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January 21, 2013

Making the most of an assessment centre

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Following our recent post, 'A quick guide to assessment centres', we've got another great student installment. This time Louisa Nefs, a final year history student, reflects on her experience at a Teach First Assessment Centre...

The anticipation is worse than the reality

The graduate recruitment process can seem like an endless stream of hurdles and an assessment centre invitation is often met with mixed feelings; relief and excitement, but also nerves. This was how I felt when I attended a Teach First Assessment Centre and despite many people’s assurances that assessment centres are never as bad as you think, I'm not sure my fears were wholly allayed.However, having come through the other side I can now say they were right; the day was actually quite enjoyable - or certainly as enjoyable as such an event can be! Try to be confident about your prospects and show your preparation - this will help you maximise your chances of success, by letting your strengths shine through.

Find out what's expected

When you’re asked to attend an assessment centre you’ll often get a brief description of what you will be asked to do on the day, if not this information will be readily available on the relevant company’s website. The tasks will vary according to the post but often they will include 3 types of activity namely a competency based interview, a case study and a presentation of some description. A good starting point is to try and find accounts from previous applicants. These are widely available on the web and my advantage also has a number of feedback forms from those who have been through this process. These can shape your expectations and help you to prepare.

Familiarise yourself with the core competencies

In the interview you will be questioned to see how far you match the company’s core competencies Companies and organisations are pretty transparent about this information and you can ususally find it on their website. It is essential to have a number of examples demonstrating your ability in these areas; for example, leadership or teamwork. That said, try not to make these answers too formulaic, yes, preparation is vital but sounding like you have rehearsed your answers or not being able to adapt your examples to fit the specific question is a no-no. The interview is also a time for the employer to assess your desire and motivation to work in your chosen field so try and stay up-to-date with the latest news stories or developments relating to the sector you are applying to. When I applied to Teach First I looked into how current government education policy might affect the profession and the company’s goals. This can show a real understanding and passion for the job.

Cracking the case study

A case study is difficult to prepare for but there are a few skills which are important to show. Firstly, you do not need to dominate the task. It is good to show your leadership abilities but be careful not to overpower others; be inclusive of those you are working with and remain focused on the intended outcome of the task. The case study generally takes place under timed conditions and so you need to show that you can process a large amount of information quickly while working collaboratively to deal with the task at hand.

How to approach individual tasks

Many assessment centres will also ask you to do an individual task, for example I was asked to prepare and conduct a lesson. Always keep in mind your target audience and alter your research and content accordingly. The most important part of this is to be concise and focused, delivering your message with confidence. No-one expects you to be an expert in any of the tasks you are asked to do on the day, but a candidate who is able to deal with the difficult questions or situations while retaining their composure will undoubtedly seem attractive.

Challenging - but a great experience

I won’t pretend that it is not a challenging experience. This is something I expected but while it was nerve-wracking, nerves don’t have to be a negative. Use and channel them to show a sense of drive or desire for the job. The assessment centres give you the tools to demonstrate the qualities they are looking for. Rather than feeling like I was waiting to be tripped up, the day had a supportive atmosphere and I did not feel it was a test but a mutual investigation to see if I would fit within their ethos and culture. You may encounter unexpected challenges but try and stay positive and remember they liked you enough to put you through the earlier application stages. Thorough preparation is the key as it is clear if someone is being disingenuous. Whether you are successful or not assessment centres are invaluable learning experiences with many companies providing some kind of feedback on your performance. Take this opportunity, make the most of it and most importantly learn from it.

And finally...

There is plenty of information out there to help you prepare for assessment centres but if you do spend time on forums (and there is a pretty good thread on Teach First in the Student Room), don't assume your experience will be exactly the same. We were asked not to go into too much detail about the Teach First assessment centre as this could mislead other candidates - the format stays the same, but the content will change. You have been warned!

*Louisa is a final year history student and Careers & Skills rep for the History Department

December 19, 2012

A quick guide to assessment centres

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Well Christmas is nearly here and with it the chance to relax and switch off...unless you're waiting to hear the outcome of applications and first round interviews, in which case the 'time off' may be better spent preparing for the next round of the selection process: the assessment centre. There's plenty of useful online info to demystify the process and help you prepare for assessment centres, but what about hearing from someone who's been through one? And come out the other side - with an offer. Over to Jim Zhang, 3rd year MORSE student and careers rep for the Statistics dept...

