Assessment centres are a very widely used selection method, principally because they provide a robust and all-round view of the candidate. The employers see the candidate in realistic work situations and examine what the candidate can do, rather than what they say they can do. There’s no room for bluff.
This strong ‘predictive validity’ (i.e. the clear link between performance in the assessment and performance in role) is precisely what makes them a bit scary. You can feel a lot of pressure when it comes to having to make a presentation, or participate in a group exercise, knowing you are being judged against everyone else who is taking part.
What are competencies?
Assessment centres typically include a number of exercises designed to assess specific competencies. It is worth spending time familiarising yourself with both the common types of exercises and the key competencies they test.
Competencies are the skills, behaviours or knowledge identified as necessary for success in role; things like team working or communication skills. To really shine at an assessment centre, you need to be achieving the highest-order elements of each competency. That means demonstrating a flexibility in their approach, to think strategically and critically, and apply the competence in a sophisticated manner.
Key areas to prepare to improve performance
Strong preparation is key for success at assessment centres. Let’s take a look at some useful preparation activities:
Make sure you know the priorities and strategic direction of the company you are applying to work for. If you know that they are in a growth position, then you can talk about expansion opportunities. On the other hand, if they are in a period of downsizing, think carefully about the cost implications of any ideas you may have. This can be particularly useful if you need to prioritise anything during a task, such as in an intray exercise.
Understand the organisation’s core business. If you are applying to work for a marketing agency, for example, you need to understand what the business does, even if the role is in finance or IT. If you want to work in telecoms, ensure you have at least a basic understanding of the sector and how they make their money. It may be hard for you to participate fully in tasks if you don’t know this.
Follow this up with an understanding of what is going on in that market. What are the pressures and trends? Who are the key players? If you can weave this information into any of the exercises – for example, by critically evaluating the fictional data using real-life examples – this can really set you apart from other candidates.
Think about current trends in the economy (e.g. globalisation, social networks, ageing demographics in Europe) and their implications for the sector. If you can incorporate these elements into your arguments, it shows breadth of thinking and strategic perspective. You may find it useful to use models like SWOT (Strengths, Weaknesses, Opportunities, and Threats) and PESTLE (Political, Economic, Socio-demographic, Technological, Legal and Environmental) to organise your thinking.
Practise structuring information. You want to make it as easy as possible for the assessor to give you top marks; one way of doing this is to present your findings clearly and concisely – much as you would in a business context. Use headings, bullet points and numbered lists to display information, and remember to include an introduction and conclusion. Practise this and get some critical feedback.
Give some thought to the personal impact you would like to have at the assessment centre: what would you like the assessors (and the other candidates) to say about you at the end of the day? What can you do to create this impact? Assessors are often trained to observe and record non-verbal cues (body language) and everything, from the way you walk into the room, to the way you speak to other candidates, helps create the image that the assessors will form of you.
Don’t forget to brush up on your influencing skills. These are useful in group/report exercises and presentations. Some techniques to consider include using logic or reason to make a case, negotiation, building relationships or appealing to values. Avoid negative approaches like manipulation or intimidation.
Finally, practise managing your time and working under pressure. Assessment centre exercises are designed to be demanding – to perform at your best, you need to be able to focus and deliver, and practice can help with this. Don’t forget to take a watch and broadly plan out how you’re going to approach a task, as this can help you stay on track.
Current students will find that their university careers services will have lots of material that can help them to prepare for assessment centres, including links to online practice sites or even mock assessment centres with employers.
Today’s guest post, on how best to prepare for assessment centres, is brought to you by the graduate jobs board and forum WikiJob.