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Crush Your Graduate Scheme Assessment Day (2021)

Stand tall and congratulate yourself - you've made it! If you have recently graduated, you're likely at something of a crossroads. It's a good time to take an inventory of yourself and ask "what do I do now?". Graduate programs in 2021 may have changed a little from previous years, but the recipe for crushing your interview/assessment process remains the same.


2021 Graduate holding a degree traveling home from graduation ceremony

Let's assume you've been through the whole process of selecting where you want to do your grad scheme. You sent your CV and as if the stars were aligned, they choose you for an assessment day and/or interview.


You begin to frantically ask yourself whether you're ready and begin googling everything about the workplace.


Irreversibly, your mind enters the headspace of preparation and stress begins to develop.



But In the intro, I mentioned there being something of a recipe for being accepted, and this is true, though there are other important factors.


One of them is that you are genuine. This is the one thing that you can't really 'fake' or 'generate' on the day, you need to be actually interested in the idea of working for this company.


Equally, you may show up on the day (online or otherwise) and immediately get a feeling of repulsion - this is actually a good thing and it's your intuition telling you that you should at least consider other opportunities elsewhere.



You can actually draw a similarity between the assessment day and your exams - preparation is everything, it really matters.


I invite you to go on something of a data mining expedition and be as technically prepared for any questions as you are emotionally prepared for the experience of the day.


This might sound intimidating at first, but fear not, we're about to go into the depth of the how to's and don't do's.





The Technical Questions


Here's a surprising revelation for you - the technical questions are the least important factor of your interview or assessment day.


This sounds silly, right? But if we think about it, it's understandable why.


Technical questions are those quick-fire round of:

  • "Name types of..."

  • "How does 'this' work"

  • "Explain the concept of...

  • "Give examples of..."

  • If you're really unlucky "derive this..."


These questions are, of course, there to test your knowledge, but do you notice how the answer to these questions could be easily learned afterwards?


This is why they hold less significance...but then why do they exist?


They exist to act as something known as a contrasting factor, it's a generic technique by the HR departments to differentiate two or more candidates that are neck and neck for the position.



It's a really quick and easy way to say "these candidates are close, but person A did perform better on the technical questions, yadda-yadda"


Though I should stress, they do this near the end of determining who is most appropriate. The most important factors actually exist in how you answer questions and how you socially interact on the day (also known as your emotional intelligence)


Emotional intelligence is the other side of the coin to Intellectual intelligence. HR recruitment blueprints always factor them both in.



It's common there is someone who is intellectually brilliant on the day and they answer the questions well, but they stay in their shell and don't really interact...


These people will be ruled out very quickly. The hybrid model of employee is usually the best for most recruiters.


So there's our first acknowledgement - if you balls up the technical questions and travel home or log off feeling totally dejected, it's REALLY not as bad as you think, honest!



How to Answer Technical Questions


I've just taken a shot at the importance of technical questions, but I want you to do well in them because answering them in specific ways can play into the hands of some other criteria that you need to tick.


Of course, the best scenario is that you answer them well and actually know the answer.


That said, there will be times when you don't know the answer - all isn't lost here, it's actually an opportunity to show the assessor another aspect of your experience.



Because knowing information is one thing, but having a mind that is able to deduce and travel down a rabbit hole in the logical pursuit of an answer is absolute gold to an employer.


What you're demonstrating is deductive reasoning, and it's a really attractive quality to any workplace.


It's you telling them that if something goes wrong, you will chase the solution - again, gold dust!


An interview between a man and a woman in a corporate building dressed formally in an assessment centre

So let's say you are presented with the question "name types of 'x' and explain why they are used in their respective applications?"


Things fall silent for a moment because you rattle through your brain for a quick and sophisticated solution, but nothing surfaces.


The key point here is to be honest that you don't know, but don't stop there, never just say you don't know and then don't try (you WILL be marked down for this)



Another important point is that when you ask for more information, you will again be marked down for this.


The assessor has the question written down and they MUST read it as is, word for word. They are able to give additional assistance, but again this will be a mark against you (it's known as giving a 'pointer' - it's very minor deduction, but noteworthy)


Anyhow, you don't know what to say...



What you do now, is begin to expand on the question and get into the 'realm' of where the answer might be.


You do this by thinking out loud and trying to deduce the answer, this usually includes sentences like:


  • "Well if 'x' is used in this application, it must be for 'this' reason.

  • "'x' wouldn't be used in 'that' application, because that's not what it's designed for.

  • "This application needs 'this' feature, so 'x' could be used here.


