Assessment centres for internships – what, why and how to do well!

January 14, 2009

Groupwork at assessment centreIf you’ve been applying for internships with big companies for the summer, and you’re lucky enough to pass the first hurdle – the application stage – you may well be asked to attend an assessment centre (or ‘selection day’) at some point. You might wonder why employers would go to so much trouble (and expense!) just for an internship, but internships can often lead to offers of graduate jobs so companies are often thinking long-term when they recruit an intern and want to invest carefully.

So what are they about?

Assessment centres generally involve a series of activities which aim to give the recruiters more of a picture of what kind of person you are and how you might perform in the workplace. In addition to the ‘social’ bits (e.g. meals and drinks), as well as presentations from the company, assessment days may include some or all of the following:

  • Group tasks – you might be asked to work in a team to solve a hypothetical problem, e.g. choosing between different bid proposals, or to do something practical, e.g. build a bridge which meets certain requirements.
  • In-Tray (or E-Tray) exercises – here you have to work through a set of admin-type tasks (usually in the form of e-mails, memos etc) and prioritise each one, saying what action you would take. Get more info and tips for in-tray exercises in our ‘In-Tray Exercise’ guide.
  • Psychometric tests – more on these in a later blog post, but you can find out more about them and take practice tests in the Psychometric Testing section of our website.
  • Presentations – this can vary from an initial self-introduction to the rest of the group and assessors to a formal presentation on a topic of your choice (or one given to you in advance). Sometimes you’re asked to do a presentation to report back on a case study. Download our guide to Presentation Skills.
  • Interviews – see our earlier blog post about interviews.
  • Case studies – this could be an individual or a group exercise. You’ll be asked to analyse a lot of information relating to a particular case in a limited amount of time and recommend a course of action.
  • Role plays – these will generally relate to the area of work you’ve applied for, e.g. if the department is client-facing, you might be asked to role play dealing with a difficult customer (played by the assessor).
  • Written exercises – you might be asked to write a business letter (e.g. in response to a complaint) or a short essay on a given topic.

Recruiters use these to test how you tackle different tasks and they generally have a list of ‘competencies’ that they’re assessing against, so the key to doing well at assessment centres is to think about what skills and qualities the employer is look for and to perform the tasks in such a way that demonstrates these skills. However, be careful though not to try too hard – the assessors will often spot a candidate who is behaving unnaturally or ‘out of character’!

So, what skills and qualities are employers looking for? Companies often list these on their website or at on-campus presentations, and you will usually find clues in the questions they asked on their application form! But in general, the types of characteristics they tend to look for are: excellent communication skills (including listening, good questioning, summarising etc), teamwork, problem-solving and analytical skills, organisation and time-management, and creative thinking. Leadership may also be sought, depending on the organisation and type of role applied for.

More help and resources from us…

We know assessment centres can seem pretty daunting to a lot of students, so we have various resources to help you at the Careers Service:


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