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How to ace assessment centre day

Erin Delaney

Careers Commentator
Assessment centres are commonly part of a graduate selection process. Find out what's involved, what happens and how you can perform at your best.

Being invited to participate in an assessment centre day is really all about asking you to show your skills off in a practical sense, kind of like a simulation of what it would be like to work at the organisation for a day. Employers bring together a group of applicants to complete a series of tests, exercises and interviews designed to examine the fit between candidate and company.

While it might seem daunting if you’ve never been to one, it’s actually a really effective and much fairer way for graduates to be assessed for a role because being able to show off skills and competencies in person is much easier than having to talk about yourself in an interview. The old saying “show, don’t tell” is what it’s all about.

What happens on the day?

While you quite likely have interviews with managers and recruiters scheduled, you could also expect to do a combination of group work exercises, presentations, aptitude and psychometric tests, in-tray/e-tray exercises or solving case studies. You might also get the opportunity to take an office tour and meet current employees, so you can find out more about life at the company.

How you’re being assessed

While it might seem like a fun-filled “Bring Your Grad to Work Day”, you’re being assessed from the moment you walk in the door. That’s not a reason to be nervous or wary, but it’s definitely something to keep in the back of your mind so you can be strategic as to how you approach it.

You’ll be assessed on key competencies, such as communication, teamwork and problem-solving. You’ll also be assessed on how well you work with other people, how you influence and persuade, and how others respond to you in turn. It gives recruiters and hiring managers a fairly accurate glimpse of how you might operate on the job.

While it might be tempting to pit yourself against everyone, it’s important to remember that you’re not being assessed comparatively to others — you’re being assessed on your fit for the role, so play nicely and share the toys in the sandpit. Maximum points will be awarded for being able to work together with others to achieve an objective, particularly in light of the employer’s criteria for the role.

Different types of group tasks

The ice-breaker

Designed to help people relax and get into the groove of working together, ice-breakers can be practical or intellectual. While it’s tempting to discuss and plan for a long time while everyone’s in ultra-polite mode, make sure to leave plenty of time to finish up with a solid result: whether it’s a tower constructed of straws and pins or an answer to that mind-melting brainteaser.

The discussion group

The group is asked to sit in a circle and discuss a set topic. The topics can vary but they’re usually centred around a current event or issue that affects young people and that’s been in the news recently, so make sure to brush up on the news before you go as you don’t usually have any time to prepare.

The leadership task

If the company is interested in seeing how your leadership skills stack up, they might ask you to complete a set task within a certain amount of time where you act as the leader over the rest of the group. Will the group achieve their objective under your command, and are you a tyrant or benevolent leader?

The leaderless task

In this exercise, there is no designated leader of the group, and the group has to come to a collective compromise. Each member of the group receives an individual briefing document, which may be different from someone else’s in the group. The challenge is to come up with a solution that’s acceptable to each member of the team in the set time.

The case study

The group might be given a challenge based on a real-world business issue and asked to solve it, with different members being given different pieces of information. The group must solve the case study co-operatively in the time allocated.

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How to knock it out of the park

Before the big day:

  • Read the information pack the employer sends you very carefully. As well as practical information about the date, location and start time, it should also tell you how the day will be structured and help you prepare.
  • Check whether or not you have to complete any tasks before the big day. You may need to work on parts of a case study or put together a presentation.
  • Brush up on your interview technique, including rehearsing your five essential stories. Interviews will be included in the format so be ready to shine for the bits where you go solo.
  • Practise. Assessment centres often subject candidates to psychometric tests, verbal reasoning tests and numerical tests. You would do well to practise each of these – there are many online resources that you can draw upon. Alternatively, you may contact a careers adviser for advice on how to prepare.
  • Know what is happening in the sector. Be sure to know the most relevant updates. Research whether or not the organisation in question has been in the news lately. You should also familiarise yourself with any broader industry trends and news stories and be sure to have an opinion. This may not be obviously relevant but it’s the kind of thing that a recruiter or fellow candidate might bring up in conversation.
  • Know the competitors. This will help you answer any questions about where you think the future of the organisation will be. Will they follow a competitor who is doing well or they are doing things differently?

On assessment centre day:

  • Be on time! It’s so important. Fail that and you’ve failed the first test.
  • When you walk in, smile and introduce yourself with as much confidence as you can muster. Fake it, even if you don’t feel it — you’re bound to feel more comfortable as the day goes on.
  • Relax! To succeed at assessments you need to be aware, flexible and responsive and that will only happen when you are relaxed.
  • Be careful not to dominate the airtime of others, it’s important to show you can work well with people. Remember, you’re proving your fit for the role, not your superiority over the other applicants. On the other hand, don’t be so shy and timid that the recruiters have nothing to assess — make sure they know you’re there!
  • When there’s a coffee break, have some insightful questions lined up to ask the recruiter and strike up a conversation. Some examples of questions you could ask include what they like about working for the company and how long they’ve worked there. Find out more about their background. Another great line of questioning is to find out what impresses them about the current intake of graduates — this will give you a wealth of insights to use over the rest of the day.