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check the basics, do your research, prepare to present and be exercise-ready

What happens in an assessment centre?

Posted November 01, 2020

What’s an assessment centre?

Traditionally, employers invited promising job candidates for one or more interviews to establish their suitability for the job. But relying on an interview alone puts candidates under a lot of pressure. It also doesn’t tell an employer much about how they perform in more typical tasks or work with other people.

This is why employers are increasingly using assessment centres to judge the suitability of shortlisted candidates. And for pretty much every apprenticeship at HPC, it’s a core part of the recruitment process.

At the assessment centre, candidates usually take part in one or more activities designed to test their skills:

  • Group activities – like a problem-solving challenge
  • Solo exercises – such as a presentation
  • A one-to-one interview(1)


While the idea of an assessment centre might be daunting, it’s a much fairer way to select the right people for the job(2) . It also gives you a better chance to show your skills in action, rather than just talk about them to employers.

What happens in an assessment centre?

No two companies run exactly the same assessment programme. While some assessments can take place over several days, most last for a day or less.

If you’re invited for an assessment for an apprenticeship with an HPC employer, you’ll probably be expected to travel to an office setting – unless it’s virtual, of course (see The virtual assessment centre, below). There you might be among six to 12 candidates. It’s important to remember that you’re not in competition with them – you may all be hired(3) .

A typical day at the assessment centre might look like this:


  • Introduction and information session: meet the assessors, learn about the day
  • Group activities: a chance to show your communication, problem-solving and team working skills
  • Individual assessments: this might include role plays and a presentation
  • In-tray assessment: a written exercise given on the day itself
  • Interview: an interview to answer questions about your suitability for the role


You’ll get advance notice of presentations or anything that you must prepare ahead of time. You’ll also get breaks and lunch. And remember that your behaviour is likely to be assessed the whole time you’re at the centre.

The virtual assessment centre

Some employers have switched to virtual assessment centres – also known as digital or online assessment centres. And they may continue to use them, even as the lockdown eases.

The benefit of a virtual assessment is that it’ll save you the hassle of travelling! It usually takes place on a video platform such as Zoom or Microsoft Teams. And it’ll follow a similar timetable to a normal assessment. 

The other difference is likely to be the types of group activities you get involved in online. While you might encounter hands-on challenges – such as an escape room – in a real assessment centre. Group activities online are more likely to take the form of a group task or discussion(4) .

The experience may also differ. For example, one HPC employer’s virtual recruitment process features briefings, discussions and assessments – much like you’d find in a standard assessment centre. But in the virtual environment, these activities take place over several weeks, rather than during one day.

As with a standard assessment centre though, assessors will be on hand to help and advise you at all times. Employers want everyone to have a fair chance and give it their best shot.

“And don’t worry if you haven’t used comms software, like Teams, before. Employers don’t expect you to come to the assessment fully experienced in using the tech – and won’t mind if you make mistakes. In fact, one HPC contractor told us that it can be an ice breaker at the start of an interview - for instance, if you’ve forgotten to unmute yourself! Employers aren’t trying to catch you out, and they will help you if you’re having any problems.”

Preparing for an assessment centre

Like any interview or meeting with a potential employer, the key to success is preparation. Whether you’re travelling to an assessment centre or being assessed online, being prepared will help you feel relaxed and confident, and perform at your best.


Check the basics

Make sure you have all the details you need – like dates, times and locations for assessment. If the assessment is virtual, the employer should let you know in advance which software you’ll be using. Make sure you have a link to login, or the meeting address and password.

If it’s taking place face to face, plan how you’ll travel to an assessment centre and what you’ll wear – and have a back-up plan for both. Make sure you eat properly during the day, and take essentials like snacks, a face mask and water.

For virtual assessments, it’s vital to test the computer, software and internet connection you’ll be using ahead of time. You’ll find more technology tips in our guide to online interviews.

Do your research

It’s important to research the employer and role you’re applying for before the day – especially since the tasks you face will usually relate to the business. A good grasp of what the company does – and its goals and challenges – could help you give insightful answers or performances. At the very least, study the ‘About us’ and News sections of their company website or LinkedIn page.

