Undercover applicant: assessment centres

The Gateway gets a real-life account from a student who's survived one

We spoke to a student who recently attended an assessment centre for an internship in investment banking. Here's what they had to say about the experience.


This was my first assessment centre, so I wasn't entirely sure what to expect. Before the assessment centre, I'd completed an online application, followed by a mathematical reasoning test. Then, when I was invited to the assessment day, I was given a brief outline of what it would involve. I was told there would be a maths test, followed by a writing task and a group discussion. Then there would be two interviews in the afternoon.

I'm not studying a finance-related subject at university, so in the two days leading up to my assessment centre I bought the Financial Times and did some background reading on the eurozone crisis and the Libor-rigging scandal. I also researched how to write business reports to prepare for the writing task, and I looked at an investment banking jargon buster to familiarise myself with the language. I prepared for the interviews by planning answers to questions about my motivations and skills, and also by reviewing the answers I'd given in my application.

On the day

The assessment centre started at 8.30am and finished at 4.30pm. I had to get up early to travel down to London, and my train was slightly delayed so I arrived about ten minutes late. I missed the initial welcome meeting, but we were given a briefing before each individual task with instructions.

There were 12 of us at the assessment centre, and we were split into two groups of six for the whole day, so there weren't too many people. We had breaks of 15 to 30 minutes between each task, and an hour for lunch, so the day felt quite pleasant and relaxed.

But I discovered that the outline I'd been given beforehand was a bit misleading. The writing task was actually preparing a PowerPoint presentation, and this, along with the group discussion and the first interview, were all related to a technical case study. I was caught off-guard because it wasn't what I was expecting, but I tried to make the best of it.

Assessment time

First up was the maths test, which was based on simple arithmetic and percentages. I felt confident about my numeracy skills, but the time we were given was very tight and I struggled to complete it quickly enough.

Next came the written exercise, which was based on a business case study. We were each given detailed financial information about a business - the document was about 200 pages long - and a laptop, and we had an hour to perform an analysis of the data and prepare a PowerPoint presentation about our findings.

Then we had a group discussion, which was monitored by three interviewers. The slides we'd written were printed off for us to refer to, and we had 15 minutes to discuss several points and reach a conclusion together.

The discussion was the most difficult part of the day for me, because I didn't have enough financial knowledge to understand what the data was telling me. Other members of my group carried the discussion, and I didn't say much. But I didn't feel intimidated by my group or those monitoring the task, just at a technical disadvantage.

We then had a break for lunch. The other people in my group were friendly and helped me catch up with what I didn't understand during the discussion, in preparation for the individual interviews.

The first interview was 30 minutes long. It was like a role play, in which I had to feed back to my interviewer what we'd discussed as a group to "prep" him for a meeting. The interviewer had sat in on the group discussion, and I think he knew that my financial knowledge was limited and tailored the questions accordingly. He was very friendly and encouraging, so that put me at ease a little.

Finally, I had a more standard interview that was based on my motivations for applying and competency questions. This was by far the best part of the day for me, as I felt prepared for my interviewer's questions and was confident about my answers.

The outcome

Several parts of the assessment centre didn't go as well as I feel they could have. I shot myself in the foot by being quiet during the group discussion, because that was my chance to show my ability to interact well with others, which is very important. I also wish I'd prepared more thoroughly and found out how to read and interpret financial data. For anyone not studying a business or finance-related subject at university, I'd recommend learning about the financial structure of a company and how to interpret its accounts before attending an assessment centre.

I wasn't offered an internship in the end, but the assessment centre was a valuable learning experience and it's given me some practice so I can perform better next time.