The thought of being put through your paces alongside other candidates at an assessment centre sounds daunting. It seems much more manageable if broken down into smaller parts, explains Helen Boddy, assistant editor at BCS.

Companies hold assessment centres because research has shown that putting candidates through them dramatically increase the likelihood of getting the right candidate for the job.

If you are invited to an assessment centre, you will attend with a small group of other candidates. During the day (or sometimes two) you will be given some individual tests and some group activities to judge your suitability for the job.

Sometimes centres are organised by the company with its own staff or independent assessors brought in; sometimes they are run by specialised assessment centres.

Assessment centres generally consist of several components

These could be any combination (but not necessarily all) of the following:

Candidates are assessed against a list of competencies: skills, knowledge and attitudes. The competencies sought depend on the job but can include leadership qualities, good communication skills and attention to detail. On each competency you will be given a score.

Prepare well beforehand

If the company does not automatically tell you about the structure of the assessment centre, it's worth asking in advance.

Find out about the company. Do research into the company and the industry. Look at websites and news sources to find out about the company's products, services, ownership, competitors and its reputation. If you know anyone with a contact in the company or industry, phone them up and talk to them.

Think about your answers to interview questions.

Practice giving presentations and familiarise yourself with PowerPoint. Make sure you remember how to use any applications that you have mentioned in your CV.

You could try some example psychometric tests - you can find examples on the web and undergraduates or new graduates may be able to get some practice tests from their careers advisory service. Some companies will also give you examples from past assessment days.

Get a good night's sleep.

Be constantly alert on the day

Don't worry if one part goes badly. There are plenty of other components where you can make up for it.

Be natural and be yourself at test centres. As research shows that they are good at selecting the right person for the job, if you don't get it, it is probably that the job or company is not for you.

Remember that you are constantly being observed, even in more informal situations such as lunch.

Presentation about the company

After a company presentation, ask questions if you are certain that what you ask has not been covered.

A one-to-one or panel interview

This could be your first interview or a follow-up to an earlier one. Look at our information on interviews for possible questions and how to prepare.

Group activities

These would usually be a set task to complete together or a discussion to solve a problem or work out a method of doing something. For the group task you could, for example, be given some Lego pieces and asked to build the tallest tower possible. For the discussion, you could be given a scenario, such as a ship is sinking and as a group you will only be able to carry five items between you from the boat. The group would be asked to come to a joint decision about which items they would take.

Remember that interviewers are looking for people who can listen and promote others' ideas as well as having ideas of their own and being able to articulate them.

Sometimes each person is asked to play a certain part; sometimes it is a free discussion. It you take on the role of leader, make sure you plan and keep control of the meeting. If you take the role of scribe, make sure that you also contribute to the discussion.

Individual exercises

These are often role plays, for instance handling an awkward customer.

Another typical exercise is to deal with an in-tray. How would you prioritise tasks or draft replies to certain items? Make sure you either action or write on what you would do with items clearly, according to the instructions.

Written exercises

These could be on why you want the job or about the company or a more general topic.

Giving a presentation

Sometimes employers ask candidates to prepare a presentation in advance. Sometimes you will be asked to do so on the day. If you at not given a topic in advance of the centre, it is worthwhile preparing something as a practise run, which you could also use in case you are given a free choice on the day.

Don't pick anything that is too ordinary or too complex. You could pick an interesting hobby, or a story that has been in the news, or some interesting research that you did during your degree.

Psychometric tests

These can be broken down into three types of tests: ability, aptitude and personality.

  • Ability tests have correct and incorrect answers. They examine your verbal reasoning and your logical/analytical ability and your IQ.
  • Aptitude tests have correct and incorrect answers, and they examine how well the candidate is likely to perform in a specific job. For example, for programming jobs, a fictitious programming language could be described and then questions of reasoning set up around it.
  • Personality tests work out your behaviour and your temperament, for example, are you the ideas person or the one who gets things done? They can also test your values. There are no right and wrong answers to these questions. Organisations use them to build teams with different sorts of people or if they need a person with specific characteristics for a specific job.

You can practise for the aptitude tests but personality tests are about who you are, so no need to do anything for them. You can improve your chances at tests by reading, and practising arithmetic.

More information and practise tests can be found at the British Psychology Society (there is a payment associated with them).