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How to succeed at assessment centres

Top tips on how to ace the assessment centre stage of any recruitment selection process.

Assessment centres remain a popular recruitment tool in the latter stages of the selection process and are used by more than two-thirds of employers. In reality they aren’t so much a physical centre as a programme of tests and exercises to assess your suitability for particular roles and organisations. Sometimes they are run across several days and you will find yourself competing with up to 12 other candidates or more.

Assessment centres allow employers to use a range of different selection methods such as psychometric, behavioural and group tests as well as interviewing prospective candidates not just to assess ability but to try to predict performance in the role.

The prospect of attending an assessment centre in the final rounds of selection can be a daunting one with so much at stake. But thorough preparation will help reduce the fear factor associated with them. Also, bear in mind they are not used to trick or catch you out but to give employers a chance to honestly assess you.

“Keep in mind, that assessors typically want you to do well in the exercises and are certainly not hoping that anyone fails,” says Stuart Duff, business psychologist and partner with business psychology consultancy Pearn Kandola, which organises assessment centres for its clients. “They want to have the challenge of selecting future employees from a great pool of candidates, not a poor one.”

Ready for anything

If you have prepared properly for the interview stage (and having made it to the assessment centre stage suggests you did), you will already have a level of knowledge and understanding about the organisation and the position. This needs to be taken on a stage though. As well as having a good understanding of the organisation’s products and services, the challenges facing the sector or industry and its future direction, Duff stresses the importance of thinking about the main purpose of the role for which you are applying.

“Is it analytical? Is it a team-based role?”, he says. “This will help to get you in the right frame of mind for the assessment centre.”

He also advises trying to get hold of the organisation’s competency framework.

“Ask for it or have a look on the Internet as this will outline the important behaviours that the assessment centre will have been developed on,” he continues. “Make a note of your own relevant experiences so that you have plenty of real-life examples to call on in the structured interview. Remember that the assessors are looking for actual personal experiences of doing something, not opinions or hypotheticals.”

You can also do some more general preparation by downloading samples of tests, top tips, podcasts and other helpful material from a number of sites. Using search terms such as ‘preparing for an assessment centre’ will take you to a number of resources.

Demonstrate team behaviours

One of the most difficult aspects of the day is knowing that everything you do will be assessed and rated. Duff acknowledges that the level of scrutiny is certainly something unfamiliar to many people but you have to get used to it. Try to put the feeling that you are being observed out of your mind and be yourself rather than playing the assessment centre ‘game’ based on what you think the assessors want to see.

”In group exercises in particular we see a lot of people talking too much because they think that this is what is expected,” notes Duff.  “Ask yourself what the objective of each exercise is and what you can do to achieve that objective.”

There can also be a fine line between showing off your talents and being overly competitive or pushy. While there is a lot at stake and you need to show what you are capable of, the assessors will be looking for individuals who can work well in teams so don’t be overly extrovert, talk over others or try to make fellow candidates look deficient or less able than you. Remember that the assessors are extremely experienced and will pick up on what they see as tactical behaviour.

Equally don’t shy away from putting yourself forward for a leadership position in a group task but be sure to take a consultative approach and listen to others. Displaying good communication and team-working skills throughout the day will earn you a lot of points. If it is an overnight or two-day programme, there may be a social event or even a tour of the company, and while outside of the formal assessment, how you conduct yourself on these will be noted.

Capitalise on the experience

Even if you are not successful on this occasion, your time at the assessment centre will have been an invaluable learning experience and one that might give you an edge next time. Make a note of what you did well and the areas/exercises in which you felt you were weak and request feedback.

“This is a must,” says Duff. “Even if the organisation does not openly offer it, ask for feedback so that you can learn from the experience and possibly adapt your approach for future assessments.”

He adds that it is also important to make the most of fellow candidates as part of the learning experience and for personal networking.

“Use any free time to talk to the other candidates and build your network,” he says. “One of the most frequent positive comments we hear from candidates at the end of an assessment centre is that they have made good contacts with the other candidates and learnt about different opportunities and experiences elsewhere.”

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