Assessment Centres

What is an Assessment Centre?

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.


Which Employers Use Assessment Centres?

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 or the forum here on WikiJob.

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.

Why Spend So Much Money Assessing Graduates?

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 candidate's 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.

At What Stage do Assessment Centres Take Place?

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 resource 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.

What Activities to Expect at an Assessment Centre

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.

In-Tray Exercise or E-Tray Exercise. This test evaluates your ability to retain information, establish priorities, reach informed decisions and communicate effectively.

Group Exercise. A discussion or activity, often around a case study, which will be based on the kind of work that you would be expected to do in the role.

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. 

Structure of a Typical Assessment Day

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 9am, 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:

10am – A series of aptitude tests

11:30am – E-tray exercise

12:45am – Break for lunch

1:45pm – Case study group exercise

2:45pm – Interviews

4:15pm – Presentations

5:15pm – Evaluation

5:30pm – End of assessment day

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:

Assessment centre etiquette

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.

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.

How to Succeed: Key Tips

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

Expenses

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.

Further Information

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