Assessment centres

Find out what an assessment centre is, what to expect, types of activities, and top tips for performing well.

What is an assessment centre?

Assessment centres are typically the final stage of the recruitment process for large graduate recruiters. They may take place in-person or online and range in duration from half a day to two days (one day being typical).

Assessment centres are considered to be the most reliable predictor of performance in a job role and are used to assess candidates’ suitability. You will be asked to complete a range of activities designed to test your motivation, skills and fit.   

The process itself can be exciting, stimulating and challenging. It’s normal to feel nervous but with the right preparation you can manage your anxiety and have the confidence to engage with the process. You might even enjoy it!  

  • Before the assessment centre, remind yourself of the attributes this employer wants by looking again at the job description and person specification. These should give a good insight into the skills they will look for at the assessment centre.  
  • Read your original application so it’s fresh in your mind, as you may be asked for more detail.
  • Check the invite for further details; it will tell you what to expect and how best to prepare. 

Considerations for in-person assessment centres

  • Read the information you've been given beforehand on location, date, time and the format of the day. 
  • Check your travel arrangements and allow for delays and navigating rush hour traffic. Arrive ahead of time but not too early – why not find a cafe or quiet spot nearby? 
  • Dress appropriately; you are well-advised to stick to more conventional clothing – think ‘business dress’. If you are on a tight budget you could try local charity shops.
  • Switch off your mobile phone.

Considerations for virtual assessment centres

Virtual assessment centres tend to be very similar to a traditional assessment day in terms of the tasks and activities they include. How can you prepare? What can you expect in the run up to the day? This article will help: 

What to expect from a virtual assessment centre (University of Edinburgh login required)

How will I be assessed?

  • There will be an assessment framework which will reflect the job requirements and core competencies. All observations are evaluated using a scoring matrix.  
  • Assessors will observe you closely and will make notes – don’t see this as a negative action – they are keen to record positive behaviours.
  • Recruiters will look at your performance across the whole assessment centre, so if one exercise doesn’t go particularly well try not to dwell on it. Look ahead to the next task. Stay focussed and motivated, even if you’re feeling drained, as this will be noticed.  
  • All candidates will receive feedback irrespective of the outcome.

Types of activities

The types of activities you might expect are: 

Graduate recruiters often use selection tests as part of the recruitment process – typically online during the early stages of selection. These include aptitude tests, psychometric tests, and reasoning tests – all different terms for the same sort of thing.  You may be expected to re-test during the assessment centre.

Visit our Selection tests webpage for tips on the preparation you should do and the ways you can practise:

Selection tests

This usually involves working with other candidates to complete a task in a specific time-frame; it might be a group discussion or a problem based task. The aim is to work effectively together, finding a solution built on collaboration and consensus. 

Top tips

  • Take every opportunity before the assessed exercises – and during breaks – to get to know your fellow candidates. You are not in direct competition with them.
  • Remember to work with everyone, not against them. All of you could be recruited, or equally none of you.
  • Try to engage with the process early on and don’t leave it too late to voice ideas.
  • Be confident enough to argue your case and defend your point but avoid dominating the process. Try to find compromises and common ground.
  • Encourage quieter members of the group to contribute – they may need a little more encouragement to participate. Like you, they are there on merit and should have ideas to share and much to contribute.
  • Pay close attention to your body language and other non-verbal communication.

Agree a method for managing the time, process and decision making. You need to be ready to share your conclusions. Techniques, such as a SWOT analysis which seeks to identify Strengths, Weaknesses, Opportunities and Threats involved in a project or organisation are helpful if established and used consistently. Use the following:

  • LinkedIn Learning - current University of Edinburgh students have free access to an extensive library of high-quality business courses. Here is an example of how to conduct a SWOT analysis: 

Conducting a SWOT analysis (University of Edinburgh login required)

  • For guidance and tips on how to access and get the most out of LinkedIn Learning, visit: 

Information Services - LinkedIn Learning

In the online environment

Don’t forget to interact with group members in the online environment and take any opportunities to chat and connect. Make sure you are using your camera!

  • If you naturally fulfil the role of leader, take an inclusive approach by giving everyone 1-2 minutes to explain their view. 
  • Agree an etiquette e.g. using the hand-raise tool.
  • Suggest somebody volunteers to take notes for the group. These can provide a useful reference point for when you make and share your conclusions.
  • Pay heed to your body language and don’t be distracted by your familiar environment. Without a more formal physical setting you may become too casual.

This is your chance to show you can research and convey a message (or argument) clearly and succinctly.  

The assessors will be looking at your communication and time management, as well as body language. They may ask questions at the end of your presentation.

