What to expect at an investment banking assessment centre

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You’ve got through your online application for a graduate job at an investment bank and you’ve steamed your way through the initial interview rounds. Now comes the really challenging part of your path to becoming an analyst: the assessment centre.

Assessment ‘centres’ – which are more common in EMEA than they are in other parts of the world – actually just take place at an investment bank’s office and typically last the best part of a day. They’re often held on a rolling basis late in the year as banks pluck out the best candidates from their initial interviews in the autumn.

While each banks structures its assessment centre differently, there are some basics that you’ll need to know about if the big day is looming for you.

Do all of these things before you go to an assessment centre

How should you prepare for an investment banking assessment centre? Continually read the Financial Times, Wall Street Journal or similar business publications, says Maura Smith of the EMEA campus recruiting team at J.P. Morgan. “Participate in any mock interviews or recruiter drop-in sessions hosted by the firm or in conjunction with their career services, or practice with a friend,” she adds. “Attend bank presentations/events or research them online to ensure you have a firm understanding of the bank and the position you’re interviewing for. And take the time to rehearse answers to general interview questions so you don’t stumble over your answers.”

There’ll be plenty of individual interviews

Unfortunately the one-on-one grillings you got through in the previous interview rounds aren’t over – you’ll be faced with several more at the assessment centre. They will typically be with senior bankers, rather than analysts or associates, with HR sometimes in attendance. “Be prepared to answer a wide range of questions, which many include – but not limited to – commercial acumen, leadership, analytical skills, teamwork, what you see as your strengths/developments, mathematical skills, and anything on your CV/resume,” says Smith. “It's also important to prepare some personal examples that you can share if asked about your industry experiences, whether that's university activities or previous internships,” adds Yukiko Hiizumi from the graduate resourcing team at Barclays Asia Pacific.

Expect competency-based questions in these interviews

If you’ve avoided competency-based questions so far in the recruitment process, you can’t escape them at assessment centre interviews. Expect questions that allow the interviewer to test your behaviour in a given scenario. They typically begin with ‘tell me about a time when you…’ and are designed to test your analytical, motivational and individual competencies – for example ‘tell me about a time when you identified a new approach to a problem’. Don’t rush, structure your reply using the so-called STAR technique – describe the ‘situation’ you faced, the ‘task’ required as a result, the ‘action’ you took and finally the ‘result’ of that action.

Be short and snappy with your answers

"As there is a specific timeframe allocated to each candidate for one-to-one interviews, we're looking for candidates who are able to provide short and succinct answers yet can convey them in an organised manner to the interviewers," says Hiizumi.

Show that you love investment banking

Some students ace most parts of the day on the strength of their communication skills and flare for answering competency questions, but fail to demonstrate why they want to embark on a career in a sector renowned for hard work and long hours. “While students don’t need to be studying finance, economics or any similar degree subject to pursue a career in investment banking, we do expect them to demonstrate a genuine interest in our industry. For example, a student of medicine, engineering or the classics must be able to articulate why J.P. Morgan investment banking is for them and have a general understanding of the financial industry,” says Smith.

Chat about extra-curricular activities at an assessment centre

You’re almost certain to be asked about what you do in your spare time, so come prepared with examples which are both interesting and demonstrate leadership, entrepreneurial or other bank-friendly skills. “Your answers should be well thought through and showcase how you’re a well-rounded individual,” says Smith. “Through the assessment centre we will be able to establish a holistic view of you, which will allow us to make informed decisions on your candidacy.”

Do very well in the group exercise

If you want to join an investment bank as an ego-boosting exercise and think a career in the sector is all about pushing yourself ahead of your colleagues, the group exercise of the assessment centre is designed to ensure you don’t get a job. You’ll be placed in a group of four to six people and will be typically asked to work out a solution to a particular problem which you’ll then present to a group of MDs. But the technical quality of your answer isn’t really what you need to worry about. Banks will use the group exercise to assess your communication and teamworking skills and MDs will be eavesdropping on your group throughout the discussions. “The group activity allow us to assess your teamwork spirit and how you distinguish yourself from the rest. For example, a particular candidate who takes on the role as a leader in the team while still accomplishing the task together,” says Hiizumi from Barclays.

Just don’t dominate your peers

The trick to doing well in a group exercise is to avoid dominating the conversion without being a wall flower. “They want to see how you interact with others and how you behave in a non-interview setting,” says graduate career coach Alex Wong. “It’s about how to drive the conversation forward despite conflicting ideas, and how to express yourself in a competitive environment,” he adds. Be sure to come across as thoughtful and analytical rather than rash and domineering.

Expect this tricky follow-up to question

Even if you got through the teamworking task without being too passive or too aggressive, you face an additional related challenge, says Wong. Most banks will follow up with an individual interview in which you’ll be asked how you feel you did during the group assignment. Try to be realistic in your answer – the interviewer is trying to assess how well you know and can articulate your own strengthes and weaknesses, says Wong.

Be decisive during the case study

The ‘case study’ section is arguably the most intimidating part of the whole assessment centre. You’ll be given a problem (and related documents) appropriate for the division you’re applying to. You’ll then be given a limited timeframe in which to construct a cohesive argument and a clear conclusion that you then present to a panel of MDs ready to rip your arguments to sheds. The key to success is to not simply regurgitate the information back to the MDs and to develop a comparatively simple argument that you can present in time and defend with confidence. “Some case studies are division-specific – M&A ones test your M&A analysis skills, for example. But all of them are about testing your logical thought process and how you communicate it,” says Wong. Hiizumi adds: “Like interviews, case studies are conducted on an individual basis and give us a good opportunity to assess on different criteria such as how quickly you can think on the spot and provide solutions/answers when faced with challenging questions.”

Get set for numeracy and written tests during the assessment centre

It varies from firm to firm, but there are a variety of other techniques that banks use to determine whether you’re up to scratch. You may well face numerical tests, although these are likely to be a comparatively straight forward part of the day for those studying numerate degrees – percentage calculations and graph reading will abound. A written assignment – from a short email to a multi-page report – could also be on the cards in order to test your written communication skills. For example, you could be asked to come up with a compelling case for acquiring a particular company, based on information provided by the bank. It’s advisable to introduce your argument, give up to four reasons to support your case, and reach a firm conclusion. Your spelling and grammar should be faultless.

It’s all just one big pressure cooker

While having outstanding communication and numeracy skills is of course crucial, you won’t just face technical challenges at an assessment centre. Banks will be looking at how well you handle the relentless pressure of the day (don’t expect any leisurely lunch breaks) as a proxy to how well you’ll cope with the demands of an actual investment banking job, says Wong. Above all, stay calm from start to end of the assessment centre. The brain-teasing questions banks will throw at you, for example, are designed both to make you think on your feet and to make sure you don’t fold under pressure.

Ask an analyst

Want a quick way of find out exactly what it takes to ace an assessment centre at a particular division of a particular bank? Contact current analysts there who’ve recently gone through it all. “Banks actually rarely change the format of their assessment centres – it would be a bureaucratic nightmare,” says Wong. “So definitely try to find out what happened in recent years.”

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