In episode 60 of the Graduate Job Podcast I bring you someone who knows the graduate recruitment business inside out, Sophie Milliken from Smart Resourcing Solutions. Sophie is a former graduate recruiter for John Lewis, the upmarket department store here in the UK, who left their to set up Smart Resourcing Solutions where she now designs and runs graduate recruitment schemes for many of the big high street companies that many of you will be applying to. This insight means that Sophie is ideally placed to spill the beans on exactly what you need to do to get that graduate job. We cover the ins and outs of the graduate recruitment process, looking at why only 3%, yes 3% of people made it through the online application stage at John Lewis, and what you need to do make sure that you are one of them. We cover psychometric testing, assessment centres, job interviews, group exercises, presentations, if it’s involved in the process we cover it, and look at top tips, insider secrets, and what you need to do stand out from the crowd and get the job. If you are going to be applying for a graduate job anytime soon then this is an episode that you aren’t going to want to miss. As always, all links to everything we discuss today with links and a full transcript are available right this very moment in the show notes at www.graduatejobpodcast.com/graduaterecruitment. Before we start a quick request from me, your feedback helps me to create the episodes you want to hear, so 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. But in the meantime, let’s crack on with the show.
MORE SPECIFICALLY IN THIS EPISODE YOU’LL LEARN ABOUT:
- Why only 3% of the applicants to the John Lewis graduate scheme made it passed the online application
- The key characteristics you need to succeed at a graduate job assessment centre
- The secrets to standing out as you apply for a graduate job
- Common mistakes that let people down in their online applications
- Why straight A candidates often fall at the first hurdle when applying for a graduate job
- How and why graduate recruitment schemes are developed
- What assessors are really looking for at graduate job assessment centres
- Sophie on Twitter
- Smart Resourcing Solutions on Twitter
- Smart Resourcing Solutions Website
- Smart Resourcing Solutions on LinkedIn
- CEB practice tests
- She Means Business by Carrie Green. Sophie’s top book recommendation that you should read. Click here to buy NOW from Amazon!
IF YOU LIKED THIS EPISODE CHECK THESE OUT:
- #35: How to pass psychometric tests, with Ben Williams
- #19: Secrets of a graduate recruiter with Matt Hearnden
- #37: How to Succeed at Assessment Centres, with Kath Houston
- #59: Knockout Graduate Job Interview with John Lees
- #1: Amazing interviews with Jon Gregory
- #2: How to ace assessment centres with Denise Taylor
- #3: Job Hunting Secrets with Richard Maun
Transcript – Episode 60 – Secrets of the graduate recruitment process with Sophie Milliken
Announcer: Welcome to the Graduate Job Podcast, your home for weekly information and inspiration to help you get the graduate job of your dreams.
James: 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 that 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 byte size weekly 30 minute show. Put simply, this is the show I wish I had a decade ago when I graduated.
A very warm welcome to episode 60 of the Graduate Job Podcast. And I have a treat for you this week, as I bring you someone who knows the graduate recruitment business inside out Sophie Milliken from Smart Resourcing Solutions. Sophie is a former graduate recruiter for John Lewis, the upmarket department store here in the UK, who left their to set up Smart Resourcing Solutions where she now designs and runs graduate recruitment schemes for many of the big high street companies that many of you will be applying to. This insight means that Sophie is ideally placed to spill the beans on exactly what you need to do to get that graduate job. We cover the ins and outs of the graduate recruitment process, looking at why only 3%, yes 3% of people made it through the online application stage at John Lewis, and what you need to do make sure that you are one of them. We cover psychometric testing, assessment centres, job interviews, group exercises, presentations, if it’s involved in the process we cover it, and look at top tips, insider secrets, and what you need to do stand out from the crowd and get the job. If you are going to be applying for a graduate job anytime soon then this is an episode that you aren’t going to want to miss. As always, all links to everything we discuss today with links and a full transcript are available right this very moment in the show notes at www.graduatejobpodcast.com/graduaterecruitment. Before we start a quick request from me, your feedback helps me to create the episodes you want to hear, so 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. But in the meantime, let’s crack on with the show.
James: Before we start though, I want to welcome today’s sponsor which is http://www.CareerGym.com. Career Gym is the number one place for you to undertake all of your psychometric tests which you will face when you apply for a graduate job. You can practice verbal, numerical, and abstract reasoning tests all produced by experts, and exactly the same as the ones you will see in the real tests. You can just practice them or you can do them in exam mode, under time pressure, and they come all with detailed explanations and solutions, and you can track your progress and see how you compare against your peers.
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James: I’m very pleased to welcome to this show today Sophie Milliken, former graduate recruiter at John Lewis, and currently operations director at Smart Resourcing Solutions. Sophie, welcome the Graduate Job Podcast.
Sophie: Hello, and thank you for having me.
James: So, by way of introduction, Sophie, do you want to explain to listeners how you came to get started in graduate recruitment?
