What to expect during your first assessment centre

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Assessment centres have become almost inevitable during the graduate application process-so here's what to expect when you get called in.

In the job application process, assessment centres come in after application forms and online tests, and before formal interviews. They are essentially day-long group interviews in which you join fellow applicants in completing various tests and tasks such as group exercises, presentations, in-tray tests and the most awkward lunch ever.

To help you get a handle on what to expect from these assessment days, we've broken down the main components of the standard itinerary so you know what you've got to do to succeed.

1. Group work: there's no "I" in team...

What they're looking for: teamwork, verbal communication, diplomacy, leadership and problem solving skills.

Group discussions or team exercises offer a particular brand of awkwardness, as you have to work together to try and prove you are the best for the job. The groups usually consist of about ten candidates with a set task to discuss, debate and eventually come to an agreement on. Topics can include workplace scenarios, mini-projects around new or imaginary products, or professional dilemmas.

You will be observed throughout every stage of this task, so it is important be aware of your behaviour and input. You should be an active participant, but not dominate the proceedings. Remember-great leadership is not necessarily about taking charge, and your potential employers will be looking for your ability to be diplomatic and coordinate responses in service of an ultimate goal.

One last note: don't expect all the tasks to relate directly to the position in question-example discussion topics can include sinking ships with limited room in lifeboats for supplies just as easily as methods of pitching new products to complex audiences.

2. In-tray exercises: you've got mail!

What they're looking for: organisation, time management, the ability to prioritise and plan, and good written communication.

In-tray exercises can occur at assessment centres or online. During these exercises, you will be asked to sit at a computer and manage tasks as they arrive in your "in-tray". The tasks will require you to respond according to urgency, which means you must be able to prioritise time-sensitive information and manage a shifting workload.

Examples scenarios of in-tray exercises include completing several shorter tasks in time for a scheduled meeting, all while making a start on a lengthy report.

It is important to concentrate on the details of each task, evaluate its importance and any time constraints which may apply. The work is designed to pile up-the important part is how you manage the flow.

3. Presentations: yes, you can!

What they're looking for: Confident public speaking, professional demeanour and good verbal communication.

If you are required to give a presentation, you will usually be asked to prepare in advance. Make sure you know how long your presentation should be, which topic you are covering, and if you have access to a laptop or projector and the internet.

There are many components to delivering a stellar presentation, but for brevity's sake we have focused on the basics:

  • Enunciate - For those with a nervous disposition or a strong accent, make sure to speak slowly and clearly so people can understand you.
  • Be clear - Have a clear idea of what you are talking about and what you are trying to get across.
  • Have a beginning, a middle and an end - Introduce what you are going to say, say what you are going to say, and then sum up what you have said.
  • PowerPoint faux pas - Do not get carried away with the options for your presentation, no swooping or sliding for each quote.
  • Prepare for the worst - Technical hitches, lost notes and unexpected audience questions can all cause hiccups. Make sure you have a back up plan.

4. Lunch: quiche and conversation

What they're looking for: Confidence and friendliness.

Sian Gardiner has compared assessment centres to the real life Hunger Games (and we can understand why) but there's no reason to be mean-spirited or condescending to fellow applicants-you're all in the same boat, after all.

If you are lucky, you will be provided with a delicious buffet lunch (fingers crossed) at which you will be expected to make small talk with your fellow applicants. It is important to remember that you are being monitored all day-including this lunch. Use the opportunity to show your confidence and communication skills by striking up conversations with fellow applicants.

Assessment centres can be intimidating, but there is no need to get too stressed. Remember that you are being monitored not just on your performance, but also on your interactions with the company's team and other applicants, and put your best foot forward.

Not all assessment days will not follow this set menu, some may only include one or two of the tasks on this list, and some may throw in a formal interview for desert.

Come prepared for anything with a ready and enthusiastic attitude, and you'll do fine.