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Employers use assessment centres to get an impression of how candidates will perform in simulated circumstances designed to replicate aspects of the real job, and to gain a clearer picture of the sorts of qualities which are also tested in interview. Placing you directly alongside your competitors allows your assessors to see how you perform in comparison with your peers. An invitation to an assessment centre usually marks the final or penultimate stage of the recruitment process, so any candidate who makes it into one is doing well. The process can last anywhere between twelve hours and three days.
Exercises vary tremendously between various programmes, but common elements do exist. Among the kinds of tasks most frequently set are group exercises, where candidates are divided into teams; presentations in which individuals are expected to give short talks to the larger group; written tests and more one-on-one interviews. 'Competency' based interviews may be a new challenge to some candidates - questions are of the 'Describe a time when you effectively lead a team' type usually reserved for written application forms, and some prior thought should be given to delivering slick responses. Group exercises either give you a problem to solve collectively, or pit you against each other with a series of secret agendas - the key to passing these assessments is to influence others, but avoid either silence or dominance (an amazing number of people feel that the best approach is to bulldoze everyone else into submission). Several candidates in banking and retail have also encountered the kind of 'role playing' experience made famous by David Brent in The Office. Avoiding derisive laughter is essential.
The kinds of companies that use assessment centres tend to be blue chip corporations, (including food retailers, advertising and telecommunications companies), certain banks (such as Société Générale) as well as professional services firms such as Accenture.
Assessment centres are daunting to all candudates so take comfort from the fact you are not alone. You are expected to spend a day interacting with direct competitors and coping with the pressure that this situation generates and gracefully handling the social strain is part of the test. Therefore all candidates should aim to stay calm, to focus on themselves and their own objectives, and to be friendly and polite to everyone they meet. Some firms have their own venues, but some use hotels or conference centres, so lucky candidates who make it to this stage of the process can expect a free dinner and a clean bed for the night as a minimum prize for their efforts!
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