How to Succeed at Assessment Centres: Technical Interviews

Added: 15th October 2019 by CGG

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Assessment Centres (or Assessment Days) are commonly used for graduate recruitment. They allow employers to assess candidates through a combination of tasks and activities that test your suitability for the job. A whole day of ‘assessment’ can sound scary and intimidating, however if you are well prepared they can actually be a lot of fun and allow you to demonstrate a range of skills that you may not be able to portray in a single interview.

For most STEM employers a key part of the assessment day is the technical interview.

What is the purpose of the technical interview?

To make an assessment of your technical suitability for the role.

Your ability to process new information (technical agility), problem solving skills, awareness of what the employer does and understanding of the fundamental principles behind their technologies will all be tested.

You are likely to be asked to talk about your own work. Make sure to explain what you’ve done clearly, minimising the use of scientific jargon.

The importance of research

Many technical roles are highly specialised and require in-depth knowledge in the field and training in proprietary software to perform them.

Most graduate employers will not expect much knowledge of job-specific techniques; but they will expect candidates to have invested time in researching what they do and to have tried to adapt their existing knowledge from education or work experience to understand the company’s technology.

Read the organisation website and social media particularly LinkedIn so you are familiar with what they do and the latest company news. A lot of graduates do not do enough research on the companies they apply to, so if you have and can talk about it, this will immediately impress any interviewer.

Find technical links between what you have studied in your course and the field the organisation operates in. If they ask you about your course or final project make sure to highlight any cross-overs with your studies and what they do, even if it feels like you are stating the obvious.

If they give you technical material on a specific topic or technology to work through as preparation for the assessment day, it is critical you give yourself sufficient time to read through it and understand it. Don’t just restrict yourself to what you’ve been sent but research around the topic or technology and when reading it ask the following: what is the purpose of the technology or method described? What new discovery have they made and what does that mean for their industry – more efficient engines, less invasive scans, faster turnaround in diagnostic tests, better image resolution etc.

Props, whiteboards and flip charts

Science is a remarkably visual field. Often it’s easier to explain certain concepts by drawing them up, writing out key equations or graphing up trends qualitatively. If a flip chart or whiteboard is available use it!

Bringing a prop in to showcase an aspect of your project can be a fun way of catching the interviewers’ interest – projects which involve designing instrumentation or work in the lab particularly lend themselves to this. However keep it relevant.

Don’t be afraid of being wrong

Fear of failure is one of the most common reasons students fail technical interviews alongside not researching the employer and the role properly or investing enough time in preparation for the interview.

Often people have the correct answer to a question but they are not 100% sure and are afraid of being wrong and looking foolish. This is self-defeating as they end up looking like they will not commit to an answer. Quite often your first answer will be the right one and even if it’s not by explaining your thought processes the answer may become clearer to you or the interviewer will be able to see where you’ve gone wrong and put you back on track.

Final comments

Sometimes it really works to reframe a question in more familiar terminology or a more familiar setting – just make it very clear how it links with the original question and make sure your answer is still relevant.

It should be possible to work everything out in a graduate technical interview from first principles (for most graduate roles it is unlikely they will be asking you to prove Fermat’s theorem or the wave equation from scratch) so if you suddenly realise you’ve taken the wrong direction with your research, take a moment to think about what underlying scientific principles govern the phenomenon or problem you are being presented with. If you approach it logically, talking through your thought process as you go, then the interviewers should be able to follow you and are more likely to provide some guidance to help you.

Employers interview graduates not just for their immediate impact but also with an eye on their potential – in 5 years’ time they may be leading a team, in 10 or 15 making key decisions which will impact the future direction of the company. They will not expect you to have all the answers but they will expect you to demonstrate an interest in what they do, passion for your own field of study and curiosity about the scientific world in general.

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