Group exercises: what to expect

The group exercise is a key part of an assessment centre day and helps graduate recruiters assess how you'd perform in the job. Find out how to impress them.

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The assessment centre group exercise is used to see your communication and problem-solving skills in action, and to ensure that you can work effectively in a team. You need to support the group in completing the task that has been set, whether that involves discussing a particular issue, constructing something from bits of stationery, or analysing a complex business case study and presenting your findings. The best way to impress the assessors is to show yourself as a good team player – flexible, full of ideas but willing to listen to and help expand the ideas of others.

Those recruiters who were prompted by the pandemic to switch to running virtual or digital assessment centres have by and large continued with group exercises. However, a few have chosen not to. Instead, they have found other ways to assess the skills they would have through group exercises that better suit the platform they use – for instance, by adding questions to interviews. It's a good idea to be prepared to carry out a group exercise either way, whether as preparation to undertake one or so you know the kinds of skills the recruiter might assess elsewhere.

How to impress recruiters during a group exercise

  • You need to contribute, but not to dominate. Be assertive, but not aggressive. If you are aware that you are usually a shy person who does not speak up, do your best to participate. If you know that you can sometimes be overbearing in groups, hold that tendency in check.
  • Speak clearly and confidently. Listen and don't interrupt. If undertaking a virtual group exercise, you could suggest using the 'raise a hand' function or similar so you can all take it in turn to speak. Be aware of what others in the group are contributing. Try to draw out quieter members and seek their views.
  • Be diplomatic. If one person is behaving in a dominant way, don't shout them down, but try to make sure that everybody gets a chance to share their thoughts. You can say things such as: 'That's a really good point [name], but [name] hasn't had a chance to contribute yet' or 'You've made some good points, but we haven't yet considered X, Y and Z and I think we should before coming to a decision'. Be prepared to compromise.
  • Make use of the resources available to you. If you are in the room together, use the flipchart and pens provided; if you are communicating digitally, use the virtual whiteboard if there is one.
  • Volunteering to be notetaker or timekeeper can be a good way to impress, as it shows that you are a considerate team player who takes responsibility. The flip side of this, however, is that you need to perform those functions well and make sure that you also contribute to the overarching discussions.
  • Keep an eye on the time and stay focused on the overall objective. From time to time, summarise the group's progress, even if you aren't notetaker or timekeeper.
  • Remember that you are not being primarily assessed on whether you reach the 'right' answer (often there isn't one), but on how you work with others. Take a look at our in-depth features on demonstrating communication and teamworking skills for more insights.

Example group exercise 1: the case study

This is probably the most common group exercise you will face at an assessment centre. In this type of exercise the group is given a set period of time to work together to respond to a case study brief, often a set of documents based on a real-life business situation. At some assessment centres the candidates may have already been interviewed about the case study brief on an individual basis. The group may be invited to present its findings as part of the exercise.

The case study scenario is likely to present the sort of challenges that you would encounter on the job and gives the assessors a chance to see how you would perform. Sometimes each candidate is given a different briefing document or role to play, and the group has to reach a conclusion despite the conflicting views of its members.

Example group exercise 2: the discussion group

A discussion group involves group members being given a topic or topics to discuss. The nature of the topics can vary but usually they involve an issue of current importance to students or something that's been in the news recently. Sometimes they are related to the industry that the employer works in: candidates applying for construction graduate programmes may be asked how the industry could address skills shortages, for example.

You are not usually given time to prepare so it's a good idea to read a quality newspaper or current affairs magazines/websites (such as The Economist ) in the weeks before the assessment centre.

At the end of the discussion each candidate may be invited to comment briefly in turn on one of the group's conclusions, so it's vital to listen as well as to speak up.

Example group exercise 3: the leaderless task

This group exercise is similar to a case study exercise in that each group member will be given an individual briefing document. However, it is often different from other people’s in the group. Typically, the task will involve making a business decision and each member of the group will represent different business functions, such as marketing, sales or operations. As a group you must come up with a decision acceptable to all within the time limit. No one in the group is designated leader and so the group has to find a compromise solution.

Example group exercise 4: the leadership task

Occasionally, when the organisation is particularly interested in testing your leadership skills, you will be asked to chair a meeting or act as leader of your group. Once again there will be a set task but this time you will be expected to be in charge and to lead the others to success. This is what the assessors will be looking for:

  • A good leader delegates. The task cannot be done by you alone. You must divide up the work between the others.
  • A good leader uses the strengths of others. You must identify the strengths of the individuals in your group and use them in appropriate ways.
  • A good leader knows what's going on. Don’t get too involved in doing things. It's better to monitor what's going on and make changes if things don't work out.
  • Gain further insights on how to develop and demonstrate your leadership skills .

Example group exercise 5: the ‘build a…’ challenge

This is a classic way of seeing your teamworking skills in action, but for obvious reasons will only be undertaken at an in-person assessment centre. You might be asked to build a bridge or a tower from straw, paper and pins; you might be asked to put up a tent (tent poles and all); or you might be given another building task. Make sure the group doesn’t spend too much time discussing and designing and too little time building.

Example group exercise 6: the ice-breaker

Organisations use ice-breakers to help you relax and to help the group to gel. Sometimes ice-breakers can be a ‘build a…’ challenge, but sometimes they can be more discussion-led. You could be asked to introduce yourself to the group and share an interesting fact about yourself. Alternatively, you could be asked introduce yourself to your neighbour and ask them questions before summarising what you’ve heard to the rest of the group, for example: ‘This is James. He once ran a marathon for charity dressed as a Minion from the Despicable Me films’.

Another typical ice-breaker is to decide as a group what you’d save from a shipwreck to help you survive on a desert island.

Make sure that you throw yourself into the task, that you actively contribute, share information and listen to others. Although the ice-breaker’s primary purpose is to make you feel at ease, assessors will still be interested in how you express yourself and interact with others.

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