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An assessment centre is an extended period of interviews, tasks and assessment exercises, organised by recruiters for small groups of candidates.
Companies use assessment centres to find out how candidates perform in various situations – in particular group tasks, which are often reflective of real work-based scenarios.
This type of assessment is frequently used by large graduate employers who wish to recruit a cohort of candidates for a given year of entry.
The term ‘assessment centre’ is used because employers usually conduct these extended appraisals in a single location: either an office of the employer themselves or at a third-party venue, such as a hotel or function room.
You’ll also hear the term 'assessment day', which reflects that these extended periods of assessment last for the best part of a day. Many last for a full working day between usual office hours, and some even last longer (up to three days).
An assessment centre is usually coordinated by a group of assessors or recruiters that includes members of an employer's HR team, departmental managers and partners at the firm.
In theory, this makes the process more objective because the final decision on each candidate must be agreed on – using a range of structured assessment methods – rather than by an individual’s preference.
Assessment centres are routinely used by larger graduate recruiters to assess candidates. Smaller companies may not be able to organise entire assessment days due to the expense involved, but often introduce elements of them into their interview processes, such as psychometric tests and in-tray exercises.
The cost of putting a candidate through an assessment centre varies depending on the length, tasks involved and amount of employees required to assess candidates. Employers could be spending as much as £3,000 on each candidate who attends.
If you want to find out if the scheme or job you're applying to includes an assessment centre as part of its application process, you should be able to find out by checking the company’s website.
Employers which feature an assessment centre in their graduate recruitment process include Accenture, EY, KPMG, PwC, IBM, GSK, BDO and the Civil Service Fast Stream.
Employers are prepared to invest in assessment centres because they believe them to be the most accurate means of recruiting the right people for their vacancies.
Research carried out by business psychologists demonstrates that traditional job interviews are not an accurate way to predict a candidate's future performance. Interviews may also be affected by an interviewer's pre-conceptions or bias.
At an assessment day, candidates are usually marked objectively, in terms of highly structured key competencies.
The tasks they are asked to perform usually reflect the work they will be doing if hired, and consequently their ability to perform at assessment is thought to be a direct indication of their potential ability to do the job in question.
The group aspect also allows assessors to find out about candidates' key personality traits, such as how well-suited candidates are at working with other people, and their key strengths and weaknesses.
Consequently it is thought that assessment centres are the fairest and most accurate way to recruit staff.
If used, assessment centres are usually the penultimate stage of the interview process, prior to the final interview.
This is because they are expensive (they take up a considerable amount of time and resources to organise) and therefore it’s in an employer's interests to invite only those applicants most likely to be hired.
Most job applicants have usually been rejected before the assessment centre stage, having been screened out using single-phase assessment techniques such as application forms, telephone interviews, aptitude tests and/or short face-to-face interviews.
Assessment days are unique to the organisation running them. Employers will create the assessments based around their business, ensuring that they assess the skills that are most important to them.
The tasks and tests will typically be made up of a selection of the following:
General information. Candidates will have to watch a presentation about the organisation or listen to a brief talk to find out more about what the business does, its mission and values. Listen carefully to this because the information that you learn here may prove beneficial during your assessment day tasks.
Ice-breaker activity. This might be a short presentation about yourself, or a presentation about the person next to you, after you’ve had the chance to speak to them for ten minutes or so.
Aptitude tests. Even if you have already completed these, you may be asked to repeat them. The most common ones used at this stage will be numerical reasoning, verbal reasoning and diagrammatic reasoning.
Presentation. This could be individually or as a group, and the presentation is unlikely to be more than 10 minutes long. Sometimes you will be given the subject in advance – in which case, the assessors will be looking at your oral communication and planning skills. Occasionally, you will be given the presentation topic at the centre, in which case it’s more a test of quick thinking and responding to pressure.
Interview. You may have one or several interviews, from individual interviews with a senior employee in your department, to panel interviews.
Role play. Here you will interact with a professional actor in a chosen scenario, eg the actor is an infuriated customer, or a supplier who has been let down. The actor will often be briefed to push for a different outcome, and hence the focus is on how well you can negotiate and reach a solution in which all parties are happy.
Written exercise. Often you will be asked to summarise key points or review a course of action relating to a professional document (no industry knowledge being required). This is a test of comprehension and communication skills, as well as how well you can identify important parts of an article.
Breaks. Although break times are not assessed in a formal sense, they are used by recruiters to determine how you interact and use your interpersonal skills in a less formal setting.
The structure of the assessment day will vary depending on a number of factors; a typical day would be as follows.
Candidates will arrive early, usually around 9 a.m., and will be welcomed to the company with refreshments. There’s usually a period of around half an hour where candidates and recruiters can interact before the main assessment day gets underway.
You will then be gathered in a formal welcome briefing which will guide you through the activities for the day, including timing for tests and interviews, and general housekeeping issues.
