Secrets to assessment centre success

You may have heard many things about what to expect at an assessment centre, but what are employers really looking for? Josephine Walton, Campus Marketing Executive at KPMG explains

A question that comes up time and time again from students I meet on campus is 'how do I get through the assessment centre?' Some might say it's worrying that these students, who are studying at some of the UK's top-rated universities, aren't confident about their prospects: they're bright, have great academics, and in some cases, brilliant work experience to offer a potential employer as well. Isn't that enough? When it comes to assessment centres, unfortunately not. Just because you've got great exam results, it doesn't mean you will walk it when it comes to an assessment centre.

The crucial thing to understand about assessment centres is that they're skills-based. What that means is that an employer is looking for you to demonstrate certain competencies or skills, for example commercial awareness, problem solving, task management and so forth. Employers make no secret about this: you will probably be told the competencies they will be looking for on the day, and in some cases employers will actually put these to their website. Many students know this, but it's surprising how many don't actually demonstrate these skills. Take leadership, for example. You may be confident that you possess good leadership skills, however you need to make sure you give evidence of this. As Matthew Parker, Graduate Recruitment Officer at KPMG advises: "For the group exercise offering to be the timekeeper is often perceived as positive demonstration of leadership however graduates need to do more than 'tick the box' and actually keep track of the time. I've assessed candidates who offer to keep track but when asked by others 'how long have we got left' have not kept an eye on the time and get it completely wrong!"

According to David Shute, Graduate Recruitment Officer at KPMG, it's not always about what you do, but about what you don't do: "Failing to take ownership of any part of the discussion, or not providing direction to the group is an indication that a student lacks leadership skills." The same rule applies for the E-tray exercise (a task management exercise). You will be given some data that you'll need to use to get to the correct answer. As Matthew says: "If you're applying to an accountancy firm you don't need to be a maths genius but it is important that you can demonstrate an ability to work with numerical data. As an assessor I often see candidates that merely regurgitate figures from the numerical information they've been given and do not work with the figures. Even basic calculations e.g. 6% of £100k are not followed though." Remember you can only be marked based on the evidence you give in an exercise. So in that short time you must prove to an employer that you've got the skills they're looking for.

The KPMG assessment centre includes a final interview and presentation with a partner. As David warns: "Candidates not preparing a presentation beforehand is one of the biggest mistakes I've seen. All candidates receive the same e-mail with details of the presentation, what they need to prepare etc. It can be quite embarrassing if they turn up on the day without one prepared, and potentially then have to improvise in front of the partner." The presentation is the main part of the assessment centre where you do have the opportunity to prepare beforehand, so there's really no excuse not to follow the instructions! Bill Holland, a partner at KPMG regularly interviews candidates and his advice is: "Don't be over nervous. The interview is not supposed to be a frightening experience and if you've got this far you have already demonstrated you can handle an interview situation."

So what else can you do to improve your chances? Most assessment centres, particularly those with large employers, are likely to take up a day and some may even include an overnight stay. The benefit of this is that you will have time during the evening or even a short coffee break to take some time out and look back over what you've done so far, thinking about the skills that you think you've demonstrated really well and also those that you haven't had a chance to show yet. Make sure you focus on the ones that you've not demonstrated in the afternoon or next day's proceedings. And if an exercise doesn't go to plan? Don't panic. Assessment centres are designed to test different skills, and employers fully expect that you might be stronger at some than others. As Bill points out: "Don't worry about how you might have performed in the rest of the assessment centre. We won't know so it will have no bearing on how we assess you at interview." Some 'core' skills may carry more weight in the assessment process than others, and if you've scored well in other areas the employer might well see it as an area for development and may still make you an offer. Above all, if you've got to the final stage of the process you've already demonstrated the skills an employer is looking for so you should be feeling enthusiastic and confident about the final stage. It's your time to shine!

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