribute, so if you don’t say much, they will find it hard to score you well. Whilst it’s important to try to clearly show your contribution to group tasks, it is also important not to dominate the group.
  • Try to include quieter group members by asking their views and show you listen to other people’s ideas by referring back to earlier comments they have made.
  • Be organised and aware of the time constraint. Keep on topic, if the discussion drifts away from the task bring it back on track.
  • Activities are likely to have a time constraint so be aware of the time; possibly making sure that one team member has this responsibility.
  • Throughout the tasks, selectors will observe and make notes on each of the group members to identify and record their contribution to the activity. Try not to be distracted by this.

Role play / simulation exercises are used to assess how candidates handle difficult situations and competencies such as working under pressure, communication skills, interpersonal skills, and negotiation. Typical role play scenarios you could encounter may include situations such as dealing with an angry customer or selling an item.
  • Be positive and professional throughout the activity, remain calm and try to reach an amicable solution.
  • Get into the spirit of the activity but do remember this isn’t an acting task.

Selectors often ask candidates to work on case studies individually at an assessment centre, where they provide you with some documents containing information (reports, charts, articles etc) and a task to do based on them. This is often to make a business related decision based on the information.

You would then be expected to present your decision / findings in a report or as a short presentation. There may not necessarily be a right answer. What the selectors are interested in is your ability to assess the information, identify the key issues, work under time pressure, and to present a logical solution.

This means that justifying a sensible set of reasons as to why you have decided on a particular strategy is likely to score you well.

  • Follow the instructions given, and stick to the brief.
  • Try to quickly identify which information is relevant to the task – you’ll often be given more things than you actually need.
  • Show how you came to your decision based on reasoning
  • Be professional but straightforward in your presentation making clear unambiguous points

Employers will often give you a topic in advance so that you can prepare a presentation on it, or they may give you a topic on the day without much time to prepare. Typical topics can be subjects such as challenges facing the organisation, or something about you.

Employers are interested to see your ability to communicate your ideas clearly in a structured engaging manner. It also helps them to see how you might represent the organisation in a professional way. It’s also a good way to see your understanding of the organisation and the sector.

Selectors may ask you some questions at the end of your presentation, and sometimes can be quite probing. They want to see how you handle having your ideas challenged.

  • Practice your presentation a few times to be sure that you are familiar with your content and timings.
  • Give your presentation a good structure, it needs a beginning, middle and an end.
  • Don’t try to include too much content, that will make you nervous and rush to fit it all in. This goes for your visual aids too. Keep to time.
  • Remember that the selectors are as interested in how you come across, as what you actually say.
  • Try not to memorise a script as this will make you a little robotic, instead have some key prompts to talk around.
  • Smile, make eye contact with the audience and use the tone of your voice to show enthusiasm.

Please take a look at our section on psychometric tests for information on what to expect and tips on how to prepare.
Paper based (in-tray) and electronic (e-tray) exercises are designed to assess a candidate’s ability to perform particular aspects of the job.

Candidates may be required to complete a work related scenario e.g. a report, process emails or handle a complaint, and be expected to decide on how to respond. You may be given additional tasks or extra information part way through the task. It is important to show evidence on why you have made that decision.

These tasks assess skill areas related to the job role such as decision making, time management, organisation, the ability to prioritise and identify connections between seemingly unrelated items.

  • Carefully read the instructions and quickly review all the information you are given and stick to the brief.
  • Try to quickly identify which information is relevant to the task – you’ll often be given more things than you actually need.
  • Try not to spend too much time on any one question or to be distracted by low priority issues which seem urgent.
  • Be professional and polite if you have to disappoint somebody.
  • Take care for contradictory information such as emails arriving on different dates where the later one shows that the issue has been resolved.
  • Keep in mind the priorities of the organisation and the job role when choosing what to do. Show how you came to your decisions based on reasoning.

If you are getting to the assessment centre stage of a selection process then you can be sure that your applications are fine, so that’s good.

Think about how well you prepared for the assessment centre, and what happened during the tasks. Think about your contributions and how you may have come across to the selectors.

Ask the employer for feedback, most employers are happy to give constructive feedback to candidates. Some employers may not be able to discuss specifics of their decision but they may still give you some advice.

You could make an appointment with a careers adviser to talk about your assessment centres to help identify any areas for improvement.

Do also bear in mind that there may not be much wrong with what you did and you may have only just missed out. Having experience of attending an assessment centre will make you more confident and comfortable at the next one.

Assessment Centres
This comprehensive tool explains everything you need to know about assessment centres, the activities you may be assessed on and how to perform well.

At the Assessment Centre- Videos:

Interview Tests & Exercises
AGCAS look at the different types of tests, including psychometric, assessment centres and help delivering presentations.

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