Sophie: Well, I think like most people in graduate recruitment, it wasn’t intentional. I started on the John Lewis retail graduate scheme straight from university. I won’t tell you when, but a while back, and was based in the branch at Newcastle, so I spent a few years doing a variety of selling manager roles, and then I kind of fell into HR, really, which I think most HR people would say is the same for them, and started really getting into coaching and developing people, and then moved into the HR departments, spent a few years there. Then, was sent down to the head office in London on a secondment for six months, which was a bit of a classic manoeuvre where you never then came back.
I was at head office for that amount of time at John Lewis, which I think was about seven or eight years, and sort of fell into the graduate recruitment role, which was a fantastic role, actually. It was a really cool role. I really enjoyed it. I got to do lots of external networking, spent time working with the Association of Graduate Recruiters, so either employers that are involved in that, and also out and about speaking to students and working with universities. So, that was really cool.
Also, within that time, when I joined that department, we only had one graduate scheme and one summer placement scheme, as it was then. So, I got the very cool role of being able to introduce new schemes in buying, merchandising, IT, and also all of the industrial placement schemes, and then also apprenticeship schemes as well. So, it was a pretty cool job, actually. I really enjoyed it.
James: Excellent, and we’ll probably touch upon some of your experiences at John Lewis as we go through. So, then you moved onto Smart Resourcing Solutions.
Sophie: Yeah, so basically, I knew that I really enjoyed working with graduates and also I was dealing with universities and employers. But, by this point, I’ve actually moved back to Newcastle and was commuting down to London, which was a bit crazy and very stressful at times when the good old rail service was hampered by snow or leaves on the line, or whatever the latest weather problem was.
That was kind of wearing me down a little bit, and I kind of got talking to Simon Pollard who had a similar role that I had, but with HSBC, and he was commuting down from the north every week as well. We got to chatting through an Association of Graduate Recruiters event, an AGR event, and just sort of thought, “Maybe we can sort of set something up?” I mean, when I look back now, it seems a bit wild and crazy that we left our corporate careers to set up Smart Resources Solutions.
But, actually, the timing was right for both of us, and when we have a look back really, we were able to talk to our colleagues on the AGR retail group and tell them what we were up to, and actually, we had a couple of clients already lined up for when we started trading in September 2013.
James: Excellent, and what is it that you do there?
Sophie: What we do is we offer services to employers, universities, and students, and because we work with each of those groups, it keeps our knowledge of each area fresh. So, with employers, we can help them if they are either looking to set up from scratch or review an existing scheme that they have so we can help them with the content and design of that. We also design their selection process, the assessment materials they might use at each stage of the process, and then also we offer a full delivery service. We can do the application screening, telephone or video interviews, and also run the assessments entered as well, or just one element of that, if that’s what they want to do.
Then, with the universities, we have done a number of activities with career services, which are great, because career services are clearly very enthusiastic about employability and about supporting the students. But, where we’ve had the most success with universities is actually where we’ve been able to work with course leaders and embed the employability learning within the curriculum.
We have a huge program that we run with: Manchester Met University, and also we run some things similar at University of Hertfordhsire. We’ve been able to embed the employability activities into the curriculum for a couple of the faculties there, which is brilliant. Then, the students will do a variety of activities and workshops as part of the module, and then they’ll attend an assessment simulation event that we run at football stadiums. So, we run it for the Manchester Met students, and we use the Watford Football ground for the Hertfordshire students.
That’s really great for them to add the real sense of occasion to the event. You know, they’re going to this football stadium, it’s all really exciting and a bit different, but also it does replicate the live environment where they will be going to an employer’s head office and it’s a bit more formal, and seeing this, which is great because it adds that real-life aspect that they wouldn’t have if they were doing something on campus.
The students get to try out all the activities that they would do as part of the process, so they will probably fill that application form in advance that they would score for them, prepare a presentation, and deliver that on the day, do a quick exercise, do an interview, and then we are able to tell them where they would get to in the process if it was a real-life job, and find out whether they would have got the job or not, and then that allows them to sort of reflect on their development areas and refer back to either their course leader, or ideally, the career service and get some support in the real-life world.
Then, finally, we work with students as well. Obviously, we work with students with the work that we do on campus, but we do also do some one-to-one coaching, LinkedIn profile creations, CV reviews, and that kind of thing to support students on a one-to-one basis.
James: Excellent. So, as you mentioned, just touching across all sort of the different aspects of the recruitment process, what we’re going to explore today is to delve into your experience of recruiting at John Lewis, but also then developing the actual application processes for lots of the big companies that many of the listeners will have heard of and probably apply to as well.
So, just breaking that down then. Imagine I’m a big company that wants to come in and outsource the graduate recruitment process to you. Where would you then start with them in terms of how you’d think about the different stages of the process?
