Assessment day tips for school leaver programmes

Assessment day tips for school leaver programmes
Our advice will steer you through your assessment day, from the group exercise, e-tray exercise and case study to the social breaks and the final interview.

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What to wear How to be your best self The group exercise The in-tray exercise The presentation The social side The final interview

Most big employers invite you to attend an assessment or selection day as the final stage in the school leaver programme or higher apprenticeship recruitment process. The assessment day typically lasts for a whole day or just half a day, and involves a series of exercises, often including a group exercise and a presentation. You might also be asked to take aptitude tests again under controlled conditions and your final interview might take place at the assessment day.

Assessment days are designed to help the employer understand what you would be like to work with and put you in situations that call for teamwork and good communication. Usually, a small group of between 4 and 12 candidates is invited to each assessment centre. The assessment centre typically takes place in one of the employer’s offices and is likely to be attended by several representatives of the organisation, who will be observing you throughout the day.

There is usually a social aspect to assessment days. You are likely to be offered lunch, which is a chance to chat to other candidates and to the members of staff who are present. There may be some employees present who are currently on the school leaver programme or higher apprenticeship, so it’s a good opportunity to ask any questions you may have and find out more. While social breaks are unlikely to be formally assessed, you should bear in mind that they are still an opportunity to create a good impression.

What to wear and how to prepare for your assessment day

You need to dress for an assessment day in the same way as you would for an interview. The safest bet is a business-like dark suit, perhaps in navy or charcoal grey, with a light-coloured shirt. For women, either a trouser suit or a skirt suit is fine; skirts should be knee-length and tops shouldn’t be too revealing. Bear in mind that depending on the kind of group exercise you are set, you might need to be able to move around. Sometimes group exercises involve working together in a team to build something, though it is more usual for this part of the assessment day to take the form of a group discussion.

As part of your preparation, look over your application form and spend some time reading up about the employer, both on its website and in news sources online. Make sure you’re aware of the key competencies or strengths they are looking for.

Be careful what, if anything, you say about your assessment day on social media, as the employer might end up seeing it (fine if that was your intention, but otherwise, this could end your career with the company before it ever had a chance to get started). You should also be careful what you say on the journey to and from the building, in the reception area, in the lift… You never know who might be in earshot.

How to be your best self at assessment centres

From the employer’s point of view, your attitude is all-important. After all, school leavers are likely to have broadly similar qualifications and it’s unlikely that anyone will have extensive relevant work experience. Your approach to the day can really help you stand out. So be enthusiastic and positive – show that you really want the job.

Make sure you’ve had a good night’s sleep beforehand and turn up on time. Check the route carefully beforehand. Do take the opportunity to eat and drink, as it will help you keep your energy up. Also, bear in mind that you are not in direct competition with the other candidates; it’s possible that you might all be offered a place. The purpose of the assessment day is to see how well each one of you matches the criteria for the role.

The group exercise and case studies

Group exercises are used to assess your teamworking, communication and problem-solving skills. You need to play a part in making sure that the group completes the task that has been set.

A typical example is analysing and discussing a case study. Case studies are usually similar to real-life projects that the employer is involved in, so it will help if you’ve read up about what the organisation does and have a reasonably clear idea of the kind of projects and services it offers. For example, if you’re applying for a role with a finance employer, you might be presented with a budget for an organisation and a series of options for cutting costs, and be asked to work together to choose the best options.

You can also be given a case study to work on in pairs or on your own. You might be asked to give a presentation about your findings or be invited to discuss them in your interview.

Here’s how to succeed in the group exercise:

  • Make sure you contribute. If you don’t say anything, your assessors haven’t got anything to go on. Speak out clearly and confidently.
  • Be diplomatic and be prepared to compromise. Listen and don’t interrupt.
  • Try to make sure that everybody gets a chance to express their views. You might be able to draw out the quieter members of the group.
  • Keep an eye on the time and stay focused on the overall objective of the task.

Prioritise your way through the in-tray exercise

Some employers set in-tray exercises as part of the recruitment process for school leaver programmes. The in-tray exercise is typically designed to imitate the experience of being at work with different tasks that you need to work through. You might be asked to read through a range of documents – for example, emails, letters and reports – and make notes on the actions you would take in response to each. The exercise will be time-limited and you may be given extra information to respond to as you work through it.

