Assessment Centres: How to Prepare and Succeed

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Have you ever been to an assessment centre? What are they like? These are two of the many questions people ask when they are faced with the stressful prospect of having to attend one. People can be so afraid of them that not only will they have prepared incorrectly; they might not have perpared at all.

My guess is that this happens because there is still a lot of mystery about assessment centres and what they entail. But, since they have become quite common nowadays, the more familiar you become with them, the more beneficial it is for your career, especially if you are just starting out.

What are Assessment Centres?

The sad truth is that even people who attend these events don’t even know it a lot of the time. They can be called ‘selection centres’ or even assessment days, and their purpose is to assess your suitability for a job through various tasks and activities. These activities are different from employer to employer, and allow them to test specific skills needed for the particular position that aren’t readily available in the traditional interview.

In contrast to the face-to-face interviews, they may take up to three days, and you might be asked to join other candidates in the selection process. Usually there are 8 to 10 people, however, there could be more candidates depending on how big the employer is and how many people they are hoping to recruit. They are quite common amongst large employers seeking to recruit recent graduates and are usually intended for entry-level positions.

How Do They Work?

Large employers often choose to use them as an alternative - and in some cases, a more effective method compared - to traditional one-to-one interviews. When there is intense competition for a position and many graduates applying for the job, assessment centres are an effective way to screen out applicants since they make the entire hiring process a lot more efficient.

The goal of them isn’t necessarily to help recruiters choose the ideal person for the job. Depending on the position requirements, all, several, one or no participants may be successful. The final decision is usually made by human resource personnel and line managers, who discuss your performance based on your actions against competency frameworks and behavioural patterns.

While you are there, you will be assessed for abilities and more specifically, soft skills. These are the skills that are more personality-driven and can reveal important aspects that ‘make you who you are’. As such they are subjective, but at the same time more difficult to identify. Most employers will be looking for the following:

  • Communication: your ability to interact and engage well with others.
  • Flexibility: your ability to adapt to changing environments.
  • Analytical thinking: your ability to think and judge effectively.
  • Creativity: your ability to come up with practical solutions.
  • Decision making: your ability to make effective decisions.
  • Teamwork: your ability to work with other people for a common cause.
  • Time management: your ability to manage your time effectively.
  • Leadership: your ability to lead and take initiatives.
  • Organisation: your ability to stay organised.

Employers want to see how you react and behave in certain situations so they come up with specific activities and tasks that can bring out the competencies or behavioural characteristics they want to see in their employees. These can take the form of individual and group tasks and each activity aims to test specific skills or personality traits as mentioned above. Quite often, these activities are designed in a way to either mirror a task you will be required to carry out in the job.

To help you out, here is a list of the most common assessment centre exercises explaining what to expect from each:

  • Case study exercise: a timed exercise that describes a problem/situation for which you are called to come up with a solution in the form of a written report or verbally. You will need to analyse given facts and information and make your recommendations with convincing arguments.
  • Group exercises: a group task that ask participants to provide an answer to an industry-related problem. These may take the form of ice-breakers, role play exercises, group interviews, or a group discussion for which you may need to lead in turns.
  • One-to-one interviews: these are quite common and are used in combination with other exercises. They are usually short (from 5 to 10 minutes) and ask very specific questions to test your interest in the job.
  • In-tray exercises: common timed exercises (30 to 60 minutes) that are often completed online. These may ask you to work through 10-30 items of paperwork including emails, faxes, letters and other company papers to prioritise and explain which action is required for you to do.
  • Presentations: you may need to deliver a presentation about a specific topic, either individually or as a group.
  • Psychometric tests: these may be numerical, verbal tests designed to test specific skills such as comprehension, numeracy, spatial and mathematical ability.
  • Social events: informal sessions that give you the opportunity to socialise with other candidates, assessors and managers.

How Can You Do Well?

Similarly to other types of job interviews, there is no one recipe to success. However, the best way to assessment centre is to make sure that you have prepared for it thoroughly. While it may be harder to predict what’s going to happen as opposed to a traditional interview setting, you still need to prepare to answer some of the most common interview questions to impress potential employers. Apart from that, you might want to try out the following:

Ask for More Information

Getting information about the employer before any type of interview is essential. The more you know about the employer, the more chances you will have to get hired. You can find more information online e.g.  Glassdoor, or ask other people who you know have previously applied to the same company to get some inside information. Since you won’t be the only candidate wanting this position, you will need to show that you have come prepared.  

Apart from researching your prospective employer, you can also ask them directly what to expect on the day. Obviously, they won’t be able to tell you much, but they aren’t going to withhold necessary information from you either. Besides, you can, and you have the right to ask for more details and explanation about the event if needs be.

Get to Know Yourself

Becoming more self-aware is the best present you give yourself. You know exactly what your weaknesses and strengths are and you know how to present these to prospective employers to make a good impression. In terms of searching for a job, getting to know yourself better can help you position yourself in the best possible light. So, when you are asked to talk about yourself or describe yourself in three words, you know exactly what you need to say. It’s always a good idea to prepare an elevator pitch before the assessment day. It should help you structure your speech more effectively.  

Be Confident

Assessment centres are less about the why and more about the how. Your chances of success will depend heavily on your ability to perform well ‘on-the-go’, and the best way to do it is to be yourself. Unlike traditional interviews, you tend to be more relaxed because the spotlights aren’t facing you at the whole time and the interviewers aren’t firing questions out at you. This should allow you to act normal, be more confident and less nervous, giving you time to think and stay alert.

Do Some Practice Exercises

Don’t leave this entirely up to chance. To fully prepare for this, you should ask your friends or a careers adviser to help you out with some practise exercises. If this is new to you and you have never been to an assessment centre, it might be a good idea to practice role-play with another person to prepare what you need to say. You can never go wrong getting a second opinion, and any feedback on your performance should be welcome.    

Despite the fact that these are used as an easy way to screen out applicants, they can be a lot of fun. You get to meet new people, interact with them and take part in exciting activities with them. While you are at it, you voluntary act like yourself, and you tend to forget why you are there in the first place, or that you are competing for a position. In a face-to-face interview, the situation is very different where stricter rules may apply.

Taking part in an assessment centre is an incredible experience on its own…So even if you don’t get the job, you already are a winner…

See Also: 3 Interview Assessment Centre Fears and How to Overcome Them

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