A picture of students writing.

Written exercises at assessment centres: showcase your professionalism

The written exercise is an increasingly common component of a graduate assessment day. Make the most of the chance to show off your professional communication skills.
If you haven’t worked in an office before, research the basic professional email etiquette.

It’s not uncommon for graduate recruiters to give you a written exercise to complete as part of an assessment day, particularly if the job involves report-writing or dealing with clients over email. Recruiters want to check that you can communicate logically, clearly and appropriately in a professional environment. As part of this, they are also checking your spelling and grammar – after all, they expect your job application to have been proofread by someone else before you submitted it.

The kinds of written tests graduates are given

Some written exercises are generic: you could be asked to write a list of instructions (for example, how to make a hot drink) or to write a letter/email (for example, complaining about poor customer service).

However, it’s more likely that you will be given a written exercise related to the employer’s industry sector and the tasks you would be doing on the job. These sorts of exercises are usually combined with another task on the day. For example, you might be asked to review a case study and:

  • either make written recommendations for the next course of action
  • or summarise the most relevant points for a senior colleague.

Your written communication skills may also be assessed via an in-tray/e-tray exercise or if you are asked to make a written record of your decision-making throughout the day.

How to succeed at assessment day written tests

Keep in mind that these exercises generally assess:

  • the clarity of your ideas and writing structure
  • your ability to identify the most important points in data/information
  • your ability to communicate processes/events simply
  • your ability to follow etiquette and communicate appropriately for your audience – whether a client, a manager or a fellow graduate
  • your spelling and grammar.

So, to a certain extent, you should treat a written exercise as a written exam:

  • Read through the instructions or brief and highlight what you need to do and the most essential points.
  • Write a quick plan to clarify your thoughts and to get your structure right.
  • Create the right tone. To be safe, keep it formal: resist any inclination towards text speech, informal greetings and a lower case ‘i’.
  • Get to the point. Tackle the most important and most complex issues first. Ensure that any conclusions you reach, recommendations you make or any actions you call for are expressed unambiguously. Try to avoid easily confusable words and syntax and say things as simply as possible (avoid jargon or so-called business speak).
  • Ensure you have sufficient time at the end remaining to reread the question to check that you’ve done everything requested and to review your work, watching out for spelling and grammatical errors.
  • You can also practise for written exercises.

It’s a good idea to brush up on your spelling and grammar before you go. The Oxford Dictionaries Online grammar and spelling sections are a good place to start. If you haven’t worked in an office before, research the basic professional email etiquette – for example, always include an explanatory subject in the subject field.

The employers who typically set written exercises

Law firms, consultancies and property firms are among those graduate employers most likely to assess you via a written exercise, but any employer that requires good written communication skills may test you in this way. Graduate employers who currently use, or have previously used, written exercises as a selection method include:

  • BNP Paribas Real Estate
  • British Sugar
  • Dentons
  • Freshfields Bruckhaus Deringer LLP
  • Herbert Smith Freehills LLP
  • Mercer
  • The NHS (in England)
  • RPC
  • Teach First.

But, whichever assessment centre you're going to, be prepared for a written exercise. Bear in mind that many employers do not share the nature of their assessment centre exercises with graduates in advance, as they like to see how you think on your feet and react to the unknown.

Asking for extra time

If you have been allowed extra time in your school and university examinations – for example, if you have dyslexia – and would find it beneficial on the day, tell recruiters about this in advance. Recruiters are keen to ensure a level playing field when assessing candidates.