Assessment centres: what are they all about?

Last updated: 22 Jun 2023, 13:23

The very mention of the words ‘assessment centre’ can conjure up images in people’s minds of graduates battling against each other with the sole survivor rewarded with a contract. This perception is far removed from the ordered, participative nature of assessment centres.

Woman giving a presentation to a team

Essentially, you’re put into a room with a group of other people, given tasks to do and observed to see whether you go through to the next stage. But remember, there will be more than one winner at an assessment centre.

In actuality, assessment centres are not really competitions. Or if they are, what you are competing against is the criteria set by the company that is hiring. But competing against the other graduates? Not so much. “You are not there to undermine or get one over on the other applicants,” an undergraduate recruiter for Jaguar Land Rover, said recently. “If everyone is great, they will all be offered positions. Similarly, if nobody meets our criteria, nobody will be offered a position.”

Companies that hire through these centres (usually large companies) often do so because it is one of the most efficient ways to recruit a large number of people in a short period of time. And some of them will run as many assessment centres as they need until they find enough people who meet their criteria. As the competencies of any group can vary wildly, it makes sense not to have a set number of people rewarded with positions at each centre.

As two of the competencies they most want to gather from you are how well you can work with others and how capable you are at building effective relationships, being overly competitive or antagonistic towards the rest of your group would probably not be a good idea.


  • The best way to approach these centres is to practise presenting in front of people beforehand and to do some relaxation exercises. Once you get to the centre, you should act naturally and listen carefully.

  • The worst way to approach an assessment centre is to treat it like a competition and hype yourself up too much beforehand. Such an approach may not only lead to you making mistakes but could lead the other graduates to resent working with you.

Group exercises:

These are designed to assess how you communicate and your ability to accommodate the needs, views and skills of others in order to achieve a goal. Listen carefully to the instructions and focus on helping the group to complete the task.

Case study:

The group is asked to deal with a scenario based on a real-life business situation, and to present its

Findings. Show recruiters you can work together. They won’t be looking for the ‘right’ conclusion but the steps you took to reach it.

Discussion group:

The group is given a topic, often a recent news story, to discuss. Listen to other group members as well as speaking up. Prepare by reading a quality newspaper in the weeks before the assessment centre.

Leaderless task:

Each member of the group is given an individual briefing document. As a group you must come up with a decision acceptable to everyone within a time limit. No-one in the group is the designated leader so you’ll need to work together to find a solution. Recruiters will be interested in whether you’re comfortable working with differing views and able to broker a compromise.

Individual exercises:

These are designed to mirror tasks you would be doing on the job.

In-tray exercise:

They are looking for: decision making, time management, how you work under pressure. You will be presented with a series of letters or emails varying in degrees of importance and given about 30 to 60 minutes to tackle it. Quickly read through everything. Identify requests needing immediate action; those you can delegate; and those you can delay. Be prepared to justify your priorities and actions to the assessors. Pace yourself; work quickly and accurately.

Case study:

They are looking for: analysis, problem solving, business acumen. This may be either a group or an individual exercise. You will be given a business scenario and asked to imagine you are giving advice to a client or colleague on the basis of the evidence. You may have to make a presentation explaining your findings.

You can practise for these by carrying out some basic research. Find out the kind of real-life business decisions that the company has to make. Read the business pages of newspapers to get a feel for current issues. See if your careers service runs workshops on preparing for case study exercises.


They are looking for: communication skills, confidence, thinking quickly on your feet. You will be asked to prepare this in advance: you will be told the subject and length of the presentation and the visual aids available (eg flipcharts, presentation software or a laptop).

Plan the content: if you have a free choice, choose a subject you know or understand well. Break your presentation into three memorable points and give it a good structure – starting with an introduction and ending with a summary and an invitation for questions. Visual aids must be visual: don’t include too much text.

Think about your delivery: less experienced presenters tend to speed up as they talk, so be aware of this and pause if necessary to get back on track. Vary the tone of your voice; minimise your movements; engage with everyone present by looking at each person from time to time.

Get plenty of practice: practise out loud, so that you are comfortable speaking from memory with brief prompts on screen or on index cards. Get used to the timing and speaking at a measured pace. A final dress rehearsal the day before will help your confidence.

Read our assessment centre insider tips .

gradireland editorial advice

This describes editorially independent and impartial content, which has been written and edited by the gradireland content team. Any external contributors featuring in the article are in line with our non-advertorial policy, by which we mean that we do not promote one organisation over another.

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