This is what I mean by expanding into the realm of where the answer may be, because there's something deeper going on here, and it's to do with the question you've just been given.


The question that has been presented to you, is more than likely one of a selection of questions that could have been asked.


The assessor either has a bank of questions to which they are divided into topic areas and then they pick a handful in each topic area to ask.



Or, they have a defined set of say 5 questions to pose you with. Either way, the handful of questions will usually test the breadth of knowledge rather than the depth - more of an 'awareness'.


If you begin to deduce an answer to a question that you don't know, while on the journey of doing that you may end up bumping into the answers of questions that 1) could have been asked or 2) are very close to other questions in the same/other topic areas.


My point being, the more you talk aloud about your thought process, the better the chances you have about showing genuine interest, a willingness to not give up and a wider knowledge of the information surrounding the posed question.



This is where we begin to touch upon key markers in the emotional intelligence area mentioned before.


Because I promise you, I've been an assessor in my workplace (and still am!) and when we speak about someone who didn't do well in technical questions...some sentences that come up, sound like this:


  • "They struggled on the question, but they did explain a decent amount about 'this' instead.

  • "I liked how interested they were, even though they didn't manage to get the answer"

  • "They obviously have never heard about this, but good logic, great effort!"

  • "They didn't do well, but with a little bit of training, it's no real problem. They were clearly interested and I can work with that.



How you answer the question is crucial, it's honestly the effort that counts. You may get no marks for answering, but it's not so cut and dry as a scoreboard (though the scoreboard does exist)


Ultimately, it's to the discretion of the department of who to accept, they just need to prove to the HR department why they are choosing a specific person (this is to prevent discrimination, favouritism and bias etc)


The last note on this one is to be polite, perhaps even use humour if you feel it's appropriate. Shaping a friendly environment will make the experience that much better and demonstrate your ability to get along with people, even in the social dynamic where you are being questioned.



The HR Marking Scheme


I've mentioned emotional intelligence a few times now, it's about time I expand on it! Remember, it's the other side to intellectual intelligence.


On your assessment day, a HR representative will be present and they would have confirmed a marking scheme to the assessors beforehand.


They are trying to gauge your intelligence during the assessment day, both emotional and intellectual.


Diagram of Intellectual Intelligence and Emotional Intelligence

You can picture this as a graph with Intellectual on the Y-axis and Emotional on the X-axis. The region where you want to be is on the top right of the graph - best of both!


Where you don't want to be (although many assume it's where you should be) is on the top left of the graph - super high in only intelligence.


This is where I refer to the hybrid model, you want to be in the good to a very good region of both rather than the great region of one.



You could be very academic but shy and not forthcoming, or be very forthcoming or 'chatty' but not offer much constructive information in response to questions/group challenges etc.


Similar to the technical questions above, you don't need to be answering all the questions correctly in the individual or groups tasks, but compassionately provide constructive information that allows the group to move forward (exercising both forms of intelligence)


You can shorten this down to the 'how you contribute' and the 'what you contribute'.



Having information that can help is of course good, but communicating it constructively may be the real challenge for some people.


In my experience of being assessed and now being an assessor, humour is a fantastic way to keep everything positive and productive! (just be cautious on what everyone's taste of humour is, avoid dark jokes or political topics, just to name a few!)


The bottom line being, be helpful, be happy!



Enjoying the Day


Although you could easily fall into the trap of competing with others, it's not the way to go.


The best-case scenario for the majority of times is that you're able to enjoy the day and get along with the other candidates, HR and assessors.


One of the biggest wishes for the assessors is that the candidates enjoy the day. It's also to your benefit since the ability to get along with others is obviously important (and you are marked on it!).



So show up in good spirits, dress in a confident way and have yourself all ready to go.


If this is your first assessment day, I remember the anxiety well - it's almost better that your anxious because you are likely to have a good day and the feeling of relief will be even more glorious!


If you do go on more assessment days, the first one is a really fantastic experience to prepare for the next.



It's important that you don't arrive with an overly competitive mindset, because to HR and the assessors....that only comes off as desperation and an inability to work as a team.


The best way to be is to be grounded. It's also important to not try and sabotage other candidates.


We've all seen the apprentice right, where they all battle to be Alan Sugar's business partner and they continue to step over each other and make everyone else look bad rather than make themselves look as good as possible?



This is the trap, remember that's just drama on TV. You're in the real deal here and sabotage will not fly!


If you show up and you see someone fall into this trap, there's not much you can do, but it's important you don't react to it but you respond in a calm manner and continue to improve your own standing instead.


