For episode 37 of the Graduate Job Podcast, by popular request we cover assessments centres, as I speak with career coach and assessment centre expert Kath Houston. We delve into what assessment centres are, what companies are looking for from them, through to how you can stand out in the group exercises, presentations, and job interviews. If you’ve applied or are thinking of applying for a graduate job then this is going to be an episode you will not want to miss. Before we start a quick request from me, I’ve set up a super simple and very quick survey, as I want the show to best serve your needs. It’s got 5 questions and will take you a minute, so please check it out at http://www.graduatejobpodcast.com/survey/ . I look forward to hearing your thoughts.
MORE SPECIFICALLY IN THIS EPISODE YOU’LL LEARN ABOUT:
- What exactly an assessment is, and what you will be doing
- What companies are looking for throughout the day and how you will be assessed
- How to stand out during the group exercise
- How to impress during the presentation stage
- Top tips for acing the job interview
- The importance of having the correct mindset walking into the assessment centre
- Why you should be confident that you will get the job!
SELECTED LINKS AND RESOURCES MENTIONED IN THIS EPISODE:
- Kath’s new book –How to Succeed at Assessment Centre. If you have an assessment centre coming up you need to read this book. Click on the image below to buy NOW from Amazon!
- Kath’s 1st book recommendation – How to Find Fulfilling Work.
- Kath’s 2nd book recommendation – The Secret Life of Bees.
- University of Kent Careers Service – Kath’s website recommendation
- Google Alerts – Kath’s second web tip
IF YOU LIKE THIS EPISODE CHECK THESE OUT:
- My interview on how to pass aptitude tests (verbal, numeric, situational judgement etc.) which you will face when you apply for graduate jobs
- My other episode on how to impress at assessment centres
- My episodes on impressing at job interviews
Episode 37: How to Succeed at Assessment Centres, with Kath Houston
James: Hello and welcome to the Graduate Job Podcast with your host James Curran. The Graduate Job Podcast is your weekly home for all things related to helping you on your journey to finding the amazing job. Each week I bring together the best minds in the industry speaking to leading authors, entrepreneurs, coaches, and bloggers who bring decades of experience into a bite-sized weekly 30 minute show. Put simply, this is the show I wish I had a decade ago when I graduated.
In episode 37 of the Graduate Job Podcast, by popular request, we cover the thorny topic of graduate assessment centres as I speak with career coach and assessment centre expert Kath Houston. We delve into what assessment centres are and what companies are looking for from them through to how you can stand out in the group exercises, presentations, and job interviews. If you’ve applied or are thinking of applying for any graduate job, with any company large or small, then this is going to be an episode you won’t want to miss.
As always, all links to everything we discuss and a full transcript are available in the show notes at graduatejobspodcast.com/ac. Before we start though, a quick request from me in order for me to create a show which best serves your needs, I’ve set up a super simple and very quick survey. It’s got five questions and it will take you a minute to answer, so please check it out at graduatejobpodcast.com/survey. I look forward to hearing all your thoughts, but in the meantime, let’s crack on with the show.
Very excited today to welcome Kath Houston to the show. Kath is a senior lecturer in employability and enterprise at the University of Central Lancashire. Freelance career coach and co-author of the excellent book How to Succeed at Assessment Centres. Kath, welcome to the Graduate Job Podcast.
Kath: Hi James. Nice to be here.
James: And today we’re going to cover all things assessment centre related – but before we do, would you like to tell us, briefly, a little bit more about your career and how you came to be a lecturer, career coach and author.
Kath: When I graduated, I didn’t know what I wanted to do and I went to see a careers advisor – which is quite sweet, really – and I spoke to a careers advisor, a very good careers advisor, and amongst the things that we discussed, one of the careers that I was most interested in, was being a careers advisor myself and so I eventually trained and became a careers advisor, worked for a few years, then had quite a long career break because I had quite a lot of children, and then came back to careers advisory work and started being more interested in the university sector – having worked in schools and colleges – and sort of moved into working as a careers advisor in universities and then applying for jobs as a lecturer so that I could actually teach career management and employability within courses, so across the board different courses that people might study and make sure that they actually have the skills and knowledge to be ready for the job market so that they don’t just come out with a degree and suddenly think “what now,” and to actually help them in those next steps. And sort of became fascinated by the job market and how graduates are put through what often seem an assault course of different activities and different expectations of them and how unprepared they would often be for that.
So I came to suddenly be a career coach, be a careers advisor, but also, really, really interested in the kind of things employers expect of graduates – particularly new graduates – and really wanted to know more than was out there. I wanted to know some of the mystery that was about assessment centres and I wanted to find out an awful lot more.
James: Excellent. Today, hopefully we can remove some of that mystery as we move into the middle of the milkround graduate recruitment season with lots of assessment centres be kicking off in the new year. So starting at the beginning then, what is an assessment centre and why do companies use them?
Kath: Well the fact is that interviews alone was always the only way that a recruiter would check whether a particular candidate was the right person for the job. So in the past, most people would go for an interview and they would either be selected or not and what psychology, occupational psychologists found out and tell us is that an interview is a very imperfect way of deciding the right person for the job. What might be a half an hour conversation – as good as that can be on its own – would never be good enough. And the idea of assessment centres was a way to see someone for a longer period of time, see them in a number of situations, and see whether there was some consistency in the way this person presented themselves. And it was discovered that by doing a number of activities over a half day or a day where a candidate would be assessed and observed, recruiters would get a much – it’s a boring phrase – but a more holistic picture of a candidate.
