TestingTimes – How to handle an assessment centre
Assessment centres are considered by many employers to be one of the most effective selection methods around. Unfortunately, the idea of being scrutinised by recruiters tends to induce panic in graduates. But assessment centres can be a rewarding experience. Your best bet is to prepare well and give it your all on the day. "Remember, if you’ve got this far you’ve done exceptionally well," says Noreen Cobbe at business services firm, BDO Stoy Hayward.
Research…Think about why you want the position and the skills required for the role, because many of the tests will simulate aspects of the job. Read trade magazines and re-acquaint yourself with the graduate brochure. Contact the organisation for information about their assessment process and ask them to send you any briefing materials.
Practice… Make full use of any careers service practice sessions or employer events on campus. These are confidence builders and give you a feel about the challenges you will face. Prepare a few good questions for Q&A sessions, or (supposedly) informal social events.
Presentations… How do you assimilate information and cope under pressure? Here, you will prepare a topic in advance, speaking to the selectors and other candidates for between 10 and 15 minutes. Think clarity and structure (introduction of the issue, the main bulk, a closing summary, or proposals for resolution of a problem). Make concise notes but don’t read from a script or lose eye contact with your audience. Remember to stick to the time limit and watch out for ‘ums’, ‘ahs’ and dodgy body language.
These demand numerical efficiency (interpreting data from statistical tables), verbal comprehension (evaluating the logic of given statements) and diagrammatic reasoning (finding connections or associations between diagrams or symbols). "If ability tests are going to be part of the assessment centre then practice," says Noreen. "You’ll find advice on employer websites or online."
In-trays… Your task will be to file paperwork, mail or memos in order of importance, drafting replies and delegating tasks. "It’s a good way to see who can get a grip under time pressure," says one recruiter. The most important factor is time management – read through all the documents quickly at first, then prioritise the most important information.
Group exercises… These can involve anything from working on a case study together, such as the release of a new product, to problem solving exercises or leaderless discussions. You may be assigned a fictitious team member role and asked to attend a meeting with your fellow candidates. Remember that you are trying to show your ability to work with others as much as your ability to shine. "But do remember to speak up!" says Noreen. "You don’t have to dominate the group but if you don’t participate then we can’t assess you."
Afterwards… The social event
There will be many opportunities to socialise at an assessment centre, especially over meal times. You might be told you aren’t being assessed. You are. Employers will still be watching to see how you mix and interact with others. At evening meals you will often meet recent graduate employees, to allow you to ask more questions about working with the company. Be sure to watch your alcohol intake and make a good impression as these recent grads will often be asked for their opinion of you prior to any job offer. "You are not being assessed but impressions do often filter back through," says Noreen. "Remember you are still within the four walls of the business."
Get with the Group
Group exercises are one of the most closely observed parts of the assessment centre. Peter Levin suggests how to ensure success.
"First, be aware what employers say they are looking for: good team players, good communicators, people who can ‘hit the ground running’, and so on. Second, be aware of what they are actually looking for: people who will ‘fit in’ to their organisation, feel at home with the people working for them, and generally be happy cooperating with others.
"This last point is vital. The culture of the workplace – or at least the culture that many employers would like to have in their workplace – is one of cooperation. And, this culture is a world away from the ‘individual achievement’ culture of higher education. There are other differences too. Out in the real world, the focus is on tangible products, not examination answers. People are concerned with issues, not abstractions. Interaction takes place in meetings, not lecture theatres.
"The effect of all this is that when you go into a group exercise you are in for a culture shock, particularly if you haven’t worked in a group before. Of course, there’s no way that anyone who’s in the throes of a culture shock can perform at their best, especially if they don’t know what the assessors are looking for.
"What can you do to prepare? If you’ve been involved in group projects as part of your academic work, you have a head start, but you must be able to stand back from the experience. So look back and ask yourself: What went well?
"Be aware of the different roles that people perform in groups: The Organiser (keeps meetings focused and in order, determined to get through the agenda); The Facilitator (ensures that the quieter members of the group are heard and everyone’s contribution is acknowledged); The Recorder (keeps a note of key decisions and ensures that everyone is aware of them); The Timekeeper; The Coordinator (sees the ‘big picture’ – the strategic overview – and has an eye for gaps and overlaps; The Lookout (visualises future scenarios, is alert to issues that may be looming over the horizon); The Encourager (brings good humour to proceedings, defuses tensions and revives morale).
"It’s performance in these roles, as well as the contribution of ideas and suggestions, that assessors watch for. Look out for such roles yourself, and develop the knack of taking up any role that’s going begging. The assessors will be impressed, and you’ll enjoy yourself. What better outcome could there be?"
Peter Levin is Educational Developer (Student Support) in the Teaching and Learning Centre at LSE. He is also the author of Successful Teamwork! (Open University 2004)E