i

How to Succeed
at an Assessment
Centre

ii

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iii

How to Succeed
at an Assessment
Centre
Essential preparation for psychometric
tests, group and role-play exercises,
panel interviews and presentations
3rd edition

Harry Tolley & Robert Wood

iv

Publisher’s note
Every possible effort has been made to ensure that the information contained in this
book is accurate at the time of going to press, and the publishers and authors cannot
accept responsibility for any errors or omissions, however caused. No responsibility for
loss or damage occasioned to any person acting, or refraining from action, as a result
of the material in this publication can be accepted by the editor, the publisher or any of
the authors.

First published in Great Britain in 2001
Second edition 2006
Third edition 2010
This edition 2011
Apart from any fair dealing for the purposes of research or private study, or criticism or review,
as permitted under the Copyright, Designs and Patents Act 1988, this publication may only
be reproduced, stored or transmitted, in any form or by any means, with the prior permission in
writing of the publishers, or in the case of reprographic reproduction in accordance with the
terms and licences issued by the CLA. Enquiries concerning reproduction outside these terms
should be sent to the publishers at the undermentioned addresses:
120 Pentonville Road
London N1 9JN
United Kingdom
www.koganpage.com

1518 Walnut Street, Suite 1100
Philadelphia PA 19102
USA

4737/23 Ansari Road
Daryaganj
New Delhi 110002
India

© Harry Tolley and Robert Wood, 2001, 2006, 2010, 2011
The right of Harry Tolley and Robert Wood to be identified as the authors of this work has been
asserted by them in accordance with the Copyright, Designs and Patents Act 1988.
ISBN
978 0 7494 6229 1
E-ISBN 978 0 7494 6228 4
British Library Cataloguing-in-Publication Data
A CIP record for this book is available from the British Library.
Library of Congress Cataloging-in-Publication Data
Tolley, Harry.
How to succeed at an assessment centre : essential preparation for psychometric tests group
and role-play exercises panel interviews and presentations / Harry Tolley, Robert Wood.
p. cm.
Rev. ed. of: How to succeed at an assessment centre : essential preparation for psychome­tric
tests, group and role-play exercises, panel interviews and presentations. 3rd ed. 2010.
ISBN 978-0-7494-6229-1 – ISBN 978-0-7494-6228-4  1.  Employment tests. 
2.  Assessment centers (Personnel management procedure)  I.  Wood, Robert, 1941 Mar.
10-  II.  Title.
HF5549.5.E5T65 2011
650.14–dc22

2010053962
Typeset by Graphicraft Ltd, Hong Kong
Printed and bound in India by Replika Press Pvt Ltd

v

Contents
About the authors  viii

Introduction  1

1 Assessment centres and multi-assessment
events  7
What is an assessment centre?  7
What to expect – the programme  8
What to expect – the assessment activities  11
Assessing your performance  22
Social activities and events  23
Dress code  24
Punctuality  25
Advance preparation  26

2 How to succeed in group exercises  29
Group exercises in the assessment process  29
What the assessors are looking for  31
Assigned, non-assigned and assumed roles  35
Tactical considerations  37
Icebreaker exercises  41
Professional role-players  42
Preparing for group discussion exercises  43
What assessors do not want to see  44

3 How to make successful presentations  47
Planning and preparation  48
Structuring your presentation  50

vi

Contents

Getting your presentation off to a good start  51
Delivering your presentation  52
What the assessors will be looking for  57
Summary  57

4 How to excel in psychometric tests  59
Tests and why selectors use them  59
Types of psychometric test  60
Examples from a logical reasoning test  63
Examples from numerical reasoning tests  65
Examples from verbal usage and reasoning tests  70
Comprehension/critical thinking  78
Examples of situational judgement tests  88
The importance of doing well in selection tests  91
Practice does make a difference  92
Performing to the best of your ability on tests  93
Completing psychometric tests online  94
Answers to sample questions  96

5 How to project yourself authentically through
personality, motivation and emotional
intelligence questionnaires  101
Personality  102
Emotional intelligence  115
Motivation  120
Summary  134

6 How to succeed at panel interviews  135
Why interviews are used in the selection process  135
Panel interviews  136
Advance preparation  141
Common failings at interviews  144
The interview  147
Types of questions interviewers ask  148
Summary  154

Contents

7 In-tray/in-box, case study and role-play
exercises  157
In-tray/in-box exercises  157
Case study exercises  163
Role-play exercises  165
Summary  169

