An assessment centre is often the last stage in the recruitment process for many graduate roles. If it is part of the process, you will usually be invited to attend an assessment centre after the initial application stage. It may last from a few hours to several days and provides an opportunity for the employers to get to know more about you, to see how you perform at certain tasks and judge your interaction with others. Employers are checking to make sure you have the right competencies and are a good fit for the role.
An assessment centre may involve:
- A range of assessment techniques (such as interviews, psychometric testing, individual and group exercises) allowing the assessors to see you handling different situations.
- Assessment on a number of competencies or skills such as leadership ability, team working, interpersonal skills, communication and problem-solving.
- Several candidates being observed together by the assessors.
- Watch this quick Build My Career video 'What is an assessment centre?' for more: Build my Career video student link / Build my career video graduate link
- Due to COVID-19 safety measures, some or all of the below activities may take place online. While the advice is largely the same for online assessments, please book a career appointment with us if you have any questions about how this might affect you.
What to expect- FAQs
How long is the assessment centre?
- You will be told in advance the timings of the event so that you can make travel plans.
- Assessment centres are focused events lasting from a short session (of up to four hours) to two full days.
How many candidates will be invited?
- Up to 30 other candidates could be in attendance, but you may be divided up into small groups for particular exercises.
- Some employers invite much smaller numbers.
What do I wear, and is there anything I should bring with me?
- Dress as you would if you were attending an interview.
- You will be told if you need to bring anything extra e.g. clothing for outdoor exercises.
- You may receive a checklist from the employer stating what to bring to the assessment centre. Make sure you bring everything listed, including any official documents requested, otherwise you may not be able to take part. You should also bring a notebook and pen, and a watch to time yourself during tests and activities
How do I behave?
- You will be under scrutiny as part of the selection procedure at all times, so act naturally but be aware of the need for good manners, polite behaviour and to act in a pleasant and friendly way towards other candidates and company personnel.
- Try to relax and be yourself, but ensure that you demonstrate good manners, polite behaviour and act in a pleasant and friendly way towards candidates and company personnel. Assessors often ask for the opinions of the staff who have met you.
- Do not treat others as if they are in competition with you, as you will also be assessed on your ability to get on with your potential colleagues.
You will be expected to socialise well with other candidates as well as with management, and you are likely to be observed at break times and at social events. If alcohol is available, don’t feel obliged to drink and don’t overdo it; it will be noted, and you may regret it.
Do they pay travelling expenses?
- Most do. If so, you will be informed in the invitation letter.
- If expenses are not mentioned, it is acceptable to make enquiries.
- Make sure you keep receipts.
- Some organisations impose a spending limit i.e. second-class rail or the cost of petrol plus hotel accommodation of up to £80.
- If expenses aren't covered you will need to decide if you want/can afford to go ahead.
What if I have a disability?
- Make the employer aware of any needs you have so that appropriate adjustments can be made.
- These could include extra time given to candidates with dyslexia to complete activities, adjustments to the physical environment, specialist equipment, materials in alternative formats, etc.
- Contact the recruiter as soon as possible to discuss your individual requirements.
Below are some of the more common tasks you may face as part of your assessment centre. You may not have to do all these activities and you may encounter tasks and activities not listed here.
Presentation by the employer
Often, an assessment centre will start with a presentation by the employer describing the organisation, their graduate scheme and career progression opportunities. Generally, you are not assessed during this activity but pay close attention to what is said as it may be useful to you at a later stage (perhaps during one of the activities). Look interested and ask questions.
Initial exercises to get everyone working together; a willingness to contribute and get involved in the activity is important. These might involve:
- A formal and generic short presentation lasting where you stand up one at a time to introduce yourself to the group. Alternatively, you may be asked to find out as much as possible about the candidate next to you and then introduce them to the group.
- A less conventional approach, such as doing a group task together, drawing a picture or playing a game which encourages communication and builds initial rapport.