Sophie: It depends on whether you’re looking at the design or the delivery. They’re two quite different things. So, if you were looking at the design aspect, I would be looking at what they currently do, and what results that is delivering for them. Are they filling their hiring plan? Are they recruiting the kind of graduates that they want? Where are those graduates progressing once they’re in the business? Are they delivering what the business requires them to do? Are graduates accepting their offers? What’s their start rate like? Are they sort of reneging on the offers before their duties start? Is that causing them problems?
Then, from that point, we would be working backwards to sort of identify which part of the process, perhaps, isn’t delivering what they need, and we would then spend time with the business to speak to the senior stakeholders within the business, speak to high-profile grads that are doing really well that are maybe a few years down the line that are outperforming some of the peers, and we would be looking at the attributes that they have, and then thinking about how we could test them at each stage of the process.
We have an occupational psychologist that supports us with this kind of activity, and that allows us to produce materials that are valid and reliable, and are fair to all the candidates that would apply for those roles.
James: I was just thinking. You mentioned just around the percentage of offers that, maybe, people don’t ultimately accept, or some of the schemes might not be actually filling their places. Because, it’s weird to think about it from that point of view, because often you hear about the thousands of people that apply and you just assume that every grad scheme is massively oversubscribed and they’ve got more than enough candidates at the desired to standard that are applying for the jobs. Do you find that many schemes, or many people in charge of the schemes, are finding that they’re not filling their places, or that a lot of candidates are turning down possible roles?
Sophie: Well, if you look at some of the things that come out from the likes of the AGR where they talk about employers not filling their vacancies, there are often quite shocking stats out there about people not filling their hiring plans, and I think it’s a combination of things, really. I think it’s partly that the graduates are kind of hedging their bets a bit. So, they’re applying for a number of positions, which actually, that’s fair enough and that’s what I would expect. But, perhaps, they’re not managing those offers that well, so it’s around being honest and transparent with the employer to say, “Well, actually, I’m waiting to hear back form so and so, and I’ll let you know by X date,” and having an open dialog with them.
So, actually, an employer knows that, potentially, that candidate is going to go elsewhere, and actually, they can have their own plan as well where if that doesn’t work out, if the candidate doesn’t tell the employer until it’s too late, until it’s a week before the start date, or until they’ve let all the other candidates know they’ve been unsuccessful, for example, and it just sort of limits the opportunity there. I think that’s part of the problem, really, around sort of candidates managing their offers and managing that dialog with employers.
The other thing is potentially other on some other programs that are quite hard to fill. I’m thinking things like IT, which seems to be a bit of a challenging area for a lot of employers where they’re looking for really, well-rounded candidates that aren’t just sort of offering the technical skills, but they have, perhaps, stakeholder management skills, leadership skills, and some of the skills that you might not typically associate with an IT graduate.
James: Social skills.
Sophie: Yeah, that sounds bad. That is what I’m hearing a lot of, to be honest, and in those situations, lots of companies are looking for lots of graduates with those skills. But, actually, there’s quite a small pool of talent there, so they’re all kind of looking for the same thing, and there isn’t enough of them to go around. So, that is still a challenge in that there are some particular programs where there are shortages of great candidates for those roles.
James: Breaking down then the different stages of the process as you create them, thinking then about the initial online application, do all companies that you work with, do they all go for an online application stage with the standard five to eight questions where you’ve got 100 words or 200 words to shoehorn in a competency-style written answer?
Sophie: Yeah, and certainly all the clients that we have do take that approach, and I think that’s pretty standard across large employers. There needs to be something there that they can look at initially to sort of have that first sift, and that is a common way of doing it, by having it online. It never used to be online when I was applying for things, but that’s just the way it is now, and that tends to be the first stage for most employers. Where it’s not might be where an employer uses online tests and sometimes they’ll have that stage before the application stage, but sometimes it will come directly after that stage, or you might have to submit both at the same time.
James: With then, the reviews, of actually that are getting thousands of these online applications in, will someone actually sit and read them, or will there be, maybe, a first pass first of just the sort of scanning tool just to check for like keywords or that the grades are in place?
Sophie: I’ve heard that there are scanning tools but I don’t know of any employer that uses those, and actually, I hope that reassures graduates and students that are applying for the jobs that they’ve spent hours and hours, ideally, sort of crafting their responses to the employer.
James: Well, sometimes. Maybe not.
Sophie: Well, we see real extremes, so you kind of see one end of the scale to another, but I know that candidates that do well in the process and get towards the end, get an offer, or get to assessment centres, and they do spend a long time on it, and I would hate for them to think that there isn’t anyone sort of looking at those applications. I mean, with all the clients that we work with, we have people that are sitting, actual humans looking at these applications and scoring them against criteria. So, that is the right way to do it. I’m not aware of anyone that is using these scanning tools, but I have heard that they exist, but I couldn’t give you any example of anyone using them.
I think that’s a good thing in that people are looking at those application forms. But, with it being the stage where most people are actually unsuccessful, if you look at the numbers getting through to each stage, that is the stage where students need to be spending lots of time making sure that the answers they submit are really high quality and tailored to that particular employer.