So from the recruiter’s point of view, it was a great opportunity in an assessment centre process to really see someone as really as possible, in what is a very artificial situation, and there’s no getting away from that. It is artificial, but they do get to see each candidate in a number of different exercises and then they can collate the statistics, the data they get, from all those different situations or exercises and decide this particular applicant, this particular candidate matches what we want.
The assessment centre itself is set up so that the competencies the recruiter is looking for are mirrored in each exercise. So each exercise is designed so that a particular competency might be demonstrated – or not. An assessment centre process is in many ways a fairer process, a fairer way, of assessing candidates. But there are always other things going on, obviously, there’s the objective part of it where they are looking for a particular competency, but obviously the assessors, the observers, are human beings who pick up lots of non-verbal signs and make subject impressions of candidates. That’s an additional dynamic that’s in there.
James: And the assessment aspect can be a really strange on the first time you go through an assessment centre when you suddenly realize that you’ve got people who just sat there with a pen and a notepad just watching you and writing down the things you do.
Kath: Yeah, I think that particularly is the biggest surprise. And one of the things that I did was actually, as a candidate, go through some assessment centres’ processes myself and even though I knew and I understood it, going through it is a whole different thing. And you’re absolutely right, when you see someone standing with a clipboard watching you, with full attention on you and you only, in say a group exercise, in a group discussion, and see them writing notes about you, you feel – and I put it in the book ‘like a bug in a jar’ as if some small child is peering at you with intensity – and that is both a compliment, actually, that they want to attend to you, but also quite unnerving. It really is a particularly, specifically challenging part of the assessment centre process.
James: And as you say, it’s not often that you get someone’s full attention just watching really what you’re doing the entire time. It’s not something that tends to happen in day-to-day life.
Kath: Yeah, and some people might actually – there are some people who thrive on that, who actually like being the centre of the attention all the time – but it’s full on. And it may be for a half day or a full day. It might be for two days. That is a lot more than most people would normally expect. It is a specific part of this process.
James: I’m thinking then about those assessors – what is it, exactly, that they’ll be looking for and assessing you on?
Kath: Well, I mentioned competencies – if it’s a well-run, well designed assessment centre – there would be a job role profile of some kind and within that job role profile will be skills, knowledge, competencies, that are required to do that job well. Normally, that job role profile is based on a previously successful candidate who ended up as a successful employee for that company. So someone – their perfect candidate – and the competencies, the skills and knowledge, those type of things are what they’re looking for. And on that clipboard they will have a sheet with a checklist and a checklist with very specific competencies.
It might be in a group exercise, it might be asking open questions. So if you’re in a group exercise and you ask really good open questions that drive the discussion and help the group work collaboratively, those open questions are considered a positive indicator. A negative indicator might be someone interrupts someone. They’ll have a list of competencies or skills on their clipboard and they will be looking out for them. The pluses and the minuses. And that’s what they’re ticking. Or they’ll be writing little commentary about things that you as a candidate will have done – the good or bad. So yeah, it’s a very intense process. But it’s actually at the end of it when they score that – the positives or negatives – your score can then be compared against someone else’s and that makes for more objectivity they believe.
James: Excellent. And we’ll cover group exercises in more detail later on in the show. And I liked in your book how you split down – you had the stats for – just how common each aspect of the assessment centre was. So I think from the top hundred graduate recruiters, that 79% of them actually did use group exercises in an assessment centre and that 72% used presentations.
James: What else?
Kath: Yes, those statistics are for those big and top graduate recruiters as you mentioned, but what was also interesting was that when I was talking to the small to medium type employers, increasingly they’re copying the larger employers. They’ve realized that they need another look at people beyond just an interview. So I want to say that it’s highly likely that whatever company a graduate applies to, a group exercise might be part of it – and a presentation.
James: So starting then with group exercises, what type of exercises can people expect?
Kath: Well the most common ones I think – most people will see it as just a discussion – so they might be given a topic to discuss and one of the ones in my book, as an example, they might have a contentious topic. It might be big business is unethical. It might be a topic like name the ten most influential people in the world today. It could be a statement or a topic and they’re asked to discuss it as a group – it might be a group of six, typically – and come to some consensus and then, perhaps at the end of it, present their views, their group views. So that’s one type of thing.
Also, you might have an actual – what you might call a case study – so there might be a sheet of paper in front of you in the group, each person has a sheet of paper with a problem or scenario or a case with data considered to take in – and then the group to discuss as to a way forward, a solution, some proposals – so that could be what you might call a case study discussion.
You might have an ethical – increasingly I’m noticing more an ethical question that might have a legal aspect to it, it might have something to do with compliance to particular legislation, or to a values-based – that is yours, hopefully – and potentially that company or organization, so it might be something to do with corporate social responsibility, it might be something to do with how you would approach a particular situation. So these sort of ethical situations, there might be challenge. Many people have heard of the way you might have to build a tower. So there’s more physical challenges, but they’re also mental challenges.
They tend to break down into those main areas. You might also have like an icebreaker group exercise when at the beginning – which is more light-hearted – but again, they’re almost always you as a group discussing, deciding, collaborating, negotiating, and coming up with a proposal or an opinion at the end. So getting to know people very quickly and working together very quickly with a bunch of strangers, basically.
James: Having been an assessor at graduate recruitment events, it was the group exercise that was always my favourite. It’s really enjoyable just seeing a group of six people who don’t really know each other in a time-pressured, generally pressurized environment, and just seeing how people interact. You can really see the full range of different emotions as people, especially as the clock starts ticking and it’s like a mini version of the apprentice each time you see one.
