Assessment centres use a range of activities for individuals and groups so that observers can assess candidates against the job criteria.
Recruitment processes vary between employers, but it is unusual to be appointed solely on a single interview. Not all employers hold full assessment centres, but many set tests or work-simulations alongside your interview to help assess your suitability.
- Preparation for assessment centres
- How to behave during assessment centres
- Group exercises
- Aptitude or psychometric tests
- In-tray or e-tray exercises
- Physical activities
Find out all you can about what to expect on the day.
- Look at the employer's recruitment literature and website - many explain their techniques and even give you a taste of what to expect. If you are applying to an organisation that doesn't produce recruitment literature, call the personnel department to ask for information about what you might face. It won't affect your chances at interview if they say 'no' - provided you don't take them to task about this lack of disclosure!
- Talk to colleagues, friends, and employees about their experiences
- Look at Help and support for more advice on assessment centres
- Many careers services can help with your preparation.
Assessment centres can be enjoyable experiences. As with interviews, the key is to be yourself, enjoy the activities and focus on participating to the full. Be aware that you will not only be on show during the exercises. Informal times such as coffee breaks and mealtimes may not part of the assessment process, but you still need to be professional. The food and alcohol may be free, but don't over indulge and you'll stay alert.
Relax, be yourself, get fully involved and enjoy the experience
These exercises assess your behaviour in a team, so do get fully involved. There are many different types, such as:
- the ice-breaker, aimed to help everyone relax and get to know one another Usually fast moving and fun, you might have to build a bridge out of paper or prioritise a list of objects to help you survive on the moon
- the leaderless task in which each member of the group gets a brief that may be different from everyone else's. Within a time limit, you are asked to come up with a decision or solution. The group has to work towards a compromise as there is no designated leader
- the discussion group can feel a bit more uncomfortable because there is no task to focus on. Assessors will be measuring how often you contribute and the quality of what you say. Some topics are deliberately designed to provoke conflict, usually because ability to handle difficult situations is one of the selection criteria. Topics sometimes relate to current issues in the media so reading a quality newspaper in the run-up to your assessment centre can be helpful preparation.
Qualities being monitored will vary with the criteria for the role, but might include:
- participation and contribution
- encouraging quiet group members to contribute
- helping the group to progress to the next step in the task
- ability to review and summarise at appropriate points
- analysis and presentation of a reasoned argument
- listening skills
- negotiation and co-operation.
You should also demonstrate role-related skills. Your job application preparation identified these skills. Don't get hung up on completing the task - the observers will be looking at the process.
‘In my assessment centre our group couldn't even sort a pack of cards correctly, but two of us were offered jobs!'
These give additional information about candidates and fall into two groups:
Ability tests - test key work-related ability, e.g. verbal reasoning, numerical reasoning, logical reasoning or spatial ability. Answers are either right or wrong and tests are done under strict time limits.
Personality inventories - give a picture of your traits in areas that are difficult to assess, such as thinking styles and emotional behaviour. There are no right or wrong answers and usually time constraints are less stringent.
Don't be concerned about these tests, just answer honestly (interviewers don't take the results as absolutes) - they are mostly used to focus on particular areas in subsequent interviews. Your university careers service may offer practice tests that they will mark and give feedback on. Look at Help and support for links to other practice sites, for example, the notoriously difficult Civil Service psychometric tests.
These simulate a typical workload and are usually directly related to the job. They can include phone calls, messages, letters, memos, emails, reports and other documents. They could be delivered via a pc or as a pile of paper in an in-tray. Access an example of an e-tray exercise at the Civil Service Fast Stream Development Programme. Your task is to prioritise the actions within a time limit. You won't have time to read everything thoroughly so you need to make intelligent decisions on the basis of quickly scanned material. They are used to test your ability to digest information quickly, set priorities and come to logical decisions that you can justify.
Assessors will be looking for:
- clarity of thought and comprehension
- ability to make deductions and analyse
- ability to prioritise, plan and think through consequences to conclusion
- ability to structure and communicate intentions
- confidence in own judgement
- creativity and imagination in practical context
- mental agility
- reaction to pressure
- written and oral communication skills.
If included, this could be on a topic chosen by the recruiter or your own choice and you may be asked to bring this pre-prepared to the assessment centre. Or you may be asked to prepare a presentation during the assessment centre for which you are given a topic and background materials. Some group activities call for informal group presentations of the outcome.
Presentations are nervewracking if you are inexperienced. The most useful preparation is to attend a presentation course and get plenty of practice beforehand. See interviews with presentations for general advice. If asked to talk about your research, your presentation should be carefully designed to address the needs of the audience. Look at Presenting your research.
Although not common, these exercises can bring out behaviours, particularly leadership and sensitivity to others, which are difficult to assess by other means.. They will never endanger your safety and are managed by highly experienced staff.
‘You learn a lot about yourself and others when you're standing on an unsteady platform 30 feet above the ground and the only thing stopping you from falling is the rest of your team holding you up with ropes!'
Assessment centres usually include at least one interview, with one or more interviewers. Look at the advice given for interview preparation and panel interviews. At this stage, you will be expected to display a high level of enthusiasm for the job. The interview will be deeper and probably more challenging than a first interview and be structured around the job competencies. To prepare, revisit your CV, application form, your research into the job and organisation, and update on recent relevant news items.
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