Assessment centres - what to expect and how to be prepared

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A day-long event, in which candidates are examined from every possible angle, and at all possible moments (including meal times), the assessment centre is a lot more than an interview. It is a process that makes for a demanding experience and it is one for which it is best to come prepared.

Assessment centres are occasions for employers to scrutinise the intangibles that cannot be gleaned from your CV. Banks are increasingly preoccupied with &quotcultural fit&quot.

Therefore, during the intense seven hours that you spend at the assessment centre, it is your behavioural characteristics as well as your technical ability that will be under examination.

The desirable behavioural features that are being sought by the bank are referred to as &quotcompetencies&quot. Invariably they will include elements such as: the ability to work in a group, the analysis of data, commercial awareness, determination, behaviour under pressure, and strategic thinking.

Throughout the day you will be assessed in relation to these competencies, not in relation to other candidates.

You will be given several opportunities to demonstrate the competencies being sought. The day is likely to include psychometric tests, group exercises, and an in-depth interview.

To begin with, however, you are likely to be asked to introduce yourself to the other candidates. The assessors may ask you to couch your description of yourself in terms of your greatest achievement during the past year.

Such achievements cannot generally be academic, so it will be necessary to have something else in mind. Charity work, sport, and college societies may all provide anecdotes suggesting your ability to realise goals.

If you're not asked to present yourself in terms of achievements, you may be asked to focus on changes in your life, or embarrassing moments. Be prepared.

Psychometric tests are becoming increasingly popular among banks and are used to gather information on behavioural and technical abilities. Behavioural tests will often ask you to make a choice between two types of behaviour that are not incompatible and, at first glance, perhaps not that different.

Non-technical tests of this type have no right or wrong answers, so the best you can aim for is to reply truthfully. Attempts to manipulate the answers often lead to conspicuous inconsistencies. Other tests may evaluate your numerical or linguistic ability, or your commercial awareness.

Scores on these tests improve with trying so it's worth asking your careers service if they can provide you with some samples.

At some point, your day will almost certainly include a group exercise in which you, and several other candidates, are asked to solve a problem using suggested imperfect solutions. Time will likely be restricted to 45 minutes.

In its Assessment Centre Video*, AGCAS (the Association of Graduate Careers Advisor Services) advises that when approaching such an exercise you first stop and think about what is being asked and how you should go about providing the answer.

Think out loud so that assessors get a look at your rationalising ability. It may be helpful to analyse the problem within the framework of a SWOT (Strengths, Weaknesses, Opportunities, Threats) analysis, or a CCC analysis (Customers, Costs, Competition).

Be aware of the time and when you have made some progress, it may helpful to pause to allow yourself and others time to reconsider what has been achieved. Use any presentation materials that have been provided, eg flip charts.

It is imperative to be actively involved in any discussions that take place during the assessment centre. Before taking centre stage, it's worth bearing in mind that selectors are not only looking for your dynamism and ideas, but for your ability to listen and to take into account suggestions from others.

Therefore, don't interrupt, but take an interest in what others are saying. In the event of disagreement, AGCAS recommends that you be assertive rather than aggressive or passive. If you are naturally aggressive, listen to others. If you are passive, make sure that you are heard.

While an interview is over within a relatively short space of time, assessment centres are long-lasting, but this is no excuse for relaxing. Throughout the day, remember that you are in an artificial situation in which you need to make yourself appealing to the assessors.

Smile and talk slowly and clearly. Be aware of your body language: crossed arms and legs can indicate defensiveness leaning forwards suggests excessive enthusiasm. Charisma will be an asset, but not if it appears too contrived.

The AGCAS video features a candidate whose enthusiasm for &quothigh growth areas&quot, the necessity of &quotvision&quot, and use of other business jargon is judged too clichéd to be of value.

At some point you are likely to undergo a &quotstructured&quot interview. This is the assessors' opportunity to get to examine any weaknesses that may have been exposed during your interaction with the group.

Expect, therefore, that questions will be probing and challenging. In structured interviews, questions are often based around the provision of examples.

You may be asked to recollect a time when you have displayed your ability to work with others to achieve a goal, or to have demonstrated creativity in solving a problem. Use examples that demonstrate that you can approach matters methodically.

There are some questions that you should definitely prepare for. Ensure you know something about investment banking (see this site's Sector Profiles) and familiarise yourself with some financial terms.

Read financial news (see the eFinancialNews.com link) for a few weeks before the interview (see How to read financial pages in the Job Hunting Advice section).

The reasons why you have chosen investment banking as a career, and the reason why you selected your university course, are standard questions.

Responses focusing on your drive, desire to work with high calibre people, and interest in the analytical element of your course are advisable. Answers indicating you are just in it for the money are likely to be detrimental to your success.

*The Assessment Centre Video, AGCAS is available through careers services, and from e-media at the University of Southampton (023 8059 2330).

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