Kath: I think this, James, is one of the aspects that I think people don’t realize – that in our mind-set we have almost memories, they’re not quite memories of apprentice-type situations of, I particularly think, picking teams in the playground – situations where some people were picked and some people weren’t – of reality TV, so-and-so got voted off, and all these metaphors apart – a sort of simmering away in our mind and assessment centres play into a lot of those metaphors. And that’s why people get more anxious, because these sort of vague memories of these other things are actually triggering a bad vibe, almost, which we don’t necessarily want. But they are part of what’s happening for each individual, those types of memories.
James: And I’d like to cover mind-set maybe later in the interview, but one difference between assessment centres and all those things you mentioned is – having spoken to a load of graduate recruiters, and I know from the company when we were recruiting – if there are six candidates and they’re all six are great, then we’ll make six offers. So it’s not – it’s an important mind-set change for people to make – is that it’s not a competition, it’s you’re there to help bring out the best in other people and if you do that, then you’ll succeed and they’ll succeed and you’ll all get the job together.
Kath: That’s exactly it. But what I’m saying is, people have this other mind-set and they have to change that mind-set to realize that you are collaborating with other people so that you can all potentially be successful. Exactly that. That you’re not in competition with them, that you’re – but unfortunately those type, those sort of reality TV type programs are sort of playing in the background of people’s minds. It feels like that, but it isn’t. And that’s one of the great myths that we do need to bust, really.
James: I love your comment in the book that one thing about group exercises is that you have to perform. And it was always frustrating when I’d see a good candidate coming in and then the group exercise would go and you’d just see them and they wouldn’t speak. And you’d think ‘how can I give you any marks for any of the different aspects if you’re not speaking?’ You have to show your skills on the day.
Kath: Unfortunately, again, to me this is somewhat a British thing. We’re frightened of showing off. And I talk about this – you have to be there to show off what you have. You have to make it easy for them to pick you. You can’t expect them to read your mind and know that you’re the right person. You have to show off. So you have to be switched “on” and you have to be ready to perform in an authentic way. Which is the part that people go ‘how can I perform and be authentic?’ But there is a way. There is a way to be yourself, to show off what you think they need to know about you. You’re selecting that for them so that they can get you and see you. But you’re absolutely right, if someone is not showing that, they’re not giving anyone enough reason to score them well.
James: So what particular aspects are assessors looking for and how can people stand out from the crowd?
Kath: Well, if we’re still talking about group exercises, there are a things people can do which I think really – as an assessor myself, and yourself – you’ll notice things like saying at the beginning, whatever the time duration is, it’s just saying ‘let’s introduce ourselves’ and literally writing people’s names down and when you ask a question or direct something towards someone, you can say, “hey James, what do you think about this?” So that’s a natural human thing where if we remember people’s names we bring them onside and we’re interacting well. So one is that.
Secondly, to be the person who says ‘who’s going to watch the time? Or shall I watch the time?’ because often the time bit is the biggest problem. And so actually saying ‘I’ll watch the time’ and be the person who says ‘we need to move on, we’ve only got 10 minutes left’ or something. So that sort of shows leadership.
They’re not looking for someone who just bamboozles everybody and pushes their way into things, but someone who shows a leadership quality but also shows the ability to humanly interact with other people in a warm way. So warmth, leadership, asking great questions, really listening and feeding back what other people have said, agreeing, affirming other people, these are the types of things that are the positive indicators they’ll be looking for. The ones that will get them ticking boxes on their check sheet.
James: Definitely. Because ultimately the assessors are probably going to be the people who are going to be working with you, so ultimately they want people who they want to work with. So they want people who are friendly and positive and complimentary and bringing other people in as you mentioned.
Kath: Yeah. And that likeability factor is a very difficult one to quantify, but it comes up over and over again. Some people have that – they show that likeability – and it’s in that warm, and in that sort of just looking each person in the eye, giving eye contact, gently helping other people be good is the way that you’ll look good yourself.
James: And also another top tip is to make sure that you read the brief properly because it’s so easy, the instinct is you get given something and you go ‘right, come on lets do it’ and so often you see groups just go off on a tangent and then miss the one key phrase or one key word or what they actually need to do to deliver by the end of the hour or the time period. And if you can be the person who takes a step back and says ‘actually, guys, maybe we need to consider this particular aspect,’ or ‘we’ve not considered this’ or ‘who’s going to do the report?’ and you can bring the structure whether it’s the time-keeping or just keeping people on track then it really helps you to stand out.
Kath: Absolutely. And also, if there are strange words in the case or the brief, actually saying ‘what do we think this means this phrase?’ and really getting some definitions, ‘do you think they mean this?’ so that you get some clarity at the beginning, again, so that you don’t go off on tangents. So if there’s a strange phrase – one of the case studies in my book there’s one that said “a fidelity clause” and understanding without – it wasn’t a legal one, it wasn’t a legal case study, but they’d used this term fidelity clause in the case study, so what do you think they mean by “fidelity clause?” Let’s get clear about that before we move on. Definitely.
James: It’s just having the confidence to be able to speak, really, and to ask questions and not to think that they’re silly questions because I’m sure other people will be thinking it. But it shows you’ve got the confidence to put yourself forward.
James: So turn that around then. What would be some of the common pitfalls that people need to avoid?