8 Rounding off your preparation for an assessment
centre  171
Improving your reading skills  171
Improving your listening skills  175
Preparing for an assessment centre: some final advice  178
Summary  180

9 After an assessment centre: how to achieve
future success  181
Seeking feedback from others  181
Self-review – evaluating your assessment centre
experience  184
Developing a self-improvement action plan  184
Summary  186
Appendix: Auditing your skills  187
Further reading from Kogan Page  201

vii

viii

About the authors
Dr Harry Tolley is a Special Professor in the School of Education
at the University of Nottingham as well as being a researcher, author
and freelance consultant. He is the co-author of How to Pass
Numeracy Tests, How to Pass Verbal Reasoning Tests and How to
Pass the New Police Selection System, all published by Kogan
Page.
Professor Robert Wood is an author and freelance consultant. He
has written and co-written numerous books and papers based on
his extensive experience in recruitment, assessment and selection.
He now writes novels, short stories and walking books.

1

Introduction
I

t has been common practice to invite candidates who have
successfully negotiated a job or a promotion interview to attend
for a second interview. This was often very similar to the first, though
the chances are that the questions would have been more searching, and the candidates would have had to face a panel rather than
a single interviewer. However, many organizations have now come
to realize that such procedures are seriously flawed as a means of
recruiting new people, or even as a method of selecting employees
for promotion or further training. The reasons for this are:

●●

A second interview can easily cover the same issues in a similar
way to the first – even when conducted by skilled and
experienced interviewers.

●●

Selection based purely on interviews is likely to be more
subjective than is desirable because of the importance attached
to first impressions, and the possibility of stereotyping and
unintended bias on the part of the interviewers.

●●

Interviews on their own do not provide organizations with
sufficient information about the ability of candidates to cope
with the particular requirements of the job, course of training or
education programme for which they have applied.

2

How to Succeed at an Assessment Centre

Consequently, there are serious doubts about both the validity
and reliability of interviews as the sole means of selecting people
for whatever purpose. Some time ago, one recruitment specialist
summed this up as follows: ‘It is probably the worst way to recruit.
You may as well just toss a coin’ (Angela Baron, Chartered Institute
of Personnel and Development, cited in an article in Daily Telegraph
Business File, 29 April 1999).
Nevertheless, the emphasis is on the word ‘sole’ – because you
must still expect to be interviewed at some point in the selec­
tion process. For example, you might be invited to participate in
a ‘telephone interview’ during which a potential employer asks you
to elaborate on the information you have provided in your written
application. This also provides recruiters with an opportunity to
assess your oral communication when using the telephone – skills
which are of particular importance in jobs such as market research,
telephone sales, customer care and those at call centres. Alter­
natively, you might be given an opportunity early in the employment
process (eg at a recruitment fair) to take part in what is known
as a ‘speed interview’. This is not a substitute for a formal, in-depth
interview. It is simply a quick and easy way of helping potential
candidates and recruiters to decide if they are attracted by what
each other has to offer.
So, after such an experience you might decide to apply for organizations A and B rather than any of the other options open to you.
You will then enter into the full selection process, which is likely at
some point to include a ‘traditional interview’ – still seen by many
recruiters as being a low-risk, tried and tested method of selecting
personnel.
However, in the interests of efficiency and cost-effectiveness,
organizations are now seeking to select staff who have the com­
petencies and personal attributes that match the precise needs of
the job or the demands of the course of training and/or education
programme for which they have applied. They have concluded,
therefore, that the more information they have about the ability,
personality and behaviour of candidates the more they reduce the
chances of making the costly mistake of appointing, promoting or
selecting someone who is unsuitable. Thus, more and more of the

Introduction

applicants for jobs, promotion, further training and even education
courses can now expect to be assessed by a variety of methods
in a recruitment-selection process, which consists of a number of
stages.
For the candidate, this is a multi-stage assessment process
usually beginning with the completion and submission of some form
of written application – an on-line application form, a curriculum
vitae and/or a letter. These will not only be used as an initial filter, ie
to decide whether or not to progress your application to the next
stage in the recruitment process, but also to build up the evidence
on which the final assessment of your suitability will be based. What
you submit can also be used to inform subsequent stages in the
assessment process, eg the questions for you to be asked in an
interview, or what behaviours to look out for when you are interacting with other people. It is worth remembering that in completing
this stage of the process, you will be judged not just on the content
of your application, but also on your written communication skills
including the accuracy of your spelling, punctuation and grammar.
Given the importance of ‘first impressions’ in a highly competitive
labour market, you cannot afford to treat this initial stage of the
process lightly, and we strongly recommend that you read and
follow the advice given in the other books in the Kogan Page series
written specifically for this purpose, such as Preparing the Perfect
Job Application and Preparing the Perfect CV.
Candidates judged to best meet the selection criteria in the early
stages of the process are now likely to find themselves invited to
attend what is known as an ‘assessment centre’, where further evaluation of their suitability will be undertaken over an extended period
of time – sometimes several hours, sometimes even longer. It should
be noted that in this context the term ‘assessment centre’ refers to
a process rather than a location – a term like ‘multi-assessment
event’ would do just as well.
Assessment centres are highly structured in terms of both their
programmes and assessment activities – the same being true of
multi-assessment events. They will be run, in some cases, by human
resources staff from within the organization, assisted, as appro­
priate, by other people such as senior managers. In other situations,