James: You mentioned there about the percentage of people who are unsuccessful. I mean, back-of-fag-packet calculation, we’re talking what? 60, 70 percent of people fall at this stage?
Sophie: Yeah, quite a bit. I mean, I suppose the easiest example for me to give is probably from my John Lewis days. So, I would have had around about 20,000 applications in two or three months’ time exactly. It’s bonkers when you only think about. So, I’d get about 20,000 applications for around about 80 jobs, and we would put through maybe 600 out of those 700 maybe. I mean, they were extreme numbers. John Lewis attracts a lot of candidates and don’t have that many roles, really, in the grand scheme of things. There’s bigger employers for graduates who might take on hundreds and hundreds.
Think about that, but what I would say is don’t let those kind of stats put you off. Because, actually, if you really want to work somewhere and you’re really passionate and enthusiastic and excited about that company, then that, if you can craft your responses appropriately, that should come through. It doesn’t matter whether you’re one of 20,000 applying for something or where you’re applying for a role where the ratios are much smaller.
James: Yeah. So, my maths makes it sort of 3% of applications who would get through after the online stage. But, as you said though, because people think about the raw numbers. They’re thinking, “Wow, 20,000. That’s so many. How am I going to get in?” But then, they do forget, as I implied earlier, that a lot of people’s applications are bad, and they don’t put their time in, they don’t put the effort in. You can get rid of probably thousands of people who just don’t meet their criteria, thousands of people who don’t spellcheck it, and there are spelling mistakes in there and thousands of people who do really basic mistakes. Immediately, you’re probably down to half. So, the numbers are scary, but probably not as scary as you initially think.
Sophie: Yeah. I’ve seen some real shockers at application stage which is quite entertaining at times. We were doing a big screening contract for a large investment bank a couple years ago, and their entry criteria was really high, as you might expect, something like 3As at A-level, and they had to submit an application form and a CV as the first sort of stage of their process, and we were seeing things where the candidates maybe just put up a one-line answer when they had four or five hundred words to fill. You’re thinking, “Well, come on. You’re clearly bright. You’ve got all these amazing grades. You’ve got some fantastic interests and experience, all the things that you’re looking for,” but it’s almost like you just thought, “Well, I meet the criteria. I’ll not bother sort of selling myself because there’s not going to be that much competition.
I often thought that those kind of candidates, obviously we’d be rejecting them, and I often thought that would probably be the first experience they would ever have had as actually being unsuccessful at something, because clearly they were massively successful academically, but they just weren’t sort of putting the effort in, maybe. So, that kind of surprised me.
I’ve seen other applications where, again, someone’s just put sort of a one-line response, or like before, the spelling mistakes, or they’ve not answered the question, all sorts of things. From speaking to students out on campus, some of them will just say, “I grabbed the Times Top 100 book and I applied to everyone in there and sent out 100 applications.” I say, “Why? That’s bonkers!” because how much time can you devote to each of those applications, and how are you tailoring them, and how have you even decided who do you want to work for? What if they all offered you jobs? Clearly, they won’t because their applications weren’t very good. But, I always find that surprising.
Then, I’ve met students on the other end of the scale that have applied for maybe three or four roles, but actually spent ages on the application form, and I’m talking like 20 hours, I had people tell me, they’ve spent on an application form, and only applied to three or four. So, they’ve probably spent a similar amount of time, overall, on it. But, actually, they’ve got to each assessment centre-stage and perhaps been offered by all of those. So, it’s kind of thinking about which approach is best and actually, if you did get through to interview stage for those hundreds that you’ve done this sort of scattergun approach to, how are you going to genuinely sit there and be enthusiastic about all of those when they’re all so different. I just can’t see it. They all would fall down at that stage if they’ve got there.
James: I completely agree, and that’s the approach that I recommend to their clients I coach. Focus down to a maximum of five, but if you still think five is quite a lot, then really put the effort in, because the question that was always a key one for me when I was on the other side doing the recruiting was, “Why do you want to work here?” If you’re applying to 100 companies in a Times Top 100, how can you answer that question well? “Why do you want to work here?” “Uhh, because you’re in the Times Top 100 companies,” and it was always an easy one to see.
Sophie: I’ve heard that response. It doesn’t go down well.
James: It was always an easy one to sort of like separate the people who put the effort in from those who hadn’t put the effort in at all. But no, completely agree there. Also, I did find you mentioned about some of the very bright academic candidates. You would find, sometimes, that candidates who, academically, sharp as a tack, you know, Cambridge, Oxford, first from these sort of places, difficult degrees, and it was almost if they were like, “Well, I’ve got a first from Oxford and Cambridge. What more do you need? I don’t need anything else. I don’t need to bother– have you not seen what I just put down?” They wouldn’t have the extracurricular stuff. It wasn’t well-rounded, and as a result, they often won’t get through.
Sophie: Yes, I’ve seen that.