Kath: In group exercises, particularly, the things I would say is too many closed questions. Ones which just generate a yes or a no. So if you’re asking questions, there are reasons for some closed questions when you want clarity – do you think they mean this or this, that’s fine – but one of the pitfalls is too many closed questions.
The second pitfall, I think, is not leaving it too late before you make a contribution – sort of, it’s good to listen, but try and use questions when you don’t have something to say. If you don’t have something to say yet, then at least ask a question to sort of get started, get into the discussion.
Worse, worst thing is interrupting someone – not letting them finish what they’re saying, obviously – the worst thing would be to be dismissive of someone else’s suggestion. Even if you don’t agree with it, it’s a really good idea to take a vote. Take a vote at the end ‘how many of us agree with this and how many of us go with this?’ but to be dismissive or to interrupt, those are the two worst things. But to not say anything at all until the last 3 minutes or something would also suggest that you were slow in your thinking, which is the last thing that you want to do.
James: That’s a really good point. You could almost see the pressure building up in the people that they want to speak but have left it a bit long now and they…
Kath: And it becomes harder. Yeah. Exactly.
James: Some really great advice there for group exercises. I know that they are something that people find daunting because it’s not something that they’ve often done before. But moving on then to the next key aspect of assessment centres which is presentations. As you mentioned they’re used in 72% of assessment centres. And I also like in your book how you mention how research shows that public speaking is people’s number one fear over anything else.
Kath: Over death. Fear of death is below fear of public speaking. It’s extraordinary, yes.
James: So why do you think this is the case, and what can people do about it in an assessment centre to perform at their best?
Kath: I’m not going to apologize for the fact that a lot of what is going on in assessment centres and in my book is about psychology and so fears of humiliation, failure, being the only one standing up there, sort of fear of loneliness, rejection – these are primal fears, you know. These are deep fears and when you’re talking about a presentation, it’s a package of all the worst fears that we could imagine. Now the fact is that most students, most people these days and even in school have to deliver presentations either on their own on in teams. So it’s less strange than it might have been 10, 15 years ago, but the fact is there’s a difference. So you might have done them as co-students, you might have done them even in a part time job you might have occasionally had to do a presentation, but the pressure is cranked up because of the importance of the assessment centre in helping you gain the first graduate role, perhaps, that you want to get.
So there’s a whole bunch of things going on here. And you mentioned 72% – again, this is the top employers – but again, when I was talking to small to medium sized employers, almost all of them were using at least an interview and a presentation for their assessment process. So it’s very, very common. This is something most graduates will have to do. So there’s, as I say, there’s lots and lots of things going on. But it is a very good way of seeing another aspect of the candidate. So I can see why, for many jobs, they will have a presentation as part of it. But it will only be, really, if in that job role at some point you might have to do presentations. It’s very much job specific. There may be job roles where you would never have to do a presentation and if that’s the case, you might not have to do a presentation as part of the assessment centre.
James: And what sort of presentations can a candidate be expected to make? Do they tend to be to the group, or just on a one-to-one basis?
Kath: Well there’s a horrible range, actually, but they can be, as I mention in the book, it could be your centre letter and it said ‘you’ll be expected to present on this topic’ and the topic will often be related to that job role, related to that organization and so therefore you would be able to research what you want to say ahead of the presentation.
You might not be told you’re going to have to deliver a presentation and this is what surprised me when I was talking to, particularly, some small and medium sized employers, they just said when the person turned up ‘oh, before your interview you’re going to have to do a presentation, you’ve got half an hour to prepare something.’ And to me, that was pretty mean. But that’s what could happen.
And the types of presentations, that’s to say topic-wise 5, 10 minute – more often than not – on a given topic dependent on the business. It could be a business topic, a finance topic. It could be a media topic or I mentioned one of the graduates I spoke to was going for a company that was for the food PR business and he was just asked to do a presentation on a particular food product. And he’d just have to think of one and deliver a 10 minute presentation. Now in that particular case, was to the company. So he was the only candidate on the day that had to have a presentation. They got the group of the company – the company employed about 12 people – those 12 people sat there and he delivered a presentation to them. That is high pressure.
James: The pressure’s on, yeah.
Kath: Often it can be to other candidates. Sometimes it’s just to a panel and it’s very variable.
James: I think – I was trying to think of what I’d prefer. Whether it was just a – you get a couple of weeks to prepare or you’re just told in the morning. There’s pros and cons. At least you’re not worrying about it for 2 weeks.
Kath: I think it rather depends on your personality as well. If you’re someone who has delivered lots of presentations, and some people actually enjoy delivering presentations. I teach a presentations sort of course, short course, and I often say at the beginning, “How many people here like…” – and it’s normally 2 out of 10 people will say ‘actually I quite like it.’ Some people do like standing up there. Perhaps because they’ve done some public speaking. Perhaps they’ve been a rugby team captain and they’ve had to do a speech at the end of the match. Some people have got used to them and actually enjoy them and those kind of people, I think, would probably fair better in that sort of surprise presentation situation.
James: I know that for the company that I was assessing we asked people to prepare a presentation in advance and they had a couple of weeks to do so. As a result, the expectations were really high in terms of what you expected the people to come in a present to you. You wanted it in the branding of the company that – where I was working, you wanted them to have really have done the research, wanted it to look really slick, with no excuses for people who said ‘well you know, I forgot on it’ or ‘I’ve been really busy with Uni-work.’ You expected the high standard of presentation.
Kath: Yeah. Of course you would and you’d really expect – what I think is you’d expect more than a little website search. You’d expect a much more in-depth research. You’d expect someone to have read the business pages, picked up a story, picked up new innovations of that company, something more surprising than just regurgitating what was on the website or what any sort of 16-year-old for a school project could find out. There’s much, much more expectation in that situation.
