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Assessment Centres: How to Shine

by Rob Cross on March 24th, 2010

An opportunity to shine…

So you’ve managed to get through the selection process and have been invited to an Assessment Centre – fantastic, well done! This is a really great achievement, considering that you’ve probably been chosen above hundreds of other applicants so far. Also, getting invited to an Assessment Centre (or AC for short) shows that you have something employers are looking for – they want to know more about you!

An AC therefore gives you the perfect opportunity to prove to them what you’re truly capable of – it’s your opportunity to shine!

What is an Assessment Centre?

An AC is a very commonly used recruiting approach that seeks to assess candidates using a range of techniques including interviews, presentations, group exercise, role plays, and written case studies. The use of such a broad range of techniques in a single centre ensures that candidates are given the best opportunity to shine; after all some people will be better at some approaches than others.

How to SHINE at an AC?

Standing out and ’shining’ at an AC is actually more straightforward than many people realise. Most of all to stand out requires that you relax and just be yourself. It’s important to realise that the reason you’ve been successful up to this point in the selection process (and also in life) is by being yourself, so why change now?

Be Prepared

To help you remain relaxed and be yourself on the day of the AC however, I would also highly recommend taking some time to prepare. For some ACs this is easier said than done depending on the amount of information provided before hand. Regardless of this, the more prepared you are, the more confident you will feel, and the more relaxed you’ll be.

To prepare for an AC, as a mimimum I would recommend the following:

  • Do your Research – Before any interview or AC always make sure you do your research. There is nothing more frustrating for an employer to have a candidate turn up who knows nothing about the organisation, industry or role they’re applying for. In doing your research, the essentials to focus on the following:
    • Review their website to understand the organisation’s purpose, strategy and values – you must be able to tell a story about the organisation.
    • Broaden your research to understand key challenges and priorities for the organisation – i.e. when have they been in the press lately and for what?
    • Seek to understand the key trends in their industry including who their major competitors are and what their strategies are.
    • Seek to fully understand the role you are applying for, especially in terms of the types of tasks and activities you would be doing day to day, and also how this role fits into the broader strategy of the organisation.
  • Prepare your Responses- For any interview or AC, always prepare answers for the ’standard’ type questions that employers ask, for example; When have you worked in a team? When have you lead a team? etc. There are many sites on the internet that give lists of these questions, and whilst you may not be asked those specific questions, preparing and then practicing your responses will help you feel more confident about anything you could potentially be asked. In seeking to prepare and practice it is always worth getting the help from those you around you, especially in practicing your answers out loud.
  • Remind yourself of your CV – Before you turn up to an AC, make sure you review and remind yourself of the story you’ve told in your CV. There is nothing more embarrassing than being asked a question about your CV and you having forgotten what you had written.
  • Know the Content and Format- Never turn up to an AC without knowing the types of activities you’ll have to undertake. Most employers will provide you with an outline of the AC, but if they don’t be sure to ask and also scour the internet to see if any information exists on that organisation’s particular assessment process (e.g. has some great information for major UK organisations). By knowing the content and format you can be a little more comfortable that you know what you’re walking into.

By doing these minimum things you can make sure that you are as prepared as you can be for what you’re going to encounter on the day – as they say Perfect Preparation Prevents Poor Performance!

The Specifics – Tips and Tricks

Beyond the essential preparation mentioned above, there are some tips and tricks that are important to know for an AC. These relate to the specific activities you will encounter.


As mentioned above, it is essential that you consider the types of questions you will be asked at an interview. There are many sites on the internet which give guidance on this by just searching for ‘common interview questions’. In thinking about what types of questions you will be asked, it is worth focusing both on the generic (e.g. when have you lead a team?) and also the industry, organisation and role specific questions topics. When preparing the answers to potential questions, be sure to use the S.T.A.R. approach:

  • Situation and Task: Describe the situation that you were confronted with or the task that needed to be accomplished – this sets the context for your response.
  • Action: This is the most important section of the STAR approach as it is where you will need to demonstrate and highlight the skills and personal attributes that the question is testing. Be sure to focus on what YOU did, how YOU did it, and also why YOU did it.
  • Results: Explain what you achieved and also use the opportunity to describe what you accomplished and what you learnt in the situation.

Using the S.T.A.R. approach will help you to not only describe the situation, but also what you did and the results you achieved.

Whilst you can never anticipate what exactly you’ll be asked, you can be prepared and then adapt your prepared answers where appropriate. You can also ensure that you feed into the interview the things you especially want the employer to know, such as key achievements etc.

The final tip for interviews is to keep your responses sharp and to the point, don’t waffle and be sure to answer the question being asked.


