Assessment Centres

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Assessment centres are often used by large employers recruiting for early career programmes, such as graduate schemes, where there is likely to be a significant intake of people into the company on the same training programme. However, some elements of the assessment centre process, particularly personality and competency tests, giving presentations, role plays or written exercises, may be used for other types of recruitment, including direct entry roles, even for senior positions. Therefore, getting an idea of the process and types of activities which employers may use to test your skills is an important part of preparing for work.

Assessment Centre format

Employers may run several sessions over a period of a few days or weeks, identifying a few candidates from each session to move to the next stage. At the assessment centre, usually there will be a large group of candidates who will be asked to perform a series of tasks during the day, usually in teams. The day may also include an interview session and breaks where lunch or refreshments may be served. It can seem daunting but you should be very proud to have made it to this stage, from the thousands of applications the employer has received, only a small percentage of candidates will be invited to the assessment centre.

Group exercises

A key aspect of assessment centres is for employers to test your soft skills, particularly teamworking, interpersonal, communication skills and problem-solving. By putting you in groups of people you don’t know and assessing your performance, communication style and interactions with others, the recruiter will get a better understanding of your personality type and how you deal with new situations, information and people. Underlying skills/aptitudes that will you also demonstrate during the activity include coping under pressure and time management as the situation lends itself to a certain level of stress.

Many graduate schemes – in engineering and business – focus on leadership potential and it can be tempting to think you need to show you are in charge throughout and making all the key decisions. This may reflect your natural personality but if this isn’t your normal behaviour, you do not necessarily have to try and conform to a particular personality type. Remember that employers will be looking for balanced teams, usually seeking a range of different skills, knowledge and personalities, so it is best to focus on what you are good at, and aim to highlight your strengths, rather than trying to conform to a preconceived expectation of what you think the employer is looking for.

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Business case scenarios

Often, assessment centres include a group exercise whereby you are given case studies related to the employer’s field and are asked to decide on a strategy. This could be an engineering decision,  an investment proposal etc. As a group you may be asked to analyse the information presented to you, debate as a group which strategy is best for the company and to produce a presentation or argument to justify your decision at the end of the session.

These types of exercises will test your teamwork skills, how you analyse new and complex information, your commercial acumen and decision-making process. They can apply both to engineering and commercial graduate recruitment days.

Practical activities

Another type of popular exercise asks you to produce something using a range of materials. For example, building a bridge with pipe cleaners, making a structure with dry spaghetti.

 Pitfalls to beware of:

  • No group focus or direction

It helps to designate a project manager for the task. This should be done quite quickly and be a member of the group who is good at planning and has grasped the key elements of the task at hand. Without this, it is easy to lose focus on achieving the key objectives which the employer has set for the activity.

  • Poor timekeeping

Again, there can be a lot of information to read through, assimilate and analyse. It is important to ensure a member of the group is aware of the time and keeping everyone on track. Ensure not too much time is spent reading individually (and therefore in silence), but moving on to the group analysis and discussion.

  • Misinterpreting the documentation or task objective

Ensure as group you have fully understood the data presented and what you have been asked to do. If someone has misinterpreted any aspects needs further explication, ensure this is done in a positive manner.

  • Ensuring everyone can contribute

If you see someone not speaking, ask them what they think; they may have a useful contribution to make but be nervous about speaking out.

  • Agreeing on a chosen strategy and justification

If you can’t agree, look for an individual who is a calm influence and can help avoid conflict which wastes valuable time.

Other group exercises

You could be asked to produce a presentation based on some data/information which has been provided to you. Again you need to designate a task leader, work out each other’s skills and how you will approach the task and write the presentation.

You may be asked to complete a negotiation task – this could be a business case study or role play but it could even be a parlour-type of game. For example: you are asked to each play the role of a famous person in history and are all gathered in a hot air balloon basket. There is not enough fuel and one person must jump out. Argue the case for why you should remain in the basket.

Written exercises and aptitude tests

You may be asked to perform a written task which is related to your role, such as analyse a spreadsheet, create a spreadsheet from a data set, use other relevant software, compose a letter or email to a client, write a press release, produce an advert etc. This will help the employer test your written communication skills or use of relevant IT packages.