James: And if you are bringing a presentation in, just make sure you cover all the bases. Have printed paper copies, in colour, on nice paper. Have one on a memory stick. Have one on a CD, just in case there is a power cut or someone’s laptop is not working. Just make sure you’re well prepared.
Kath: Absolutely, you do. And actually preparing to do it naked, which is what I would call without any technology and with no help. Not strictly without any clothes on, but we’re so used to having the technology to help us and if you can do it with no props, no technology, then if you know it backwards, if you know every detail and you can put it across in an engaging way then if anything goes wrong, you’re ready for it.
James: Though presenting with no clothes on would certainly make you stand out to the assessor.
Kath: Definitely. And I do think standing out – you said it yourself – how you make yourself stand out, whether it’s in the group exercises or the interviews or the presentations, but yes. Not wearing any clothes is not something I’d recommend.
James: So thinking then about the presentations where the on-the-spot ones and you’ve got 10 minutes to think of something, what advice would you give people in that situation so they can structure their thoughts and give a good presentation?
Kath: Well I think, I try and say this all the way through and it’s about critical thinking and it’s about creative thinking as well, but it is about thinking expansively. So we often, if you’re given someone a topic, a very sort of small, limited topic, your mind often goes in a straight line. ‘Oh, they want something like, this, this, and this’ when in fact before you do that it would be much better to do a sort of a mind map sort of approach. Think what else could this be about? And what else? And what else? Keep asking yourself what else. What else could I throw in? What else could I try? So that you just keep asking yourself those what else questions and very quickly mind map some ideas with a little bubble – not a sophisticated mind map – but just something that sort of gets your brain buzzing and bouncing off on other ideas.
So just think ‘what are the different things that could come into play here?’ You might even do sort of things like, that on business courses they talk about a pestle analysis, thinking politically, economically, working through a mnemonic like that or some way to just spread out your thoughts on a piece of paper first of all about that topic. And then, to me what I think is pick a surprising aspect. Something that is a little bit different.
Think of something that – a surprising statistic that you might have heard of or something not a lot of people would know. And think about where you might place that in your presentation. It may well be at the beginning, to draw the audience in, the surprise. It might be in the middle when people’s attention is starting to fall, perhaps. But decide where you’re going to put that surprising nugget, if you can find something like that. It depends whether they give you any resources at the time.
You may be doing something on your phone, doing some quick searches on your phone, if that’s allowable. But you may just be doing it from your brain, from your knowledge, from your ideas. It may be that you saw a story in the paper the day before about something that you’re just trying to link into as many different possibilities as possible. And then you’re going to say ‘I’ve got 10 minutes. I can only make three or four key points. What are my three or four key points?’ and decide those three or four key points like, ‘Here’s my surprise, here are my three or four key points. Here’s how I’m going to bring this to an end.’ And, as I mentioned, if you, if there’s some kind of artefact you could use – artefact means an object, if you’ve got in your bag or with you a lemon – it could be anything, anything that you could hold up and use as an object that makes people think ‘what’s that person going to do with that?’ and that’s going to be surprising as well and that’s going to make it engaging.
That you, yourself, if you’ve watched presentations, James, you know how boring it is most of the time. How it’s one presentation after another. And that’s what often happens – you might have six candidates one after another. Why does someone stand out? Because they’re not just standing there going ‘I’m going to do this, and now I’m going to do this’ and so they’ve done something different with the content. They’ve played around with it and – yes, their delivery would be really, really important – but they’ve really created with some really good content and it could be off the top or their head, as you say, in a surprise situation you’ve just got to use what you’ve got.
James: That’s a really good point and as you talk about in the book it’s, you’ve got to think about what is it that the employer is trying to get out of each of the exercises. And say in this example you’ve got 10 minutes to prepare a presentation, they’re not looking for you to be an expert on the subject – whichever random subject it might be. They’re looking to put you under time pressure and to see how you can handle that time pressure of a very short period of time to research and to structure your thoughts and then to speak about it. So it’s less about the subject you’re talking on, it’s about the confidence you’re bringing, the enthusiasm you’re bringing, are you able to hold the audience, are you – as you mentioned, Kath – structure it into ‘I’ve got three points I’m going to cover.’ And also as one of the employers in your book mentioned, if you’ve got a 10 minute presentation, make sure you finish 9 minutes in and then ask for any questions. Don’t just be rambling away and going over your time. Make sure you hit whatever brief it is.
Kath: I think that’s it. Always thinking ‘why has the employer chosen this exercise? What are they trying to find out?’ Exactly what you’re saying. If they’ve done a surprise presentation, they don’t expect you necessarily to be an expert on that topic. You’re absolutely right. But they want to see whether you can think on your feet. How you respond to a challenge, a time challenge like that. Exactly. So bear that in mind – whatever exercise they throw at you, what are they trying to get out here. What will they want to see? What are they looking for?
You can normally second-guess these things. You can normally second-guess what are they wanting from this.
James: Excellent. So moving on then to the interview, which unfortunately, is what everyone is going to face at an assessment centre – big company or small company. But what sort of interview will graduates most likely face, Kath? Is it going to be one-to-one or more of a panel interview?
