The Survivor’s Guide to Assessment Centres

By Candy Jenkins

If you’ve made it to this stage of the recruitment process, then you’ve written a great resume, completed a lengthy online application and possibly spoken to a real person for a phone interview. The assessment centre is usually the last and most gruelling test to achieve the holy grail of graduate jobs: the ‘Big Company’ Graduate Program. A survival of the fittest, no-holds-barred test of endurance – this is where they separate the weak from the wise, and throw every test they can think of at you. This may include (but is not limited to): a behavioural interview, a presentation, an in-tray exercise, a case study and…the dreaded group exercise.

​So before you fall into a heap of nerves, anxiety and sweat, remember that you got this far for a reason and the company does actually want you to do well. They’re putting on this expensive show in the hope of filling multiple jobs in one day, and the more people who make the cut at this stage, the better (and cheaper) for them.

Having run dozens of assessment centres over the years for big companies, and seen many candidates fall by the wayside (and quite a few triumph), here is my guide to surviving the assessment centre.

Do your homework

Don’t make the mistake of thinking that your sparkling personality and high academic results alone will get you through. You need to research the company because it’s likely that, at some point, you’ll be asked: “So…what do you know about us?” Or “why do you want to work for us?” There’s no fudging this question. Reading the company’s latest press releases and top stories on the company website is a basic place to start. And have a genuine reason of why you want to work for them. On top of this, know your resume back to front and have real examples you can refer to, to demonstrate your communication, teamwork, planning, organisation and leadership skills. You won’t regret having done this preparation when the Human Resources person throws a barrage of ‘behavioural’ questions at you.

Don’t compete with your fellow candidates

The group exercise is a tricky one. You’ll be given a hypothetical problem or situation and, as a group, you’ll be asked to discuss and reach a solution, and possibly make a presentation at the end. You may think you’ll look smarter than your fellow candidates by dominating the group discussion with your great ideas, but this can actually ruin your chances. Employers are looking for people who can work well with others, communicate their ideas clearly and move the discussion forward positively. This is not the time to be a wallflower, nor is it the place to be a dictator. You need to speak up if you have an idea, contribute to the discussion, and work well in the team. As hard as it is in this unnatural situation, try to ignore the beady-eyed recruiters who are watching from the side-lines and imagine you are working in a real life class project or real work situation.

Remember, they are always watching

During the time in-between interviews, there will be breaks for tea, coffee and possibly lunch. During this time the interviewers will be on hand to answer your questions and get to know you better. As much as you may feel like curling up into a ball after the group exercise, or sitting by yourself to rock back and forth… I mean ‘regroup your thoughts’, this is a chance to make a good impression. Have some interesting questions ready about the company to help start the conversation, and talk openly with the other candidates. Remember, they should be treated as allies not enemies. While this is not technically part of the assessment process, interviewers will make judgements about your ‘fit’ in the company according to how well you can get along with people and how comfortable you are in a social setting.

Keep your energy up

Consistency is key as you work your way through the day. Start as you mean to finish, with a positive, enthusiastic and motivated demeanour. This will shine through for the interviewers and leave them with a generally positive impression of you. Even if you feel that you mucked up your last interview, don’t be tempted to give up and retreat into yourself. There will be some leeway to do poorly in one area if you’ve been outstanding in another. Keep smiling, be (or act) confident and don’t give up!

Have you been through an assessment centre and lived to tell the tale? We’d love to hear your experiences, good, bad or ugly!


Candy Jenkins is a talent and leadership development professional with over 15 years’ experience. She has worked in global corporations in London and Sydney in banking, IT, telco, and FMCG industries. As the Postgraduate Career Coach at UTS, she is passionate about helping students to understand their unique value proposition, land their dream job, and achieve their career goals.

Featured image courtesy of Artemis Consultants.


Author: Guest Contributor

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