James: You mentioned about the criteria for the online applications. How would you devise a criteria for these. I mean, is it just competency-based or are companies looking for, maybe different individually-specific things per company?
Sophie: Well, there’s a couple of different approaches, really. Most large companies, in particular, have, maybe a set of values or behaviors that they use as a business. So, they probably use those as a performance management tool once employees are within the business, and they’ll be used in appraisal discussions and that sort of thing. But then, also, they tend to use them as a recruitment tool as well because that then feeds through into that performance management process once they’re in the role.
We would have a look at those and see whether they worked for the role. We would look at what they’d be measured in, again, in the role as well, and look at some matches, some synergy between those. If a client, for whatever reason, didn’t have anything in place that they were using, or they wanted to take a different approach, then we would be able to design them some competencies that they might want to use. We would do that from looking at the role that the graduates would be going into and doing some job evaluation around what that role looks like and what that role grows into over the years, and then kind of working back from that.
Another thing that seems to be quite popular now is the strength-based approach, which lots of employers are sort of getting onboard with as well. There’s a couple of different options there, but really, everything needs to hang from what the role is that they’re going to be doing and being able to measure something against that role or measure potential that you’re going to see from those graduates a few years down the line.
James: I know there is a groan from candidates as you’d have to populate these long competency-based answers, but it’s good to know that there is a reason for it, and it hopefully will be directly related to the role you’re going for. It all makes sense.
Moving on then from the online application stage, you’re one of the 3% who’s put their work in and you’ve managed to get through. In terms of current fashions and for the graduate recruitment processes, does it tend to be a telephone interview or face-to-face interview the next stage or maybe online tests?
Sophie: Well, yeah. I think online tests tend to come at this point. Lots of employers are using online tests now to help with the volume issue. The best employers, in my opinion, are using ones that are bespoke to their organizations, so it’s not just a standard off-the-shelf package that isn’t clearly related to the role. So, it’s more bespoke and related to the company, the values, and also the actual specifics of the role, but you can get a variety of different tests, and you might have to just do one, you might have to do two or three. I think I know some that do four. So, they can be quite challenging.
A typical test that you would see might be a numerical test, verbal reasoning, some sort of logical thinking tests that are quite popular. Also, situational judgment test, an SJT, they’re quite popular. Actually, I quite like those because they tend to be bespoke to an organization because they’ve been profiled on current employees, and I quite like those because, as a candidate, their experience of going through that test, it’s a bit clearer as to why they’re doing it because they’ll see a series of scenarios that they would find themselves in if they were successful in securing the role.
I think, just from a sort of validation point of view, that is good for the candidates to be able to sort of at least understand why they’re being asked to do that test rather than doing a standard sort of maths type and numerical test where, perhaps, that link isn’t quite so clear.
James: Excellent, and for listeners who are worried of any sort of psychometric testing, check out my episode with Ben Williams from the testing company, Sten10, at graduatejobpodcast.com/test where we go into the different sorts of tests that you might face. It was interesting you mentioned, though, Sophie, that one company has sort of four different sorts of tests. What field are they in?
Sophie: I think that’s an accountancy company.
James: That explains a lot. Again, thinking back to your John Lewis days, what sort of percentage would fall at this hurdle end? So, if 600 people have made it into the testing phase, how many would you expect to make it through the other end?
Sophie: Gosh, I’d have to rack my brain now. It’s hard to say, because to be fair, the candidates are individual each year. So, some years, you’d have people that are performing better at that stage than of the years. What I do remember is that the tests where most people sort of struggled with, it tended to be the numerical tests rather than the other ones because they had the numerical tests, the verbal reasoning tests, and an SJT, and it did tend to be the numerical tests that was the stumbling block.
I feel really sorry for candidates when they fail at those sorts of stages because it must be so frustrating to have got through the online application where they’ve spent a long time and then they are unsuccessful at a really short test stage.
So, what I would be advising would be to spend lots of time practicing tests on websites such as the CEB website who have loads and loads of practice tests and they’re a big supplier for employers, and just spend loads of time perfecting the practice tests that are on there and being really mindful of the fact that, actually, it’s not just how quickly you complete the test, but it’s the accuracy as well. So, it does need to be the balance between the two to score highly on them.
James: Yeah, and the good news is that practice does make perfect with these, and you just need to put the practice in, because I know, personally from my experience, the last maths I’ve done was GCSE. So, what was I? 16? Then, it was six years later, six, seven years later that then you’re getting out your pen and paper and going back to doing your —
Sophie: Exactly, and a lot of employers offer a practice session before you do the real one, but I completely agree with your point there around really going for it on the practice test because it’d be a real shame to have your first experience of doing the test in the live environment and then failing when, actually, you could have spent an hour or so going through the practice ones and being more confident.