If you have any condition which may mean you need more time for this type of exercise, such as dyslexia, you may wish to disclose this before the assessment day. If English is not your first language, or your grammar/spelling, relevant software knowledge is a little rusty, brush up your skills before the assessment centre.

The employer may also provide a personality or aptitude test, such as numeracy, verbal reasoning or analysing your sales flair. While many such tests now usually take place before the assessment centre online, it can sometimes still be valuable for employers to run these on the day and you may even get feedback on your performance there and then.


The employer may ask you to prepare a presentation in advance for the day on a particular theme. If this is the case and you are bringing slides on a USB stick ensure that it is not corrupted; it may be best to save onto two sticks just in case. If possible, email the slides in advance. If you are using your own laptop or a tablet, or a different presentation software, don’t assume that it will work at the site. Check in advance that it will be compatible with the employer’s IT facilities.

While sometimes there is a risk of ‘death by powerpoint’ and you may prefer not to produce slides, it can be useful to ensure the employer has something to remember you by. Whether using slides or taking a different approach, it is a good idea to prepare some handouts for the employer with your key points, presented in an attractive, clear way, which they can keep. Make sure the handouts clearly show your name.

Sometimes employers may ask you to prepare a presentation on the day itself, this could be about yourself, or a particular theme or case study. As with other exercises, ensure you manage your time effectively to ensure you are able to come up with a complete presentation which fully covers the objectives stated.

Role plays

Sometimes you may be asked to perform a role play situation. This can be quite common for customer service related roles where you may encounter difficult situations or have to deal with complaints, such as passenger services. The employer will be testing you to see how you think on your feet, how you deal with someone who may be rude to you, how you cope under pressure, maintain your composure, align with company policy and/or your general language and behaviour.

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Catering breaks

During the assessment centre the employer may provide you with refreshments or even lunch. After a difficult task it can be tempting to use these periods to relax a little and lower your guard. The assessor may appear to have left the room, giving you and your colleagues time to chat. Remember that even if the breaks are not an official part of the assessment process, your behaviour and attitudes will still have an impact. You may be starving, but try not to eat all the food. If you are chatting with other candidates, keep the tone light but professional. Avoid subjects which are controversial or do not engage the interest of fellow candidates. You want to show you can get on with all types of people and interests. The employer may join you and engage you in a conversation, again ensure you remain professional and courteous.

Challenging situations

Dealing with dominant personalities

You may find that usually you are the one in your group to take the lead, come up with new ideas or solutions to problems. Suddenly at the assessment centre, someone else seems to be more confident, taking the lead and you don’t know what to do. Don’t panic, ensure you let people have their say but calmly plan how you can ensure you make useful contributions.

Feeling frustrated?

If you feel frustrated with a particular person or task, be careful about letting it show. Grumpy faces, sighing out loud, grimacing when other people speak will be picked up by the employer! Throughout the day the employer’s team of assessors will be analysing everyone, even when you are not speaking, and will pick up on your reactions. Keep up a positive and professional attitude throughout the day.


The assessment centre may end with an interview, either with a Panel made up of different parts of the business (e.g. HR, Engineering Manager, Line Manager) or one key individual. Even if you have an interview on the day and it goes well, it is likely that there will be another stage in the selection process after the assessment centre, such as a second interview. More help and advice on interviews is available in our interview section.

Assessment centre – summary

A few final tips:

  • Be yourself. Your application and experiences have impressed the employer. Aim to highlight the attributes in your application rather than try and become a different personality.
  • Be friendly and professional. Show you can get on with people, remain patient and calm even under pressure.
  • Wear a watch. If you have timed tasks, getting your phone out to check the time will leave a bad impression and could look like you are checking your messages.

More help with job applications

For more help with the recruitment process, why not visit our pages on CVs, Writing Compelling Covering Letters, Soft Skills, Online Application Forms and Interviews. You can also start preparing for the selection process and aptitude tests with our Self Assessment Portal.