3

4

How to Succeed at an Assessment Centre

recruitment professionals such as occupational psychologists from
outside the organization may be involved as consultants, and actors
may be employed in some role-play activities.
The structure and content of the programme will vary according
to the precise details of the job or training opportunity on offer. For
example, a post in management might involve a combination of
the following activities: an in-tray or ‘in-box’ exercise; group problem
solving; a case study; presentations; ability tests; and personality
inventories/questionnaires. For jobs in other types of employment
there may well be a greater emphasis on, for example, creative think­
ing, information technology (IT), numeracy or written communication
skills.
Whatever the selection of activities, the emphasis is often on the
observable behaviour of candidates, and to that end exercises will
have been designed to capture and simulate key aspects of the
relevant job. For example, would-be police officers are required to
participate in role-play exercises in which they have to deal with
problem situations. The candidates’ performance on tasks such as
these is then assessed against criteria derived from the compe­
tencies required for the job.
Unfortunately, many good candidates fail to do themselves
justice because they are unaware of what kinds of tasks they may
be asked to undertake when attending an assessment centre or
multi-assessment event. The aims of this book, therefore, are to:
●●

inform you about what to expect when you are asked to attend
an assessment event of this kind;

●●

explain how such events are conducted and how this fits into
the whole recruitment and selection process;

●●

offer advice on how you should behave during your time
at an assessment centre in both formal and informal
situations;

●●

give guidance on how you might prepare for the different forms
of assessment (including ability and other tests) you are likely to
face in order to maximize your chances of success;

Introduction

●●

suggest learning activities that you can undertake in order to
prepare yourself for the different types of assessment exercises
you are likely to face.

The contents of this book and the way they have been organized
and presented are designed to help you to achieve these goals.
As this is the third edition of the book, we have taken advantage of
the opportunity to update its content, most noticeably by adding
new material to existing chapters. As a result, the book more
accurately reflects recent developments and trends in the ways
in which assessment centres and multi-assessment events are
conducted. We begin in Chapter 1 by giving you an introduction to
what to expect if you are invited to attend an assessment event of
this kind.

5

6

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7

CHAPTER 1

Assessment centres and
multi-assessment events

I

n this chapter you will be given an overview of what to expect if you
are invited to attend an assessment centre or to participate in a
multi-assessment event. We will therefore explain to you: what an
assessment centre is; what kind of programme to expect; and the
assessment exercises you are likely to encounter. In addition, we
will give you constructive guidance on how to cope with the demands
that will be placed upon you, and how you should prepare for
attending an assessment centre. The chapter also deals with those
aspects of the assessment centre experience which often cause
participants trouble, such as the social activities included in the programme, dress codes and punctuality. Finally, we offer guidance on
some of the things you can do to prepare for attending an assessment centre or multi-assessment event.

What is an assessment centre?
If you are invited to attend an assessment centre, you will join a small
group of other applicants, possibly as many as a dozen. Together

8

How to Succeed at an Assessment Centre

you will be asked to undertake a series of assessments that have
been designed to reveal to the assessors whether you possess the
competencies and personal attributes necessary for you to: work
effectively in the relevant job; benefit from a further training oppor­
tunity; or cope with the demands of an education programme.
Depending on the arrangements, the assessment process can
take anything from a few hours to a couple of days. In the latter
case, both the candidates and the assessors are likely to be in
residence at the same place. It is not surprising, therefore, that
some candidates find this to be quite stressful, not least because
they are in an unfamiliar environment with people who are strangers
to them, doing something to which they are not accustomed. It is
natural for those who find themselves in this position to have trouble
relaxing because they think that they are being assessed all the time
– even during informal breaks in the proceedings. What you must
always remember is that, because of the expense entailed, organ­
izations will only invite those candidates to an assessment centre
or a multi-assessment event they consider to be worthy of closer
scrutiny. This means that, if you have got through to this stage in the
recruitment selection process, you must be getting closer to being
one of the chosen candidates. If you are not yet on the ‘short list’ of
those from whom the final selection will be made, you are certainly
on the ‘long list’!