The group is given a problem to discuss with a specific objective. It usually isn’t straightforward, and every approach may have disadvantages as well as advantages. The problem may be a physical puzzle to solve, such as building a bridge, or a theoretical one, such as a scenario-based emergency situation where you are presented with facts of the case and must logically work out the best option. The aim is to agree a plan of action by the end of the exercise, so negotiation and compromise are important. You may have to present your findings in an individual or group presentation at the end of the session.
Make sure you understand the task and approach it in a logical way. Decide and agree on the goals and priorities. Consider allocating tasks to different team members to use time effectively – perhaps do this in a manner which utilises each individual’s skills, as you should have got to know one another through the initial introduction.
Listen to others, contribute and don’t dominate discussions.
Committee exercise / debates
Group members are designated roles and are tasked to come up with a consensus plan that the committee agrees on and puts forward. The topic might be very vague, so the discussion has to be kept focused if the committee is to achieve something.
Within a debate, a topic question may be given and the members are free to discuss the pros and cons of different angles concerning it. Make sure you contribute, but listen to others as well and try to involve everyone in the debate. It will be noted if you don’t contribute to the discussion, but likewise it will be noticed if you dominate the discussion and don’t listen to others. Be assertive but not aggressive, and put your points across firmly and fairly, responding to others politely whether you agree or disagree with their points. Remember, the selectors are not expecting you to be an expert on the subject under discussion or the task to completed, but they do want to see evidence that you can make an effective contribution to a group.
This could be a group or individual exercise in which you are given official reports, tables of figures, newspaper cuttings, memos, etc. and a problem to solve.
Alternatively, the group may be given a business case study, which has to be analysed and understood before making suggestions for subsequent action. You may be asked to make a presentation about the key issues and suggested strategy, demonstrating that you or the group can respond well to assessors posing questions.
There is often not one specific ‘correct’ answer in this exercise. Recruiters are assessing your ability to analyse problems, prioritise tasks and put forward effective arguments with clarity and tact.
In-tray / e-tray exercise
Designed to simulate the administrative features of a job. For example, you may be given a pile of papers representing a post tray containing emails, memos, letters, telephone messages and reports. Alternatively, it could be entirely PC-based (known as an e-tray exercise), where you may be asked to organise and reply to emails in Outlook, amend an Excel spreadsheet, or summarise an article in Word (or a combination of all the above and more). Your task may be to sort the documents according to importance and evaluate how quickly to act, to draft mock replies to the material, or to prioritise your workload as if this was your desk in the morning.
General advice for this is don’t just work from the top down, and if you are provided with instructions, ensure you read them as thoroughly and accurately as possible within the given time, as it may be testing your attention to detail. Sometimes, the exercise may be complicated by a messenger, calling at your ‘office’ every few minutes or so, delivering more material.
Report writing / essay
You may be asked to analyse information independently and then present your summary and findings in a written report, essay or letter.
The essence here is to think clearly. You will be assessed on how you use your skills to present focused information that others will understand, the reasoning for your decisions and to test you on your written skills (spelling, grammar, etc.). For example, you could be asked to write a letter to a customer based on the information presented, explaining clearly and tactfully why you will not extend their contract to supply a product or service.
Here you are asked to talk about a subject, either on your own or in a group, for a specified period of time. It could be about a case study (see left), a topic given in advance of the assessment centre, or a subject given on the day where you have a short time to prepare. You may also be given a free choice of what to present about, so it is worth planning something in advance to make sure you perform well.
- Use the resources available (such as PowerPoint or a flipchart) along with any other visual aids that might help you.
- Think about your audience – don’t use technical jargon if they are not familiar with the terminology.
- Technical information is difficult to present, so choose a topic of wide interest. Make sure your presentation has a clear structure and be careful about telling jokes – not everyone may appreciate your sense of humour.
- Speak clearly and stick to the time limit.
