58 Little Big Details About The EPSO Assessment Centre

Do you know what the recommended AC dress code is? Is it better to be the first to talk at group exercise? Should you speak about your personal life in the structured interview?

These are just a few examples of the questions András got whilst and after the Assessment Centre webinar last week. If you are looking for validation, support or you have absolutely no idea how the Assessment Centre works, this is the perfect supplement collection to every official brochure.

According to the Notice of Competition for Secretaries, the AC has 4 parts:

  • processing MS Word & Excel documents
  • test for drafting skills
  • in-tray exercise and
  • structured interview

What about group exercise or oral presentation ?

Indeed, the recently created SC category (secretaries) does not have group exercise or oral presentation given that the competencies and skills that EPSO requires from candidates do not require the use of these two exercises.

Are leadership skills also tested in AD5 competitions?

Yes, leadership is only tested in Administrator (AD) competitions, at all levels (AD5, AD7 etc.). It is not tested for Assistant (AST) or Secretary (SC) exams.

There is a 'structured interview based on the talent screener' listed for the Digital Forensics competition. Do you know how such an interview looks like or what questions typically get covered? Do they ask knowledge questions instead of competency questions?

Yes, indeed - this is a knowledge-based interview which is quite different from every other test in the Assessment Centre as it does not focus on skills & competencies but on your professional knowledge. This is usually conducted on the basis of the ‘talent screener’ or if you didn’t have to fill in such a questionnaire, it still covers questions in your specific field (e.g. digital forensics).It is completely independent and different from the classic, competency based structured interview. To best prepare for this exam, you should revise the textbooks and latest developments of your profession, and also your own CV and talent screener but from a purely ‘task’ and ‘knowledge’ perspective.

Regarding the oral presentation at the Lawyer-Linguist exam: do they test specific knowledge as well? Will there be legal questions?

Yes, the lawyer linguist exams are quite special in this respect as the oral presentation there often covers a legal issue and tests your knowledge of the legal system of the country/countries on the basis of the competition. For instance, if your LL exam is in Spanish, you can expect questions about Spanish law (civil, criminal, administrative etc.), especially focusing on the legal terminology and concepts, less on the case law itself. EPSO states in the Notice of Competition that the oral presentation is used to “assess both your specific and general competencies”, by which they mean the 8 general competencies and your knowledge in the field (somewhat confusingly referred to as ‘specific competency’).

Could you please give us some examples to get points at each competency?

As discussed in the webinar, your main point of reference is the list of positive and negative indicators. The way you formulate your answer in the Structured Interview, bearing in mind what elements you need emphasize in your ‘story’, will yield positive points for you. Also, in the group exercise you will score better if you understand what is expected of you to be evaluated positively when ‘working with others’, ie by asking questions from the group members, respecting and not interrupting others, regularly intervening etc. At the oral presentation, staying calm and formulating a confident answer even when you are uncertain will help you score better in the resilience competency. More details were discussed in the webinar but feel free to let us know if you need more examples.

Is job-specific knowledge tested in an actual job interview after getting onto the list?

Indeed, the job-specific knowledge and the relevant work experience in your CV is discussed in the actual recruitment interview, after you have succeeded in the EPSO competition and you are on the reserve list. On the other hand, your knowledge of the specific field of the competition is tested as the ‘specific interview’, which (as mentioned above) is different from the classic structured interview focusing on your general competencies.

What exactly is an e-tray exercise?

It is an online simulation where you need to process a number of emails and select, in a multiple choice test format, what is the best and worst course of action to follow. You can find a free e-tray exercise demo at this link

I will attend the „Assistants in the building sector” Assessment Centre, can you tell me more about these interviews and the competencies they relate to?

The best is to check your Notice of Competition which lists the competencies that will be tested, and the kind of tests you need to take. You can then apply the tips&tricks we have discussed in the webinar, and of course happy to provide additional information via email if needed.

Does EPSO test EU knowledge at Secretary interviews?