Another thing to be wary of with the tests, I’m aware of some employers, particularly on the maths test, the numerical test which tends to be the one that’s a bit more challenging, but I’m aware of some employers who actually get the candidates to refit that test on assessments centre-stage. I have heard of a few employers doing that because they’ve been caught out, perhaps, where candidates haven’t been completing the tests themselves in the online process. So, something to be aware of.
James: I did that, for one. When I applied for the Civil Service Fast Stream, I got someone to – a girlfriend at the time – to take the test for me. They slied in a little retest when you got to the assessment centre and it didn’t go well. One of the graduate recruitment managers I’ve spoken to in the podcast, I won’t mention which one, he did mention, off-recording, that they expect people to cheat, and as a result, they put in a test they announced when you got to the assessment centre, just like I did, because they expect that people get help. They allow a slight margin of difference, but if you’re coming up in the top 10% and then suddenly, you’re coming down in the bottom 10% and when you do it live, they know you’ve cheated and no matter how good you are, you’re out.
Sophie: Something to be wary of.
James: Definitely, definitely. Moving on then from the testing, and onto maybe the assessment centre, moving to sort of the fun/scary part of it, when you’re designing an assessment centre, what is it you’re trying to do? Is it trying to replicate the job, or is it just, again, to think about ways to challenge candidates and put them to the test?
Sophie: If we were designing an assessment centre, our preference is to try and replicate the job as closely as possible, because then it gives the candidates a realistic preview of what the job might be like, which actually might help them decide it’s not for them, or that it really is and they really want to shine and show those employers how great they are. There did use to be a big thing where the assessment centres, you used to just sort of do quite random exercises that didn’t make sense like sort of building a tower that was a bit of a classic, or things like that that we’ve all probably come across in our time.
Whilst they will test generic skills and they will certainly tick the box around team-building or leadership, and things like that, which I’m sure most employers are testing for, they don’t give the candidate that experience around what the company would be like to work for, what the job involves. So, our approach is to really sort of delve into what the job and what the company’s about, especially if they’re a company that’s massively driven by values and behaviours, and we try and replicate that throughout the whole experience so that it’s as realistic as it can be, and we think that that’s really helpful for both the employer and also for the candidates to see what they’d be getting themselves into if they were successful.
James: Again, from the companies that you’re working with at their assessment centre stage, we mentioned about the sly little retest that they might get, do they intentionally build in surprises, or is it a fairly well sign posted exactly what you’re going to do at the different stages? Are there any sort of hidden things to be aware of?
Sophie: I think you do sort of hear the odd employer that is springing something on the candidates, but from our point of view, we always try and encourage the employers to actually give the candidates as much information as possible. Because, actually, you don’t really want to set them up for a surprise or to fail. You want to give them a really good opportunity and a chance to sort of shine at that assessment centre stage. Actually, if you can give them as much information as possible and make them feel as relaxed as you can, which is easy for me to say on the other side, and not being a scared candidate on the day, but if people are relaxed, then they are going to perform better, and actually, that’s how you want to see them. You want to see them at their best. So, if you can help prepare them and be really clear about what that day involves, then we believe that that puts them in the best place to demonstrate what the employer is looking for.
James: You must have seen thousands of candidates go through different assessment centres. What are some of the key characteristics of candidates who succeed?
Sophie: I would say confident, which is always a bit of an unfair one since they’re so nervous in those situations, or can be nervous. But, confidence is clearly key. The big thing for me, I’ve always looked for in an assessment centre, is actually passion and enthusiasm, particularly at a graduate level where an employer isn’t expecting them to be a technical expert. Yes, they might have studied a degree that is relevant they’ve applied for, or they’ll actually, on a lot of graduate schemes, it doesn’t matter what they’ve studied as long as they’ve got that qualification.
For me, it’s more about their personality and the behaviours that they demonstrate, because if you’ve got those, you can teach the rest when they’re on the program. That’s what the program is designed to do. It’s designed to give them the technical side of the role. For me, it’s definitely that passion and enthusiasm, and the way that they can demonstrate that is by only applying for a few in the first place, so they know who they want to apply to and they’re genuinely enthusiastic about it, and it’s things like doing the research into the company, finding out what the values of that business are, speaking to people that work there is an opportunity to do that, and finding out what they love about the place, and by being genuinely enthusiastic about a company.
It’s so infectious. You know, there’s been people that I have really willed on at assessment centres because I’ve seen that enthusiasm from them and I’ve wanted to take them on. For me, it’s something that you can’t train that. You’ve either got that or you haven’t. That’s why I would really encourage students to only apply for places that they’re genuinely excited about.
James: I completely agree, and it goes back to the earlier point I made on why do you want to work there? If you are actually enthusiastic and want to work somewhere and you’re excited about working there, then that just chimes through and you’re more likely to stand out from the crowd.
Sophie: Completely, completely.
James: So, flipping that on its head then, how do people tend to let themselves down at assessment centres and the different stages within the assessment centre.