Young HPC has lots of information about Hinkley Point C, for instance, including what the key contractors do. You can discover more about the project too, on our main Hinkley Point C web pages. Make sure you understand what your potential employer’s role is at HPC, how it fits in with the overall project, and what part you might play.

If you have friends or family who’ve been to an assessment centre, ask them about their experience. The more people you speak to, the more you’ll know what to expect and you’ll feel more comfortable.

Prepare to present

Make sure that you complete any presentations or assignments you’re been given before the day – and don’t leave it until the night before! Focus on the theme or brief you’ve been given, and check that what you’re preparing aligns with this.

For example, if you’re giving a 15-minute presentation on the role of nuclear power in the UK’s energy mix, make sure you break it down into logical steps. Unless the brief says otherwise, you might want to briefly cover sub-topics including the decline of coal, the rise of renewables, and the role of nuclear in delivering low-carbon power.

Practise your presentation in front of friends or family. Check it’s the right length, and use feedback to improve it. If you’ll be presenting online, practise sharing your screen on the same software platform you’ll using on the day (e.g. Zoom). Print copies as a back-up in case the technology fails on the day. And in a virtual assessment, email or post copies of your presentation to the employer beforehand just in case too.

Be exercise-ready

You should also prepare for the exercises you’ll be given. This is a bit trickier as you don’t know what you’ll be doing. So try and find some sample exercises online (look at the Useful links section below). You’re unlikely to face the same challenges on the day, but at least you’ll feel more comfortable tackling the exercises if you’ve practised a few in advance.

Group activities vary greatly, but they’re often related to the apprenticeship or industry you’re applying for a job in. Previous assessments at an HPC contractor included planning the construction of a wind turbine, for example.

On the day, be sure to approach exercises methodically:


  • Read the instructions: If anything is unclear, ask
  • Plan your time: Break the exercise down into timed tasks
  • Remember the job description: Try to showcase the skills and behaviours the employer is looking for
  • Remember your research: Be as relevant as possible to the business


It’s important to contribute to group activities, but listen to other candidates, too. Take on board what they say, and try to work with them, not against them.

If you’re online, remember to mute your microphone when you’re not talking. Remain engaged – don’t look away from the screen unless you’re writing notes!

Don’t panic!

Try to enjoy your day at an assessment centre. This is an opportunity to learn more about an industry or employer that you’re interested in. It’s also a chance to showcase skills and behaviours that go beyond your qualifications. If you don’t have strong hard skills such as GCSEs, this is your chance to demonstrate your other strengths.

Good preparation is key to avoiding nerves on the day… But accept that some butterflies are normal! You may be able to work them off by taking a little exercise on the morning of the assessment. Or practise some breathing exercises or mindfulness beforehand.

Remember that an assessment centre is designed to see how you react to various situations. So it’s quite possible that not everything will go smoothly. The assessors may even throw in a surprise. They’re not trying to catch you out! They’re just seeing how you can adapt to a changing situation.

So don’t be too concerned if you make a mistake in an exercise or activity. Keep your head and try to identify how you can recover the situation. The assessors will be just as interested in your analysis of events and how you overcame any challenges – as they will be in seeing how you complete a project.

After the assessment centre

Be quick to follow up any outstanding matters from the day. For example, sending over any examples of work you promised to supply. Also, send a thank-you to the employer for inviting you to the day. Running an assessment centre takes a lot of effort. And they’ll appreciate your consideration – plus, any feedback you give about the activities you enjoyed.

When will I hear back?

Employers will usually tell you when you can expect to find out if you’ve been successful or not. But it’s usually a couple of weeks after the assessment takes place. Depending on the job and employer, you may also receive an offer that’s conditional on achieving certain grades at college first.

And if you make it through to the next round – well done! But if you aren’t successful this time, try not to be too disappointed. Taking part in an assessment centre is a great learning experience. You’ll know what to expect next time and you’ll probably have developed some of your skills too. Ask the employer if they have any feedback – most will be happy to share any learnings to help you improve your chances next time.

To find out more about the apprenticeship recruitment process, take a look at our visual guide.

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