Assessment Centres

Pioneered in the UK by the armed forces, assessment centres are now used by a number of organisations to recruit junior managers, graduates and professionals. They are often re-labelled 'development centres' and used for internal selection purposes to identify fast-trackers and people with potential for career promotion. For most candidates it's a once in a lifetime career opportunity.

Assessment centre exercises

Assessment centres are usually designed to include exercises which measure you against the aspects of the job. For all of the exercises make sure you understand the chairperson's instructions or the written brief. If you don't, ask. Not listening and not reading instructions thoroughly are the two biggest causes of frustration in candidates. I have been moaned at and even shouted at by candidates who had not read instructions properly. Having a go at the chairperson of The Assessment Centre is a career-limiting step, I can tell you! Remember, you're being tested! The following are common exercises.

In-tray exercises
You are given the 'in-tray' of a senior manager and have one hour to 'get through it' - otherwise you'll miss your plane! You'll be asked to write on each item what you would do with it, or write a reply to letters.

Sales or negotiation role-play
You are asked to sell a product or negotiate a deal; even if you haven't applied for a sales job, persuasion skills are important in many careers.

Business simulation
This may be paper-based or computer-based. You are split into small groups and over a series of rounds, compete with other groups to develop, manufacture, market and distribute products. Great fun!

Group discussion (interactive skills)
You are given a problem to solve as a group. Common problems are simulations where your group have been stranded at sea, in the desert or on the moon.

These can be personality evaluations, which attempt to see how well you match against their idea of an ideal candidate for the job, or ability tests that measure your skills at things like numerical or verbal reasoning.

To assess your self-confidence, ability to communicate and ability to handle a mini-project, some organisations may ask you to make a short presentation either to a group of managers or, for very senior positions, to the board of directors. The subject can vary: debating the pros and cons of subjects like E-commerce, or you may be asked to present a mini-marketing plan for one of the company's products. They may even leave the choice of subject to you. Choose a business-related subject that you know something about. The time you are given to prepare can vary from 30 minutes to many days.

If you are asked to give a presentation do take it seriously - management time is very valuable and if the company have gathered an audience to listen to you, then you can be sure that they will be taking it seriously.

Inside Information

Get as much sleep as you can beforehand. It's highly likely that, just as you're starting to relax, you'll be handed a mammoth task with a tight deadline to see how you respond under pressure.

Keep your eyes and ears open and observe the performance of the other candidates at the assessment day. You may be asked to rate their performance. Be prepared to give a factual and analytical summary of their contribution and don't be afraid to be complimentary of other candidates.

If you've been invited to join everyone for dinner the night before the assessment centre, don't be lulled into a false sense of security, by thinking the assessors are off-duty. They will probably be assessing your social competence over dinner, in the bar, over breakfast and so on.

Even if you haven't been asked to prepare a presentation, brush up on your skills. There is a good chance that you'll be asked to prepare one at short notice. Pre-select two topics: 'an improvement you've made at work' and an 'interesting angle on your hobby'.

If you're invited to attend an assessment centre in a hotel, a few casual questions to the manager or receptionist may give you a good idea of what's in store. If the assessors have spent the early part of the day setting up a network of computers in syndicate rooms, then it sounds as if you're going to be involved in a computer-based business simulation. Great fun!

Try to think through the qualities the assessors will be looking for: leadership, interpersonal skills, ability to handle stress, verbal communication, written communication, flexibility, negotiation skills, problem-solving, business skills, commercial acumen, decision-taking, initiative and creativity. Clearly the weightings will change depending on the job, but commercial acumen, interpersonal skills and flexibility must be high on everyone's list.

Don't try to suppress other candidates in an attempt to make the assessors notice only you. You will come across as overbearing and insensitive.

Make the most of the opportunity

An assessment centre is a tremendous opportunity for you to show what you can do in your career. Prepare yourself well and enjoy it. In summary, be positive, be prepared to play the game and project an image of your real self.

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