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What to expect at an investment banking assessment centre

If you’re attempting to get an internship or graduate job in investment banking, particularly in EMEA or APAC, it’s likely that an assessment centre will be the last hurdle you face.

You’ve already met the bank’s hygiene standards for junior candidates after going through automated tests (such as HireVue and Pymetrics) and sometimes preliminary interviews. Assessment centres, however, are longer and more in-depth tests – not just of your technical skills, but also of your cultural fit and your ability to perform the job.

As well as doing interviews during assessment centres, you’re likely to have to make a presentation and/or do a case study, because the bank is trying to replicate the work you’d carry out as an analyst. “Assessment centres are the final round of the selection process for all of our junior talent programmes,” says a spokesperson for junior talent recruiting at UBS in London, adding that the Swiss firm typically runs them from September to January for both interns and graduates.

While superdays – which banks like Goldman Sachs and JP Morgan run when hiring from US campuses – are similar to European assessment centres, they’re arguably not quite as gruelling as case studies typically aren’t on the agenda.

There’s no hard and fast rule for the 2022 hiring season about whether assessment centres are virtual or in-person – it depends on the bank and the location, and some banks have yet to decide. At UBS in the UK, assessment centres were held in person up until 2019, but like at other firms, they went virtual in 2020 and 2021. The bank has yet to determine its policy for the upcoming recruiting season. In APAC – especially in Greater China where some Covid restrictions remain in force – many assessment centres are still being held virtually this year.

How should you prepare for an assessment centre? While each bank structures them differently, there are some basics that you need to know about ahead of your big day.

Come armed with “selling points”

Pitching your strengths is vital in all job interviews, but none more so than in assessment centres, where you need to deliver a consistent message to multiple interviewers, and you’re up against other candidates vying for their attention on the same day. “Know exactly what you want to say in interviews. You should have a clear idea of your selling points,” says graduate career coach Alex Wong.

Shape each answer around your selling points

Don’t wait for the “what are your strengths” question (or similar) to talk about your selling points. You must weave them in to other answers, too. “Don’t always interpret questions in a literal sense; try to relate them to your pitch,” says Wong. “Usually candidates competing at this level have plenty of things to say – about internships, sports, clubs and societies, or case competitions – but they fail when they can’t pitch this experience to interviewers,” he adds.

Still expect a few technical questions

If you thought that your technical skills have already been deemed strong enough during the earlier hiring process, think again. There will still be some technical questions during an assessment centre – e.g. around valuation or modelling –  and they’re likely to come from any analysts and associates on an interview panel. You might directly be working under them, so they’ll want to know that you’re up to scratch.

Show your market sense

Alongside technical questions about the specific job function you’re applying for, you’re likely to get questions that test your wider knowledge of financial markets . “In 2022, more and more banks are testing market sense. Sometimes that’s generic and open-ended – like ‘what’s the top challenge in financial markets right now?’ – but sometimes it relates to market events like interest-rate changes, a flash crash etc,” says Wong. “It's getting increasingly important for students to follow financial news regularly over a longer period of time. Banks want to see width over depth in an assessment centre setting,” he adds.

Prepare for behavioural questions

If you’ve avoided behavioural (or competency-based) questions so far in the recruitment process, you can’t escape them at assessment centre interviews. Expect questions that allow the interviewer to test your behaviour in a given scenario. They typically begin with ‘tell me about a time when you…’ and are designed to test your analytical, motivational and individual competencies – for example ‘tell me about a time when you identified a new approach to a problem’. Don’t rush, structure your reply using the STAR technique: describe the ‘situation’ you faced, the ‘task’ required as a result, the ‘action’ you took, and finally the ‘result’ of that action.

Expect a group exercise

If you want to join an investment bank as an ego-boosting exercise and think a career in the sector is all about pushing yourself ahead of your colleagues, the group exercise of the assessment centre is designed to ensure you don’t get a job. You’ll be placed in a group of four to six people and will be typically asked to work out a solution to a particular problem which you’ll then present to a group of bankers. But the technical quality of your answer isn’t really what you need to worry about. Banks will use the group exercise to assess your communication and teamworking skills and the bankers will be eavesdropping on your group throughout the discussions.

The set-up could be different, however, if the assessment centre is virtual. “Even if it’s a group Zoom meeting with several students, the interviewer often has to facilitate the discussion, so it’s like a series of individual interviews, but with everyone seeing everyone,” says Wong.

Be decisive during the case study

If, as at UBS global banking, you face a case study, this is arguably the most intimidating part of the whole assessment centre. You’ll likely be given a problem (and related documents) appropriate for the division you’re applying to. You’ll then be given a limited timeframe in which to construct a cohesive argument and a clear conclusion that you then present to a panel of bankers. The key to success is to not simply regurgitate the information back to the bankers and to develop a comparatively simple argument that you can present in time and defend with confidence. “Some case studies are division-specific – M&A ones test your M&A analysis skills, for example,” says Wong. “And all of them are about testing your logical thought process and how you communicate it.”

Chat about extra-curricular activities

You’re almost certain to be asked about what you do in your spare time, so come prepared with examples which are both interesting and demonstrate leadership, entrepreneurial or other bank-friendly skills. “Your answers should be well thought through and showcase how you’re a well-rounded individual,” says a graduate recruiter from a US bank. “Through the assessment centre we will be able to establish a holistic view of you, which will allow us to make informed decisions on your candidacy.”

Ask questions and impress the junior interviewers

“Don’t let nerves get the better of you, and always ask questions at the end of the interview,” says the UBS spokesperson. After assessment days, interviewers will typically hold an internal meeting to discuss the candidates they’ve just seen. But the senior panelists – MDs and directors – won’t necessarily call all the shots because the core on-the-job relationships will involve you and the associates and VPs. It’s critical, therefore, to impress the more junior interviewers. “Be yourself – interviewers want to see personality and what you can bring to the firm,” says the UBS junior-talent spokesperson.

Expect some curveballs

Even if you follow all the advice above, don’t be alarmed if the assessment centre doesn’t go entirely to plan; banks sometimes like to bring unexpected elements into the schedule to see how you cope with change. For example, it won’t always be someone in the specific team you want to join – or even the division – who interviews you. Recruiters will sometimes ask people from elsewhere in the firm to take part in the discussion, so be sure that your preparation includes research on the bank’s operations as a whole.

Photo by Scott Graham on Unsplash

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AUTHORSimon Mortlock Content Manager

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