These are business simulation exercises in which you are given a heaped in-tray or electronic in-box, full of e-mails, company memos, telephone and fax messages, reports and correspondence, together with information about the structure of the organisation and your place within it. You are expected to take decisions: prioritise your workload; draft replies; delegate tasks; recommend action to superiors; and so on. Designed to test how you handle complex information within a limited time, the exercise allows you to demonstrate your organisational and planning skills. Some employers also want to know why you have made certain decisions and may ask you to annotate items in the tray or discuss your decisions later.
Some employers will ask you to prepare a short talk for presentation to other candidates and/or the selectors. You may be asked to bring a prepared presentation to the assessment centre but usually it must be produced on the day. You could be given a topic for discussion or have completely free choice; it can be worthwhile to have a brief presentation on a familiar subject already prepared. Either way, avoid talking about anything too commonplace or technical and remember that you could be asked supplementary questions so it needs to be a subject on which you have further information to hand. The subject matter is not necessarily important – the organisation wants to know that you can structure and communicate information effectively. Take note of the following advice:
• Plan your presentation along A-B-A lines: highlight what you’re going to tell them; tell them; and then summarise what you’ve told them.
• Limit yourself to no more than six main messages.
• Pitch the level of your talk at an appropriate level for your audience.
• Don’t give too much detail.
• Support ideas/themes with anecdotes, examples, statistics and facts.
• Use humour appropriately.
• Aim for a conversational delivery and talk from notes, rather than memorising or reading from a script.
• Make eye contact at some point with all members of the group and talk to them, not at them.
• Keep to time – bear in mind that your nerves can speed you up or slow you down on the day.
• Speak clearly, don’t gabble or mumble and talk louder than you think necessary.
• Be aware of your body language and don’t fidget as you talk.
• Try to get someone to listen to your presentation beforehand so you know if you have any annoying habits or if you repeat certain words (‘OK’, ‘er…’, ‘um’, etc) too often.
• If you are using a laptop or data projector, avoid walking in front of the screen or reading the transparencies to your audience – refer to them by all means but let them illustrate/back up/summarise what you are actually saying (images are generally more effective than words).
• Handle any questions using the mnemonic, TRACT: Thank the questioner; Rephrase the question for the rest of the audience; Answer the question; Check with the questioner that they are satisfied; and Thank them again. If you have been asked to prepare a presentation beforehand, make sure that you do – even confident presenters come unstuck if they have not prepared sufficiently.
Most graduate jobs involve working with other people and most assessment centres involve a substantial element of group work. Whether you have to complete a practical task or take part in a discussion, the selectors are looking for your ability to interact with other people. Remember that good team working is not always about getting your ideas taken forward but listening to, and using, the ideas of others too.
Here are a few tips:
• Get a good grasp of any information you are given but don’t waste time on minute details.
• In light of the information given, decide objectives and priorities, make a plan and follow it.
• Be assertive and persuasive, yet diplomatic.
• Remember that the quality of what you have to say is more important than the quantity.
• Actively listen to what everyone has to say, through nodding, smiling and eye contact – try to get the best contribution from everyone (don’t assume that quiet members have nothing to contribute).
• Find a balance between advancing your own ideas and helping the group to complete the task set. • Keep your cool and use your sense of humour, where appropriate.
• Make sure the group keeps to time.
Don’t be distracted if a member of the group dominates the conversation, not allowing anyone else to have a say. The worst way to deal with this is to try and compete by shouting over them. A good way of dealing with the situation is to listen to their views and then suggest that other members may have input too. Even if this doesn’t stop them, the selectors will have picked up on your efforts to try and include all members of the team, which will reflect well on you, much more so than trying to make your voice heard for the sake of it.
Practical tasks You may be asked as a group to use equipment or materials to make something (how to move a golf ball from one table to another using a paper clip and pipe cleaner, for example). The selectors are more interested in how the group interacts than in the quality of the finished product. They will also be assessing your planning and problem-solving skills and the creativity of your individual ideas. As with any group activity, get involved (however silly you consider the task to be).
Discussions and role plays You may be asked to take part in a leaderless group discussion or in a role-playing exercise where you are given a briefing pack and asked to play a particular part. The assessors are looking for your individual contribution to the team, as well as your verbal communication and planning skills. ‘Everyone was given a different company to represent, all of which wanted money from a central charity fund. We had to hold a board meeting to decide who was worthwhile in the area (we were given some information about this), who met the criteria and how much to give everyone.’
For most candidates, an assessment centre represents the final round of selection activity, although some employers might invite you back for another interview or round of interviews. It is normal for an organisation to let you know when they expect to have made a decision and how you will be notified but don’t be afraid to ask if this has not been made clear.