Future You podcast transcript

Virtual assessment centres

Dan Mason, Editorial manager
July, 2021

This episode of the Future You careers podcast includes an overview of what to expect at a virtual assessment centre and advice on how to perform to your best under pressure


In order of first appearance:

  • Dan Mason - editorial manager, Prospects
  • Tracy Buchan - early careers recruitment consultant, Arcadis
  • Georgina Guest - HR team leader, Aldi
  • Anup Vithlani - selection officer, Police Now.

Episode transcript

Dan Mason:  Three words to strike fear into the hearts of graduates everywhere, or at least make you a little bit nervous. And that's virtual assessment centres. Well, they're here to stay - so find out how to give your best performance in this episode of Future You.

 Hello, and welcome to Future You the podcast from graduate careers experts Prospects, we're here to help you achieve your career goals. My name's Dan Mason, and in this episode, I'm going to share some audio from a webinar we hosted in April 2021 on the subject of virtual assessment centres, which have of course become a key part of the recruitment process for graduate jobs during the COVID-19 pandemic.

 Now, as I record this, here in the UK, we're moving out of lockdown restrictions, and hopefully fingers-crossed, we'll soon be back to some kind of normal. But we do know that many employers intend to keep using the online recruitment methods that they've set up over the last year, in the medium and longer term. There'll be a mix of in person and online recruitment in future - it will vary from one employer to the next - and what that means is you'll need to be ready and prepared for virtual assessment centres when you apply for graduate jobs, even in what we might call normal times.

 With that in mind, it's worth listening to our three panellists from three graduate employers, Arcadis, Aldi, and Police Now, who have some great insights and advice on how to approach these online assessment centres. I'll let them introduce themselves, so here we go.

 Tracy Buchan: I'm Tracy Buchan and I work for Arcadis, we're a leading design and consultancy for natural and built assets and my role is the early careers recruitment consultants. I look after all aspects of early careers recruitment - graduates, undergraduates, placements, students and apprentices.

Georgina Guest: My name is George, I work for Aldi, I'm sure you all know who Aldi are, we're the fifth biggest grocery retailer in the UK. Myself personally, so I work as the team leader for the graduate recruitment team, so there's a team of four of us, and we specialise in all elements of the graduate life cycle. That's everything from university engagement to reviewing applications to those groups assessment centres as well. And I've been part of the Aldi graduate team for coming up for four years now, so that is me.

Anup Vithlani: My name is Anup Vithlani, I've had pretty extensive career, both in the corporate sector, and now in the charitable sector. And my focus has been on graduate recruitment and development. We're obviously living in this new world at present, this COVID-19 world, which has meant that we've had to be dynamic, and change the platforms on which we deliver our assessment centres.

I'm an integral part of the selection team here at Police Now, which is part of the wider recruitment and marketing team, and we're responsible for the assessment and selection of our candidates to conditional offer stage. And then they go through a vetting process before they're made confirmed offers as police officers with their respective forces. In terms of Police Now our fundamental mission is to transform communities and we do that by recruiting, developing and inspiring diverse leaders into policing.

Tracy Buchan: So our assessments are just over half a day, we run a Q&A session beforehand, so that you get the opportunity to understand what exercises and how we're going to score those exercises. And you get to try out the platform as well, because we're very aware that there's so many different platforms out there, people have got various different levels of experience and exposure, and we don't want your first encounter - we use Teams - we don't want your first encounter with Teams to be the morning of your assessment, and you're trying to get to grips with where the chat feature is and how you show the screen etc. So we run a half an hour session a couple of days beforehand, just to make sure everybody's familiar with the process.

So we start off at nine o'clock and we have a virtual reception. So what we've tried to do with our virtual assessment is replicate our previous face-to-face, pre-COVID world, and we would have a number of our graduates there, sharing their stories, their expectations and giving all our candidates the opportunity to ask questions about what it's like to work for Arcadis what kind of products or projects they can expect to get involved with, all that kind of thing. So we try to replicate that as closely as we can. Obviously, there are limitations because in a virtual scenario, it's difficult to have free flowing conversations. But we do our best to make sure that it's as relaxing and as true to the experience that we would have had with a face to face. So you have half an hour to kind of like chat with our current graduates before we pull you through to our virtual boardroom. And now you have the opportunity to introduce yourselves formally, our assessors will introduce their selves formally, we have a little bit of a kind of like a run through of a couple of our values that are important to us, we have shied away from doing a big kind of sell on Arcadis during the assessment centres, we send lots of links and information ahead of the day and that's just because we appreciate that trying to keep engaged in a virtual platform, it's very, very difficult to stare at a screen trying to absorb information, and then having to do exercises afterwards. So we've kept that down to a minimum. But there's still plenty of time to kind of like engage with each other, and our assessors and kind of like relax before you do your exercises.

