By Gill Sharp
Applying for a job used to be straightforward: a single interview (or certainly no more than a brace) and that was it. But nowadays you are likely to face a longer, more drawn out process involving any or all of the following: Psychometric tests; personality tests; group discussions; group exercises; presentations; written reports or case studies, e-tray exercises.
It's exhausting just to contemplate the list - especially when you consider that an interview or two is also added to the mix. Thankfully, we have not yet adopted graphology as a further selection method, unlike some countries in Europe where this process has been in use for a while.
Why the encroachment of all these new techniques? Research has revealed that the traditional interview is an unreliable indicator of whether a person will "fit" the job. HR experts also maintain that this 360 degree approach is actually fairer than a stand alone 45 minute interview: it assesses a range of skills and allows the candidate to compensate for weaknesses in one area by excelling in another. Let's look at each component.
Personality and psychometric tests: shake off the shackles of academia - these are not exams that you can pass or fail. Personality tests look at attitudes and approach to work. Some candidates try to bend their responses to mesh with what they think the recruiters want. This could be a risky strategy: firstly, how do you know what they are looking for? Secondly, you are up against the experts. The questions are framed according to criteria set by occupational psychologists and marked by professionally trained staff who will quickly be able to tell if you have subverted your answers. Tip: Be yourself
Psychometric tests identify particular skills - typically ability with words or figures, although diagrammatic reasoning also measures spatial awareness, logic and IT aptitude. Candidates are evaluated against "norm" groups of their peers. It's the sheer unfamiliarity of these tests that often phases people and leads to under performance. Avert this by doing on-line dummy runs beforehand. http://www.kent.ac.uk/careers/psychotests.htm is just one of many good websites to use, but if you're more at home with the printed page there are plenty of books on the subject. You could do worse than sharpen your skills by spending 20 minutes each day on the sort of puzzles you find in every newspaper - Sudoku, brain teasers et al. Tip: Practice makes perfect
Group activities: Team work and communication are the focus, but leadership and creative thinking may also sneak into the equation. What can go awry? Two or more members of the group may clash over an issue. Alternatively, the group (or part thereof) may decide on an over ambitious approach to the task in hand; this can turn a clear brief into a plan to invade a small country. In both cases your role is to provide the sweet voice of reason. Another likely scenario is various group members being impossibly polite to each other in an "After you Claude" "No, what do you think, Cecil?" way. In this instance, try to move the discussion along before it stagnates under a welter of fake goodwill.
You may have to lead a session - some selection exercises involve a series of short discussions with a rotating chairperson. Use your role to make sure that the discussion actually addresses the set topic, progresses at a fair lick, no-one dominates and even shrinking violets are given a chance to contribute.
In any of these situations, if you say nothing you will come away with nothing as there will be no evidence on which to score you. For many, the biggest barrier is how to make an opening comment. Tactics that work include: offering to take notes (which also gives you a great chance to summarise at strategic intervals); seeking clarification on unclear points; assertively phrased comments such as "We could look at this from another angle", or even just offering a reminder of the time ticking past. Suggesting techniques such as brainstorming is a further ploy - and in that context it is less likely to jar if you say something naïve or off the wall. Tip: Play to your strengths
Presentations: This can be a stumbling block for many candidates. Typical errors include talking too fast, either due to nerves or because you are trying to cram in too much information. The latter can manifest itself in the shape of an overcrowded, busy and barely intelligible PowerPoint show. Make a conscious effort to slow down and tailor both subject matter and visual aids to the time allowed. Limiting the number of slides and using concise bullet points will work as an aide memoire for you without overwhelming the audience. Tip: KISS (keep it short and simple)
Reports and case studies: Often done under tight time constraints, these are all about the extrapolation, analysis and synopsis of information from lengthier sources. The lost art of précis writing comes in handy here, as can the ability to break down material into discrete topics. It is wise to note the main points and add key words/descriptors at the end of each paragraph or page. This will make it much easier to see the various threads emerging and to pull them together when you've been through the material in its entirety. Tip: look at the details and the bigger picture
E-tray Exercise - In this electronic version of that old favourite, the In Tray Exercise, you are presented with a wealth of documents and demands which require organisation and streamlining. Take time going through the whole caboodle and then think strategically - what must you deliver, what could you discard, what should be delegated? Decide how pressing and how significant each item is. Recruiters are nothing if not sneaky - the key thing may be in the detail, so watch out for dates, throwaway comments and scribbled notes. Tip: if it's urgent AND important it goes to the top of the pile.