Assessment centres: putting would-be accountants to the graduate test
Most accountancy and professional services firms use assessment centres to select the best graduates. Here's what happens and how you can tick the big box called 'impressing recruiters'.
Organisations use assessment centres because they are seen as an effective selection tool. An assessment centre (typically lasting a day) brings together a group of candidates who undertake a series of exercises and assessments, which typically include some or all of the following: group exercises, a presentation, a series of aptitude tests or a case study linked to the job function that you have applied for, and an interview. Most employers ran virtual assessment centres during the Covid pandemic; some continue to run these 100% virtually while others have retained some virtual elements of the process but include face-to-face elements too.
All the tasks at assessment centres, whether virtual or in person, give you the opportunity to demonstrate that you possess the personal and technical skills for the job. Assessment centres also give you a good chance to meet current employees, giving you a feel for the culture of an employer. Emma, a junior tax associate at BDO, says of her assessment day experience, 'I particularly liked being able to meet people who worked at the firm, both during the interviews and meeting the graduates at lunch. I enjoyed hearing their views on their work and the firm.'
Every organisation will design its own assessment centre. If you identified its selection criteria for your first interview, keep them in mind throughout your time at the centre: every test, exercise and interview will match you against these criteria. You can find lots of opportunities to practise different elements of the day at AssessmentDay. Here are some elements that could be included:
Group exercises include discussion groups, exercises that involve role-playing a specific brief, leadership tasks and, most commonly, job-related scenarios that test your ability to operate in a task that approximates the area you have applied for. By your actions and words you must help the group to complete the task and promote your own cause. Remember:
- If you say nothing you’ll get no credit.
- Try to demonstrate that you’re listening by building on others’ ideas – ‘I like what Jo said but...’ Make sure you don’t just criticise – you should be demonstrating how you work in a team.
- If everyone is trying to be in charge in a group exercise, try to be the timekeeper instead – you’ll get credit for keeping everyone on track.
- Be positive and friendly. Don’t show fear but don’t be arrogant either.
- Support others – they’re nervous too.
A graduate at RSM comments on the necessity of striking the right balance between being assertive and collaborative: 'Confidence is key. Control the room in the group exercises, but not by being dominant. Ensure that everyone gets their chance to speak and add your own analysis of each of their ideas. Essentially, chair the group.'
At some assessment centres you will be asked to give a presentation, usually to a mixed group of candidates and assessors. Here are a few ground rules:
- A structure is helpful to prevent your mind from going blank and will help the audience keep track too. Use whatever form of notes you feel comfortable with, but never speak from a script.
- Don’t attempt to fit in too much information or your audience will switch off. Five minutes is only enough time to present four big ideas or messages.
- Much of the message of your talk will be transmitted non-verbally, so your body language can make a huge difference to your presentation.
- You may be invited to use a flipchart, an overhead projector (OHP) or PowerPoint slides – use these to your advantage to support and back up your presentation.
Psychometric and personality tests
These are often used as part of the assessment process (although not necessarily at an assessment centre). General ability tests assess general intelligence. Expect to be asked to use complex information, in the form of words, numbers and diagrams, to solve problems using logical or lateral thinking. Tests designed to examine specific abilities are also common. These are most likely to be numerical or verbal reasoning tests, which will be specific to the job you have applied for.
Aptitude tests assess your ability to learn something new. Employees are increasingly expected to be flexible and adaptable in the workplace, so those who can develop new skills quickly and competently are in high demand.
Finally, don’t forget that during the recruitment process, employers only have a short space of time in which to get to know you. Personality tests help to give them a better picture of the kind of person you are. They are not in-depth analyses of your innermost thoughts and there are no right or wrong answers. Instead, they are a set of questions selected to elicit information about how a person is likely to behave in certain circumstances, for example when there is pressure or stress to deal with. To be successful honesty is the best policy. AssessmentDay offers some good advice on preparing for psychometric tests.
Top tips from accountancy recruiters: how to survive an assessment centre
- Plan your journey in advance (and have a back-up plan) and get a suitable outfit together. Once you’re there be polite to everyone you meet.
- Do your research beforehand so you aren’t taken by surprise on the day. Talk to careers advisers, friends who have applied to the same organisation and members of staff, and go to assessment centre skills sessions put on by recruiters at universities.
- Once you know what to expect, sit down with a piece of paper and think through what skills recruiters are looking for and how you can demonstrate them. If you’re lacking in particular skills, consider how you can build them up.
- If you’ve had a first interview, take some time to reflect on what you were asked and think about how you will supplement the answers you gave.
- Always read your instructions/briefs thoroughly before starting each exercise.
- Show you have researched the company where possible.
- Don’t worry if you think you have performed badly in an exercise – put it behind you and focus on the next exercise.
- Relax during breaks.
- Be open and honest.