Group discussions are a really common assessment exercise as they allow the recruiter to see how you interact with others and work as part of a team – essential skills in pretty much any job. You are not in direct competition with your fellow candidates, so aim for a collaborative, not competitive, approach in group discussions.
Usually you’ll be put into a group with several other candidates and given a subject to discuss. This might be something related to the job you’re applying for, or it might be something completely unrelated, such as ‘your group is stranded on a desert island – which three items would you want to have with you?’ Either way, the purpose is to get you talking to each other.
You’ll be asked to come to some sort of conclusion as a group, within a set time limit, and you might have to present your conclusions at the end of the discussion. You will be observed throughout your discussion – often one assessor per candidate.
There is no right or wrong answer, and in any case the assessors are more interested in how you get to your conclusion than they are in the conclusion itself (which is why they observe the whole exercise, rather than just show up for the presentation!)
How to prepare
These exercises are deliberately difficult to prepare for, as recruiters want to see the ‘real you’, so there is a limit to what you can do in advance. Any research you have done into the company will help you to contribute knowledgeably to the discussion, but the exercise is very much dependent on the dynamics of the group on the day.
Taking the opportunity to chat to the other candidates at lunchtime, or over coffee at the start of the day, can really help. It allows you to get to know the people you’ll be working with in the group discussion and build rapport, which makes working together much easier.
How to stand out on the day
Keep your eye firmly on the ball throughout the group task, and give yourself every opportunity to make a strong impression on the various assessors. To do this you need to:
1. Manage the information
- Use the available resources. Usually there will be white-boards / flipcharts available – they are a great way to show the assessors what you’re thinking
- Be clear about what you’re trying to achieve. Start by identifying what the objective of your discussion is and what the limitations of the task are (eg: time, budget, etc) – this will help keep your discussion on track
- Structure! Think about how you can go through the information logically and make it clear to the whole group. This might be a SWOT analysis, or a comparison table – whatever works for the information you have.
2. Manage the time
- Keep track of time. It can help to set out a plan or milestones in advance (for instance, allocating an amount of time to each question), as the conversation can sometimes become bogged down, wasting time
- Be flexible. You might find your time is cut short by the assessors, or extra information is added halfway through, so be prepared to adapt under pressure.
- Your presentation will always take longer to write than you expect. Give yourself plenty of time!
3. Manage the relationships
- Work with your team. You don’t have to be the group leader to make an impression. In fact, groups rarely have one official leader and the role of ‘leader’ passes between different people in the group throughout the discussion.
- If you have quiet people in your group, try to get them involved and invite their opinions. If they really don’t want to talk after a couple of attempts to get them involved, leave them to it – you are not responsible for their performance, after all.
- If you have someone very dominant and overbearing, try to dilute their influence by thanking them for their contribution and then suggesting you hear from the rest of the group.
Remember, you are competing against a standard, not against the other candidates, so working together will help you all look good. Recruiters may offer jobs to everyone from one assessment centre and nobody from another, and you’re more likely to meet the required level if you’re all collaborating and supporting each other.
And finally, it sounds cheesy but try to enjoy it! The assessment centre exercises are intended to simulate what you would be doing if you got the job, so if you look like you’re having a torrid time, it’s a fair assumption that you might not enjoy the job much either. Most recruiters are keen for their assessment centres to be a positive experience for candidates – rather than an ordeal – and you’ll perform better if you throw yourself into it and enjoy it.