- Be prepared to answer questions posed by the assessors at the end of your presentation – use this as a chance to clarify aspects of your presentation in more detail.
IT and computer-based tests
You may be tested on the programmes you would use in the role or on general Microsoft Office skills. If you think this may come up, the best practise is to refresh your Microsoft Excel, Word and PowerPoint skills beforehand to make sure you are composed and confident on the day.
Usually all Assessment Centres include an interview with one assessor or a panel.
- The competencies the recruiters have identified as being important for the job will usually provide a framework for the interview.
- Be prepared to have your answers challenged as the interviewer(s) probe you further, test your ability to think on your feet and put across your ideas effectively.
- See the interviews section for more information.
Competencies being assessed
During the activities at the assessment centre, there will be a number of recruiters present making notes about you and the other candidates. They will be looking for various competencies necessary for the role, and the below table describes some of these competencies, and at what what stage they are likely to be assessed.
Adaptability, creativity, initiative, flexibility, listening
Working in group exercises where creative solutions to a problem are required, in tray / e-tray exercises where new tasks may be added during the exercise.
Leadership, assertiveness, confidence, negotiation
Group exercises, discussions and case studies where groups need to agree on a course of action.
Written communication, basic computer competency, IT skills, information handling, numeracy
All written and practical tests
Business and commercial awareness
Report writing and essays, presentations, case studies and discussions.
Problem solving, analytical thinking, clarity of thinking, judgement, logical thinking, reasoning
Many of the activities will require you to demonstrate solid problem solving skills.
Planning and organising, strategy, action planning, prioritising
In-tray and e-tray exercises, debates and case studies.
Teamwork, co-operation, interpersonal relationships
All group exercises, plus your general behaviour throughout the assessment centre.
Time management, working under pressure
Many of the tasks will be challenging and strictly timed.
Verbal communication, presentation skills
Presentations, group discussions and interviews.
Please note this list is not definitive as each assessment will be designed to test your suitability for a specific role, so read the job description carefully for the kinds of competencies you will be required to demonstrate.
For more on competencies, see our developing your skills pages.
- You are likely to do better at some activities than others but don’t worry too much - a strong performance in one area can balance out a weaker performance in another. Although there may be a minimum score set for each of the competencies the employer is looking for, you don’t have to do brilliantly in everything to be selected.
- Always pay careful attention to any instructions - if in doubt, ask for clarification.
- Give everything your best shot – get fully involved in group activities, be assertive and persuasive but diplomatic too. In group activities, show that you are listening to others by smiling, nodding and maintaining eye contact.
- Remember that assessors are looking at how you behave, so even if you don't complete a task, you could still be judged favourably if you were positive and showed good team working skills (see competencies being assessed, above, for more details).
- Acknowledge and build on good points made by other group members as well as putting forward your own case.
- Friendly conversation with other candidates will help you to relax – all (or none) of you may be successful at this particular assessment centre.
- See this Build My Career video featuring advice from employers on evaluation at assessment centres: advice from employers student link / advice from employers graduate link
After the assessment centre
- Remember, your assessment centre finishes only when you leave the organisation, so be professional at all times. Finally, reflect on how it went. Highlight what went well and what could have been improved on, and then think what action you can take to improve in future.
- If your assessment centre has gone well and you are very keen on the organisation, you may want to send an email telling the recruiter how much you enjoyed the experience (and remember to use a formal and professional writing style, i.e. full sentences, and don't use abbreviations, slang or text speak).
Next steps and further information
- Build My Career: There is detailed information on a range of companies and their interview processes, along with assessment centre tips and practical advice. These can be accessed via the Build My Career student log-in and Build My Career graduate log-in.
- Advice: If you'd like more information on preparing for assessment centres and the tasks you might face, feel free to book a careers appointment with a career consultant - see the careers centre availability and reserve online now.
- Workshops: We run mock assessment centres as part of our careers workshop programme. Check the careers workshop schedule.