What to expect – the programme
If you are fortunate enough to receive an invitation to attend a multiassessment event, what should you expect? The letter inviting you
to attend should give you a good idea. First, it should provide you
with details concerning the venue itself – the address, location and
how to get there. Then you should be given some preliminary information about what to expect, including an outline of the programme
together with the approximate timings. Under normal circumstances
you should also be given an indication of the types of assessment
that will be used and their place and purpose in the overall selection
process. Some organizations may even send you some sample test

Assessment centres and multi-assessment events
13.00

Arrive, welcome and introductions

13.15

Cognitive test (critical thinking)

14.00

Group discussion exercise

14.45

Break

15.00

Presentations

16.00

Interviews

17.00

Debriefing

17.30

Depart

Figure 1.1  Sample timetable for a half-day multi-assessment event
items as an aid to your preparation, together with a questionnaire to
complete. What this information should signal to you is that your
time at an assessment centre or a multi-assessment event will be
structured and highly organized. This can be illustrated by reference
to the sample timetables given in Figures 1.1 to 1.3 – one for a half­day event (Figure 1.1), one for a one-day programme (Figure 1.2)
and the other for two days (Figure 1.3).
These sample timetables are intended to show what you might
expect if you are invited to an assessment centre – though, when
studying these timetables, you need to bear in mind that there are
no hard-and-fast rules about how such programmes should be
compiled. Consequently, there are many variants depending upon
the circumstances. For example, would-be police officers are
required to attend a multi-assessment event that lasts for approximately four hours, during which they are given an interview, undertake a writing exercise, take two psychometric tests and participate
in role-plays – though not necessarily in that order. So, if you want
to know exactly what to expect, you will need to take a careful look
at the timetable you have been given.
What the sample programmes also show is how busy you can
expect to be during the time you are in attendance. Indeed, as a
candidate, you will find that there will be very little time when you are
not actively engaged in one form of assessment or another. All of this
variety and intensity of activity is intended to do more than simply
provide the assessors with as much evidence as possible about the
applicants in the shortest possible time. Part of its purpose is to

9

10

How to Succeed at an Assessment Centre
10.00

Arrive, registration, coffee

10.15

Welcome and introductions

10.30

Cognitive and personality tests

12.30

Buffet lunch with departmental staff

13.45

Interviews*

15.00

Break

15.15

Group discussion exercise

16.30

Debriefing

17.00

Depart

* Applicants who do not do well enough on the tests may be asked to leave
following a short feedback session

Figure 1.2  Sample timetable for a one-day assessment centre

DAY 1
17.00

Arrive at venue for the assessment centre (eg a hotel)

18.00

Welcome and introductory briefing

18.30

Icebreaker activity

20.00

Dinner with representatives from the organization and
assessors
Work on preparatory task for following day’s activities
(eg complete a questionnaire, read documents provided)

DAY 2
09.00

Introduction to the day’s programme

09.15

Cognitive test and personality inventory

11.00

Coffee

11.15

In-tray or in-box exercise

12.15

Presentations

13.00

Lunch with senior managers and assessors

14.00

Group decision-making exercise

15.00

Break

15.15

Interviews

16.15

Debriefing session and brief presentation of the
organization’s training and development programme

17.00

Finish and depart

Figure 1.3  Sample timetable for a two-day assessment centre

Assessment centres and multi-assessment events

observe at first hand how you behave under pressure by simulating
the circumstances under which you might be expected to perform in
a real workplace, such as dealing with a difficult customer, working
together in a team or handling electronic communication efficiently.
In turn, the variety of assessment tasks is intended to provide different forms of evidence about you and the other candidates. This will
then enable the assessors to build up a profile of you and the other
candidates based on your performance on the individual assessment items. The completed profiles can then be used when making
the final decision.
In short, the principles that underpin the conduct of this form of
assessment are that the evidence on which the final decisions are
made should have been: derived from a range of carefully chosen
tasks; and based upon the judgements of more than one assessor.
Only by following these principles can the reliability and validity of
the final outcomes be boosted to desirable levels.

