Assessment centres uncovered

The Gateway sent its mole to an intern assessment weekend with one of the 'Big Four' professional services firms.

Like many people interested in a career in professional services, I decided to apply for an internship with one of the Big Four. So, in the first term of my second year at university I found myself browsing PwC's website before clicking on the button marked 'apply here'.

Fast-forward a few weeks, and having successfully navigated the perils of the online application, the next stage in the assessment process was a series of preliminary interviews. These were not what I was expecting. They were described by the cheery recruitment manager as "speed dating style". You basically sit at one of those school tables next to another applicant, each with an interviewer sitting opposite, and are very casually interviewed for 5-10 minutes before switching places. In the room there are four or five other pairs of applicants doing the same thing. I'm not entirely sure as to the purpose of this set-up but I imagine it is designed to test your focus and resolve in a busy environment. In terms of interview questions they are mainly just centered on your application form and your own background and interests. Do note: it is worth learning who the specific clients are at the department and office you have applied to. I have to sing the praises of PwC in that the recruitment manager will give you a fantastic brief over the telephone on all stages of the application and will essentially tell you everything you need to brush up on for interview. Do not be afraid to call them, they will help you out, although I would recommend having a notepad handy as there can be lots of information. If you are successful you will proceed to an assessment centre or, in my case, the PwC 'RECRU1T' weekend.

The weekend runs from Friday evening to Sunday afternoon at a location near Southampton. At first I was dubious - team building exercises sounded a bit naff and a silly way of choosing staff - however, as it transpired I was very wrong. Upon arrival at the site you have a few briefing talks and are put into groups which will remain your team for the duration of the weekend. The next morning you and your team embark on a series of team challenges. The assessment is done by the PwC recruiting team, so with that in mind it is a good idea to make sure you make yourself heard and come up with some ideas for possible solutions. Be passionate and sell your ideas, remember they are using this as a metaphor for your ideas in the workplace. If yours is trumped by another suggestion don't hold a grudge, be supportive of your team. Remember the whole point is to operate as a team.

I would strongly advise you pick the brains of your Southampton University co-ordinator (or whoever is in charge of arranging your specific assessment exercise), before the real action begins. Get their advice and criticism and make sure you take their points on board for the real thing. A few gems my co-ordinator imparted were: make sure every team member has a chance to speak, invite others in, or pipe up if you are a quiet person and, most importantly, get stuck in. Always ask each team member if they are happy with the plan of action and if at any point you find that you're not actively doing anything then offer support - "is there anything I can do to help?" and "remember we only have X minutes left" are all great lines to chuck in. Smiling and being supportive of the team, as naff as it sounds, really does count.

In the morning I had three of these activities, and in the afternoon an activity which is a favourite of PwC's, raft building. Part of this is an auction for equipment, requiring the team to devise a strategy, bid for equipment, build the raft and for some of the team to pilot the raft in a race against the other teams. The competitive element isn't judged but all your teamwork is. As one of the quieter members of the team, I made up for my lack of contribution to the discussions by eagerly (and perhaps somewhat naively), volunteering to row the raft across the freezing lake. A word of advice: if you opt for this tactic you might want to ensure you pack plenty of spare clothes.

The last assessment on Saturday is a brief group presentation about how you found the activities. I chose to highlight what I thought my weaknesses were as I believe PwC are looking not only for confidence in presenting but also self awareness. If you go for this strategy be sure to include that you intend to address those weaknesses.

In the evening of the final assessment day the group are usually given some time off, a chance to pick the brains of a few recent graduate employees of PwC who make an appearance in preparation for your final interview. Come the morning you have an interview with one of the company partners. I can't offer too much insight here as each candidate got asked different questions; however, this is where you really need to shine. Throughout the whole interview process you will need to have a keen eye on business news and current affairs and what that means for PwC. I was interviewed just as the VAT rate was cut, so it was good to be able to talk confidently about how PwC can offer specialist advice on this area, especially to international clients who do not have the time nor inclination to master the finer points of British tax law. To prepare for this area it is worth going to the PwC UK website - navigate yourself to the Issues page and read the whole lot! It is great preparation, written in the most part by partners and gives a great insight to how current events are affecting the firm.

I was also probed in some depth about my application form. Be prepared to be challenged. I was asked what I would have done differently in my pre-budget report if I was the Chancellor of the Exchequer. I was the only candidate asked this question so don't bother scripting a model answer. Be aware of current events and have an opinion on them. I was given a pretty ruthless grilling by the person interviewing me, however, the importance here is not just to have a well-reasoned and logical opinion but also to be confident enough to stand up and defend it.

After that you are free to leave. I genuinely got on with the other candidates and we keep in contact. Two days after the weekend I was offered an internship position starting this summer, along with most of my team.

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