Top tips

  • Practise, practise, practise! Deliver your presentation in front of others and get their feedback on i) content ii) clarity of message iii) style and body language.
  • Don’t read verbatim – have notes and prompts, not a full script.  You need to try and sound engaging and enthusiastic.
  • Be clear about the key messages that you want to get across.
  • Don’t try to cover too much – focus on the salient point(s).
  • Make sure you deliver and tailor content to your audience.  
  • It sounds obvious but remember to breathe and pause when necessary. Be aware of your pace: we tend to speak more quickly when nervous.
  • Smile: you will be surprised how much difference this can make.

This excellent article from targetjobs provides pointers on how to step into the spotlight to deliver an effective presentation: 

targetjobs - Deliver a presentation that's worthy of a graduate job

These exercises are designed to replicate an inbox full of emails. The purpose is to see how you prioritise the various tasks and differentiate between important and urgent. You will be expected to draft replies, delegate tasks and recommend actions – all within a clear time limit. Note there may be more emails than you can attend to within the set time. 

Top tips

  • Read the brief and all information provided carefully.
  • Bear in mind that some of the emails/tasks will be high priority and others of much lower importance.  You may also receive a particularly important communication part way through the exercise to see how you cope with change.
  • Take a step back, consider what the major factors are and prioritise the tasks.  
  • Factors could include: stakeholders, commercial considerations, negative PR and budgets, for example.
  • Be systematic and logical in your approach.  

You can try a practice test by selecting "E-Tray Exercise": 

E-tray exercise (University of Edinburgh login required) 

Would you like more practice? The following exercises may help:

AssessmentDay - Free e-tray exercise for practise

JobTestPrep - Free in-tray exercise practise questions

A case study tends to be based around a business scenario e.g. a company facing a particular issue. Facts are presented to candidates and they are expected to proffer a solution. This can include analysing a business problem (e.g. what would be the pros and cons of introducing a ‘regular user’ scheme to reward loyal customers of an airline?) or a brainteaser (e.g. how many bottles of wine are consumed in the UK each week?). 

These questions are designed to assess your ability to synthesise information, alongside your problem solving skills and general suitability for the role. Clear communication is key to be successful. 

No prior knowledge is required, as you will be provided with all the background information you need. There is not necessarily a ‘right’ or definitive answer. The assessor is looking for: 

  • Your ability to identify the presenting issue.
  • A demonstration of how you approach problems, and your thought process e.g. what assumptions are you making; what conclusions are you drawing? 
  • How you articulate and present your analysis.
  • How you explain and substantiate your argument and defend your points.

You may need to ask the interviewer further questions; often certain details are withheld to see if you can determine what additional information would be helpful. See this process of asking questions as a conversation, not an interrogation. (However, this will depend on the brief; in some circumstances, no additional interaction is allowed.)

Top tips

  • Look at examples of case study questions and practise until you are more familiar with the format. 
  • The following guide gives a breakdown of three types of case studies, and how to approach them: 

Demystifying the case interview (University of Edinburgh login required)

For more examples, visit these employer websites:  

Bain & Company

Boston Consulting Group

McKinsey & Company

This can take many different forms, from very informal to sit down dinner. Remember: you are still being informally assessed during social activities, so remain professional at all times. Even if you are feeling tired by this point, try to engage with the process. This is another good opportunity for you to find out more about the company, its employees and cultural fit.

The interview may be at the end of the assessment centre or it may be something that you're invited to later.  

See our webpage for advice: 

Interview formats; how to prepare and practise

Escape rooms

Nationwide Building Society, for example, have introduced an online escape room as part of their graduate assessment centre. For more insight, read this article: 

The escape room assessment centre (University of Edinburgh login required)

Virtual reality (VR)

This is an artificially created environment where you’ll probably be asked to wear a VR headset that generates sights and sounds, and then expected to complete tasks. These may not bear any relation to the job itself. VR tasks are designed to test your analytical skills and tease out your strengths and specific personality traits. For more details, this article provides a great insight: 

Will your next interview be in virtual reality? (University of Edinburgh login required)

If you want to try out a free VR headset, current students can access the uCreate Makerspace at the Main Library, George Square. VR headsets are also available on loan throughout the year. For more information, visit: 

uCreate Makerspace

Further support

If you’re unsure and would like to talk through aspects of the assessment centre or any concerns you may have, there are a range of ways we can support you:

Information and advice drop-ins

Offered online and on campus. No need to book! Great for asking quick questions and getting answers.

Information and advice drop-ins schedule (University of Edinburgh login required)

Book an appointment with any of our Careers Consultants

Use the "Talk to us" tab and select the “Discuss my career (up to 30 minutes)” option: 

Book an appointment (University of Edinburgh login required)