Kath: What it would seem is on a fairly typical standard assessment centre, someone might have an individual interview and a panel interview. More often than not, they trust a panel interview because there are more people assessing that candidate. But you may well have both. You might have a telephone interview early on in the stage, and individual interview, and then a panel interview. Someone I’ve just spoken to recently has gone through quite a long process and felt like she had three separate interviews and now she’s got a final interview with a partner, which will so-to-speak seal the deal, will make the final decision. So interviews can be at any stage in the process and of various kinds, really.
James: And what would you say is the best way for people to begin to prepare for the interviews, to make sure that they’re going to give their best?
Kath: It’s the same with everything and it’s boring to say it, but research shows whether you’re in the interview or not, whether it’s the presentation or the group exercises, your research into that organization and what they’re about and trying to understand that they have something precious – which is their company or organization – and they want to give it into the hands of someone who respects it and really wants to work there.
Now the fact of the matter is that most graduates are applying to lots of different companies and yet they’ve still got to act as if that company, when they’re there that day, is the focus of their attention. So the research really, really shows. And as I mentioned before, it isn’t just the standard research. We’ve got to see this like each company or organization is like a project in its own right and try and find out way more than a surface search would give you. So that’s one big part of it. But the other part is, as I mentioned before, you can second-guess the questions they will ask. You can second-guess the questions because they tell you about the competencies that they’re looking for, the skills they’re looking for. That’s normally very easily available and if you were interviewing yourself for that job, if you thought of it that way, what questions would you need to ask to decide whether you have the competencies. If you think about it in that way, you should be able to second-guess what questions will come up.
James: That’s a really good point. For every company that you apply to – especially the larger ones – on their website they’ve got ‘these are our seven core values’ or even explicitly say ‘these are the competencies that we’re looking for’ whether it’s teamwork, critical thinking, or whatever it might be. So you know that if they’ve got seven core values, you’re probably going to get at least one question on each of those value.
Kath: Exactly. So it’s not as mysterious as it seems. There often are the odd – I mean I’ve talked about quirky questions, the surprise questions – but 90% of the questions you’re going to be asked in the interview, you can prepare for. You can think ‘what would I say in answer to that? What example will I give for that?’ And so you have the chance to prepare, research the company, know what they’re looking for and actually not feed them back parrot-like answers. Feed them back genuinely convincing examples of the thing they say they’re looking for.
James: That’s a really good point. And even if you are interviewing for ten different companies and this is your tenth interview of the week, you’ve got to make sure that you’re delivering it – each answer fresh as if it’s the first time you’ve ever told it. Just to make sure that it’s interesting for the person listening.
Kath: That’s why I do recommend having quite a large bank of examples that you can sort of select for different organizations. So you might have four examples of communication skills, four examples of dealing with difficult situations, four – you know, it’s useful to have a large bank of examples. Most of us, if we really think about it, can think of times when we’ve had to negotiate, times when we’ve had to lead other people, times when we’ve had to collaborate. There ought to be plenty of examples that you could have. And it’s really worth having these examples, on some sort of a spreadsheet as memory joggers that you can look and thing ‘oh I’m going to use those three when they ask me about that’ so that you’ve got some, as you say, fresh examples and that you’re not over-using one particular example and sounding a bit tired when you sort of pull out this example that you’ve used several times before.
James: That’s a really good point. You describe in the book about the chunk approach to interviews. Could you describe what this is?
Kath: In terms of questions, what I find with people is that they don’t know how much to say and sometimes they say just one sentence answers and sometimes they ramble and it’s way, way too long. So what’s helped when I’ve done interview coaching with people is to say whatever question that they ask, particularly the general questions, think about what three things can I say? Or three or four things can I say? First they say ‘why do you want to work here?’ Three or four reasons. If they say ‘what can you offer us?’ Three or four key skills or abilities you’ve got.
And I say prepare in your mind these three or four chunks and make sure that the final chunk before you say it, that you say something like ‘and finally’ or ‘lastly’ so that they know you’re coming to an end, and you know you’re coming to an end, and that sort of gives it a bit of structure. And it actually, when people practice it – when they try and do it – they go ‘well that was really easy. I can do that’ and it’s not about learning what you want to say off by heart, it’s just thinking ‘when they ask me, why do you want to work here, I’m going to say this point, this point, and this point.’ And you don’t have to say it the same way each time, but the content would be the same. So it just gives you a little bit of, as you say, freshness. But you know in your mind that’s what I’m going to say. Those are the key points that I want to make for that. So the chunk, chunking it, just makes it easier for anyone to remember and deliver it in a compelling sort of way.
James: And another tool which I saw in the book – which I’ve not come across before – was the swerve acronym.
James: Again, could you fill us in on what this is?
Kath: Well I made this up. I made it entirely up because I had come across quite a few people who’d had these – and it’s all over the place, you can read about it – these very strange questions that are seemingly unanswerable. And I just thought it would be helpful to have something that could help you remember how to deal with it. So I made this word up, partly because we’re all trying to swerve away from taking the whole, weird, wacky question over-seriously because the question itself won’t have an answer. First they ask you ‘how many ice cubes would fill a London bus? Nobody’s ever done that, probably, and there is no exact answer. But what they want to know is how you would work that out.
