How to succeed at interviews and assessment centres

Advice on how to get over the final hurdle

Around three-quarters of recruiters use interviews and assessment centres to make their final hiring decisions. Don't be too alarmed - if you've made it this far then you've clearly got the skills and experiences the employer is looking for. Interviews and assessment centres are mostly about employers checking whether your attitudes and personality would be a good fit for them, so just be yourself and be confident.

Prepare before the interview

One of the first mistakes students sometimes make is not going back over the information that got them through the door in the first place. So read and re-read your CV and application form. It doesn't look good if an employer has to remind you of what you said on your CV - at worst, it can make you look like you were being generous with the truth. Researching your application answers should also arm you with several examples to use to show situations where you displayed certain characteristics that fit with the job description.

Rehearse the obvious questions

There's a fine line between rehearsing and learning answers off-by-heart so that you can only deliver them with the emotion of an android. Sites like www.best-interview-strategies.com will give you a head start on some of the most common interview questions and allow you to practice what you would say in response. Don't forget to prepare some questions yourself - you should take the opportunity to ask about the role too. Many recruiters say the best interviews are more like a conversation, rather than one side prompting the other for little bits of information.

When you are answering a question you should take a moment to make sure you've understood it, ask for clarification if necessary and plan your response. If you need to delay for time take a sip of water and then deliver your answer clearly and calmly using evidence to back up what you're saying. Avoid open statements like "I'm great at sales", instead explain your previous sales experience and quantify the successes you had in those roles (e.g. any awards you won, if you increased revenues, if you hit targets etc.).

Assessment centres

Assessment centres sound painful but often they're nothing more arduous than going to a company's headquarters and joining in a schedule of exercises and tests. Get familiar with what to expect from the different exercises and you'll already have a head start on the other candidates.

There is no secret to doing well at assessment centres. Through your application form and any previous interviews, you've already proven that you have the necessary skills to do the job, now the company just wants to see what your personality is like and how it would fit in with the firm. It's impossible to second-guess whether they might want an outgoing type or someone who is more thoughtful - chances are that there are places for both.

Things to know before you turn up

  • Recent news stories about the company

  • The company's share price and its recent performance

  • The particular competencies that the company look for in its staff

  • See the recruitment pages of the company's website

  • The format of the day, including who will be interviewing you

  • Careers services and friends who have already done an assessment centre at the firm will be able to help with information on potential themes and questions that may arise

  • Some questions about the company

  • Asking sensible questions can make you seem interested and informed. But beware of creating the opposite impression by asking the obvious or, worse, things that have already been answered during the day.

    Ways to ensure you make a good first impression

  • Wear smart clothes that are comfortable and appropriate

  • When you meet people, smile, look enthusiastic and remember their name

  • Take a clean handkerchief in your pocket so you can dry your hands before greeting an interviewer

  • Sit up straight and don't fidget with your hands or any papers (like your CV or application form) that you've brought with you

  • Make eye contact with the interviewer when they're talking to you and address your response to them, but make sure to look at the other people in the room as well

How to survive the assessment centre

  • When you get there, find a student you reckon you will get on with and get chatting. Nobody will know anyone else so everyone should be friendly; it is always better to have a mate in this sort of thing.

  • Be nice to everyone, smile and laugh (not insanely).

  • You may be nervous, but keep eating and drinking as it is a very long day and you want to keep the energy up.

  • Do things in moderation: don't dominate interviews, group exercises and conversations, but don't be too shy either; don't scoff all the food, or drink too much coke. and, if you get offered alcohol, by all means have a drink but, whatever you do, don't get hammered, even if it is free.

  • Be positive, listen to everyone and consider all points of view. Give constructive feedback (never criticise), enjoy the exercises and, most importantly, relax and be yourself.

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