Sophie: There’s some classics, really, isn’t there? So, the candidate that really doesn’t speak in a group exercise and doesn’t say anything. Once I’ve observed a candidate – it’s quite a long time ago now – who is part of a group exercise, and he had taken on the role of timekeeper in the group exercise, which is an important role, and then he had two watches, which was a bit random. I don’t know why he had two watches. So, he had them out in front of them, and he kept looking at them, and sort of writing a few notes and things.
But, he literally never said anything at all in the whole exercise, and I had to give him some one-to-one feedback. This is an assessment centre where we showed them on the day when they hadn’t been successful, which was a bit X-Factor’y, and I had to sort of give him some feedback and I said to him, “You do know that you literally did not say anything in the whole group exercise? You were clearly giving some non-verbal cues around the fact that you were concentrating on the time, which was great, but you just didn’t do anything with it and you didn’t say anything.” He actually had me realize that that was the case, which I thought was quite interesting. That was extreme, but you do get lots of group activities where the quiet person that doesn’t sort of contribute or make the odd comment that actually is just agreeing with someone else or repeating something that’s been said.
Also, perhaps someone that kind of is the other extreme and can’t stop talking at the expense of everyone else and isn’t saying anything that’s having value or sort of helping the team achieve their goal, and is just kind of cutting across everyone, or undermining people, or causing unnecessary conflict. It’s good to have a bit of conflict within the group to see how people handle it. But, you can see it being sort of overly aggressive and not kind of the right tone. So, I’ve seen that.
Something else that I see is where candidates are just totally in shock, almost, all the way through the day, and they’re just massively unprepared. I often think maybe that’s — well, quite often it is because it’s their first experience of an assessment centre, and in that case, they could have taken advantage of things at the career service that their university are running to have a bit of a practice of these things so they know what to expect. Because, if their first experience of an assessment centre is actually in the live environment, then it’s unlikely that they’re going to be completely natural straight-away. So, I think taking advantage of those things.
But also, sort of following on from that, candidates that have had a bad exercise and then they let that affect them for the rest of the day, you can get away with maybe having an exercise where you haven’t done so well, if you can then up your game for the rest of the day. I saw a girl once in a group exercise who it went so badly, they didn’t achieve their goal, and it did go really, really badly. But, actually, there was a couple of candidates within that group exercise that performed really well. Sometimes, it’s actually, quite often, not about the result. It’s about how they work together and the discussions that they have whilst they’re trying to achieve the goal.
But, this girl had been completely sort of blindsided by the fact that they hadn’t really gotten anywhere with it, and she just disappeared, because it’s before lunch and she sort of disappeared, and I went to look for her, and I found her outside, crying outside on the phone to her mom and asking her mom to come and collect her. I really felt sorry for her and I gave her a bit of pep talk and said, “Look, come on. It’s one exercise, and you still got the rest of the day. Obviously, if you want to go home, you can, but I think it would be a shame because even if you’re not successful today, at least you’d then have experience of either activities, and you’ll get the feedback from those and you’ll be able to apply that to something else.” She did come back in, actually, to be fair, and finished the day.
It’s just kind of holding it together and just putting a bad exercise behind you and sort of giving everything to each exercise, really.
James: Yeah. Often, as you said a lot of practice, but in the heat of the moment, it’s often easier said than done. I know in interviews where it’s not gone so well, especially if you’re thrown by a few questions in the beginning, then you can really easily just lose your track because you’re thinking, “Oh no, I didn’t answer that very well,” and your brain is sort of worrying about the past instead of looking forward to the next question. So, it can be easily done.
Thinking about, as you mentioned, the weighting for the different assessment aspect at the assessment centre, are you experiencing they’re all weighted equally, or is there more weighting given to, maybe, the group exercise, or the interview, or does it just depend on the company and what’s more important for them?
Sophie: Yeah, it just depends on the company. I mean, some people weight an interview more heavily than sort of group exercises, or other exercises. My view would always be to look at what you’re assessing against and make sure you’re assessing those as evenly as possible and that you’re giving equal weight into each exercise, because that’s the fairest way of doing it. One employer might decide that a particular competency is more important than others and would weight that more highly. So, wherever that fits in whichever activity automatically scores more points, if you like. But, I think the even approach is more common.
James: When you train assessors to assess at assessment centres, what is a key criteria that you’re getting them to look for? Or, again, does it just depend on the different company?
Sophie: Well, when we’re training assessors who are going to be assessing at assessment centres, we would be trying to encourage them to think about how they relax the candidates. In years gone by, it would be very much about being poker-faced and being very serious, or not making eye contact with the candidates, and things like that, which in my opinion, doesn’t actually help a great deal in terms of relaxing them and making them sort of feel like they can be themselves as much as possible in that situation.
So, we try and encourage them to add a bit more of a human touch to it, maybe talk about themselves, introduce themselves at the beginning of the day. Try and sort of encourage candidates while not giving anyone an unfair advantage. Of course, you wouldn’t want to do that. Then, in terms of assessing them, giving them information for the day, we’d be making sure that they’re really clear about what the exercises are, understanding what good looks like for each exercise or activity, and making sure that they’re really clear around the scoring, and how that works, and the level of feedback detail that we need because we need to make sure we’ve got enough feedback to justify the scoring, but also to be able to provide some feedback for candidates that request it.