I completed an assessment centre for a summer internship at an Investment Bank and received an offer. This was my experience, but as ever it's probably worth adding a 'health warning'. This advice worked for me, but read it at your own discretion.

The day was broken down into four main parts:

  1. Company presentation
  2. Trading/Investment Game
  3. Lunch
  4. Interviews with relevant employers

You have to hit the minimum ‘standards’ in each section. This is vital; employers are looking for well rounded individuals. You have the chance to secure the job; do not think of the day as a competition to beat other candidates.

Company presentation

If a company gives a presentation, make sure you pay attention! This is a fantastic opportunity to learn more about the company so that you have more ammunition to express why you want to work for them. If you don’t have the best memory and that means taking notes, then do it. In the interviews later on in the day, I was asked what I remembered from the company and to describe the particular culture of the company. This day is learning experience so stay sharp. If you have equipped yourself with the right attitude, this section should be interesting!

Group exercises

Group exercises are a bit hit and miss for recruiters, some love them some hate them as candidates can be ‘fake’. Nevertheless, if you find yourself in one then the key thing here is to maintain a cooperative attitude. This means you should NOT at any circumstance be aggressive or attack anyone else’s opinions. Subtlety and professionalism is key here. Also, always be on the lookout to take the initiative when it comes to organising the group. Leaders stand out. Winning is not everything when it comes to group exercises, involvement is crucial.


Lunch is no time for rest. Try and engage with other students. You could be working with these guys in the summer/graduate programme so start building relationships! Sometimes, such as in my case, there may be employers around to chat to during lunch. Take this chance to learn more about the company and connect with them.


Interview advice is standard. Assessment centre interviews are often much more technical, but this again is just the minimum requirement. The technical aspects should not be the hurdle which you fall at. If HR has done their job right, everyone at the assessment centre should be technically aware and able to work in a team etc. What is most important is building a connection with your interviewers and showing that you are able to learn and work with them. This is what separates who gets offers and those who don’t.

I would say good luck but I don't think luck is the most relevant factor; the offer is there for the taking if you are prepared!

November 17, 2012

The graduate recruitment process


The graduate recruitment process can seem really daunting: even if you survive the initial application sift, you can still look forward to a further two or three stages before you reach the final hurdle. But the key to success lies in preparation and understanding what the interviewer is looking for, so I caught up with Claire Jones, Student Recruitment Officer at PwC, to ask for her top tips to beat the odds.

Whichever opportunity you're applying for at PwC (or anywhere else), there are some things that you should be thinking about so we've put together some hints and tips:

Do your research

We'll expect you to be able to talk coherently and confidently about PwC, the position you're applying for, the business world in general and yourself. The more you know about these things, the more prepared you'll be, so you'll have to get researching.

Think about investigating the following sources of information:

  • Our brochures and website (careers and corporate)
  • The financial media (press, television, internet)
  • Relevant professional bodies (especially if they offer a qualification you're interested in pursuing)
  • Anyone you know who works for PwC (or a similar firm)

Don't just give them a quick glance the day before your interview. Examine them, understand the issues and keep yourself up to date.

Completing your application form

Remember first impressions count so the application form is a major opportunity to sell yourself. Before you complete the form, you may find it useful to gather accurate details of your university and secondary education exam results, work experience and employment. While completing the form, remember to:

  • Read and follow instructions carefully.
  • Proof read everything you write including checking grammar and spelling.
  • Be concise as you can elaborate at interview.
  • Don't repeat statements you've read in our brochures and website.
  • Don't be vague or lie about your results as we will check your academics at a later stage in the process.

Taking the tests

These tests help to determine your numerical, logical or verbal reasoning ability.

  • You can practise taking the tests before you sit the real ones.
  • The test will be timed and you should work as quickly and accurately through the questions you're presented with.
  • Ensure you read each question carefully and that you understand what's required before committing yourself to an answer, especially where multiple choice answers appear similar.

