Assessment centre interviews ...

“I have to attend an assessment day interview and it will be my first. What can I expect and what’s the best way to play it during the day? What are your best tips for trying to make it through to the next stage?”

This question has cropped up a lot recently as major recruitment programmes kick into gear. Anika had no real clue what to expect and how to interact with her peers on the day. She was more used to the traditional, there’s-only-one-survivor, style of single interview.

You obviously need to prepare yourself well in all the usual ways, but if you get your strategy right for the day, your odds of making it through selection will rise hugely.

What's involved ...

Assessment days are run as group interviews, so that the candidates’ full range of capabilities can be more deeply understood. An assessment centre day (or more) is likely to involve some or all of the following:

  • making a personal introduction to the group;
  • a ‘normal’ 1:1 interview;
  • a competency-based interview;
  • taking part in team-based scenario exercises;
  • role-play exercises;
  • a topic-specific open-discussion session;
  • an individual task-based exercise;
  • making a formal presentation to the group;
  • a short impromptu presentation and
  • handling lateral-thinking or creativity-assessment questions.

Prepare for all of those eventualities, just in case. An assessment day is looking to achieve the same result that a straightforward interview would – namely, roles are vacant and need filling with the most capable people. Assessment centres simply enable a deeper look at your suitability, in the context of a ‘team’ environment.

Strategy ...

Calculate your odds. It’s vitally important that you understand the odds before you attend an assessment centre interview as there are usually multiple places on offer. You could be wrestling with odds of between fifty-fifty and one-in-four but, if you know, you can calculate where you might stand and how to manage them.

Group sizes may typically vary from between ten and twenty people, with perhaps between two and ten places on offer.

Handle your nerves. Don’t be phased. Looking at the above list, if you’re nervous, my simple advice would be to stop being so self-obsessed. It’s not as though you’re going to be water-boarded as part of the interview process. Yes, you will be pushed out of your comfort zone, but so will everyone else and such events are not only fantastic experience for you, they can be a great deal of fun.

Just think about it. Ninety five per cent of attendees are likely to be bricking themselves in the same way as you. Accept your nervousness, channel the fear and push on, regardless. You’ll gain respect and your odds will improve markedly.

If you show up looking as though you’re prepared to roll your sleeves up and pitch in, even at the risk of making a bit of a fool of yourself now and then, you’re already well ahead of the tail-end Charlies and one step nearer making the cut.

Appear composed. Engage with everyone, smile a lot and be confident, but not over-confident. Show positive body language at all times.

What about those super-confident types that you will undoubtedly feel inferior to? Ninety per cent of those will be taken out the back, figuratively speaking, and whacked with a shovel. Such people are typically self-obsessed and blind to the needs of others and therefore don’t make good team-players.

They’re not tomorrow’s leaders, they’re tomorrow’s self-centred, narcissistic, what’s-my-fastest-way-up-the-greasy-pole merchants. Would you want to employ them inside your team? Skilled recruiters won’t either, so put most of them in the ‘walking dead’ pile.

Trust me, I’ve known a candidate produce a bayonet in the middle of a group discussion, just so that he could make the maximum impression (which he did), only to find that one of the assessors plunged it neatly between his shoulder blades later.

Think 'Group'. Forget about yourself, think ‘group’ or ‘team’ for the whole day. Yes, you want to win through, but think about the context. Except during a possible one-to-one interview at some stage, or perhaps whilst making a personal introduction or presentation (as distinct from a group presentation), you don’t score points for yourself. You score them for your group, or you score nothing.

Never try to score points at the expense of a fellow group member. If you do, you’ll find that each one is slowly tattooing the words ‘epic fail’ across your forehead.

At the start of any group exercises, think about the group objective first and foremost. Yes, ultimately your own objective is to win, possibly at the expense of some of your peers, but you’ll achieve your objective to the exact extent that you help the group to achieve its objective. NEVER deviate from that path.

People will try to hi-jack the situation by ‘volunteering’ to lead or to deliver the final presentation. If they look good for it, if they look the best for it, fine: let them. If they don’t, suggest that everyone states their initial thoughts as a starting point, so that roles can be appropriately allocated later. Be the one to facilitate a better group performance.

Tactics ...

So where do you get your points? Do the following:

  • Watch the time. Have in mind the latest point by which decisions should have been made and construction of the presentation started. Mentally allocate some time blocks to such things as introductory discussions, option creation, option evaluation, the decision stage, etc. Don’t overplay it. It will be like herding cats, but don’t be bossy, just efficient.
  • Be inclusive. Everyone has something to offer, even the maniacs, otherwise they wouldn’t be there. Make it your job to figure out what that is, and then help it to see the light of day. Not only will you score highly, you’ll be showing real leadership potential.
  • Be respectful. Never chop anyone else off, no matter how hopeless, rude or misguided they may be. Never ridicule a fellow group member, even if they’re wearing a pink onesie and telling you that the interviewers are all members of a secret Satanist sect.
  • Keep the group on track. Hold the task objective front and centre in your mind. Help the group to stay focused on it. Deviations inevitably occur. With one eye on the clock and the other on the objective, artfully pull them back on track when you can.
  • Never drop your guard. If you’re told that lunch is not part of the selection process, assume it is. If you’re told that drinks and a meal in the evening are informal and excluded from the selection process, assume that’s a lie. If the life and soul of the party lets it all hang out after fifteen Jaeger bombs, keep your head. You don’t need to be a kill-joy, or stay reserved, just keep it all in perspective.
  • Show leadership. Leaders don’t lead by bludgeoning, backstabbing and butt-kicking their way to the front and telling everyone that they’re the leader. You emerge as a leader by constantly doing the right things, talking the most sense and being perceived the most capable of helping the group to the result, regardless of who has what title.
  • Believe in the assessors. From the outside in, the interviewers who score such team events can see which people are adding the most value and which are the bullies, bullshitters and blusterers very easily.

In short, do the right things and you’ll get the right result!

Good luck and remember to have fun.