The rest of the day may run as follows:
10 a.m. – A series of aptitude tests
11:30 a.m. – E-tray exercise
12:45 a.m. – Break for lunch
1:45 p.m. – Case study group exercise
2:45 p.m. – Interviews
4:15 p.m. – Presentations
5:15 p.m. – Evaluation
5:30 p.m. – End of assessment day
Bear in mind that some assessment centres may take place over more than one day. For example, a typical assessment centre at an investment bank will be as follows:
- 5 p.m. – Arrive at Hotel / Registration
- 6.30 p.m. – Drinks reception with company representatives
- 7.30 p.m. – Dinner with company representatives
- 9.00 p.m. – Company presentation
- 8.00 a.m. – Breakfast
- 9.00 a.m. – Aptitude tests (numerical and verbal)
- 10.00 a.m. – Personality questionnaires
- 10.30 a.m. – Group exercise one + group exercise two
- 12.30 p.m. – Lunch
- 1.30 p.m. – Group exercise three + business exercise
- 2.30 p.m. – Individual presentations
- 3.30 p.m. – Panel Interview
- 4.30 p.m. – Refreshments
- 5.00 p.m. – Evaluation / depart
The drink and dinner receptions with company representatives will almost certainly be with the assessment centre organisers (who will also be your assessors) and current graduate trainees working at the firm.
Take every opportunity to talk to current trainees as they will not be directly assessing you and can offer great advice about the assessment centre, interviews and the job itself.
What Competencies Are Tested at Assessment Centres?
During each activity you will be assessed on a range of key competencies that are required for the opportunity you are applying for.
There can be a number of things that the recruiter will be looking for depending on the industry and the type of job, but the most popular competencies include:
- Decision making
- Interpersonal skills
- Critical thinking
- Communication skills (both written and verbal)
It is important to be professional at an assessment centre. Candidates should behave like the employees of the company they are being assessed by.
You must wear smart business dress throughout: men should wear suits and ties and polish their shoes; women should dress appropriately. If in doubt, dress conservatively.
The first way you can demonstrate effective time management is to arrive punctually. Put your phone on silent so it doesn’t make any noises at inopportune times, particularly during interviews.
There will be lunch and coffee breaks, during which you'll have the opportunity to talk to various staff members, including the current graduate intake and your assessors. Introduce yourself; be polite and confident, look people in the eye and shake hands.
It's a good idea to engage in conversations about the company and the industry. Listen to what others say, and try to ask intelligent and positively framed questions.
You will not be in direct competition with other candidates at an assessment centre. It is normal for large organisations to recruit to a standard. All, several, one or none of your assessment group may be hired.
You need to perform to a very high standard at an assessment centre, but you do not need to challenge, compete or disagree with other candidates. In fact, it may harm your assessors' opinion of you if you do.
Selectors want to see how you react to and get on with other people during your assessments.
Try to draw others into group discussions. Although it is good to show that you are competitive, remember that your assessors are just as interested to see evidence of teamwork, communication and leadership skills alongside your own intelligent input.
You may also be wondering, should you send a thank you email after an assessment centre? Sending a brief thank you email is not only polite but also offers several different opportunities.
First, it is a means by which you can extend your appreciation for an interviewer taking the time out of their busy schedule to meet you, learn about you and share useful information about the organisation you want to work in.
Second, it provides a chance for you to confirm you are still interested in the position and to highlight key experience or skills you have that relate to particular aspects brought up during the assessment centre.
The thank you email should be brief, addressed to the person who interviewed you if possible (rather than the HR department as a whole for example), and touch very briefly on relevant skills and experience, for instance related to a particular project or business area discussed during the assessment centre. Remember, you've done the hard part and completed the final stage. Two to three small paragraphs is plenty for your thank you email.
Read through your invitation to the assessment centre carefully, so you know what's coming on the day.
Note what kind of exercises and activities you will be doing and if you have to prepare anything in advance, such as a presentation.
You should also check if you need to bring anything with you.
If you are uncertain about any aspects of the day, contact the employer for more information.
It can also be helpful to search for previous candidates’ experiences and descriptions of the assessment centre.
Ahead of the assessment centre, you should make sure you know the firm inside-out and have a strong understanding of what you would be doing if you secured the job.
Look at the employer’s website for information about what it does, its ethos and what it looks for in candidates.
Study the job description closely.
Read up on any news stories involving the company and/or its business sector.
Speak to people who already work at the company.
If the assessment centre includes an interview, your interviewer is likely to use your CV as a starting point. So be prepared to talk them through every point included.
If you have been asked to take a CV with you on the day, make any improvements or amendments so you can present recruiters with the strongest version possible.
Throughout the day, recruiters will be assessing you on a range of key competencies that they have identified as essential for the role.
These competencies will vary depending on the sector and the role applied for, so be sure to research the specific competencies sought.
You also need to make sure you can demonstrate that you meet the key competencies. Come up with specific examples that match up each competency – you might draw these from your studies, previous employment or extra-curricular activities.
It is likely that you will be required to give a presentation during the assessment centre.
Most recruiters will provide information in advance about what you need to prepare, so make the most of this. You will feel much more confident going into the presentation if you are fully rehearsed.