We'll also ask you to complete an Occupational Personality Questionnaire and you may be asked to complete a Student Talent Questionnaire.

Preparing for interview

Interviews can be nerve wracking, but the more prepared you are the more relaxed you should feel. Ensure to:

  • Do thorough research prior
  • Remind yourself of the things you've done that can help you demonstrate the skills and qualities we've listed
  • Think about the questions you're likely to be asked and your responses
  • Come up with questions you want to ask

We'll be looking to find out:

  • Why you want to join PwC
  • What you understand about the work we do
  • What you think about the vacancy you've chosen

During the interview

Be truthful and concise, answer the exact questions asked and don't ramble about irrelevant things. Our interviewers are not given a set list of questions to go through but you can expect most to be in relation to our 'Global Core Competencies' such as:

  • What do you know about our business?
  • Why have you decided to apply to us?
  • Are there any issues or current affairs that interest you?
  • What has been your biggest challenge?
  • When have you worked in teams?
  • How are you able to juggle your commitments?

Remember, we're not expecting you to be perfect but preparing for some of these questions will certainly help you to feel confident that you've given it your best shot.

At the assessment centre

  • Prepare what you're going to wear beforehand - if in doubt, dress conservatively.
  • All materials required such as paper and pens will be provided for you. You can bring your own calculator but if you choose not to, one will be provided for you.
  • Make sure you bring all necessary additions eg reading glasses, inhaler, prescribed medication.
  • You'll undertake numerical, logical and verbal reasoning tests (depending on your business area) so prepare yourself for these and work through the practice information sent in advance.
  • During the written exercise, you'll be required to read the briefing materials and prepare a written report on the given subject.
  • You'll participate in either a group discussion or individual exercise so ensure that you speak clearly and audibly so that the assessors can hear you.
  • There'll probably be at least one and up to 11 other participants attending the same assessment day but remember you're not in competition with them but judged on your own, individual merits.

And finally - good luck!

May 13, 2012

Mythbusters: Assessment Centres

I've had a few student encounters recently that have highlighted some common misconceptions around jobs, careers and life in general. Given my own shortcomings in addressing the 'Big' questions, it's probably better to stick to familiar themes. So, welcome to the first post of my new 'mythbusters' series, in which I'll be exposing and challenging popular career myths.

Myth: You need to beat the other candidates to succeed at assessment centres

Employers are recruiting against a standard – there are not normally any 'quotas'. If you – and your fellow candidates– demonstrate the required competencies, there's a strong chance you will progress to the next, or final stage. Have a look at chapter 6 of the AGCAS film, 'At the assessment centre', which gives a great insight into how group activities/discussions are assessed.

Assessment centres can feel highly charged and very competitive, with candidates jostling for top spot but dominating group discussions and tasks could well get you noticed for all the wrong reasons. Recruiters are not looking for autocrats – they want team players who can co-operate, collaborate and communicate. I've seen a number of comments online referring to the 'testosterone' fuelled environment of assessment centres, questioning the merits of a selection process which seemingly favours the alpha male, 'greed is good' stereotype. In reality though, most recruiters view such behaviour negatively –don't be tempted to mirror what you see.

There is a fine line between being assertive and aggressive; If you're only interested in self promotion and fail to recognise (or acknowledge) the contributions of the other candidates, your interpersonal and management skills may be questioned. Graduate recruiters are certainly looking for evidence of leadership skills, but you can demonstrate this quality in far more effective ways than simply 'shouting the loudest'. Consider how you can add structure to group discussions and exercises; if you feel the group is losing sight of the objective, try to steer them back on course. By skilful management of group activities you can demonstrate a whole range of competencies – communication, problem solving, initiative – without undermining your fellow candidates.

Stand out for the right reasons:

  • Introduce yourself and refer to other candidates by name. Not only is it more courteous but it shows you're paying attention!

  • Volunteer and contribute, but don't monopolise the discussion or exercise. Encourage others to join in, and acknowledge their input.

  • Try to establish rapport with your assessors but don't overdo it. You wont score points though brown nosing.

  • Avoid being negative or critical. Companies want team players, not individualists.

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