How to succeed at assessment centres

10 January 2024 by
Memcom, Rachel Appleton

You’ve been invited for an assessment centre for a job interview, but don’t panic. In this handy ‘How to’ guide, Memcom’s Director Julian Smith offers up some advice on how to beat the competition, and run away with the job offer…

Assessment centres are often used to assess various aspects of a candidate's suitability for a role which are hard to ascertain from an interview alone, such as their written or problem-solving skills, attitudes towards teamwork or interpersonal skills. I’ve written this blog to offer you tips on how to excel in each of the component parts. The rest, of course, is up to you…

Understanding the criteria being assessed

Use the information provided in the invitation email to work out exactly what the assessors are looking for in potential candidates. For example if there is a sight-unseen written task, you can reasonably guess that this will be pertinent to the role you’ll be doing; if there’s a role play or group discussion, they’re probably looking for soft skills such as leadership, team work or how you interact with others whom you perceive to be your competitors. 

It’s all about the research

Once you’ve worked out what the components of the assessment centre are and what the assessors are looking for, you can then start to think about how to get the information that will help you.

Understanding the organisation's culture and values is a good place to start, of course, but presentation topics might hint at problems the organisation needs to solve, or a group discussion might focus on an area where the organisation would like some lateral thinking – so researching news articles about both the organisation and the sector in which it operates might give you some good background knowledge and an advantage in such assessments. 

You might want to draw up your own SWOT or PESTLE/STEEPLE analysis, check out the competitors, the product offering, the key staff (and how long they’ve worked there) and allow yourself plenty of time to get dragged down potential wormholes on Google searches!

Practice Aptitude Tests:

Some assessment centres might include aptitude tests, and there are plenty of ways to practise these in advance to improve your performance. Common types include numerical or verbal reasoning, situational judgment tests or a whole plethora of personality profiles such as WAVE or Myers-Briggs (more examples here)

Group exercises:

I’m a big fan of group exercises. Not only do they demonstrate candidates’ attitudes towards cooperation and teamwork or their communication and leadership skills, but they also heighten the tension in an already stressful situation (insert an evil laugh here), and can be the part that makes some candidates crumble and others rise to the top. Above all, think about the skills that the assessors are looking for, and work out how to demonstrate these.

My top tip is to be an active listener and contribute constructively. Don’t be worried if others try to dominate the conversation, or get frustrated if someone is hogging the limelight. Speaking last but being the most logical or practical can often shift the dynamics in a group discussion, allowing you to demonstrate leadership skills, insight and logic, and soon you’ll end up leading the conversation. Try not to have conflict with other members of the team, and if this happens, demonstrate your tact and diplomacy, whilst respectfully challenging their arguments (based on data of course). 

Role-play and case studies:

Role-plays and case studies can test your problem-solving and decision-making abilities in realistic situations. Once again, if you’ve researched the organisation well, the topics used in these types of exercise needn’t be a surprise. Take a structured, considered approach, consider the impact of your decisions and of course, make sure you finish within any time constraints.

Presentation Skills:

If you're required to give a presentation, remember the time limit you’ve been set. As a rule of thumb, the most slides I would prepare for a 10-minute presentation would be eight. Practice your delivery and ensure you complete the presentation within the set time limits. Feel free to use a stopwatch function on your phone (if allowed) and make sure your content is clear, well-structured, and relevant.

You might want to consider design tools such as Canva for a fresher, more dynamic presentation, and having checked and proofread for mistakes, email them a copy in advance to ensure that you’re not scrabbling around with the tech at the last minute. And if it’s a brilliant presentation that you happen to have left them with, it probably can’t do any harm.

Interview Skills:

Be ready for both competency-based interviews using the STAR (Situation, Task, Action, Result) technique as well as values-based interviews (see my separate blogs on both of these). Always provide relevant and specific examples from your past experiences, and try to make them tangible (i.e., things which can be proven) rather than intangible. An example of this would be if asked a question on your effectiveness as a manager, you might point out a rise in productivity of X%, an increase in sales of Y% or a Z% decrease in staff absence levels, rather than saying more intangible things such as “I was always described as a highly effective manager who gets things done”.

Stay calm:

Above all, try to maintain your composure and confidence throughout the assessment centre. Remember that the assessors are evaluating your behaviour under pressure and the assessment centre is designed to test you to your limits. Keeping your composure, along with a friendly disposition and a ready sense of humour might also unsettle the competition (insert another evil laugh here) and make you appear as the natural choice for the role.

Seek feedback:

If you're not selected for the role, always ask for as much detailed feedback as possible, to help you with the next assessment centre. Think of them as challenges and learning curves, and weirdly, you might even get to enjoy them as much as I do!

But above all, remember that assessment centres are designed to evaluate your skills and competencies so be yourself, showcase your strengths, and demonstrate your enthusiasm for the role and the organisation. Prepare well, since I’ve hopefully demonstrated that preparation is key to turning the unexpected into the expected, which will give you a huge advantage over your rivals…

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