For all those people with assessment centres coming up, this post is for you.
I’ll be covering the following:
- What you can expect and how to map out your own preparation
- How to tackle case studies
- How to approach presentations
- Dealing with ‘stress interviews’
- Tips for group discussions
- Brushing up on your knowledge of the company to avoid getting caught out
- Some bonus tips on the benefits of relaxing before an interview, and keeping things in balance when reflecting.
Also, I have now created a LinkedIn page for InternGamePlan so feel free to give that a follow.
Assessment Centres are the final hurdle before receiving an internship offer and as well as being an extension to the first interview rounds, there are other components to prepare for, such as case studies, presentations and group discussions.
By the way, this is the first requested post of the site and it would be great to hear your own requests and/or feedback on the site using this form.
What to expect and mapping out prep
I’ll be focusing on the final four components below, and have linked previous posts sharing tips on the other components.
You’ll need to distribute your time between:
Interview question components
- Introductory/motivational questions
- Commercial awareness (including deal)
- Brain-teasers (including market sizing)
- Curveball questions
- Case study skills preparation
- Presentation Skills
- Group discussions preparation
- Digging deeper into knowledge about the firm
Sometimes firms can add psychometric tests whether numerical, verbal or situational, but this is less common as these are usually covered earlier on. Also, for graduate schemes, Excel modelling is a more common hurdle than just having a presentation, but these are far less common for internship applications.
How should you split your time between these components?
More time should be spent on firm-specific components although the first assessment centre will naturally require more investment into the general components.
As well as the components listed above, reaching out to others in the year above that have previously done the assessment centre is a brilliant way to gauge an overview of what you can expect and know what to prioritise since this will vary from firm to firm. As always, practising with another person and carrying out mock interviews (best with people going through the same process) is a great technique to harness.
As a final note, since many assessment centres are resuming to an in-person structure, never be late. You need to have an enormous margin of safety with timing. You’re either on time or late. Waiting in the nearest Pret two hours before your assessment centre sets you up to be on time.
If you’re someone that usually likes to be on the dot with timing, like me, you need to go against your tendencies and book a train early enough so that even if that train fails, there are two other trains you could take.
Before going into the common forms case studies can take, the key is to follow a consistent, clear structure (if you’ve read the Pyramid Principle, you know that the book is centred around structure and more specifically, a top-down form of communication). Here is a useful structure that is similar to the deal cookie-cutter method, but more detailed:
- Firstly, state your introduction alongside your recommendation – make this super clear from the start.
- Secondly, form three points or paragraphs (if written) explaining your three reasons for your recommendation. Include evidence and statistics from the case study materials and a lot of the analysis will be comparative i.e. why the alternative options were not chosen.
- Finally, state your conclusion and reinforce the recommendation – now including some of the key themes of the three reasons (don’t just repeat the introduction).
Different types of case studies
The first categorisation is whether the case study is a take-home exercise you do before the assessment centre or an on-the-spot case study, but the skills massively overlap and having more time can be a great liability, especially considering you’ll be applying to various other places and balancing university work at the same time.
The second categorisation is what type of question is asked I think most case studies fall under the following three which all centre around you making a judgement on a company being advised:
 A company looking to obtain more funds.
As with all these questions, you’ll have a company profile explaining the characteristics of the firm and their general financial health plus how much they’re looking to raise.
You’re then likely to be given a variety of debt and equity options and must decide which one is the best. The debt financing options might be broken down into a bank loan, private placement, or public bond as three examples. There is a useful part in the basic LBO section of the 400 questions guide that I’ve mentioned previously, which talks about the difference between high yield and bank debt. Although not essential, understanding such differences can be useful context.
 A company looking to acquire another company.
Usually, you’ll be given three options which you need to select from. A lot of the analysis will be laying out the characteristics you’re judging against and explaining why one firm prevails over all the rest. This exercise mimics the later stages of acquisition research, where a team may have whittled down the list to the final five targets that have shown interest.
 A company looking at options for growth.
Although similar to the previous two questions, the growth question would probably be based on broader strategies such as whether the company should raise funds to fund an expansion abroad (which could involve the first type of question), or whether the company should acquire another company (may still involve raising funds).
