Career advice

Advice from a fellow graduate – tackling the assessment centre

Unless you have actually been on an assessment centre, they remain somewhat an urban legend for graduates, only ever mentioned in hushed whispers and fearful tones. Far removed from the conventional one-on-one interview, the assessment centre is designed to challenge candidates on a number of ‘real work’ tasks from presentations to group work and ‘in-tray’ exercises. Hopefully, through this article, I can share some of my personal experiences and lift the lid on the fears and misunderstandings that nearly every graduate has.

What is it?

Why bother with an assessment centre? Why not just stick to the usual one-on-one interviews? If you’re graduating and have been booked onto an assessment centre these are probably a few of the questions going through your head. (Other questions that may also be going through your head...’How on earth am I going to pay back all this debt? How is my degree in ancient Greek philosophy ever going to get me a job? Do I have to get my life together yet?’) Assessment centres provide an excellent platform for recruiters to assess potential candidates in real work life situations. You will be invited down to the company for a whole day and tested on a number of different tasks ranging, as already mentioned, from group work to individual tasks and presentations. 

What if nerves get in the way?

You’re going to be nervous; you can’t escape it, you can’t hide from it, you just have to face up to it and battle through. However, I can guarantee that everyone else will be equally nervous and you should take comfort in that. The best tactic for settling my nerves was to arrive at the centre with plenty of time to spare and introduce myself to people just to get into the swing of it. You’ll be amazed at how effective this is at settling your nerves.

Do I have to be the loudest in the room?

There will always be that one person. That one person who tries to dominate by being the loudest in the room, who is convinced that there is some sort of direct correlation between the decibel level of their voice and the intelligence of their points. Don’t be that person. They’re committing assessment centre suicide. Instead, group work tasks are designed to eke out the individuals who engage everyone in the group, make sure that everyone’s point is heard. A true leader of the group is not bold, brash or arrogant instead they ensure the team is collaborating in the most efficient way possible to get the task done. Avoid being the scribe. You’ll spend so much time writing you won’t contribute

What does the presentation usually consist of? 

No, not a presentation! There has to be another way?!’ Very few people like the thought of having to talk in front of an audience. But with the right preparation and practice, it isn’t as daunting as it might first appear. You will almost always be asked to talk on something you are comfortable with, for example, I had to give a presentation on an achievement that I was proud of and why. The assessors are not out to trip you up and they don’t expect mind-blowing content –they are simply looking at whether you can deliver a well structured, confident presentation. 

What are in-tray activities?

Another individual task that you may face is called the ‘in-tray’ exercise and it was the one I found most challenging. This is the closest representation to ‘everyday’ life in an office environment and will test your ability to prioritise and your time management skills. As a concept it is fairly simple; you will be faced with a mock ‘full inbox’ which may be in the form of emails, written letters or missed calls and it is your job to rank the importance of them, along with describing the best course of action for each. Remember, there isn’t necessarily a right or wrong answer in these tasks, so long as you can provide a clear, logical reason for your actions. 

Will there be one-on-one interview as well?

In most assessment centres, towards the end of the day, you will be interviewed on your own by one or two of the assessors. This is where you can really sell yourself as you would in a standard interview. The questions will be focused on competency based skills, motivations for the role and personality traits, so preparation for this should be straightforward. Find out how to be successful at one-on-one interviews.
All in all, my experiences at assessment centres have shown me that success boils down to two key things: being friendly and being collaborative (treat the other candidates as if they were your work colleagues). The major advantage of an assessment centre is that it gives you the opportunity to demonstrate a real breadth of skills not just the standard interview spiel of ‘Describe a time when...’ As long as you have prepared effectively, you should be able to face the tasks with confidence and express yourself well. 
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