Find out who your audience will be and check what equipment will be available. PowerPoint slides are preferable to a flipchart or overhead projector but keep them simple – avoid blocks of text and aim for no more than one slide per two minutes of presentation.
Use simple, clear language and commit as much as possible to memory, so you are not relying on notes.
Practise delivering the presentation aloud several times before the day, and time yourself to be sure it's the correct length.
Check what kind of aptitude tests you will be taking and which test supplier the employer uses. This information may be given on your invitation to the assessment centre; if not, contact the employer’s HR department to find out.
Once you know what kind of tests to expect, do as much practice as you can.
This article has more information about aptitude tests, the different test providers and tips on how to prepare, along with some free practice questions.
JobTestPrep is another valuable resource for sample tests.
If your assessment centre includes an interview, try to establish as many details as you can:
- Will you be interviewed by a panel or just one recruiter?
- How long will it last?
- Is it an in-depth assessment or more of an informal chat about how the day has gone?
Be sure that you are clear on the skills and competencies required for the job, and prepare examples to demonstrate how you meet each one.
Use the STAR technique to structure your answers effectively.
If you have already completed an interview as part of the application process, ask for feedback to see where you could improve your performance.
Practise answering interview questions out loud to ensure your answers are clear, concise and confident.
Read our various interview advice articles for more hints and tips on preparing for interviews.
Your performance in group exercises is vital to your overall success at an assessment centre, as recruiters are looking to see how you would work as part of their team.
Although your own performance will naturally be at the forefront of your mind, it is important that you support and encourage other candidates. Remember that you may not be directly competing for the same role, so if you all do well you could all land the job you want.
The group task may involve being given a topic to discuss, debating a work-related problem and then presenting your solution to assessors, or completing a task such as a case study. Try to find out what kind of exercises you will be facing on the day.
Show confidence in the group exercise and don’t be afraid to take the lead or put your ideas forward.
But give others a chance to contribute too, and be sure to treat all ideas and input with courtesy and respect.
Assessment centres are an intense test of your mental and professional abilities and you will probably feel exhausted by the end of the day.
It’s important to look after your mental and physical wellbeing beforehand, so you perform at your best.
Getting enough sleep before the assessment centre is vital for concentration and staying alert.
Eating a healthy, balanced diet in the weeks leading up to the assessment centre will help you to feel your best. Remember to have a good breakfast that morning – to avoid energy slumps – and to drink plenty of water.
Regular exercise in the weeks before your assessment centre will promote wellbeing and help reduce feelings of anxiety or stress. If you’re not used to working out then don’t push yourself too hard – try something gentle such as a walk or swim.
Give yourself plenty of time to plan how you will get to the assessment centre and make any necessary travel arrangements.
Aim to arrive earlier than the specified time and allow for delays such as cancelled trains or getting lost.
If the assessment centre is in an unfamiliar area, it might be worth having a printed map as a back-up in case technology lets you down.
Deciding on your outfit in advance will also help avoid last minute panics and unnecessary stress. Choose something smart and professional, and of course, make sure it is clean and ironed.
If in doubt, ask HR for a dress code or look at the company website for an idea of appropriate workwear.
Your success at an assessment day will depend a lot on these factors:
Preparation is very important. A successful candidate is always well prepared. Aim to understand the company and the role inside out – what are its values, customer service standards and objectives? Consider what the ideal employee is for the department and learn as much as you can about the company and staff.
Attend the assessment day with the right attitude. Dress professionally and make sure you take with you everything you may need such as identification, certificates or other paperwork. Be polite and friendly from the moment you arrive. Ask questions and show that you are interested in the company and try to be as personable as possible. Above all, avoid negativity and take a positive approach to all tasks and activities.
Read through any literature that the employer sends before the event, and check whether you need to complete any tasks before the day, such as preparing a presentation or reading a case study.
Check the company’s website, to see if they have any tips or strategies for candidates attending an assessment centre.
Check the company’s social media pages, to see what issues they have been discussing and review documents such as their business plan.
If there is anything that you are not sure about, contact the recruiter and ask.
Interviews will be included in the assessment day so refine your technique and polish up your interview skills.
Identify what skills, knowledge and experience the employer is looking for by reviewing the person specification and job description.
On the day of the assessment centre, arrive on time. If you turn up half an hour late, you may have blown your chances already.
During an assessment day, you need to demonstrate your ability to be flexible, aware and responsive. Be yourself but don’t be overconfident.
Candidates are invited to assessment centres by the firm they have applied to. As guests, attendance is always free, even if perks such as lunch, dinner or hotel rooms are provided.
Most graduate employers will also be willing to cover each candidate's travel expenses, usually up to a maximum of £100.
This can vary: for international applicants, for example, PwC has an allowed expense of up to £100 but if expenses are likely to exceed this amount, applicants are encouraged to contact the recruiter to discuss costs before making any travel arrangements.
A minority of firms (usually small-sized firms with smaller graduate recruitment budgets) will not cover travel expenses.
If you have been invited to attend an assessment centre, you should contact the HR team of the company in question to find out their policy on expenses. It is not rude to do this; graduate employers are fully aware that most students and graduates do not have much money and that travel is expensive.
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