Everything you need to know about the hidden horrors of the investment banking assessment centre

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If you’ve made it through investment banks’ initial screening processes – the online applications and psychometric tests, telephone interviews and, in some cases, a face-to-face grilling – then you’ll be invited to the final hurdle, the assessment centre.

Not all banks have them – Goldman Sachs doesn’t, for instance. Nonetheless, it’s the preferred way of deciding which students to hire in EMEA and Asia. Here’s what you should expect.

1. More numerical tests

The online numerical tests were easy – the ones you’ll face during the assessment centre will step up a gear. However, to ensure that you didn’t Google your way through it, or pay a maths whizz to take the exam for you, many banks will ask you to re-sit the tests again first thing in the morning. Some banks will set harder numerical tests throughout the day.

How to excel: Just make sure you’ve continued to practise. numerical tests are relatively simple – addition, subtraction, percentages, graph – reading.

2. Individual presentation

Some banks are kind and send you the topic a week before, others present you with documents on the day and expect you to digest the information and come up with a cohesive argument. It’s usually a problem relevant to your field – your opinion on a potential M&A deal in the news, the future of the bank you’re working at, how to value a company. This will be assessed by senior people in your business line, so it’s really your chance to shine…or sink.

How to excel: Construct a cohesive argument with a set number of points and a conclusion. Don’t simply regurgitate the information back without giving a concrete opinion, and be prepared to have it questioned – managing directors will attempt to rip it to shreds. Keep it concise and clear – don’t tie yourself up in knots by creating an overly complex argument you can’t present in time.

3. Group exercise

You’ll be separated into groups of four or five, given an information pack about a particular topic and asked to work together to come up with a discussion on its contents, usually followed by a presentation that will be assessed by a group of managing directors. It’s not just about the presentation though, graduate recruiters will usually stroll through the discussions, trying to assess your behaviour in a group environment and how you interact in a team.

How to excel: most people assume the best way to impress is to dominate the proceedings, making their leadership qualities clear. banks generally frown on this. Instead you want to focus on actively participating without either taking over or being sidelined. Taking time to consider, communication, analysing and interpreting the information, team working and influencing others are also key.

4. Interviews

Depending on the bank, you could have anything from three to seven interviews on the day. Usually, they are with senior bankers on the team you’re applying to, but other firms also include HR. Some will be competency-based – assessing your behaviour in a given scenario – others will be technical, testing your banking know-how.

How to excel: remember the STAR (Situation, Task, Action, Result) approach to interviewing, helping maintain structure to your answers. Know your CV, because you will be questioned on everything. And above all stay calm – brainteasing questions designed to make you think on your feet will be used extensively.

5. E-tray/In-tray

Because it emulates a real working environment, this is often considered the most difficult element of the assessment day. You’ll be presented with documents related to a particular scenario you are ‘working on’ – financial information on a company, the structure of the firm, the bank’s stance on it. Then ‘emails’ will start flowing into your inbox, and you’ll be asked to choose from three set responses, based on your calculations or facts within the documents on your laptop. You may also be asked to advise on a particular strategy related to that firm.

How to excel: This may sound complicated, but the reasoning method is similar to other tests throughout the assessment centre and recruitment process. Use the information you have, digest it and give the logical answer.

6. Written exercise

Depending on the bank, you could be asked to write a multi-page report, a simple email or a one- pager, but the object of the exercise is simple – testing your written communication skills.

You will be asked to come up with a compelling case for, say, acquiring a particular company, again based on information provided to you by the bank.

How to excel: Think of it like an essay – introduce your argument, give up to four reasons why you think this is the case, and cement your point with a conclusion. Don’t skirt around the point – make a decision and take a view. Oh, and make sure your grammar is impeccable.

Succeeding at the super-day

In the US, instead of assessment centres, banks tend to invite students in for a day of interviews starting on a Saturday morning, known as a super-day.

These are only open to the students banks are genuinely interested in, and who would have passed the first stages of the application process. Generally, a bank will fly in candidates and put them up in a hotel near head office – usually New York – and invite them to a networking event the night before.

This is informal, and gives you a chance to meet other candidates, but should still be viewed as the first test – some banks, admittedly not often, have been known to make hiring decisions there and then.

In theory, super-days are simple – you’ll be required to undertake a series of interviews with various members of the business. There will be at least one interview with someone at every level – analyst, associate, VP, director (or executive director) and managing director – but there could be as many as ten 30-minute interviews from 8am-6pm.

Some firms take a ‘reality TV’ approach – eliminating candidates throughout the day, but others will make a decision at the end of the super-day based on scores submitted by the different people who have interviewed you.

“Expect to get beyond the usual competency questions that do not really differentiate candidates‚” says Peter Harrison, a former executive director at Goldman Sachs who now runs Harrison Careers. “Expect experienced interviewers to test what you don’t know and to find the limits of your knowledge, whether about current affairs, markets, technical knowledge, brainteasers or whatever. Expect that any lies will be detected - do not try to bluff experienced interviewers. You will ace interviews by being ready for any question.”

Technical questions will be asked, so know weaknesses in your knowledge and focus on them before the day so that you’re as prepared as you can be. And, if you don’t know the answer, try not to panic: “When they ask what the yield on the 10-year JGB Yen government bond is, you can explain you do not know that, but you DO know the yield on 1, 10 and 30-year US Treasuries, the 10-year UK Gilt and the 10-year Government Euro bond‚” says Harrison.

It’s not all about your know-how – the people interviewing you are those you’ll eventually be working with, so they want to know if you will fit into the team. This means you have to be likeable, and genuinely understand what it is you’re getting into – and whether you want to be a part of it.

“One interviewer was incredibly genial for about 15 minutes, until I made a mistake, and then he suddenly switched to a high- pressure interviewer, questioning every answer, interrupting and generally making my life difficult‚” says George Trower, a longstanding investment banking professional and careers coach. “The point is you should never let your guard down – everything is a test.

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