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First impressions: What firms will be looking for at the assessment centre and why they are not as scary as they sound

Navigating your way through an assessment centre can be a daunting prospect, particularly if you have never taken part in one before. To help you prepare for the day, Verdict spoke to Deborah McCormack, Head of Operations and Client Services at KWC Global and previous Head of Early Talent at Pinsent Masons, for her top tips. A common task that you may face is an ‘in-tray exercise’, which aims to replicate the type of situation a trainee might encounter at work. For example, you could be given a collection of documents containing various emails and your job would be to sort through the bundle and complete the tasks within it.

By Editorial Team. 29 September 2021. Edited 15 January 2024.


The key skills being tested here are your attention to detail, ability to prioritise well, organisation and time-management skills. McCormack stresses the importance of “taking your time, reading everything very carefully and being clear about what you are being asked to do before you begin”. It’s a good idea to ask for clarification rather than begin the task with uncertainty and make mistakes.


An additional aspect of an assessment centre, and perhaps the most dreaded of the lot, is the interview, which usually takes place with a partner or senior associate. Although the prospect of being alone in a room (or on a video call) with someone at this level may feel daunting, take comfort in the fact that this is the assessment you can do the most preparation for. A good starting point, says McCormack, is to “make sure that you have refreshed your memory on your application form”, as it is inevitable that questions based on this will come up.


Most firms will also make clear the competencies that they look for in their trainees, so be clear on how you can demonstrate these qualities through your experiences. Having said this, McCormack warns candidates not to over-exaggerate: “You will want to be the best version of yourself… but definitely don’t try to be anything other than yourself. What you have done and what you are doing is enough, so just be honest in your answers.”


Further tips for the interview stage include knowing your strengths and weaknesses. “Nobody is expecting you to be the finished article – you will be joining the firm as a trainee and in that you are doing exactly what it says on the tin,” says McCormack. She adds that it is normal to be nervous and your interviewer will hopefully be aware of this. When the adrenaline does kick in, remember to take a breath or a sip of water and gather your thoughts before you speak. In fact, McCormack encourages students to “use those nerves in a good way – you are only nervous because you care and that is a good thing.”


Another popular assessment is a presentation. The key advice here is to understand the questions and any constraints. It may seem obvious, but if you have been given a time limit of 10 minutes, then do not go over this – even if it means giving yourself some leeway to make up for nerves on the day. Practice makes perfect so rehearse and try timing yourself.


But don’t feel the need to learn a script. It may be a source of comfort, and if you choose to do so, then don’t learn it in a surface-level, robotic way. “You need to really understand what you are talking about so that you are able to get back on track if you lose your thread,” advises McCormack. It’s also likely that you will be asked questions at the end, so make sure you understand the topic in order to answer those questions well. If you really want to impress your assessor, then try to relate the topic back to the firm itself suggests McCormack: “Think about the firm’s, as well as the client’s, perspective… use this as an opportunity to showcase that you have really thought about the firm you are applying to.”


McCormack emphasises treating a virtual assessment as though it were in the office: “You are still being interviewed in-person; it is just tech-enabled.” Further, get ready as though you were heading into the office to put yourself in the right headspace (and save the pyjama bottoms for another day). Make sure to check your camera angle, background, Wi-Fi and audio/video settings. These may seem common-sensical but are worth doing so to avoid any problems.


McCormack also reminds candidates that “this is a two-way process: it’s not just about whether the firm wants you, it’s also about whether you want to join that firm”. Ensure that what you see and learn on the day leads you to believe that you would be a good fit for the firm, and vice versa.


If you are unsuccessful, then “be tenacious” says McCormack. Getting to an assessment centre is a huge accomplishment and a great opportunity, whatever the outcome may be. If you are unsuccessful the first time around, ask for feedback and take time to assess what you could have done differently. Tenacity is a desirable quality in a candidate and you will be commended for coming back stronger the next time around. Good luck.


Assessment centre top tips



  • Be calm and methodical.
  • Take your time to read through all the information before you begin and write a list of the tasks that need to be done (and their deadlines).
  • If you have any doubts, make sure to ask questions before you begin.



  • Assign yourself a clear role from the start.
  • Encourage quieter members of the group to get involved.
  • Remember that this is not a fight to do the most talking – the task is about teamwork.



  • Ensure that you thoroughly understand the topic and its surrounding issues.
  • Try to pre-empt what the assessor’s follow-up questions might be and prepare answers.
  • Practice is key. Time yourself and practise in front of others.



Key areas to prepare answers for in advance may include:

  • Your application form and how you can demonstrate key skills/competencies using your past experiences (STAR technique: Situation, Task, Action, Result).
  • Your strengths and weaknesses.
  • Your motivation for pursuing a career in your chosen field with that specific company.
  • Always have a couple of questions prepared to ask your interviewer at the end.


This article was first published in our Verdict magazine - read Employability Special, the issue #6 of Verdict magazine now for more tips and advice.