For our assessments, we have two exercises, a group scenario, which is kind of a typical thing that we as a business would expect to be involved in. Obviously, I can't say too much about it just in case there's any potential candidates out there. But it's a kind of town planning exercise, I think I can share that with you. So you work in a group of around six people, again, those numbers are kind of being cut back from the real world where you got the opportunity to kind of splinter off and work in subgroups, that doesn't work so well in the virtual format. So we've kept the numbers slightly lower for that exercise, it doesn't compromise the experience, or you know, our ability to assess. And so that exercise is around about two hours in total. Normally, you'll be assessed by one assessor throughout the day and that assessor is just looking at one or two candidates so they're really able to kind of observe you fully. That one exercise will finish around about lunchtime, then we give you a 20 minute break to go and refresh, grab a drink, sandwich, just take your eyes off the screen for a few moments. And then we have a capability scenario, which is a bit more role specific.

So in terms of sort of pre-preparation, there isn't too much we ask candidates to do, all our exercises, with your kind of like degree backgrounds, and then the selection process, we feel that everybody's able to compete ably without doing too much prior research. But what we do advise our candidates to do is kind of like learn a little bit more about us as a business. And obviously that allows you then to feed in that knowledge when you're doing the exercises. Think about things that are important and things about our values. So what do you notice on the projects that we've undertaken, what kind of things do we sort of like gear projects towards, what is our customer relations like, all those types of things that you can glean from those projects that you're then able to feed in to those exercises, when you're carrying them out.

Georgina Guest: We try to keep our assessment centre as close as possible to what would happen if you were coming to an in-person assessment, quite similar I assume to Tracy and Anup. So our assessment centres take two-and-a-half, three hours at the very, very most. You're normally in a group of eight people and there'll just be one assessor on the call with you. We're using Microsoft Teams as well to hold those assessments. The day's split into two main parts. First of all, we start off with introductions just so candidates can settle on a little bit and get a bit more comfortable working together with one another.

Then after that, there will be a store walk presentation, you get told before the day to go out visit a store, make a note of what you see in your experience. And we ask them to present back on the day tailored around a specific topic, then we'll pause for the break. And then after that we take part in some teamwork and leadership activities. It won't be surprise that one of the key things we look for is leaders from our graduates. So that's why we do that leadership exercise at the end and then there's obviously an opportunity for them to ask questions of us and we can talk about more the culture of Aldi towards the end of the assessment. So that's ours as a brief overview.

Anup Vithlani: Just as Tracy and Georgina have said, we've done our utmost to replicate our face-to-face assessment centre onto the digital world. We conduct two assessment centres a day. They're both half-day events. So the morning session would start about 8:30 till one o'clock. The afternoon session runs from 13:15 till about 17:45. And our assessment centres at this moment in time, our digital assessment centres at this moment in time are conducted on Zoom, just because of the simplicity of the platform and its offering that it gives to us.

We start off with an introduction, which gives you an insight into the operation of Zoom, allows the candidates to mingle with each other. And it also gives them an insight into a fictional town, which will be the focus point of the assessment centre. And that fictional town is where they will be policing, we undertake a range of assessed and non-assessed exercises during each half day event, and in terms of the assessed exercises without giving too much way they for our last programme, they consisted of a team meeting, two roleplay exercises and a motivational alignment interview. Those exercises range from 25 to 40 minutes. But our fundamental aim is to ensure that we're providing an effective insight into what life is like as a neighbourhood police officer or a detective constable and we want the candidates to make an informed decision that policing is the path they wish to pursue as part of their career.