What to expect – the assessment
activities
As with the programme, there is no set formula as to how many
exercises or which combination of activities should be included in
an assessment centre or multi-assessment event. This is because the
assessment tasks will have been chosen to provide the assessors
with evidence of the extent to which the candidates possess those
competencies judged to be relevant to the particular job, development opportunity or programme of study under consideration. How­
ever, the research findings, which are summarized in Table 1.1,
tell us that certain types of exercise are more likely to occur at an
assessment centre than others, irrespective of the size of the recruiting organization. For example, as the table shows, assessment centres
are almost certain to include some form of interview (ie one to one
or by an interview panel). What is crucial is that this is not the sole
method of extracting behavioural evidence. Other methods will
comprise some or all of the following: an aptitude (ability) test; a

11

12

How to Succeed at an Assessment Centre

TABLE 1.1  Content of assessment centre exercises in the UK
according to size of recruiting organizations (small, medium, large)
Type of exercise

Small

Medium

Large

Total sample

(%)

(%)

(%)

(%)

Interview

97

97

97

97

Aptitude test

89

91

91

91

Personality test

80

83

79

80

Group discussion

67

79

89

79

Case study

49

64

71

62

Presentation

54

59

61

58

In-tray/in-box

19

38

48

35

personality questionnaire; a group discussion exercise; perhaps a
case study; a presentation; and an in-tray/in-box exercise. That is to
say, in any assessment programme you should expect to encounter
a combination of some of the following assessment tasks:
●●

one-to-one interview or a panel interview;

●●

ability tests (sometimes known as ‘cognitive’ or ‘psychometric’
tests);

●●

personality questionnaires (or ‘inventories’);

●●

group discussion exercise;

●●

case study;

●●

in-tray/in-box exercise;

●●

presentation.

By way of giving you an overview of what to expect, a brief des­
cription is provided below for each of the most common types of
assessment tasks. More detailed guidance on what is involved and
how you can best prepare for them is then given in the subsequent
chapters of this book.

Assessment centres and multi-assessment events

Interviews
An interview is an interview; we all think we know what to expect.
You may already have had some form of an interview prior to your
receiving an invitation to attend an assessment centre and now you
are to be interviewed again. However, you would be well advised to
approach this so-called ‘second interview’ with greater care and
prepare for it more thoroughly than you might have done ahead of
the first interview. This is not just because the stakes get higher the
closer you get to the point at which the final selection is made:
second interviews tend to be more challenging, perhaps because
the assessors are just a little more on their mettle.
So, in what ways do assessment centre interviews differ from
first interviews? The main features of second interviews are that
they are:
●●

often conducted by a panel drawn from senior managers,
staff with relevant professional or technical expertise,
human resource personnel and even outside consultants;

●●

driven by highly specific selection criteria, and as such are
intended to provide evidence that complements evidence
obtained by other means;

●●

based on more searching questions, which may be informed
by how you have performed on the other assessment
exercises or information you have provided in your
application;

●●

likely to focus at some point on any issues that were raised
during your first interview and that need further exploration.

In the light of this knowledge it is worth doing a little advance prepar­
ation before you go to the assessment centre. As you can see from
the sample timetables given in Figures 1.1 to 1.3, the chances are
that you won’t have much time when you get there. A checklist of
useful things that you can do to get started on that process is given
in the box below.

13

14

How to Succeed at an Assessment Centre

You can prepare in advance for your assessment centre interview by:
●● taking a careful look at the job details together with your initial

application, CV and covering letter and reflecting on them in the light
of the knowledge you have since gained;
●● studying any notes you made following your first interview;
●● thinking about what questions you were asked at that interview and

whether or not any areas were left unexplored;
●● trying to identify what new questions you might be asked or areas

the interviewers might wish to explore;
●● gathering relevant information about the organization, eg from

someone you know who may have had a second interview or via
the internet.

To sum up, expect your assessment centre interview to be more
demanding than the one that helped to get you there, make sure
you are familiar with what you said in your application form, CV and
supporting letter, and find out as much as you can about the job
and the organization. More detailed guidance is given in Chapter 6.

Ability tests
The use of tests in personnel selection is based on the assumption
that there are stable job-related differences between candidates,
and that these differences can be measured with a sufficient degree
of accuracy to be of value to employers. The ability tests chosen for
use at an assessment centre, therefore, will have been specifically
designed to assess how good people are at doing certain things.
So, expect to be given a test or tests that will provide the assessors
with some objective evidence of what you are able to do – in other
words, a measure of your aptitude.
The most commonly used ability tests are designed to assess
your skills in numeracy and verbal reasoning. In addition there are