5 skills to get you through any (Big 4) assessment centre

One of the most frequent questions I am asked is “what is the application process like?” – referring to graduate schemes at the Big 4.

Most people are aware that the general procedure when applying to any of the Big 4 graduate schemes involves all or some of the following; online tests, phone interviews, an assessment centre and a final interview. In this post I am going to cover what I consider to be five core skills you need in order to survive the assessment centre. I’ll be covering the other stages of the application in future posts.

What is an assessment centre?

Assessment centres aim to simulate some of the real day-to-day tasks and pressures you will face as a graduate consultant. They involve a combination of virtual email tasks on a computer and role-play interviews with actors. It usually takes the whole day to get through all the tasks and there will be a common theme throughout the various tasks.

Assessment centres will vary slightly depending on exactly which company and function or team you have applied to. In almost all of these, the day will open by introducing the case study for the day and giving the applicants time to read through the specification. My own experience of the assessment centre involved two interviews with a fictional client, one which I had to run (keep the meeting to time, run the agenda and control the discussion) and one that was run by the client (an actor) which was less intense.

The other part of the day involved sitting at a laptop for two hours and responding to emails, prioritising correctly and meeting deadlines for replies. The software simulated receiving emails that ranged from simple requests for information to demands for a detailed report on a specific topic and you had to finish all the tasks in the time allotted in order to pass.

What skills do I need?

Here are 5 of the most important skills you need to demonstrate during your assessment centre. Please comment below or tweet us @youdowhatblog if you have any other thoughts!

1. Confidence

What is it?

The confidence to speak up, not be shy about your strengths and to lead a team. There won’t often be team working tasks at an assessment centre but it’s still a good idea to be prepared. Confidence doesn’t just have to come across in your work – it can be used from the moment you meet your interviewer, recruiter or the other candidates.

Why is it important?

Confidence is important in so many jobs, and contributes to key skills involved in consulting such as sales, negotiation and presenting. It’s important to show the assessors that you have the confidence necessary to lead a meeting with a new client – effectively a stranger – and to back up assumptions or hypotheses you have made as part of the assessment tasks. Confidence will also make you memorable, which can make all the difference. Sometimes it is better to be a good candidate who is remembered than a great candidate who is not. (Although, obviously it’s better to be great and remembered!)

2. Time management

What is it?

Top of the list is time management. It’s a cliché but for good reason. The ability to prioritise tasks correctly and complete work on time – all while remaining unsupervised for the most part – is a core part of a graduate consultant’s toolbox.

Why is it important?

In consulting, our clients come first above everything else and our reputation is one of our most powerful selling points as a Big 4 firm. This means missing deadlines (or letting clients down in any other way) is to be avoided at all costs. Additionally, as a consultant you will often need to be able to cope with multiple responsibilities and tasks to carry out simultaneously. Big 4 firms expect graduates to be able to work efficiently and be as productive as possible.

3. Professional behaviour

What is it?

As an overarching principle, it is important to behave in a professional manner during interviews and assessment centres. As obvious as this sounds, I’ve come across many applicants who exhibit a relaxed and blasé attitude when applying and this can go down terribly with certain assessors. That’s not to say you shouldn’t be yourself, but I’d recommend you save the bad taste jokes and swearing for your flatmates…

Why is it important?

The way you conduct yourself can be more noticeable than you think, and first impressions count – especially when recruiters are trying to make judgement calls about putting you through to the final interview just having met you for one day. When working for our clients, we behave professionally in order to preserve our brand’s reputation. But remember, you also need to be flexible – professional behaviour may mean different things to different people (recruiters and clients alike) so you’ll need to judge the atmosphere and behave appropriately.

4. Approachability

What is it?

Showing understanding for others’ opinions and suggestions, being welcoming to new team members and making colleagues feel that they can be themselves and share important or sensitive information with you.

Why is it important?

Similar to confidence, I believe being friendly and approachable can massively improve how people remember you and can boost your leadership and teamwork abilities. If you’re not approachable, you’ll find it difficult to network effectively or foster relationships with clients – both key skills in the consulting environment.

5. Honesty and openness

What is it?

This may seem obvious but it’s important so I think worth mentioning. Being open and honest is the ability to share honest opinions and not be tempted to deliberately hide or keep important information to oneself.

Why is it important?

Being open and honest allows you to excel at many other important aspects of consulting. It enables you to give fair, constructive feedback and be receptive to feedback given to you. Both of these skills mean you and your team can learn fast and continuously improve. Honesty also earns you respect and trust, a key factor in becoming a strong leader. Both of these effects help forge strong relationships and high performing teams. Finally, as an aspect of networking, being open helps others understand what you’re thinking and doing. This can sometimes lead to

Is that really it?

Alright, alright. Clearly these five skills aren’t all you need to get through a rigorous recruitment procedure, but I think they’ll serve you pretty well if you’re looking to boost your chances. Some other things you’ll need to pay attention to are:

  • Numerical and analytical skills – You’ll need this to perform well on the case study tasks you’re set throughout the day. This won’t be a problem if you’ve already passed the online tests that most firms set as the first hurdle of the application process.
  • Spelling and grammar – All the work you submit (the mock email responses you write) will be assessed and this means spelling and grammar is important. Although it is not the ‘be all and end all,’ it is still noticed. Big 4 firms want to hire graduates who can communicate clearly with their colleagues and clients so be sure to pay attention to the readability of your work.
  • Networking – It’s important to show a willingness (or better, desire) to network as this becomes a key part of any consulting job. Try to remember the names of the examiners and your fellow applicants and keep in touch after the day.

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