Georgina Guest: We've all said be yourselves, we've all said let your personality come through and it's because you can't bring someone else to work every day. And ultimately, we're looking for people, especially at Aldi, and I'm sure in the police as well, who can connect with other people, and build those really strong relationships. That's how you lead people. That's how you influence them and get the best out of whether that's your team in store or a situation in the wider community, you need to be genuine. And that's how people then relate to you. So that's why we say just be yourselves and don't feel like you need to put up a front.

I think that's maybe one of the pitfalls that people experience is they come to an assessment centre and they think, well, I need to showcase I'm a leader. And to do that, I'm going to talk over everyone, I'm not going to cooperate with any of the other people in the group and I'm just going to make myself known as the assessor but in not a positive way. And sometimes people can be quite disruptive and think that they're showcasing their leadership skills. So I would say make sure you're accommodating for the rest of the group because it's you know, the six other people maybe there who are getting assessed at the same time and you need to show that you can work in group situations, and you can work as part of a wider team. So whilst yes, we want leadership skills, we want people to be able to do that at the same time. So that's my perspective on what you should definitely not do.

Anup Vithlani: I completely agree with Georgina there in terms of, you know, what's just been covered. The only two things I wish to add to this particular question is virtual assessment centres and, you know, I hope I'm not sounding too controversial, they can be a bit like a double-edged sword because you're in your home environment and you're in your comfort factor. The only thing I would say is be comfortable, but not too comfortable, because it still is an assessment centre. Don't just be completely laissez-faire or chilled out about everything. Go into it with the mindset that I am being assessed here and there are assessors, there are competencies and indicators, they need to be satisfied which the assessors are looking to tick off.

The other thing I wanted to point out is we fully understand that, you know, we're all working from home and there could be other factors around us such as pets, children, etc. who could have an influence on your performance. Just be transparent about that to the assessor. We can't try to - we, I'm saying that as you know, me in the assessor mode - we can't try and suss out what's happening in the background and how it's affecting you. So be transparent with us and it stands you in good stead.

Tracy Buchan: I agree with totally what our two colleagues have said there really there's not that much more I can add. I think the only other one is the opposite of talking too much is make sure you say enough to be assessed as well because there's nothing more frustrating than a candidate that on paper has got loads and loads of potential and then doesn't display enough of that at an assessment centre for you to be able to carry them forward. So, I appreciate I mean, I'm not comfortable with a camera on in this scenario, and you can sort of see yourself and it is a little bit disconcerting, and I appreciate that some other people may feel like that as well. But you do have to speak up, you do have to kind of like put yourself forward.

And the other one there, as well is, don't get kind of like too bogged down by perceived errors. So you know, we all in life all say something, sometimes, you know, out of order or a little bit, maybe phrased not in a way we would have done ideally. And I think particularly in this type of scenario, it can to the individual, it can seem quite large. But if you kind of like let a small perceived error, colour the rest of the assessment centre, then you're not going to perform at your best so... And you don't know what the assessors are looking for and you know, how much of it has been noted or, if it's indeed anything that they see as a negative. So we do see that sometimes that people just say something, and then completely shut down. Because, you know, they feel they've made an error. So yeah, that's the two bits I would add.

Dan Mason: Many thanks to our guests for taking part in that webinar, and I hope you found it useful. If you did, I strongly recommend visiting Prospects.ac.uk and going to the link about halfway down the page, Watch our webinars, where you can see the video in full, and also find out what other events we have lined up.

Also at prospects.ac.uk, you can search and apply for graduate jobs with the likes of Arcadis, Aldi, Police Now and many more employers, so for those of you who are looking for a job right now, that's the place to go. If you have a virtual assessment centre coming up, or even an in-person real-life assessment centre, I wish you lots of luck with that.

And finally, it's been a long while since our last episode, so I just wanted to let you know, I have some fantastic guests lined up to join me in the next few weeks on the podcast from top employers, top graduate employers, in a wide range of different job sectors, so you won't want to miss those.

You can follow Future You on Spotify, Apple Podcasts, or whichever app you choose to get your podcasts from. Or you can listen on the website at prospects.ac.uk/podcasts. And on that note, thanks very much for listening, and I'll see you soon.

Transcript ends

Note on transcripts

This transcript was produced using a combination of automated software and human transcribers, and may contain errors. The audio version is definitive and should be checked before quoting.

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