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Assessment centres

How to prepare for a graduate assessment centre; examples of assessment centre exercises, tests and case studies.

Second interviews and assessment centres allow recruiters and job applicants a more in-depth look at whether they suit each other. Assessment centres involve assembling in one place several candidates who are applying for the same position and putting them through a variety of different tests.

How employers use assessment centres

Assessment centres make it easier for candidates to showcase a range of skills and competences than they would be able to demonstrate in an interview alone. Exercises and tasks are designed to mirror those needed in the job, so they are measuring you directly against the skills you would need to do the job well. This is why some employers feel they are a fairer way to select graduates than traditional interviews.

You are not in direct competition with the other candidates – you are all being assessed against the employer’s criteria, not against each other. In fact, it’s important to show that you can work in a team and co-operate with others.

Some assessment centres will include meals and refreshments and while this acts as a pleasant social introduction to the firm, be aware that the recruiters will notice candidates' behaviour and form preliminary impressions of people.

What to expect from assessment centres

Assessment centres can last from half a day to three days. A typical one-day assessment centre would start with a welcome to the company followed by introductions and an ice-breaker. This might be followed by individual and group exercises. During lunch you might be able to mingle with current graduate employees, with interviews taking place in the afternoon.

The programme of events can incorporate some or all of the following:

  • Group exercises
  • Individual exercises
  • Panel interviews
  • Social events
  • Written exercises or case studies
  • Aptitude tests, psychometric tests or personality tests.

Assessment centre group exercises

A group of six to eight people may be given a task to do under observation by the selectors. Group exercises 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.

Your aim should be to make a constructive contribution. How you work together to solve the problem is usually more important than the solution.

Case study

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

Tip: 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.

Tip: 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.

Tip: 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.

Assessment centre individual exercises

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

In-tray exercise:

You are presented with a series of letters or emails varying in degrees of importance and given about 30–60 minutes to tackle it.

They are looking for: decision making, time management, how you work under pressure.

Tips: 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:

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

Tip: Practise by carrying out some basic research. Find out the kind of real-life business decisions 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.

Presentation:

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).

They are looking for: communication ability, confidence, thinking quickly on your feet.

Tips:

  • 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 your 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.

Assessment centre tips

  • Get as much information as you can about the tests beforehand.
  • Listen carefully; pace yourself; work quickly and accurately.
  • Be yourself – don’t act a part. If you’ve had to change your behaviour or personality radically to fit in then it could be a sign that this employer is not for you.
  • Participate in a practice round: gradireland’s National Student Challenge offers students the opportunity to gain real-life experience of assessment centres, with the top 60 entrees qualifying to a final day of tests and challenges set up by some of Ireland's leading graduate employers. To find out more, please visit National Student Challenge.