So swerve is about just finding a way to answer that question. So in the situation, the “s” is for the situation or scenario – you literally rephrase the scenario or situation that they’ve given to you, whatever that is – and then you say what you see is the problem. So if it how many ice cubes on a London bus, the problem is, at one level, do you mean when they’re still frozen or when they’re starting to melt? You could start out sort of talking about what you see the problem is. The problem is how many crevices there are on a London bus, or whatever, you start talking about the problem. And then you start to explain your thinking ‘well I’m thinking this way, this is what I’m thinking, how I’d go about it. And this is the reason I’d go about it in this way.’ And that’s the ‘r.” So we’ve got the “s” for situation. The “w” – what. Define the problem. “E,” explain your thinking. “R,” your reasons for your thinking. And then sort of value your suggestion. So whatever you’ve said, the way you’re going to go about measuring this or deciding this, how you value it. You might say something like, ‘I think that’s a reasonable way to go about this.’ And then you say, ‘so finally my decision would be this. I’d work on this number or I’d decide this.’ The swerve is just a mnemonic which some people might find helpful.
But most important thing to me is to say, there isn’t an exact answer to this. I’ve got to show my thinking, how I’d go about it. A very strange one which is being overused, which is a silly question, which most people have heard of now, is it Jaffa Cake – a biscuit or a cake. And most people would go into all sorts of complicated things about the ingredients and things like this. One graduate I spoke to just said, “It’s about which aisle it’s on in the supermarket. If it’s on the cake aisle, it’s a cake. If it’s on the biscuit…” Now he didn’t come up with that just off the top of his head, he did some thinking. He showed his thinking. He was thinking, ‘well, what do we know about Jaffa Cakes?’ and he was actually talking through his thinking. Explaining his reasons and then coming out with his final decision. Now that wasn’t the right decision. It’s just a decision and that’s what these weird questions are about – showing your decision making, showing you’re thinking on your feet. Again, showing how you respond to something that’s a bit wacky.
James: Excellent. The swerve methodology – you heard it here first. Kath, that’s one for you to get trade-marked.
Kath: It’s worth reading the book for the proper explanation, perhaps.
James: Definitely. And I know for one job I applied for, the question I got which completely threw me at the time, was how much money does the average London taxi driver make? And I wish I’d had that mnemonic to help with my thinking.
James: So thinking then at the end of the interview, what are some great questions that applicants can ask the interviewer when they get the inevitable question of ‘do you have any questions that you’d like to ask me?’
Kath: Well it’s interesting because I’ve sat on interview panels and I sat on an interview panel a few years ago and one of the applicants asked – when they were asked to ask any questions – “Why do you like working here?” And one of the people on the panel that I was with looked quite thrown by this question. It was actually quite an awkward moment. But generally, I do think it’s worth saying, ‘what is it about this company that you like?’ and ‘how long have you been with this company and what do you like about working for this company?’ I think that’s quite a good question to ask.
But there aren’t any – I don’t want anyone to think ‘oh there’s just this one question you can ask’ – I would encourage you to be curious. So there’s a certain amount of information you can find in your research, but there might be something that you just couldn’t find out that you were curious about. You’d heard a whisper about something and you want to ask that curious question. A good curious question, which shows you’re interested in that company and fascinated by that company, is going to help you have a good strong finish to the interview. Those are the kind of things I – you know there are obvious ones, they’re kind of almost cliché ones like, ‘what kind of development will I be offered in this company’ – things like that. But I’d actually ask a curious question that has come out of – a unique curious question – so if I tell you a question now, and everybody goes and asks that question, then it’s not going to be unique anymore. Find a unique question that you can ask that shows your interest in that company, ideally.
James: Just don’t ask how much money you’re going to get paid or how many holiday days you get.
Kath: Yeah, well it’s funny because some people would say ‘oh never, never, never ask that question’ because it makes you look like money’s your goal. But it may well be that for certain job roles, they would think you were foolish not to ask that question. In a high financial role, they might think ‘why the hell hasn’t he asked what the salary is?’ So it’s always a judgment call.
James: That’s a really good point. That is a really good point.
And time is, unfortunately, running away with us, Kath. Before we finish, I just wanted to touch upon – it’s the final chapter in your book – on peak performance. How can listeners insure that they are walking into the assessment centre in the best frame of mind, confident that they’re going to get the job?
Kath: Simply, no one would think of deciding to run the New York or London marathon without getting into preparation, so you have to do some mental preparation in the same ways you’d do for physical preparations for a marathon and my best advice here is to literally do some mindfulness, some what we call cognitive rehearsal, preparing in your mind the way you want things to go.
So in your mind, seeing it going well, seeing yourself performing well, seeing yourself as being authentic and convincing. And that takes some time. That means that you might have to each day sort of take 5 minutes relaxation and actually run like a little film in your mind of how you want things to go. And there’s some exercises in the book that help people do that. But that, for the cognitive rehearsal – which is preparing your thinking – is used by athletes and a whole range of performers and has been found to be psychologically a very effective way to prepare for what is the challenge of an assessment centre.
So this sort of cognitive trick, I call them, about helping work on your thinking, work on your expectations, changing your thinking practices from what might be negative thinking ‘Things are going to go wrong’, to ‘I’m going to be myself. I’m going to perform to my best’ that kind of thing. Just changing those thinking – changing your mental scripts, really – will really make a difference.
James: Definitely. And just to remember that you don’t win a prize to be invited to an assessment centre. You’re there because the company thinks that you can do the job. And for them to give you a day of how many people’s time and the cost of getting you there – they wouldn’t invite you there unless there’s something about your application that they like, they like the look of. And you would have gone through the tests and the interviews beforehand so you’re good enough to be there. You deserve to be there. So go in with confidence and believe that you can get the job. And also, it’s not a competition – as we talked about earlier – if you do well and everybody else does well then you’ll all get job offers.