Some employers use an e-tray exercise, which works in a similar way but involves dealing with emails rather than printed documents. In a typical e-tray exercise, you would be asked to use a PC to work through a series of emails in an in-box. New emails might arrive as you work through the task and you could be asked to draft messages in response. You could also be asked to use information supplied in attachments to the emails, in a folder on the PC or provided as printed material.

If you are asked to draft emails in response to issues mentioned in the emails, remember to write them in a polite, professional way and to use the correct spelling, punctuation and grammar. Think carefully about how to start your email – should it be to Dear X (first name), or Dear Mr/Miss/Ms/Mrs X (surname)? Take your cue from the form of address used in the message you have received. Think about how to sign off, too; ‘Best wishes’ and your name is usually a safe bet.

Give a great presentation at your assessment day

Another standard feature of assessment days is the presentation. You are likely to be given the chance to prepare this beforehand. If so, find out who you will be presenting to and what equipment will be available. Will you have access to a flipchart, a laptop, presentation software and the internet? What, if anything, will you be expected to use? Make sure you find out how long the presentation should be.

You may be given a specific subject for your presentation or offered some scope to choose – for example, you might be asked to give a presentation on a particular business or industry. Expect to be asked questions at the end. For example, you might be asked how you found your information. You might also be asked to make connections between the subject of your presentation and the work of the employer. Think ahead about the kind of questions you might be asked and how you might answer them.

The key to a good presentation is preparation. Here are our tips to help you make sure all goes well on the day:

  • Structure your presentation. Make sure it has a beginning, a middle and an end. Focus on polishing your initial introduction of yourself and your subject – first impressions count. You should also give some extra thought to how you’re going to end your presentation. Remember to invite your audience to ask questions.
  • Prune your content. It’s almost inevitable that you’ll start off with too much material. You’ll need to refine it to keep within the time limit. The only way to work out how much to take out is to practise your timing.
  • Play the part. You’re bound to be nervous, but your audience doesn’t need to know how you feel on the inside, so don’t show them. Fake it till you make it – acting confidently will help you to feel confident. Remember to start with a welcoming smile. Speak clearly at a measured pace and keep your head up so you don’t talk to the floor. Try to vary the tone of your voice and if you are presenting to more than one person, aim to engage with all of your audience.
  • Don’t be a slave to your visual aids – make them work for you. If you are using PowerPoint slides, make sure you don’t put too much information on each slide – they should be visual. A clear heading and a couple of bullet points is plenty. Use your visual aids to clarify what you are saying, but don’t let them take over. You want your audience to concentrate on you. Don’t talk to the flipchart or screen: talk to your audience.
  • Practise. Practise your presentation out loud so that you feel comfortable with your timing and projecting your voice. This will help you to become thoroughly familiar with the content. Do a dress rehearsal the day before to make sure you’re as well prepared as possible. All this will help you overcome your nerves.

Handling the social side

What do you say to someone who might or might not be about to give you a job – or to other candidates who want the job too? Remember that if all goes well, the recruiters present will end up being your colleagues and some of the other candidates might too. Recruiters will do their best to put you at ease, and would much rather have a pleasant conversation over lunch than none at all.

To start a conversation with a recruiter, introduce yourself with your name and some relevant background information, such as where you are at school and the subjects you are studying.

Ask questions – but keep it professional rather than personal. So, for example, you could ask recruiters general questions about their careers: how long have they worked for the company, what do they like about it, where are they based? You could also ask how much interaction they have with employees who are on the school leaver programme. This is also a chance to draw on the research you’ve done on the employer and the industry, as you could mention a current issue and ask about the recruiter’s views on it.

Sell yourself at your final interview

Chances are you will have your final interview as part of the assessment day. You might even have more than one interview. If you’re applying for a design or engineering-related role, you might be asked to bring in something you have made and talk your interviewers through the process of making it. Find out as much as possible in advance about who will be interviewing you and the type of questions you should expect, and use our interview advice to help you succeed.

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