How to succeed at an assessment centre

If you are facing an assessment centre then Harry Tolley and Robert Wood’s book How to Succeed at an Assessment Centre (3rd edn, 2010) is a useful place to find help. Its subtitle tells you it’s ‘an essential preparation for psychometric tests, group and role-play exercises, panel interviews and presentations’. If you’re wondering what an assessment centre is this book describes it as ‘joining a small group of other applicants … to undertake a series of assessments that have been designed to reveal to the assessors whether you possess the competencies and personal attributes necessary for you to: work effectively in the relevant job; benefit from further training opportunity; or cope with the demands of an education program.’ P8

The assessment process can take anything from a few hours to a couple of days. The timetable for the day can be intense, structured and highly organised. Part of the purpose is to observe at first hand how you behave under pressure by simulating the circumstances under which you might be expected to perform in a real workplace.

The book describes each of the types of assessment tasks you are likely to encounter:

  • One-to-one interview or a panel interview
  • Ability tests sometimes known as cognitive or psychometric tests
  • Personality questionnaires
  • Group discussion exercise
  • Case study
  • In tray exercise
  • Presentation.

For example, group exercises can take the form of group discussions; problem-solving; and team games. The authors suggest that the assessors will be looking for evidence of behaviours like your:

  • ‘Ability to participate in the group’s activities and to make a positive contribution to achieving its goals
  • Listening skills
  • Oral communication skills including your ability to present reasoned arguments
  • Negotiation and assertiveness skills
  • Ability to work effectively in a group including your interpersonal skills and ability to empathise with others
  • Leadership skills.’ [p18]

For in tray exercises, candidates are usually asked to adopt a particular role as an employee in a fictitious organisation and to deal with the contents of an imaginary in tray consisting of a sample of internal memos, letters, e-mails, faxes, phone messages and reports that vary in importance, complexity and urgency. In tray exercises provide evidence of your ability to analyse and solve problems, prioritise tasks, manage time, read for understanding, delegate, write effectively. The authors point out that you will have limited time to deal with this exercise and the contents of the in tray are likely to be interconnected. This means that any action you recommend for one item will have an impact on other decisions.

The authors also provide useful advice on participating in social activities. The program may include a lunch at which you will have an opportunity to meet and talk informally to other people such as fellow candidates, recent entrants to the organisation, former students, managers and assessors. There may be time for a site visit and meetings with representatives of the organisation. These elements are deliberately included in the program and they serve specific purposes. They give candidates the chance to ask questions and they give assessors and managers the chance to observe candidates in non-test situations. The authors say there is only one rule. ‘Don’t be lulled into thinking that social time and the related activities are so unimportant that you can afford just relax and let your hair down.’ [p23] Throughout the assessment centre program you are always ‘on’, always being observed and assessed.

This is an excellent book giving practical information and advice about how to prepare for an assessment centre, what to expect, and how to behave so as to impress the assessors.

Dr Ann Villiers, career coach, writer and author, is Australia’s only Mental Nutritionist specialising in mind and language practices that help people build flexible thinking, confident speaking and quality connections with people.