Use the first few minutes to take a 30k ft view to lay a strong foundation for answering the question.
In my opinion, it’s all about the 30k ft view: prioritising and planning your time has a much bigger impact than merely pouring over the granularities of the details they give you. The first five minutes are critical for marshalling your resources, taking stock of the task and digesting the titles, subheadings, reading the question twice and taking broad strokes at tackling the exercise.
Build a competitive advantage for yourself through reading the Pyramid Principle & 80/20 rule.
Another critical hack is harnessing clear communication skills and there’s no better book for this than the Pyramid Principle, written by the first female MBA professional hire Mckinsey made back in 1963. I’ll be reviewing the Pyramid Principle in a future post since I believe it to be one of the most powerful books on improving a skill at the heart of most jobs: communication.
Another key book for tackling such time-pressured exercises is the 80/20 principle by Richard Koch, who started at the Boston Consulting Group and went on to create L.E.K Consulting in 1983. There may be distracting elements in the case study, and not all information will be of equal importance, so drilling into your head that 20% of what you do leads to 80% of the results should train your mind to prevent you from getting stuck in the weeds and help you search for the most pertinent points.
When forming your final points of analysis, it goes without saying that you should talk slowly and choose your points judiciously. Do not overload the interviewer with the case study exercise and remember that the interviewer will need to take thorough notes on this part of the interview, so talking too fast makes their lives difficult.
As with case studies, I plan on doing a separate post on this, but the key points outlined here should be enough for an assessment centre – shortcuts and other hacks to creating presentations become more useful when preparing for the internship itself.
Presentations can come in different forms and in my opinion, are a more useful exercise for assessment centres since they strongly emulate what you’ll be doing on the role.
Here are some examples of how presentations can come up:
- Company profile/investment pitch
- Evaluating an acquisition opportunity for a company
- Valuing a company
- Your opinion on a large M&A deal in the news
- Opinion on where the market is heading in the future
- Analysis of the company you’re interviewing at
 Quadrant structure
They may give you the option to choose from various structures for example if you’re producing a company investment profile. The best way to condense a lot of information in investment banking is through using the quadrant structure – not used for everything, but used very frequently. Many people looking at the slide will argue that there is too much information condensed and that presentations should be more talking and less text, but having slightly more detail on slides is common in the industry.
 Icons on your slide
Noun Project is one of the best sources for icons, which can provide a professional, visually captivating touch to your presentation and only takes several minutes to paste in.
Although you’ll only have about an hour for on-the-spot presentations, including a graph can really set you apart. That may mean a stock chart for an investor profile if the company is public, or using a table to display all the company’s financials.
 Top-down communication
As outlined in the Pyramid Principle, it is far more effective to lay out your key points and then inductively explain them below. This applies to larger presentations where you see the main title or subtitle explaining the key takeaway of the presentation and then each box or section explaining that overall point.
 Not enough structure. Outlining the structure before you even think about fleshing out each slide or the 1-slide summary is one of the most important steps to take in preventing this issue.
 Overcomplicating things – not sticking to simple arguments. For longer, take-home exercises, over-complicating it and spending hours upon hours making the presentation is a sure way to fall victim to the 80/20 principle, rather than harnessing the rule to your advantage. You’ll have too much to say in the interview and risk boring the interviewers with details that weren’t necessary otherwise.
 Not giving a definitive response to the overall question if the presentation is evaluating a potential acquisition target, or on whether an investor should invest.
As a final tip, for larger presentations where you’re more likely to be put on the spot, say you don’t know if you don’t know. NO WAFFLE. Say I think the answer is xyz, but I am not certain, so I’ll research the answer and get back to you.
Not getting thrown off by stress interviews
Stress interviews are something you should be aware of and are at risk of getting, although not a formal category such as when the bank tells you ‘this is a technical interview’. They are where the person on the other side of the table disagrees with everything you say and tries to reduce you to lacking confidence and questioning your own knowledge. Such interviews are aimed at mimicking a difficult client and how you would handle such a situation; they can get more intense, for example, I’ve heard stories of the interviewer getting a paper and writing failed next to the candidate’s name, picking up the phone, or ripping up paper in front of them – all testing whether you can keep your cool in the face of a difficult, confusing situation.