If an employer is going to use presentations in a AC, they will generally do one of two things; (1) Ask you to prepare before hand, or (2) Ask you to prepare on the day. Either way, much like using the S.T.A.R. technique above, there is a approach to creating a winning presentation. In applying this approach, it’s important to realise that your presentation will be seeking to propose a solution(s) to a particular problem or situation. Your role in the presentation is therefore to tell a compelling story that you know how to approach it. A winning presentation, whether 3, 5, 10 or 20min always includes:

  1. Introduction – Always introduce yourself and your topic at the start of your presentation.
  2. Agenda – Very briefly cover the key points you are going to talk about in your presentation (i.e. tell them what you’re going to tell them about).
  3. Situation/Problem- Describe the situation or problem that is creating the need for a solution (e.g. the organisation is suffering from increased competition, which is resulting declining revenue and market share, and is ultimately threatening the future of the business).
  4. Governing Thought – Against the situation describe your high level proposal and your 3 solutions (e.g. to ensure the future success of the business we must increase market share through (1) investing in R&D to develop new products, (2) increase market penetration of existing products, and (3) explore new markets to sell our products into).
  5. Solution 1 – Describe solution 1, how to implement it and the results that will be achieved.
  6. Solution 2 – Describe solution 2, how to implement it and the results that will be achieved.
  7. Solution 3 – Describe solution 3, how to implement it and the results that will be achieved.
  8. Summary – Briefly summarise the situation, governing thought and 3 key solutions (i.e. tell them what you’ve told them).
  9. Questions – Finish your presentation and ask if there are any questions.

Regardless of the duration of your presentation, applying this approach shows you have a clear structure, you understand the problem being faced and you have a concise plan of attack to deal with it.

Group Exercise

The group exercise is always one of the toughest of the activities at a AC. This is because it is the activity where you are dependent on the behaviour of others. In most group exercises you are given some problem to solve as a group. This could be anything from planning and event, to deciding on a marketing strategy etc. Regardless of the activity however, there are a couple of things to be conscious of:

  • Be assertive not dominant- Too many people believe that in the group exercise you have to be dominant to stand out. This is not the case. Employers dislike overly dominant people as they remind them of the most frustrating people they have to work with day to day (you don’t want to be seen to be one of these people). What they do like however is people who assertively get their point across. Therefore, if you have an opinion or idea at any stage of the task, be sure to speak up. Don’t just sit there waiting your turn, as it may never come around. If you’re shy, speaking up is always difficult, that is where you can use your physical presence a bit more, such as, when you want to say something, lean forward in your chair and make a gesture with your hand (don’t put your hand up like you’re in school). Doing this will help you get noticed and give you the opportunity to say your piece.
  • Keep focused – Deciding on the structure for how to tackle the task and keeping to the time allocated are always key areas where groups go wrong. Therefore, being the person that introduces this structure by challenging the group on what it must achieve and how it will do this, and then by keeping the group on track with timing is always a good way to get noticed.
  • Support others – When you’re a part of any team or group it’s always essential to support those around you. This means agreeing with people when they’ve made a good point, ensuring shy people are included in the conversation, and congratulating people when they come up with good ideas. When you feel like you’re competing with others at an AC, this sometimes feels difficult to do, but it is something that employers look for because they want to see you as someone they would like to work with.
  • Be original – A key mistake many people make in group exercises is to avoid coming up with anything original, hence they either just agree with others, or state the obvious. Never be afraid to be creative or think outside the box. Often employers will be looking for people who bring something new, after all, that is one of the reasons they recruit new talent.

The group exercise is therefore really focused on your ability to work effectively as a part of a team – how well you can work with others! However, because it is one of the few AC activities where you have to work with those you might be competing against, it often feels like you need to be on guard and be fiercely competitive. This is not the case. Yes, be competitive and show you have drive and ambition, but not at the expense of proving you area team player – employers focus mostly on whether they would like to work with you!

Role Plays

Role plays can take a variety of forms, however they generally focus on needing to act out some form of activity that you might encounter in the job you’re applying for. It could also be that you have to work with an actor who is posing as an employee or senior manager.

The most critical piece of advice for any role play is to BE YOURSELF!

A role play is really just seeking to see how you might handle a particular situation especially in terms of how you relate and build relationships with others. Therefore, the best approach is just to be yourself and seek to relate to people as you naturally would in any job or professional situation; always be courteous and respectful, whilst also being focused on what you need to achieve. Often what employers are looking for is how you build rapport and relationships with others, whilst balancing the need to drive to get tasks done.

Written Case Studies

The written case study is generally focused on your analytical ability. This means your ability to review a situation, understand the problem, draw out the key points and then propose solutions. Due to this, and much like any University assignment, it is essential to focus first and foremost on what is the question being asked. Whilst this sounds simple, too many people get writing and forget all about what is being asked and hence end up completely off track!

In seeking to answer the questions it is also essential to concisely structure your thinking before you begin to write. This means that before you put pen to paper, you first work out how you are going to structure your responses. Doing this will help you draw out your key ideas and will allow those reading your case study to see what you’re really thinking without having to work to hard. Also make sure that if you are writing, make it legible so it’s easy to read.

A final note…

Assessment Centres are a very balanced way of looking at any candidate, hence why multiple activities are used. Therefore, if during the day you feel like you haven’t done well in one activity, don’t worry because the employers look at you as a complete picture – and after all we are each better at somethings than others.

So the final three pieces of advice I have if you’ve been invited to an Assessment Centre are:

  1. Be Prepared – proper preparation prevents poor performance.
  2. Be Structured – always consider what you are going to write, say or do before you do it.
  3. Be Relaxed- seek to relax and just be yourself, after all that is the person who’s been successful up to this point.

And finally, if during the day you start to get nervous, take some big deep breaths, focus back on your preparation and structure, and then you’ll start to relax!!



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  2. My cousin recommended this blog and she was totally right keep up the fantastic work!

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