Careers and Employability Service
Services for research staff and PhDs

Assessment centres

Three students working in a group

Assessment centres may include a range of activities:

  • a formal presentation
  • group discussions
  • case studies
  • role play activities
  • timed exercises such as an in-tray or e-tray exercise which test decision making and working under pressure

Understanding and preparing for assessment centre activities

Assessment centres are intensive programmes incorporating a variety of activities which recruiters use to assess a candidate's potential to do the job they have applied for.

The activities chosen will reflect the job competencies being sought. Assessment centres:

  • assess behaviour under pressure 
  • are designed to challenge the candidate in a variety of ways

Types of activities

Click on the links below for information on these activities and tips on how to prepare for them.


Ability tests

These provide objective evidence of your aptitude. They usually cover numerical reasoning, verbal and non-verbal reasoning and cognitive tests.

To prepare: on line practice tests and books are available in the Centre for Career Development resource area 


Group exercises

These can take different forms:

  • leaderless discussions - you are provided with a topic or brief and work towards a consensus
  • leader discussions - each member of the group tkaes their turn to lead
  • role discussions - candidates have a designated role, this format does allow you to contribute through the role but it can be difficult to adapt quickly to an unfamiliar role
  • problem solving exercises - the group will work together to find an agreed solution
  • task exercise - groups may compete against each other to construct or manufacute an item from the same set of materials

The assessors are looking for:

  • active participation
  • clear and succinct oral communication skills
  • listening skills
  • assertiveness
  • working effectively with others
  • leadership

Case study

These often centre on technical or business problems relevant to the organisation or role. The solution may be less important than the process by which it is reached and you will be assessed on your contribution to that process. As well as your teamwork and communication skills assessors will be looking at: 

  •   analytical and thinking skills
  • intepretation of data
  • consideration of alternative solutions
  • production of a written or oral report  

Preparing for all group activities  

  • Be aware of your own team working style
  • Observe other teams in action at work and in other situations, who leads, how does the team achieve its goals?
  • Consider meetings you have been involved in - who led them, how well did the group work, what part did you play in this?

What type of team player are you?

  • Facilitator
  • Ideas generator
  • Helpful
  • Listener
  • Gathers ideas and builds on them
  • Obstructive
  • Constructive

You may adopt different styles according to the group dynamic but be aware you may have to utilise a number of approaches during group exercises.

Negative group behaviours will be picked up by the assessors, they include:

  • sitting defensively, e.g. arms folded across the body, or slightly apart from the group
  • lack of eye contact
  • inactive listening
  • re-reading the briefing notes instead of participating in the group discussion
  • talking at the same time as others
  • dismissing others' ideas
  • wasting time and deflecting the group from its objective
  • making inappropriate comments and jokes
  • appearinng aloof


The topic can be sent in advance or given out during the assessment centre. The assessors are looking for you to:

  • have polished and professional presentation skills
  • demonstrate that you can prepare in advance or take on an additional task if the topic is given out during the assessment centre
  • be able to explain ideas and themes to others
  • provide evidence of your knowledge and understanding of a topic
  • demonstrate research and investigative skills 
  • be able to answer questions on your presentation

To prepare:

  • be preapred to make presentations in your current work whenever you can
  • attend a presentation skills course
  • practise your presentation to an audience and ask them for constructive feedback

In-tray or E-tray exercises

You will be given a background briefing on an organisation and the role you have in it and will then have to deal with the contents of your in or e-tray. The contemts will include:

  • letters
  • memos
  • emails
  • reports and other documents, e.g. faxes

The documents will vary in importance and urgency but you will need to decide what action to take on each of them. You may be asked to note down the reasons for your actions and new items may be randomly introduced so that you have to rethink your priorities and strategies.

The assessors will be looking for:

  • analytical skills
  • organisational skills
  • ability to work under pressure
  • prioritisation
  • time management
  • decision-making
  • assimilation of information
  • effective written communication

Social activities

You will be participating in social activities during an assessment centre, from eating lunch or being given a tour of the workplace to attedning a formal evening meal if you are there for more than one day. At these events:

  • be willing to mix and talk
  • listen to others politely
  • be courteous
  • have some questions to ask your hosts 


Assessment centres are tiring so:

  • take a break when you can - get some fresh air or sit quietly if you get the opportunity to do so
  • keep your energy levels high, make sure you eat sensibly even if your appetite is dulled by nerves

Avoid comparing yourself to the other candidates, you are being measured against a set of criteria by trained assessors.


Careers and Employability Service

The University of Nottingham
Portland Building, Level D
University Park
Nottingham, NG7 2RD

telephone: +44 (0) 115 951 3680
fax: +44 (0) 115 951 3679