Kath: Yeah. And confidence is courage, really. It’s about holding your nerve in a difficult situation, so don’t think ‘I haven’t got confidence’ or ‘I’m not very confident.’ Think ‘I’m going to be courageous here. I’m going to hold my nerve.’ And that’s a better place to think – a better thinking place to be, really.
James: That’s super. That’s a great point for us to finish the main part of the interview on, Kath. But before we finish, let’s move to our weekly staple of quick questions. So, what one book is there that you could recommend to our listeners that they should read?
Kath: Asking someone to pick a book when I’m such a fantastic – I read all the time and I love books, so it’s really, really hard to ask me this. My first thought was a book I’ve read recently myself which is from the School of Life series and it’s called How to Find Fulfilling Work. I love this book. A really easy book to read. I wish I’d written it myself. It’s by a guy called Roman Krznaric.
There’s a second book which is a fiction book called Secret Lives of Bees, which isn’t at all about bees, by a woman called Sue Monk Kidd. And it’s just a beautifully written book and a fantastic book about a young girl growing up. But there’s a quote in there which I just really, really love, and it’s an older person talking to the young girl and the little girl said, “People don’t know what matters and what doesn’t.” And the adult says, “They know what matters but they don’t choose it. The hardest thing on Earth is to choose what matters.” And in terms of career and career development management, choosing what matters is what I feel my career coaching and career advisory work is about – helping people choose what matters for them. And so that’s why I quite like that book as well.
James: Wow. I love that quote. That’s one I’ll have to check out. But Kath, is being far too modest and I highly recommend her latest book How to Succeed at Assessment Centres which there will be a link to in the show notes, so you’ll be able to get more details about her latest book in the show notes at graduatejobpodcast.com.
And next question, Kath, what one website would you recommend our listeners to check out?
Kath: I would never – I couldn’t do one website. I would say there are too many, really, and it’d have to be specific to what someone’s looking for. And it’s much better to be specific. There are obvious ones like the prospects website. I love the University of Kent careers website. There are lots of really amazing ones, but I would say set up some sort of alert system to the websites that you find the most useful for your particular career direction – which might be professional websites, the LinkedIn company pages, but I quite like setting up specific Google alerts to particular job roles so that I don’t miss anything so I would probably recommend some sort of alert system.
James: That’s really good advice. Google alert is a brilliant free tool.
Kath: Yeah. I love that.
James: And finally Kath, what one tip would you give our listeners that they can implement today to help on their job search?
Kath: There’s so much, but I think what I’d say is, and it’s a big point, but so many people, so many of the graduates I know are looking for the big brand employers, the big name employers, and I personally think the small to medium sized employers have so much to offer a new graduate. And I’m seen so many graduates who’ve gone into smaller companies and have done so much and done so well and then often been picked up later on by a big name employer – being sort of head-hunted – so I would say look into the small or medium sized sector. And then people say to me ‘well how do I do that?’ And one starting point that I would use is the Times newspaper have every year the top small and medium sized employers who are voted for by the people who work for them and there are some phenomenal names in there – names of companies that you might not have heard of – but would be a really great place to start and research, if you wanted to research some of these small or medium sized employers.
So my tip would be to look at those as a way to find really interesting graduate job roles. And then sort of secondly, to really be clear about what you want. Do your research to be absolutely certain that the jobs you’re applying for are roles that you really, really want because you’ll be found out otherwise. So make sure that you’re really, really clear and talk to as many people as possible to get that clarity.
James: Brilliant advice and definitely I can see how looking outside of the big milkround graduate companies because 99% of all graduates who seek, who get employment, are employed by the top 100 companies so there’s a wealth of other jobs out there.
Kath: Absolutely, yes.
James: Kath, thank you so much for your time today. It’s been a pleasure having you on the Graduate Job Podcast. Before we finish, what is the best way for people to get in touch with you and the work that you do?
Kath: Probably, you can find me on Twitter @CareerKathHoust and I’m on LinkedIn – people can contact me through LinkedIn – all my contact details are on LinkedIn, that’s probably the best way.
James: Excellent. Thank you very much for appearing on the Graduate Job Podcast.
Kath: Thank you, James. Lovely.
My thanks again to Kath Houston. A slightly longer episode than usual, but we covered some great topics and I know it’s going to be really helpful to all of you who’ve got upcoming assessment centres. I’ll keep it really brief with the take-aways, the first, and it’s a key one though, is to be confident. They’ve seen something in your application that they like so this is your chance to shine and impress. So walk in there believing that you can get the job.
My second point is, it’s not a competition. I’ve spoken to loads of recruiters this year and they’ve all said the same thing. If you all do well, you will all get the job. So think about how you can help to bring out the best of your fellow candidates. In the group exercise, bring them into conversations. Ask the quiet candidates what they’re thinking. By doing so, you’ll stand out as a team player. Which is something all companies are looking for.
And the final point is – and it’s one that we didn’t touch upon today – but make sure you can ace the psychometric tests. Listen to Episode 35 with Ben Williams as it’s packed full of great advice on what you need to do to pass the verbal and numerical tests. You’re going to have to do them, so make sure that you don’t fall at this hurdle.
So there you go. Episode 37 finished. Check out the show notes at graduatejobpodcast.com/ac and please, also take my one minute survey at graduatejobpodcast.com/survey. If you want to get in touch and say hello, on Twitter I’m @gradjobpodcast. It’d be great to hear from you.
Join us next week when I have Marielle Kelly on the show talking about how to use social media in your graduate job search.
I hope you enjoyed the episode today. And more importantly, I hope you use it and apply it. See you next week.