Virtual assessment centres: what to expect and how to succeed

We reveal everything you need to know about virtual assessment days and give you our top tips on performing at your best – with insights from Thames Water among other employers.

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During the coronavirus pandemic, some graduate employers moved to running virtual or digital assessment centres instead. We don’t yet know how permanent a change this will be; many employers and candidates liked the convenience of holding online assessments and may look to replicate it in future.

If you are invited to take part in a virtual assessment centre, what will actually happen? How can you succeed and, essentially, ‘pass’ that stage of the recruitment process? We have spoken to recruiters at a range of employers, including Thames Water, to find out.

Recruiters are making as many hires from virtual assessment centres as they would from face-to-face ones.

What is a virtual assessment centre?

Virtual assessment centres are a way for an employer to get a group of candidates together online to be assessed for its graduate or work experience programmes. It is often the final stage of the recruitment process. Activities could include:

Thames Water’s graduate assessment centre, for example, has previously included a group activity based on a business scenario, a presentation that you prepare in advance and an interview.

However, recruiters tell us that some employers have adapted their exercises to suit the functionality of the platform they use – so, for example, some have chosen not to run a group exercise but instead have included questions in their interviews that assess the skills that they would have gauged during an in-person group exercise.

How long does a virtual assessment centre last?

Typically, virtual assessment centres last between two and three hours (say between 9.00 am and 12.00 pm).

Recruiters build in time to check that the technology is working. They also leave time for comfort and refreshment breaks.

How does a digital assessment work in practice?

You usually log into a video or specifically designed assessment platform. For certain activities, you may go off into breakout rooms. on a traditional assessment day, there could be 15–20 candidates. At a virtual assessment centre, there are likely to be fewer; Thames Water has had up to 12 candidates per assessment day.

It is usual to be given detailed information before the assessment centre to help you prepare and to put you at ease. Thames Water’s briefing pack, for example, includes:

  • a timetable
  • information about what each exercise involves and the skills they are assessing
  • some tips on how to approach each exercise
  • guidance on dress codes and ‘what to wear’
  • joining instructions for the technical platform they are using
  • information on what to ‘bring with you’, eg notepad and pen
  • contact details for the recruitment team if you have any specific questions.

Can I still get a feel for the employer and whether it is right for me?

An advantage of an in-person assessment centre is that you visit the employer’s offices, talk to employees and get a sense of whether you can see yourself working there. This is harder to do on a virtual platform. Although some companies have put together videos of their teams and offices for candidates to watch beforehand, it is not quite the same.

Recruiters at Thames Water advise you to ask questions that will help you work out whether the employer will suit you – this could be during your interview or in an information session. It is best to phrase such questions in a positive light. For example, ‘Why should I work for you?’ may come across as a bit arrogant or confrontational, while ‘What do you like best about working here?’ will get you the information you seek in a more tactful way.

If you are made an offer by an employer, its recruiters will answer any questions you have if you are still making up your mind. They may also put you in touch with current employees for an informal chat.

Find out more about job offer etiquette and deciding whether an employer is for you .

What happens if the tech goes wrong?

If there are technical difficulties, the recruiters will do all they can to help – for example, when Thames Water have experienced glitches with the audio, the assessors have promptly called candidates so that they could see each other on screen but talk on the phone.

Do not get hung up on whether you should use a laptop, a mobile or tablet or whether using a certain type of device will disadvantage you – it won’t. If you have a choice of devices, choose the one that gives you the best audio and picture.

How can I be prepared for the technical elements of a virtual assessment centre?

  • If you compete for wifi signal in your household, give yourself the best chance of connecting by requesting/negotiating/demanding/pleading that your family or housemates stay off it – alternatively, you could ask them to go on a very long walk so that you have the place to yourself!
  • Make sure your device is fully charged before you begin and have your charger handy – video platforms can use a lot of battery.
  • Practise positioning yourself in front of your camera so that you are seen in the best light. If seeing your face in the corner of the screen makes you self-conscious, see if the video platform functionality allows you to 'hide' your picture. If not, consider putting a post-it or similar over your picture.
  • Do a sound check well in advance to check for any issues with audio – if it helps you to wear a visible-from-space headset, don’t feel self-conscious about doing so. It is important that you can hear and be heard.
  • Don’t worry if you have to sit on your bed – lots of candidates will be in the same boat. Just make sure that you are comfortable and sitting upright. If you are nervous about assessors and candidates seeing your Manchester United wallpaper from when you were 11, choose a more neutral background from the ones provided by the video platform.

What tips do you have for succeeding at virtual assessment centres and group exercises?

  • Practise activities – remotely, if you can’t do so in person. Many careers services are providing mock interviews and assessment centre workshops virtually. If you need to give a presentation, practise delivering it via video to your friends and get their feedback on how you come across.
  • Recruiters can only assess you on what they see and hear during the recruitment exercises, so make sure you actively contribute. Think about non-verbal cues, too; show you are listening and paying attention by nodding, smiling etc.
  • If you are more on the extroverted side, contribute to group activities but try to actively bring more people in. If you are more on the introverted side, make sure to speak up, even if it is to build on and take forward other people’s points. The good news is that recruiters tell us that the smaller groups mean that people get to have more of a say.
  • If In virtual group discussions, it can be difficult to work out when to speak or to avoid everyone speaking over each other. Use the ‘raise a hand’ or equivalent function to manage who speaks when.
  • Research the employer and think of questions to ask in the information and interview sections.
  • Take a look at our top nine tricky interview questions feature to practise your interview answers – but beforehand reflect on why you want to work for that employer in that role. Think of examples of when you have demonstrated the skills and the values the employer seeks.

Do I have as good a chance of getting hired via a virtual assessment centre as at an in-person one?

Yes – the recruiters we’ve spoken to are making as many hires from virtual assessment centres as they would from face-to-face ones.

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