James: Unfortunately, Sophie, time is running away with us. But, one final question before we move to our weekly staple questions. You mentioned feedback there. Would you always recommend that candidates seek feedback on their performance from assessment centres?
Sophie: Yes. Yes, yes, yes, definitely, definitely. Particularly at assessment centre stage because I know that employers find it hard to respond to feedback requests because, clearly, they’re getting so many applications, and it’s likely that, unfortunately, most employers won’t be able to provide it in those early stages, or if they can, it will be something quite generic. But, actually, if you’ve made it all the way to assessment centre, you’ve invested quite a bit of time to get to that point, and most employers would recognize that and provide feedback. For some employers, it might be a phone call where it’s a one-to-one and they’re giving you the feedback, or it might be an email. But, either way, it’s going to be something that’s quite personal to the candidates. So, I would absolutely recommend asking for feedback, definitely.
James: Excellent. Quality advice there. So, Sophie, moving onto our weekly staple questions, interested to see what your responses are here. Firstly, what one book would you recommend to our listeners that they should read?
Sophie: I think this might be a bit different to books that you have recommended in the past, but I’ve been reading a book lately called “She Means Business” by a lady called Carrie Green, who is the founder of the Female Entrepreneur Association, and the reason why I would recommend that book is because, for the price of the book, which is about £10 or something. There’s some really cool stuff in there about setting up your own business, or developing skills as a leader as well. But, the thing for me that makes that book really great is that it gives you access to a load of online materials and resources that are worth like thousands of pounds, and for me, that’s really cool.
There’s loads of online training around goal-setting, and planning, and things like that, and just some really useful tools that I believe can be applied to anyone, whether you’re working for a big corporate, you’re applying for jobs, or you’re setting up your own business. There’s some really cool stuff there that I think is really relevant to everyone.
James: Excellent. That’s not one I’ve come across, but I will definitely check that out and listeners —
Sophie: It’s new.
James: It’s a new one? Ah, super. And listeners, you’ll be able to find all the notes to everything we’ve discussed over on the show notes over on the website. Next question, Sophie. What one internet resource would you point listeners to?
Sophie: I struggle to come up with one, so I’m going to be quite general with this, and I would say something that gives you inspiration. I’m not picking what that is for you, because actually, for everyone, it’s something a bit different. For me, I like to watch stuff on YouTube, or I like to download podcasts to listen to on the train. But, there’s just so much out there that is free, and is really inspiring, and motivating, and I would be pointing to listeners to find out what it is that floats their boat and making use of all this brilliant free information that’s out there.
James: Quality advice, again, and podcast-wise, we’ve got 57 episodes to date of brilliant inspirational information. So, make sure you check out those on the Graduate Job Podcast. Finally, Sophie. What one tip can listeners implement today to help them on their job search?
Sophie: For me, it would be spending some time focusing on what it is that they want to do, and I know that’s hard for graduates, particularly when they’ve done a degree that is quite broad and gives them lots of opportunities. But, if they can define what it is they want to do, then that is going to help them massively by reducing the amount of applications they make and getting them to sort of show that passion and enthusiasm when they get in front of an employer.
I probably will be saying get down to the career service and try and get some advice, or use the resources that are there that are going to help to narrow that search and be really clear about what it is that they want to apply for.
James: Again, that’s brilliant advice because if you’re able to do that, you will tick off – and you listen back to the episode – everything that we’ve mentioned about standing out. If you can find out what’s important to you, you’ll narrow down the companies you apply to. It means that when you get in front of them in the assessment centre, you’re going to be enthusiastic and excited about the company, which is going to make you stand out. So, if you can do that thinking early, it will just help you in so many ways. Sophie, it’s been a pleasure having you on the show. What is the best way for people to get in touch with you and Smart Resourcing Solutions?
James: Thank you very much. Thank you so much for appearing on the Graduate Job Podcast.
Many many thanks to Sophie, a brilliant guest and an episode packed to the rafters with tips which if you put them into practice will help you get that dream graduate job. All that’s left to say is if you have enjoyed the episode or any of the other 59 than say thanks by heading over my quick survey at www.graduatejobpodcast.com/survey and filling in the 5 quick questions. It helps me to create the shows you want to hear and so head on over there. From all of you thousands of listeners no one did last week, shame on you, pull your finger out and head on over there now. We have a very special guest next week….me, and since we are heading into results time of year we exploring a topic many of you hope you won’t have to worry about……how to get a job with a 2.2. I don’t want to spoil it, but suffice to say, it doesn’t have to be as scary as you think. So there we go, episode 60 done, I hope you enjoyed the episode today, but more importantly, I hope you use it, and apply it. See you next week.