Assessment centres are increasingly common in the NHS particularly when recruiting nurses. They are also used in cases when there are a large number of applicants – such as for graduate or management schemes, overseas recruitment drives or where there has been a specific recruitment campaign for a type of role. It means employers can make multiple job offers on the same day.
NHS Employers research shows 70 per cent of trusts use NHS assessment centres.
Assessment centres may seem overwhelming and scary but in fact they are considered a much fairer system of assessing candidates than a simple interview. It gives candidates more time and opportunity to overcome nerves, demonstrate competence and make an impression. It can also give candidates a more realistic experience of the future job demands.
What is an NHS assessment centre?
An assessment centre will usually be set up on-site, in a trust, or in a hired space such as a hotel room or venue. Since COVID-19 a few may still use an online format or a hybrid format where some exercises are completed online and some in person. Assessment centres are often held outside working hours to help improve candidate attendance.
Assessors are usually HR managers and clinical or supervising managers.
The range of activities that might be encountered is very broad (see ‘on the day) however candidates will usually face only two or three of these on the day with frequent breaks.
The number of candidates in a session can range anywhere from 15 to 50, however the Division of Occupational Psychology suggests an assessor to candidate ratio of 1:3. Online numbers are usually much lower.
Conversion rates tend to be high. Feedback is often given to unsuccessful candidates on the day to help them improve and prepare for any future NHS centre assessments.
Top tips when preparing for an assessment centre
- Research - Reread the job description and requirements as this is what you will be assessed against. It should give you clues as to what questions and activities might be to help you pass an NHS interview. Read your potential employer’s website carefully. Take note of any statements, mention of workplace culture, NHS values and expectations of staff. Read strategy documents on health planning. This will help you understand the organisation, its aims and the local health challenges such as high rates of poverty, mental health or suicide. Look also at how the organisation works with other stakeholders or agencies as this can vary from area to area. Keep up to date with current issues by reading sector journals.
- Check - If something is unclear from the information provided to you make sure you ask the recruitment team to clarify before turning up on the day. If you have a disability that may affect your performance let the employer know at least a week in advance so they have time to make any reasonable adjustments. Check if you need to take any certifications and key identification documents with you (if you forget these you may not be allowed to take part).
- Planning - Plan your outfit in advance and ensure it is clean, smart, professional and practical. Plan your journey in advance and aim to arrive with plenty of time to spare. Factor in not just potential traffic problems, such as delayed trains or lack of parking, but also that hospitals can be confusing to navigate and temporary assessment centres may not be well signposted. Have an early night, eat proper meals and drink plenty of water. If you are tired, hungry or thirsty it can increase cortisol/stress levels in your body which will exacerbate nerves or trigger mind blocks on the day.
- Reflect and rehearse - Re-read your CV and application. You may be asked questions on it not just during an interview but during informal conversations at breaks. Remember you are being assessed at all times. Reflect on why you want the job. What appeals to you about the work or the organisation? What do you hope to learn or achieve in the role? What strengths do you bring to the role as a practitioner? Rehearse either with a friend, in front of a mirror or on a fake Zoom/Teams call. Go through questions you think you might be asked and also consider what questions to ask at the end of your interview to show knowledge and interest. This will help you be more articulate on the day.
What to expect on the day at an NHS assessment centre
So, how long is an NHS interview? An assessment will last anything between 3-5 hours. A typical structure will include an opportunity to meet the assessors and other candidates as well as an introductory presentation from one of the panel.
The types of activities you might be faced with can be broad and will vary from employer to employer. Some may be used as screening exercises (i.e. candidates cannot progress unless they complete and pass the numeracy or literacy assessments for example).
The range of tasks used in assessment centres can include:
- Group exercises. In a small group you will be asked to discuss a topic or resolve a problem. This might be an ethical dilemma or an exercise requiring a group decision. Employers are testing communication skills, how you work with others and leadership skills. Be mindful of letting everyone contribute and ensure you contribute yourself. Consider your body language and if you are taking a positive and solution focused approach to the task.
