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Employer application, selection and assessment processes: What to expect

At some point during your time at University you are likely to start applying to potential employers – either for a bursary, vacation employment, an internship or a permanent position as you approach the completion of your studies.  Knowing what to expect and ensuring that you are adequately prepared for each step of the application and selection process will increase your chances of success.

The figure, below, represents what an application and selection process might look like – not all will be identical, but most will follow a similar process.  This article will guide you through each stage of the process, help you to understand what to expect and share tips on how to do your best.

Stage One: On Line Application

Most employers will require you to complete an on-line application.  The length of the form, itself, will vary, as will the amount of detail you are asked to provide.  Make sure you allow enough time to fill the form in correctly.

In some cases, applying might be as easy as uploading your LinkedIn Profile so make sure you have one and that it is up-to-date.  LinkedIn have put together a resource centre specifically targeted at assisting students with using LinkedIn – to access the resource centre, click here.  Some employers will ask you to provide a CV.   It is advisable keep a concise, up-to-date CV and there are plenty of on-line resources to assist with layout and content.

According to the South African Graduate Employer’s Association (SAGEA) 2018 research among 91 of South Africa’s top graduate employers, the median number of applications received is 59 per vacancy.  In other words, your application is competing with at least 58 others so think carefully about how you can differentiate yourself and stand out.

As part of their screening process, many employers will include what we commonly refer to as knock-out-questions.  The purpose of these questions is to ensure that any applicants who are not eligible for the vacancy get screened out early.

Stage Two: Assessment and/or Selection Interview

Either as part of the online application process or once you have completed an online application you may be required to complete an online assessment.  This will likely take the form of a work-oriented personality questionnaire, a verbal or numerical reasoning test or it may be a gamified assessment.

The purpose of any assessment will be to evaluate certain attitudes, personality traits, thought patterns, decision-making processes, reasoning abilities, problem-solving approaches, language skills or numerical proficiency and accuracy.

The most salient advice for completing an assessment is as follows:

  • Make sure you are completing the assessment at a time when you are focused, fresh and well-rested and that you have enough time and data available if completing online.
  • There will usually be 1-2 practice examples that you will complete prior to doing the actual assessment – make sure you have read the instructions carefully and know what is expected.
  • If there is a time limit imposed, balance speed with accuracy!
  • According to our SAGEA research, up to 72% of Employers use a personality assessment as part of their selection process. When completing a personality assessment, it is important to be yourself and go with your first instinct in terms of your answer choice.

If your application is successful beyond this point you are more than likely to be invited to a screening interview which will be conducted via one of three possible formats, as follows:

  • A telephonic screening interview
  • A digital interview (can be done on a smart device – employers will upload pre-recorded questions and applicants then record their responses at a time that suits them).
  • A face-to-face interview (this could take place on campus, at the employer’s premises or may be scheduled online using Skype)

Screening interviews will usually require you to elaborate on the information contained in your application and/or CV and will explore your achievements, experience and skills in greater depth.  A few pointers are as follows:

  • Do your homework about the organisation you are applying to – visit the company’s website and read up about the organisation.
  • Give some thought to the type of questions you might be asked – and how you would answer these.
  • Pay attention to your personal appearance and dress code for the interview – your appearance will make an impression on the interviewer/company.
  • If you are asked a difficult question, take some time to think about your answer – it is better to give a considered response than to shoot from the hip!
  • Be your authentic self in the interview.

Stage Three: Assessment Centres

Some employers will ask you to attend an Assessment Centre as part of their selection process, though you are more likely to encounter this type of scenario when you are applying for a permanent position.

An assessment centre is a technique consisting of multiple simulation exercises that reproduce what you are typically likely to encounter on-the-job. These simulation exercises are observed and scored by multiple, different assessors, resulting in a multifaceted and rigorous approach that is an accurate predictor of a candidate’s likely success in a job. A typical Assessment Centre will consist of at least two simulation exercises which are likely to be any of the following:

  • An in-basket exercise: this exercise looks like a typical day’s email inbox and you will be required to prioritise and address many issues/problems in writing.
  • A role-play exercise: this exercise takes the form of a meeting with another person (usually an assessor). There are a few possible scenarios, such as dealing with a customer complaint or working with a colleague to decide on a project for the organisation. You will usually be given the scenario beforehand, allowed time to prepare and then you will have an interactive meeting with the customer/colleague/staff member (who is the assessor).
  • A group exercise: in this exercise you and your fellow candidates are given a tough problem or situation to deal with. You may be asked to prepare individually, or as a team and would then have an interactive meeting with the other candidates which would be observed by the assessor/s.
  • A presentation – you may be given a topic and asked to prepare and deliver a presentation.
  • A panel interview – many assessment centres will include a final interview with a panel of assessors. Often the panel will consist of a team of people you would typically interact with if you are employed – this saves time and allows for consensus in selecting the most suitable candidate as well as reducing the chance of what is known as “interviewer bias”.

At this point, you are probably thinking that an assessment centre sounds intimidating!  It is, however, a holistic way of looking at your skills – you will have strengths in some areas and others might need some development.  Assessors are interested in the whole package and will make decisions based on where your strengths and development areas lie.  An Assessment Centre should be a learning experience for you.  Here are some tips to help you do your best:

  • Make sure you are well rested and that you schedule an appointment at a time that works for you.
  • Ensure that you have accurate directions and that you get to the assessment centre at least half an hour early.
  • Give careful thought to dress code and ensure that you look neat and presentable.
  • Most of the exercises you encounter at an assessment centre will be observed by one or more assessors. It is very important to be as natural and authentic as possible in your behaviour and interactions with the assessors.
  • When participating in group activities, ensure that all candidates are included and have an opportunity to share their input.
  • If you encounter a panel interview, ensure that you make eye-contact with all the interviewers and that you address everyone on the panel equally.
  • An assessment is not meant to be easy; it is meant to be a little uncomfortable and challenging but it is also a valuable learning experience for you and will highlight your strengths and development needs.
  • If there is something you know you are not good at – or if asked a question you don’t know how to answer – admit to it and own it!

Stage Four: Final Interview

If the process you have gone through does not include an assessment centre, you may be asked to attend a final interview which could be one-on-one or might be a panel interview.

What outcomes should you expect?

As a young graduate you are likely to experience varying degrees of feedback – ranging from no feedback at all to detailed assessment feedback. It all depends on the organisation, their assessment policy and what stage of the selection process you reach.  Most organisations will send unsuccessful candidates a regret letter via email, while other organisations will only inform successful candidates of the outcome.

If you have completed an assessment for which you have not received feedback you are entitled to request this – if you do choose to do so, it is recommended that you request feedback in a respectful manner, indicating why you are interested in the feedback and how it might contribute to your future development.

In conclusion, employers will use different selection processes and tools based on their needs and requirements – their main objective is to use scientifically valid and reliable assessments and assessment centres as the most objective way of making accurate and fair employment decisions.  As an applicant, your objective is to find out more about the company and job you are interested in pursuing and, ultimately, to be confident that they will be right for you.


Input for this article was provided by interviewing four professionals who work in the area of assessment:  Karen Harmse and Lize Greeff of Joint Prosperity, Kevin Distiller of Odyssey Management and Anne Buckett of Precision Assessment Centre Solutions.  We thank them for their time and valued input.

Camilla Pennington
Project Manager
South African Graduate Employers Association

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Are you studying maths, statistics, physics, economics, engineering or computer science in South Africa? Do you want to learn more about what further study, funding, work experience or career opportunities are available to you? Register with Quantify Your Future now to receive news and updates on the latest studies and careers news!