Don't fire back, just enjoy the day with the others and demonstrate true professionalism and almost 'sportsmanship' with the other candidates.




Being the Leader


Speaking of the apprentice, at the beginning of each task they try to choose a leader and it's always such a shambles.


They end up getting that someone who just immediately throws in their hat and won't take no for an answer, they believe that just being 'the leader' means they are showing the exact thing that employers want.


Unfortunately in the show, they do this for the title and authority and not much else. Yet again, in the real world and there's a bit of a process to go through before you can put your hat in the ring (I believe anyhow)


Team of employees brainstorming during an assessment day interview

It's important to choose the best person for the task, which may, or may not be you. You establish this by considering the potential of everyone (including yourself!!) and then coming to a conclusion.


What you are communicating here is that you are interested in the overall success of the mission over the want to have the title.


Those who are far too aggressive in asserting themselves as a leader are often marked down because it comes across as a bit of a dictatorship - even when it's done in a seemingly 'passive' way.



A good way to pursue leadership is to understand the skills and experiences of the team and then see who's most appropriate, compliment other peoples achievements and acknowledge their applicability, but again...absolutely do this for yourself too.


If you end up being a leader after this step, you would have got there democratically and in a way that is respected by those observing you.


If however, you do not end up being a leader, you can still be a 'leader'...



You do this by showing courage and assisting the designated leader to be the best they can, this will be recognised immediately and really hold you in a good light.


Though this isn't the only way to show leadership, someone else may be the leader for the task but other opportunities will exist throughout the day, for example:


  • if someone is struggling, help them out! A true leader will always help those who need help.

  • If the group is getting a bit rowdy, be the one to calm the storm and navigate the conversation away from the touchy area.

  • Make sure to be one of the ones to present the findings of the group, usually, everyone gets the opportunity to do this but if it's optional - go for it, at least one of them!

  • If anyone has general questions about the day, and you have prepared (like I've told you to!) offer up the information and help them.

  • Be the scribe! If the opportunity comes to write down a brainstorm or something similar, be the person to jot everything down and help generate ideas and momentum toward a solution.



Leadership is all about support for your team, true leaders are identified on their ability to work toward the success of the mission by inspiring momentum in the group.


Being part of the team is another aspect of leadership, even if you're not the actual leader of that team.


That comes in owning yourself and being the best you can be in whatever position you end up in, having command of your own actions is being a commander in its own right and that is commended just as much.




Declare your Interest


This seems like an obvious one, you obviously won't show up and act like you don't care.


But I'm about to share a defining trick on how to be a winning candidate.


It's all to do with demonstrating that you have the potential to grow in the department you are applying for.



Usually, graduate schemes allow you to apply to multiple departments in a company - say three or something.


Then, you show up to one assessment day but you will have three interviews with each department (sometimes spread out throughout the year)


Although you are applying to one company, you are actually applying to three different departments within that company that likely operate independently within that company.



If a department is accepting graduates, it's because they would like the graduate to stay long term after the scheme is done.


Typically, you will get to 'hop' around departments every six months or so and experience the breadth of the company. In the end, you're 'loosely' expected to return to the department you first applied to and continue your career there.


This first department is referred to as your 'home' department, it should be the one you're most interested in and then the others are there to widen your knowledge of the company (or even do an external placement!)


Interview questions being posed to new employee graduate during an assessment day

Anyhow, if you want to stand out in the day, be sure to convey your genuine interest in the department you are applying to and NOT just interest in the company.


Of course, demonstrate interest for the company too, but really zone in on the department you're currently being assessed/interviewed for.


Communicating that you intend to stay with your home department after the graduate program is finished is of huge significance and will be noted.



When the department assessors and HR representatives get together and decide who is most appropriate, the assessors will absolutely comment on the likelihood of which candidate will stay long term.


If you want to work in the department after the scheme is done, be sure to convey that, and be specific that it's THIS department you want to gain depth in.


I can't emphasise the importance of this enough, it has a tremendous amount of weight in the deciding process.




A Note on Presenting


Presenting information is an important skill, in any profession.


HR do like to see how comfortable you are in presenting something that is perhaps unfamiliar to you. The department is of course also interested in you having this skill.


Whether you have to prepare something beforehand or you are spontaneously chosen to present something on the spot, try to remain grounded and understand that it's a great opportunity for you.



So many people are afraid of presenting (I was too, in fact depending on the number of listeners, I still might be!)


For me...I notice that the fear is all in the unknown in the minutes leading up to the presenting. But when I'm a few seconds in, I quite like it!


And that's the point, the challenge is to get the ball rolling and then it's easy from then on.