How to prepare yourself for an assessment centre

Itís now common for organisations to use assessment centres as a selection tool to assist them in reducing a long list of applicants to a chosen shortlist of candidates to be invited for further in-depth face-to-face interviewing.

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In case youíre not familiar with the assessment centre concept, hereís a brief explanation. An assessment centre is an extended selection procedure, usually held either on the employerís premises or in a hotel, which normally lasts one or two days. Usually, it takes place after the first round of interviews and before the final selection is made. An assessment centre works well for everybody, but particularly for the employer, as they have a greater opportunity to see how candidates perform various tasks over an extended period, rather than in a single relatively short interview. It also helps the selectors to discover what individuals really can do, as opposed to what they say they can do, in various situations.

As with any selection process, thorough preparation is the key to maximising the outcome of your assessment. During the next few weeks, we will reveal our top ten tips for making the cut into a shortlist place in the next round of interviews.

  • Get off to a good start by making a solid first impression. At the beginning of an assessment centre, all delegates are normally asked to introduce themselves and tell the audience something interesting about themselves. So before the interview itís good practice to prepare a 30-60 second presentation about yourself and your background. A lot of applicants fall at this first hurdle, because they havenít prepared a concise and confident presentation. If you wish to gain the attention of the panel by making a strong impact during your presentation, say something memorable, preferably about an achievement related to the job. But do bear in mind that you will only have about 60 seconds, so practise, beforehand and keep it short and sharp.
  • Good communication skills always go down well. Many applicants attending assessment centres can find it quite daunting when first confronted with a new group of individuals, especially when they are in direct competition, so they tend to keep a low profile at first. But this is an opportunity to get noticed, and it will be looked upon very favourably if you are seen to be mingling with the group when the opportunity arises. Have a think about this when preparing for the day. Prepare some questions that you feel comfortable to ask the other individuals in the group. Aim to talk to half the group Ė including males and females Ė before the session end, because this will be noted. Also, showing that you are confident, friendly and proactive will come across well with the rest of the group, so if they are asked later in a questionnaire who would they hire from the group, your networking should ensure that you mentioned. Favourably. Remember that any questions you ask should be open and straightforward to encourage a dialogue. Questions that start with what, why, how, where and when should get you off to a good start.
  • Itís good if you can learn to be assertive, without being bossy. Assertiveness is always seen as a great attribute for most jobs, and the judging panel will be look for this trait in the exercises you do during the assessment. So, if possible, make sure that you take the lead on at least one of the exercises, but when you do so, remember that team playing is also seen as a great attribute, so make sure that you include the whole group, to demonstrate good leadership skills.
  • Donít rush in to a group exercise without first pausing to analyse and discuss the scenario. Many exercises are designed to create a challenge or to overcome a problem. Often, applicants fail because they approach these tasks in the wrong way, by assuming that itís essential to get the right answer. In fact, itís all about how you how you tackle the problem. Planning and preparation are always the keys to success, so make sure that you review the situation with the group before you rush into attacking the problem. Start by analysing and qualifying the question, so that everyone is clear on exactly what is required from the exercise, and then show clearly the thought processes and procedures you followed to arrive at your solution.
  • Remember: research can pay dividends. Occasionally in the assessment centre you may be asked to talk about the company youíre applying to, so in case this happens, make sure that before the assessment you carry out some research on the companyís website, and on the internet in general. Try to remember some key details about the companyís history, background, and products or services. It could also be worth thinking of a few questions to ask if you get an opportunity. You might, for example, find yourself seated at lunch beside panel members, who could well be influential within the company. If you are armed with an arsenal of questions and topics of discussion relating to the company, you will make a strong impression on the individuals you are talking to. Anything like this is a chance to stand out from the group, so make sure that you prepare in advance in order to use such opportunities to make a difference.
  • Analyse the job description to learn what the assessment panel will be looking for. In advance of the assessment centre, read carefully and think hard about the job description, with the objective of identifying the main skills and attributes that you believe would be required to be successful in the post. Write out a bullet-point checklist of these core capabilities to help fix them clearly in your mind, because the exercises you participate in will be designed to identify your abilities in these areas. If you are asked to make a presentation on why you feel your application and background are right for the vacant position, use the list you have created to assist you in making the presentation. If possible, support your case with details of achievements you have made that illustrate your strengths and abilities for the role.
  • Donít be dismayed if you struggle in some of the exercises The assessment centre is designed to thoroughly explore all of the attributes for the job, so you might find that you donít perform as well as you hope to in every single exercise. If you feel that you have let yourself down on some of the exercises by not performing as well as you had expected, donít dwell on your mistakes and agonise over them, because that will create a negative attitude that might bring down your overall performance. Just forget about it, and concentrate fully on the next task. Remember that many delegates will get off to a slow start, and very few, if any, will perform well on all of the tasks. You can still score highly over the whole event, even if you have performed badly in one exercise.
  • Itís much easier to be yourself, rather than putting on an act. Itís very easy to fall into the trap of making assumptions about what the employer is looking for in a new recruit and trying to second-guess what they want to hear or see. The best plan of attack is to be yourself at all times. Itís been proven that when you behave normally, rather than trying to create a false image of yourself, you will come across as being a lot more relaxed and confident, and will therefore present a better picture of yourself. If the real you is not what the employer is looking for, the position is obviously not meant for you, so perhaps you should reconsider what type of position your skills, background and aspirations make you best suited to.
  • Gaining feedback is an essential part of the assessment centre process. Even if you donít get the job, remember that attending the assessment centre is a significant learning experience for you, and feedback from the assessment centre can provide invaluable insights for the future. If the employer hasnít included a feedback session as part of the event, be sure to ask for formal feedback at a later stage. Before you leave, arrange an appointment with the relevant member of staff, so that even if you havenít been shortlisted, you can learn something that will stand you in good stead for the next assessment day. There is also no harm in using the day as a networking opportunity, with both the panel and the other delegates. Your career is a long path and you never know when or where these people may turn up in the future. I know of one delegate who stayed in contact with an individual from an assessment centre. Some time later the delegate was recommended by his assessment centre contact to another company, where he secured his first job after completing his studies.
  • Learn from your mistakes. Once the dust has settled after the assessment centre, and your ego has recovered a little after the feedback session revealed how many blunders you made during the assessment, take stock of the situation. Summon up the courage to be brutally honest with yourself, make a list of areas with room for improvement, and then take appropriate action. Knowing yourself is one of the keys to success, because if you can identify the gaps in your knowledge, pinpoint the skills you need to gain or develop, and then rectify these deficiencies, you will greatly improve your attractiveness and value to organisations in your chosen field. Once you can tick all of the relevant boxes, you will enter the next assessment centre with much greater confidence, and much more chance of success.
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