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Graduate assessment centre etiquette: handling the social side

The social aspects of assessment centres, such as lunch or coffee breaks, often cause anxiety. Here's how to chat to graduate recruiters while coping with canapés.

If preparation is the key to success at assessment centres for graduate jobs, what can you do to get ready for the parts of the day that call for improvisation – the social intervals, such as tea and coffee breaks and meals? Most undergraduates have little experience of socialising in a professional context, and often it’s these parts of the assessment centre process that cause most anxiety.

Introduce yourself with confidence

When starting a conversation with a recruiter, introduce yourself with your name and a little relevant background information, such as your degree subject, where you are studying and what year you are in. This is often enough to provide a starting point for a conversation. It's also useful to think in advance about questions you could ask. 

Questions to ask recruiters during social breaks

Broadly speaking, your questions should focus on the industry, the employer or the individual recruiter. Bear in mind that some employers send staff from a range of departments along to assessment centres, as well as human resources specialists. Remember, recruiters will want to put you at ease, and would much rather have a friendly (though polite and professional) conversation over lunch than none at all.

  • You could ask recruiters general questions about their careers and backgrounds with the company, for example, what they like about working for the company, how long they have worked there, and where they are based. You could also ask how much interaction they have with graduates on their team and what characteristics they are impressed by in the gradutes they work with.
  • You might have some questions about the employer. For example, if you have been given a presentation or were sent an information pack before the assessment centre, this might prompt some follow-up queries about the nature of the work.
  • You could ask questions about commercial awareness issues in the industry. For example, you might say: 'I've been really interested in X. What is your view on it?' You should also be able to offer up an opinion of your own.

Do chat to other candidates, the event organisers and graduate employees of the company. If you meet any of the company's current graduate intake, you should phrase your questions in a positive way, for example: 'What do you like best about working here?' You could also ask what projects the graduate is involved in, or about the graduate's experience of professional training. However, avoid questions such as 'Do you like it here?' or 'Do you have much responsibility?', which may come across as negative.

If you don't feel it, fake it

The quality that will carry you through an unfamiliar social situation is confidence – not arrogance, mind, but confidence. It’s almost inevitable that you’ll feel nervous, but faking confidence – smiling, being friendly and outgoing – will help you to feel it for real.

Think of other occasions when you’ve had to deal with meeting lots of new people – your first day at a part-time or vacation job or on work experience; starting university and meeting your fellow students; going to sixth form college; mingling with strangers at a wedding; taking part in a sporting event, play or other public event. You’ve coped with the unknown before. You can cope with it again.

How to cope with socialising while eating

Most people are happy to talk about themselves given half a chance, so show an interest and try to draw others out. A group discussion over lunch can make for more relaxed eating than a one-to-one – you can keep the conversation going between you and there are likely to be fewer pauses while you chew.

A seated lunch or buffet is relatively straightforward, but if you are standing and mingling while eating, you may find you need to put your glass down so you can concentrate on holding your plate and helping yourself to food. Finger foods are designed to be easy to eat in this situation, which should help. If in doubt, take your lead from others around you. You may even be able to find a spot to sit down and eat if you wish. Even if you are feeling nervous, do try to eat, so that you're not distracted by a growling stomach all afternoon.

If alcohol is available, don’t drink too much. You’ll do much better nervous and sober than well-oiled and fearless. If you are seated, remember to talk to the people on either side of you. If you’re at a session designed to encourage mingling and find yourself stuck and desperate to escape, make a polite excuse and move on. And if you see anything you don’t know how to eat – avoid it, and don’t let the canapés catch you out!

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