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The ultimate guide to Assessment Centers

Updated: May 29, 2021

Interviews are still the gold standard of recruitment, but these days, recruitment has taken on more modes of assessments to complement interviews to provide recruiters with a more holistic version of candidates. A popular mechanism is the Assessment Center.

The concept of Assessment Centers

An assessment center is the name of the recruitment process that focuses on a set of exercises. These exercises are designed to simulate a work environment and to provide an opportunity for recruiters to assess candidates in a situation that mimics the real world.

Essentially, the assessment process is said to measure the applicants' KSAs (Knowledge, Skills, and Aptitudes), helping employers gauge the development potential and candidates' ability.

Across the world, assessment centers can be bifurcated into four main types:

1. Elite graduates –used by top government organisations, consultancies, and Fortune 100 companies.

2. Graduates – used to fulfill the annual intake of fresh talent.

3. Management – primarily used for promotions and internal hiring.

4. Development – used to keep internal staff up to date on new skills and competencies.

What to expect during an Assessment Center

An assessment center can take anywhere from half a day to two full days. This phase usually begins after an initial screening interview with an HR or junior-level executive.

Depending on the company, industry, and the position you applied for, you can expect a different kind of process. But it always starts with a small briefing to help potential candidates get oriented.

The briefing includes information on the itinerary, the location, equipment roles, and timeframe of each activity.

A panel of judges will either be covertly or overtly assessing the candidates' performance throughout. These will be marked on different scales. The scales will then be compared to the required KSAs for the applied position.

However, your performance is not the only thing being measured. Often the assessment center process uses psychometric tests to understand your personality.

After the process is complete, the observers will sit together to assess the results and discuss performances. During this time, the scores for each candidate are also cross-validated against other observer's scores.

Common Exercises During the Process

While no two assessment centers are exactly alike, there are some common exercises that you should practice before attending an assessment center.

The most common are as follows:

1. In-Tray Exercises

These are exercises where a candidate may be asked to assume a fictional role and perform functions accordingly. For example, you may take on the responsibility of clearing your typical in-tray correspondence. What assessors want to see is how well you make decisions and whether your decision making matches what they are looking for in a good manager or executive.

Usually, you are given a collection of fictional documents and access to an email inbox. Documents will be provided to you in the form of emails or instructions and they may be provided to you all at once, or the emails may get sent to you while you are on your in-tray exercise.

Within a specific period of time, you are to clear all the documents. What the assessor is looking for is how you prioritise, how you manage the tasks and possibly what challenges or opportunities you may have identified from the documents. Occasionally, assessors will ask for a justification from you as to why you made certain choices. You will also be assessed on how well you work under pressure and with minimal information.

2. Presentation Exercises

No matter what your job role is in whatever industry, your presentation skills are essential to your success. These presentation exercises can take on different forms.

You could be asked to present a case study or make a final presentation at the end of the entire assessment center. In some cases, you may be provided the topic prior to the date of your Assessment Center and in some cases, you may be provided with very little lead time.

Your quality of research, time management, and persuasiveness are among the top skills under scrutiny by this exercise.

3. Group Discussions

Group discussions gauge the candidates' aptitude for teamwork and problem-solving. The usual flow of a group discussion revolves around solving a case study. Candidates get time to read through the entire case before the discussion.

Once the discussion begins, the moderator will not interfere. Therefore, in cases where a conflict arises, candidates are expected to resolve it on their own.

At the same time, it is expected that each individual takes the initiative to speak on their own and bring up pertinent points of discussion. Each candidate is also expected to remain respectful throughout the discussion and not cut off another candidate.

To make things interesting, sometimes a group discussion will include in-tray exercises where each candidate is asked to assume a particular role and act accordingly.

4. Competency-Based Interviews

Competency-based interviews are often a part of assessment centers that are focused on one individual rather than on a group. The interviews look to assess your previous experiences to match them to the organization's expectations. This part of the Assessment Center is very much what we usually call a typical interview.

The interviewer will ask you about specific situations where you have worked in a particular role, managed a team, reacted to a situation, and so on. These questions often relate to skills required on the job.

During these interviews, you may want to utilise the C-A-R format. Context, Action and Result. It establishes a framework where you provide the context of the situation, talk about the actions you took to solve the problem and the result that your actions brought about.

5. Role-Play Exercise

The role-play exercise focuses on the assessment of the candidate based on their non-verbal communication, tone and choice of language used during common work place situations. This is where the candidate is being assessed not just on their ability to speak well, but also what their behaviour is like under difficult situations. The situations are usually industry specific, so for example a retail sector interview may ask the candidate to role play a service staff who is handling a customer complain.

Some candidates find this exercise difficult due to the acting element required, but do note that the ability to role-play can be coached and practiced.

How to prepare for an Assessment Center

Some de facto standards of preparedness often include researching the organization, the role you applied for, and the necessary skills required for the position you are applying for.

Brushing up on your presentation and communication skills will also do wonders for you.

Be aware that the Assessment Center is looking out for the behaviours that best fit the company and the role that you are applying for. Have a think through what behaviours these are and how it can be portrayed - whether by verbal or non-verbal communication in the various exercises.

Do know also that being prepared for these exercises can go a long way. With the right practice and coaching, you can conquer the nerves and excel in your interviews and your assessment centers.

Written by Siew Ling Hwang, Founder of Discovering Potential

Connect with Siew Ling, via LinkedIn


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