What is an assessment centre really like?

What is an assessment centre really like?
2020-03-11

Natalie recently attended an assessment centre run by a company in the finance sector. She had applied for a summer internship programme with them and has recounted her experience for us here with some advice for anyone who may be invited to attend one.

The assessment centre I attended consisted of three stages, including: an analysis exercise; a group work exercise; and an individual interview. I am going to explain these in more depth and discuss strategies that helped me throughout the day. 

Data analysis exercise 

I was provided with information from a lot of different sources and required to write a report within a limited time period. I was advised to use bullet points by a member of staff at the university - this was a really helpful tip.  Bullet points ensured that my writing was concise and ensured that I was able to finish the task on time. Furthermore, it made checking for errors a lot easier. 

I was pressured for time and there was a lot of information to read, therefore, I wrote my report whilst reading the information in each source. I did not go through sources to get ‘a rough idea’ and then write my report.  Reading the instructions for the task and making a very quick plan was adequate preparation for the task, as it ensured I stuck to the question but was not overly time consuming. 

I find decision making rather difficult at university, especially when deciding what to include in essays.  This was what I was most nervous about before completing this task. However, I found that under time pressure, it actually got a lot easier to decide what is relevant. 

I ensured that I had about six or seven minutes at the end to proof-read my work and correct any spelling or grammatical errors - I needed this amount of time, as my work was rushed. 

It can be difficult to prepare for a task like this, however, I found that reading journal articles (which I have to do as part of my course anyway) and then summarising the findings as quickly as possible, is a good way to prepare.

Group work exercise 

During this exercise, we were provided with another case study and asked to compose a much shorter report as a group.

I really liked everyone in my group as we had time to get to know one another beforehand.  I did not view the other people in the group as my competitors; I knew that Summer Internships have several places and the chances were that more than one of us would be offered a position.  I tried to be inclusive and encouraging; this was important as everyone in the group had different and valuable perspectives, including those who were naturally quieter. 

'I think it’s okay to take the lead at points where you feel as though it would genuinely help with the task in hand, but not just for the sake of it!'

There were some websites that advise people to try and show leadership skills during group work; conversely, there are other websites that caution against being overly domineering.  I did not go into the group work exercise aiming to take the lead. However, some opportunities arose where I felt as though it was necessary to influence group discussion and prioritise tasks.  I think it’s okay to take the lead at points where you feel as though it would genuinely help with the task in hand, but not just for the sake of it! Almost everyone in my team led the discussion at one point; we had a good balance.

Assessment Centre

There was a point during the group discussion when I had absolutely no idea what they were talking about (it was a financial term that I was not familiar with and can’t even remember). I was not sure whether to ask them what they meant in case the assessors marked me down for this.  However, I ended up asking the group to explain what was going on. I felt as though this was the right decision, as it then meant that I was able to actively participate in the group discussion rather than sitting in silence. Furthermore, it possibly helped someone else in the team who was as confused as I was. 

The interview

One of the things that helped me prepare for the interview was looking up the company's values (such as integrity, inclusivity) and thinking about the ways that I have demonstrated these values in the past.  This included experiences in: work; university; school; and voluntary roles. I didn’t simply outline what these roles entailed; I emphasised the skills that I had learned, the challenges I faced, and how I adapted. 

I also thought of my strengths and weaknesses, and the ways in which I have learned to manage my weakness.  One of my weaknesses is being a ‘perfectionist’ and ‘detail orientated’. I was apprehensive about saying this as it can seem quite false and disingenuous. However, it is applicable to me and has had significant implications on my work (for example, it takes me a very long time to complete tasks). When I spoke about this weakness,  I was able to expand on this by providing them with examples, and ways in which I have addressed the problems it results in (I now prioritise tasks and allocate a maximum amount of time for each task).  Therefore, I don't think it really matters what your weakness is; as long as it is a genuine one that you can speak at length about, and have been able to ‘overcome’ or ‘manage’. 

I was also nervous as I do not have extensive knowledge of the financial industry.  I study Politics and International Relations, so whilst I knew a bit about the economy, I was not able to explain in any depth the details of the financial system.  It helped me to know the meaning of key terms, such as: trading. I ensured that I was able to comprehensively explain the work of the organisation and any social or economic challenges that the company may face.  I read the news, the company website, and learned a bit about economics. However, there was no extensive knowledge required.

'I made it absolutely clear to the interviewers why I wanted the job.  It was not simply to develop skills and experience, but because I was interested in the work of the company and felt as though it was for an important cause.'

I had also prepared questions for the interviewers to demonstrate I was actually interested in the role. For example, I asked them what tasks I would be expected to carry out during the internship. It was suggested to me that I asked them ‘What do you enjoy about working here?’ This opened up a discussion with the interviewers and it resulted in the interview ending on a really positive note.

If you would like more information about how assessment centres work and how best you can prepare for them, please see our website

Published by Students, University of Aberdeen

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