The graduate's guide to assessment centres
Assessment centres or assessment days are a regular feature of the recruitment process for graduate schemes. Employers bring together a group of candidates who complete a series of exercises, tests and interviews that are designed to evaluate their suitability for graduate jobs within the organisation. This format makes it much easier for you to showcase a broader range of skills and competencies than if you were just given an interview. For this reason they are a much fairer and more effective way to select graduates than interviews alone.
Typical graduate assessment centre activities
Graduate employers design their own assessment centres to test for skills and aptitudes that are right for their own organisations, but they typically contain similar elements and exercises. You can expect a combination of the following:
- Information session. You may be given a presentation about the business, or have the chance to find out more through informal discussion.
- Group ice-breaker exercise.
- Aptitude and psychometric tests. You may already have taken these online, but could be asked to repeat them to confirm your results.
- In-tray or e-tray exercise. This tests your ability to absorb information, prioritise, make decisions and communicate.
- Group exercise. This could be a case study discussion, probably involving an issue or project relevant to the business. Alternatively, it could be a group problem-solving exercise. For example, you might be put into teams and asked to construct something.
- Individual or group presentations.
- Interviews. You could have one or more of these, and they could be either one-to-one or panel interviews. Your interviewers could be recruiters from the HR department or senior employees from the area of the business you are applying to, potentially including your future line manager.
- Social breaks. Although mealtimes are usually not formally assessed, they are an opportunity to demonstrate your interpersonal skills and find out a little more about your prospective colleagues, the business and your fellow candidates.
A new development at assessment centres is the virtual reality exercise. This is similar in some ways to a situational judgement test, and involves wearing a virtual reality headset to experience an immersive environment in which you will be challenged to respond to different situations or complete tasks. However, this technology is not yet in widespread use.
What recruiters and assessors look for
Recruiters assess candidates for a number of things including how you demonstrate core graduate skills and competencies such as communication, teamwork and problem solving. The group setting also makes it much easier for them to assess how well you work with others, how you influence and persuade, and how others respond to you. The assessors will want to see how you react to different situations, much as you would have to in the job itself.
Assessment centres aren't about survival of the fittest. Always remember that you are being assessed against the employer’s criteria and not against the other candidates. Don't think of it as a competition, as it is possible that you might all be successful. You need to find a way to work together with your ‘colleagues’ to achieve the goals and tasks set.
How you can succeed at graduate assessment centres
Turn up with an open mind and be ready to get involved, but remember that some standard, practical preparation before the day will be your biggest help and confidence booster.
Use your careers service. Most careers services run practice sessions for assessment centres. At the very least you may be able to practise psychometric tests or book sessions to prepare for the individual assessment centre activities, such as group exercises.
Practise psychometric tests online.
Read carefully all the literature the employer sends you. As well as practical information about the date, location and start time it should also tell you how the day will be structured.
Check whether or not you will have to complete any tasks before the day. You may need to work on parts of a case study or put together a presentation. Plan time for this and don’t leave it until the last minute.
Revise your employer research. Revisit the research you did for your application and go back to the employer’s website to check whether they provide any tips for assessment centre candidates. It's also a good idea to check the employer's social media profiles and look at key documents such as the business plan – even if you only have time to review the executive summary. If you are unsure of what is expected of you, contact the recruiter as soon as possible.
Brush up on your interview technique. Interviews will be included in the format so be ready to shine for the bits where you go solo. Our guidance on how to answer tricky interview questions will help you prepare.
Be self aware. To succeed at assessments you need to be aware, flexible and responsive. Don't attempt to force your personality on the situation. Be your best possible self, but remember that ultra-competitive behaviour can easily come across as arrogance. And if you are too shy to speak your qualities won’t be assessed.
Don’t be late on the day Punctuality is the first part of the test!