- Written scenario/situational judgement test. These tests allow you to show professional knowledge via competency based questions. You may be given a series of questions to answer or a care planning exercise to undertake.
- Practical tests/role plays/simulation assessment exercises. You may be given a professional or clinical scenario with the role of patients/clients played either by panel members, an actor or (occasionally) using virtual reality headsets. This tests your responses under pressure.
- In-tray activities. These are paper-based simulations designed to assess your organisation and prioritisation skills. It might include juggling phone calls, emails, complaints and or competing demands from a range of partners.
- Numeracy tests. Usually drug calculations, there is a higher failure rate for these tests than any other, so it is worth practising beforehand.
- Literacy tests. Could include report writing or describing the steps in a procedure or process. This is to test grammar, spelling, written communication and language as well as clinical understanding.
- Presentations. Topics will usually be given in advance of the assessment day with time to prepare. They might include current issues within the sector or strategic approaches to broad, population health challenges.
- Psychometric tests. Can include aptitude and ability tests and/or personality questionnaires. Employers are often looking for certain values and attitudes (ie compassion, empathy, adaptability) or personality types that will balance an existing team and complement it.
- Interviews. This will either be with one of the assessors or facing the full panel of assessors. Questions will usually look to give assessors more information about your previous experience, knowledge and skills and/or the way you approach tasks and challenges.
What to expect from online assessment centres
Most online assessment centres are designed to replicate an in-person version.
Many of the activities will be the same. Role play activities may be done using online software or as verbal scenarios where you are expected to talk through the steps you would take.
The most important difference is dealing with the tech side. Ensure you are familiar with the technology being used and test it beforehand along with any other devices you might be using such as headphones, microphones and wifi connections.
Check to see if you need to register in advance or if there are any codes or passwords required to access areas online. Ensure you have these to hand on the day.
Make sure you are in a quiet place where you won’t be interrupted and can relax and concentrate. You are likely to be given regular breaks – use them to relax and prepare for the next stage rather than trying to answer emails or complete other work.
What are assessment centre assessors looking for?
Assessors are trying to gain an insight into how you might perform in a role, under pressure and follow a defined recruitment process. They will be looking for evidence of key qualities and checking you possess the fundamental skills and knowledge required for the job.
Results are usually collated using a predetermined scoring system or criteria to prevent bias and decisions are made based on reaching a minimum score or a pass/fail. Final decisions often rest with nursing or clinical managers as they will be the supervising manager for the post.
Potential recruits are being assessed as soon as they walk through the front door in areas such as punctuality, organisational skills, professionalism and general approach to tasks.
It is best not to try and second-guess what assessors are looking for but focus on completing the tasks to the best of your ability. Listen carefully to instructions and ask if you are unsure of anything.
When answering questions, always try to provide examples from previous experience. Keep answers precise and concise but not so brief the interviewer has to prompt you for further details. Answer questions directly and don’t get side-tracked.
Try to relax and make connections with other attendees. Despite being your competition they may also be your future work colleagues and this could be a great opportunity to begin relationship building.
- Joanna Cook, CPsychol, Professional Psychology Ltd. Volume recruitment in the NHS: themes and recommendations. Report commissioned by NHS Employers https://allcatsrgrey.org.uk/wp/download/management/human_resources/Volume-Recruitment-in-the-NHS.pdf
- Interview skills for nurses and healthcare professionals: assessment centres, Royal College of Nursing online https://www.rcn.org.uk/professional-development/your-career/interviews/assessment-centres
- NHS Health Careers. Assessment Centres. https://www.healthcareers.nhs.uk/career-planning/study-and-training/considering-or-university/support-university/your-first-job-after-university/assessment-centres
- Rachel Swain, Editorial manager, Prospects. Career advice: assessment centres. https://www.prospects.ac.uk/careers-advice/interview-tips/assessment-centres
- North Bristol NHS Trust. Application and recruitment process: interview or assessment centre. https://www.nbt.nhs.uk/careers/application-process/interview-or-assessment-centre
- University College London NHS Foundation Trust. Nurse assessment process. https://www.uclh.nhs.uk/work-with-us/recruitment-process/nurse-assessment-process