The graduate's guide to assessment centres
Find out why graduate employers use assessment and selection days, what exercises to expect and how to show you're the right candidate for the job.
Assessment centres or assessment days are a regular feature of the recruitment process for graduate schemes. Employers bring together a group of candidates to complete a series of exercises, tests and interviews. All of these exercises are designed to evaluate a candidate's suitability for a graduate job 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. They also allow the same competencies to be assessed in different ways, enabling you more opportunity to demonstrate your potential. For this reason they are a much fairer and more effective way to select graduates than interviews alone.
Some employers moved to virtual or digital assessment centres during the pandemic. Recruiters may make some changes when taking into consideration the capabilities of the platform they use, but many of the exercises – along with the skills and competencies they look for – are the same or similar.
Typical graduate assessment centre exercises
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 at the start of the day or have the chance to find out more through informal discussions with assessors.
- Group ice-breaker exercise. You might be asked to introduce yourself or be asked to discuss an issue related to the industry.
- 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 is usually a case study discussion, based around an issue or project relevant to the business. Alternatively, it could be a group problem-solving exercise.
- Presentation . These are often given as part of a case study exercise when you’ll be asked to present your conclusions as part of a group. However, you might instead be asked to prepare an individual presentation in advance and give it on the day.
- Written task . You can sometimes be asked to write recommendations or conclusions to a case study exercise instead of giving a presentation. Alternatively, you might be set a writing task such as composing an email or business report.
- Interview. 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 but are most likely to be senior employees from the area of the business you are applying to, potentially including your future line manager.
- Social break. You should be well fed and watered; refreshments and, if you’re there long enough, lunch should be provided. You can use your 'breaktime' 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.
How long do assessment centres last?
The length of an assessment centre depends on the employer. Traditionally, they lasted an entire day but now it is more likely to be two or three hours (especially if it is held digitally).
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. 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 all the candidates in your group may be successful and the assessors will be taking note of how you interact with others. You need to find a way to work together with your ‘colleagues’ to achieve the goals and tasks set.
How to be your best self at assessment centres: tips for success
It’s a cliché, but the secret to success at an assessment centre is to be yourself, rather than to try to be someone you’re not. The worst-case scenario is that you end up in a job you’re not suited for, if you put on an act.
However, you do want to be your most positive, ‘office-ready’ self. Even if you’re feeling nervous, putting on a smile is likely to make a good impression. Don't stand back; get stuck into the day. Be enthusiastic, whatever the task. If you’re attending an in-person assessment centre, be prepared to initiate conversations with other candidates over lunch and coffee breaks. It's also fine to make small talk with assessors, but don't be overfamiliar.
Be flexible and responsive to others, too. If you tend not to speak up, make sure that you articulate your thoughts. If you know you can sometimes be overbearing, let others have their say too and be careful not to interrupt.
Don't overcompensate for your nerves by behaving aggressively. It's quite easy, having studied an organisation's selection criteria, to convince yourself that you need to come across much more assertively than normal, but while it's important to contribute, you don't want to come across as domineering.
Some standard, practical preparation before the day will be your biggest help and confidence booster: follow our advice on how to prepare for an assessment centre to put yourself in the best position. As much as possible, try to relax. You might even find it's possible to enjoy yourself (honestly!).