Personally, I think it illogical for a firm to give such harsh interviews considering it is a two-way process and they should be convincing the interviewee this place is worth working for, but either way, they do happen and will continue to happen, so here are some tips:
- Most people don’t realise when they get one so be aware.
- They are not just about staying nice and polite, but also keeping your head screwed on, keeping confident in your own abilities and not rushing.
- Although stress interviews come on a spectrum, with some far less severe and some very severe, speaking too fast is a tendency I always found myself steering towards and this is a serious weakness: remember that speaking too fast makes it seem like you’re not worth the interviewer’s time and if you act like that, they’ll get that impression.
To finish off your preparation, here is an overview of tips for tackling group discussions, strengthening your knowledge of the company, as well as bonus tips such as the paradox of relaxing before an assessment centre and being balanced in how you reflect afterwards.
Although group discussions are something you can prepare in an interview study group if you have one, I believe the key is drilling in your head the principles to follow since the many variables make it harder to prepare for such an exercise than you would for a 1-on-1 interview.
- Timekeeping is key so be the timekeeper if no one else jumps in
- Walk the tightrope of not being too loud/dominating the discussion and not being too quiet
- Be thoughtful – don’t feel rushed to speak first unless you have something valuable to say
- Include others that are being quiet – the dominating people are probably keeping them quiet
- Build on what others say, as this is not a solo game
Knowledge about the Company
You may have opted to create a firm profile before submitting your application or digging deep into what differentiates the company, especially if this is a large bank with a large number of pages on their website and an annual report for you to digest.
However, you should prepare to be grilled a bit further in the assessment centre. I have been asked in the past what the market capitalisation of the bank is, how many different teams and sector specialisms there are, as well as the firm values. So be sure to cover the ground with the following stats (although not limited to this):
- Share price
- Market cap
- Firm values (check for recently added ones)
- Names of the different sector teams/specialisms at the bank – this is more relevant for boutiques, especially ones with a stronger industry focus
- Name of founder, CEO and head of Investment Banking if applicable
- Revenue and EBITDA if a public bank
The paradox of relaxation
If you’ve signed up the InternGamePlan newsletter and you’ve read through this whole post, I’m fairly confident you’re the type of person that doesn’t go to an assessment centre underprepared, so perhaps even more important than any singular component of the advice above is what you do that 12 or 24hours before the AC. The answer of what you do in that time is don’t burnout, relax, and drill in the core principles that will prevent you from tripping up on the simple, yet consequential things.
A useful exercise in any pursuit is to ask yourself “How do I completely mess this up”. The way to mess up your prep before the assessment centre is to think “I’m going to try and work like an investment banker and grind as hard as I can up to an hour before”. No, you’re playing a different game to the role, you’re trying to secure a role. I’m not just talking about having a good rest but treating yourself a bit. Of course you should prepare diligently and lay out the final components you need to drill in, but equally important you need to recharge your batteries to the full and be yourself. To be yourself means to loosen your shoulders, not to tense up and get anxious, which over-preparing can risk.
Burnout is likely to hit you, especially when you’re balancing university tests and application season, but you don’t want to irrationally induce burnout before an assessment. There will be many people that disagree with my thinking here, but I am confident it will do more benefit than harm because as I said, the people reading this far will not be those that have underprepared, they will be those that err on the side of caution and most likely over-prepare – a trap I would commonly fall into.
Keeping things in balance when reflecting
As a final note, reflect. After that AC, write down as many questions as you can remember, not just to help others in the future, but also to prepare for your next AC, because much worse than making a serious error is making it twice.
But in that reflection, keep things in balance. I learned this the hard way. In one interview, maybe you thought you weren’t conversational enough and needed to loosen up, only to find that in the next AC you loosened up too much. Loosening up too much and being too conversational has its own dangers, such as not giving the interviewer a chance to get onto the tick-box technical questions because there’s a 25-minute time limit to the interview.
Unfortunately for many of us, interviews and assessment centres aren’t the science we want them to be – they’re also an art.