Assessment centre tips for graduates
If you’re applying for graduate jobs, you'll probably come across assessment centres at some point. Here's what to expect and how to pass an assessment day.
Usually held after the first round of interviews, assessment centres (also known as 'assessment days') often take place over the course of a couple of days, and involve coming together with the other candidates and taking part in a range of activities.
They're arguably even more stressful than a standard job interview, so preparation is absolutely essential.
To help you perform at your best, we've put together this guide, covering everything from what you can expect to be doing, to how to really impress your potential employer at an assessment centre.
What’s in this guide?
What to expect at an assessment day
Every assessment centre will vary slightly, but there a few basic rules that apply to most. They'll typically last for a day or two, with five to 10 candidates invited along to give the employer a chance to assess your skills – both collectively and as individuals (skills which we'll cover later).
Assessment centres are usually hosted at the company's headquarter or a hotel, and if it spans over more than one day, accommodation is often arranged for those who don't live nearby.
Here are the main stages involved in an assessment centre:
Meeting the employer and candidates
If the assessment day is, in fact, a few assessment days, the social introductions will usually happen on the evening before the first day.
You might be invited along to a meal with the other candidates and some existing employees, and you'll have the opportunity to mingle and get to know everyone a little bit better.
Be friendly and don't be afraid to ask plenty of questions about what it's like to work for the business in question. Always be mindful that while this might not be a formal part of the assessment process, you'll still be being watched closely. Plus, first impressions are always important.
Information sessions usually happen at the very beginning of an assessment day, and you'll typically be given a presentation about the company and the roles that are available.
Even if you've done some in-depth research on the company beforehand, we'd recommend you pay close attention here. You're likely to pick up a few useful hints for the rest of the day, including any tests that you might have to do.
Employers will often set up assessment centre group exercises as a way to see how you interact with others and how well you can work in a team.
Common examples of these group exercises include being given a problem to solve together within a specific time frame, or being asked to prepare a group presentation.
Alternatively, you may be given a topic which you'll have to discuss as a group. The best thing you can do here is just to act naturally and be respectful of the other members in your group – don't try to dominate the discussion and go over the top trying to show off how much you know, as this is rarely a good look.
We touched on it earlier, but in addition to the group exercises, assessment centres will also involve some activities where you're being evaluated as an individual.
This could take the form of an interview, and will most likely be similar to the interview you had prior to the assessment day.
It won't be identical, though – the interview stage of an assessment centre may be with a more senior member of staff at the company, or go into more depth about certain aspects of your first interview.Even if they didn't come up in the first interview, there's a chance you'll be asked some of these common questions (which we've helpfully explained how to answer, too).
Bit of a throwback to your school drama classes here, as you (and one other person, often from the company) will be asked to act out how you'd respond to a scenario that you might encounter in the job.
You won't be graded on how convincing your performance is, so don't worry about embarrassing yourself or having to put on a different voice. Your potential employer is just keen to see how you'd cope with a tricky customer or challenging management situation.
Giving a presentation
As well as the possibility of having to present a group, you may be asked to give a presentation by yourself.
If so, it's most likely that you will be given a topic to talk about in advance, so you have enough time to prepare. However, in some cases, candidates are asked to present on the spot.
Make sure that you remember all of the tips that you were taught at university about presentations – all of the same rules apply here!
How to prepare for an assessment centre
Fail to prepare, prepare to fail. The old saying never rings more true than when you're applying for jobs – particularly when you're going for a graduate job, where both the stakes and the quality of your competition are high.
Although you can never guarantee success, here are a few things you can do to prepare ahead of an assessment day:
- Research the company – Treat this a little like revision at uni (except, hopefully, without the last-minute cramming). Basic facts like how long the company has been around and (roughly) how many offices it has will help, but the real value is in learning what plans they've outlined for the future, and what their current challenges are. You need to look like you've done your homework and have a genuine interest in working there.
- Prepare some questions – The assessment process works both ways, and you probably want to work out whether this is really the right company for you. Think of some questions in advance and, if you're struggling, check out this list for some inspiration.
- Plan your outfit – Unless you've specifically been told to dress a certain way, it's always best to play it safe and go for something smart. Our guide to the different work dress codes has everything you need to know, including where to buy formal clothing on a budget.
- Double-check all your details – Use a journey planner to plan your route, but make sure your arrival time is comfortably earlier than you actually need to be there. That way you can deal with any traffic or delayed trains and arrive at the right place, at the right time. And, if you've been asked to prepare anything in advance (like a presentation), read it through a couple of times beforehand.
- Contact other candidates – A top trick is to seek out the other candidates and try to get in touch with them. Remember that there are often multiple job vacancies up for grabs, so there's no need to have a hostile attitude towards your peers. If you're able to get a better idea of what they're like, talk with them freely and maybe even become friends, this will help no end on the assessment day – especially when it comes to group exercises.
How to pass an assessment centre
Here are the best tips for passing an assessment day:
Consider other people in the group
Assessment centres have a significant focus on seeing how you interact with other people, so be considerate.
If you're naturally extroverted, be careful not to dominate the conversation. Get your views across, but be mindful that other people are there too. Drawing quieter people into the discussion wherever you can is not only kind, but it demonstrates excellent teamwork, leadership and empathy.
On the other hand, if you're an introvert, make sure that you get heard – now isn't the time to blend into the background. Although it might go against your natural tendencies to speak up, remember that you wouldn't have made it this far unless you had something to offer. Take this opportunity to show the employer that they were right to invite you to the assessment day!
But whatever your personality type, bear in mind that assessment centres aren't a competition – there's likely to be more than job available, and you'll gain nothing from trying to sabotage the other candidates.
Stay motivated throughout the day
Even if you think you've fluffed one session, go into the next one with an open mind and an eagerness to do well. As with anything in life, you can't change the past – you can only learn from your mistakes.
Not everyone is brilliant at everything, and the beauty of assessment centres is that you’re tested on many things, so you'll get your time to shine. Just keep smiling and think positive.
Remember that you're being measured as an individual
We know we've said it 100 times already, but it's worth saying again: try not to compare yourself to the other candidates.
During an assessment day, you're being measured against competencies, not the other people.
What's more, you don't know how everyone else is performing in their individual exercises. Even if you think they've outshone you in a group activity, there's every chance they didn't do quite as well when they were working alone.
So, forget about them and just focus on doing the best job that you can do.
Don't get too drunk
If there's a social element to the assessment centre (especially if it runs over a couple of days), the drinks might start to flow. It’s fine to have one or two, but watch how much you're drinking and don't go overboard.
You need to be as fresh as a daisy the next day, and there's no way you'll impress your prospective employers if you've had one too many and say or do something embarrassing.
What are employers looking for on an assessment day?
We touched on it earlier, but it's worth remembering what competencies you will be assessed against. They are likely to include:
- Time management
- Data analysis
You might be given a list of the competencies before the day, so take your time to familiarise yourself with how you'll be assessed.
The upside is that these are all skills that most employers want. So, even if you don't make it past this assessment centre, you can use this experience to work on showing these skills off in the future!
If you sign up to a graduate recruitment agency, they'll also be able to give you tips and tricks for passing an assessment day – often with specific advice for different companies.