Engineering assessment centres: what to expect and tips for success
Most employers’ assessment centres are designed around their core competencies – the skills they most need in their graduate engineers. Jaguar Land Rover, for instance, will be looking for people who match its eight ‘high-performance behaviours’, which include efficient delivery, agility/flexibility and clear direction.
Technical ability is obviously important, but it’s soft skills that allow engineers to successfully apply their technical knowledge in a business context. There’s no point designing a brilliant new product or system if you can’t communicate the concept to colleagues, convince them of its potential value to the business or adapt your ideas in the light of practical or commercial considerations.
- Read our article on the key competencies graduate engineers must prove they possess, written with the help of a human resources specialist at National Grid, to find out which particular skills recruiters will be looking for at assessment centres.
What tasks will you be given at an engineering assessment centre?
Assessment centres generally last one or two days. Rather than being judged by your performance in one interview, you’ll be observed in various situations, providing a much more accurate picture. Common tasks include the following:
- Interviews: competency-based or technical, or both.
- Group activities: often involving discussing business issues with fellow candidates and recommending strategic or operational decisions.
- Presentations: some recruiters will give you the topic in advance so you have a chance to prepare (eg discussing a technical project you’ve previously been involved with). This is usually simply to test your presentation skills. Others will give you the topic on the day: this often relates to the employer’s business and may involve some fact finding or decision making before presenting your conclusions. Read our article on giving presentations at engineering assessment centres for more advice.
- Tests: some employers re-run the same tests used to select candidates at the application stage to check whether you actually did them or enlisted the help of a friend. Numerical tests are particularly common for engineering candidates (head to our article on numerical tests for more help on this), but you may also be given other psychometric tests (eg verbal reasoning, personality and situational judgement tests) or technical tests to check that you understand the basic engineering principles of the area in which the employer works. You might also be asked to extract relevant details from a large amount of information and/or present this information effectively.
Will there be any technical activities or a technical interview?
Your assessment day may well move on to technical matters. This can either be in the form of an interview with technical questions or group work designed to reflect the type of role you can expect in the organisation. For example, previous candidates at BP’s assessment centres have been given business scenarios including:
- a possible expansion into a new drilling location
- a proposed outsourcing of finance functions
- design considerations for a new subsea system
For further help, read our tips on technical interviews for graduate engineering jobs.
The social side of engineering assessment centres
As well as formal exercises, most assessment centres include opportunities to chat to recruiters or current employees. Rolls-Royce, for example, encourages you to network with its employees on the day. Remember, even your lunch break is an opportunity to make a good impression.
Some employers, such as Associated British Foods, host an evening meal before the assessment centre so you can meet the other candidates, the assessors and current graduate employees. This is a good opportunity to get a feel for the culture of the employer and to talk to its current employees. One of the best ways to get noticed is to do at least as much listening as you do talking. Ask employees about their work; this will demonstrate genuine interest and you may get some inside information. Don't neglect the other candidates, though – they could be your future colleagues after all! Just remember to behave professionally and be respectful of the other candidates – even the most ultra-competitive ones. Your assessors are gauging you by their standards, not those of your fellow candidates.
Similarly, some engineering recruiters invite you to tour their manufacturing plant during or before the assessment centre. They’ll still be assessing how you behave so treat this as professionally as you would the rest of the assessment centre. Your assessors may even ask the people you meet along the way for their opinion of you. Be courteous towards any staff you meet, listen to what’s being said, show enthusiasm and ask sensible questions; this is a great opportunity to learn more about the business. You might find it helpful to think of some questions you could ask about the industry, employer and individual in advance.
- Get more advice on handling the social side of assessment centres.
How to prepare for an engineering assessment centre
A little knowledge goes a long way. The more facts you have at your disposal to do with the organisation you’re applying to, the more likely you are to feel confident at the assessment centre. Good sources of information include:
- the employer’s website – everything on it, especially the annual report and news releases
- news websites and industry magazines
- the employer hubs on TARGETjobs
- students who have attended assessment centres with the organisation
- your university careers service. It may have details of engineering employers’ assessment centres based on feedback from others who have attended or it may hold talks or workshops to help you prepare
Take a look at our engineering research checklist for more help on what to find out about an employer and where you can find this information.
Top tips for performing well on the day
- Arrive on time – punctuality is a good trait in an employee!
- Smile, be enthusiastic and make an effort, whatever the task.
- Remember that you need to participate fully to succeed at an assessment centre. If the assessors don’t see or hear anything from you, they can’t assess you.
- It’s important to get your points heard – but without being overbearing or rude.
- Focus on yourself and don’t view it as a competition. Employers will be matching you against their selection criteria, not the other candidates. It’s possible that everybody at your assessment will be hired.
- Keep the employer’s selection criteria in mind, but don’t overthink it to the point where you aren’t being yourself.
Yan Zhou, a structural engineer and former Imperial College London student says:
‘Everyone feels nervous before the day, but I felt that the more I prepared, the less nervous I would be. I collected information about the company and tried to understand what kind of people the company was looking for. I also went to my careers service for advice and tips. On the day, assessors will do their best to put you at your ease – they want to see what you can accomplish, and no one performs well when they’re nervous. In my technical interview, the engineers gave me clues when I was facing difficulties, which made it less stressful.’