No, it does not. You may nevertheless wish to revise your EU knowledge as it comes in handy in an indirect manner, but you will not have multiple choice tests or any other knowledge based test about the EU. You can find our free EU e-learning courses here.

Do you have e-tray exercises for SC1 on your website?

Yes, see the demo link above.

Does EPSO test domain based knowledge at the second interview?

Yes, for specialist exams - see detailed answer above.

Is the second interview, the knowledge or domain based also based on behavioral question or plain knowledge?

It is based purely on knowledge.

Is it allowed to attend the Assessment Centre as a listener?

Unfortunately, it’s not possible as it would give unfair advantage to those who are not participating there but planning to do so at a later stage. On the other hand, if you passed a pre-selection exam or you were invited to the AC based on your talent screener, going through the experience is very helpful even if you don’t pass the first time as it gives you the opportunity to learn first hand how the Assessment Center works.

Is there a methodology to answer the e-tray exercise? Isn’t it subjective?

The exercise is developed on the basis of a strict methodology, and since it is a multiple choice test, the subjectivity of the evaluation is quite minimal. In terms of what’s the best way to proceed, you should focus on the prioritization angle, ie making sure all that is required to be done is taken care of in time, you exercise a good value judgment about what is more important (organizational hierarchy, request from the boss, respecting timelines etc.). This should help in answering the questions the appropriate manner, and of course, practicing is the best way to familiarize yourself with the kind of questions you can expect, and you’ll see in the feedback what works best.

About the competencies scores... Is there a shape of the 8 competencies circle for each post offered?

No, there is no weighing of the competencies for each competition, ie regardless if you are sitting an exam for building management or lawyer-linguists, the same 7 (or 8, ie leadership for AD competitions) will be tested and each will be weighed the same way. On the other hand, the domain specific knowledge is often weighed at 55% and the (7 or 8) general competencies, as a single block, are at 45%, or sometimes even 70% vs 30%.

Can you give us a real example question asked by an assessor to evaluate a competency? Can you also give us examples for bad and good answers?

In the slides you will see a number of sample questions for the structured interview, and in the webinar we also covered some sample answers and analyzed why they worked well or what could have been improved.

What can I do if I feel weak on a competency?

Make sure to check the positive and negative indicators, ie what should you demonstrate in that given competency as a strength. If it is, for example, prioritising and organizing, then you need to look into online resources and self-help books on how can you improve that specific skill. The same goes for e.g. communication or leadership - as long as you understand what EPSO means by that given competency (which may be different from what you intuitively think that competency mean, that’s why you should also read the official definition of the competency as shown on EPSO’s website and also included in the webinar slides for reference), you should be able to find ways to improve your skills in that field.

What’s the recommended dress code for the AC?

Business, elegant attire.

I have French as second language at my competition. Will it be tested during the structured interview?

No, language skills per se are not tested in the AC. They are of course necessary for you to be able to express yourself at such a level that would improve your chances of success, but your grammar, vocabulary etc. are not tested as a stand-alone category.

How many candidates participate at AC in each group?

Candidates are usually grouped in teams of 6 so they can all be together for the group exercise, but the individual daily schedules vary for each person. Accordingly, you may start with the structured interview at 11am, then have the oral presentation (if your competition includes one) at 12.30 and the group exercise at 4pm.

Are the AC assessors also the members of the selection board?

Yes, the assessors are the members of the selection board. Sometimes, usually for the case study, they can have other EU officials evaluate the case study without being members of the selection board, but for the in-person exams it’s only the selection board members who evaluate you.

How long is the structured interview?

As mentioned in the webinar, it is 40 minutes for generalist competitions, and usually 50-60 minutes for specialists (given that for the latter EPSO usually tests 5 or 6 competencies instead of 4, due to the fact that there is no oral presentation).

What should I answer to „What are your strengths and weaknesses?”-kind of questions? You will not face such questions, luckily :-) These questions are not directly related to a competency, which therefore makes them unsuitable for a structured interview. All questions in the structured interview are related to a specific competency.

How much time do you have to answer a question in the structured interview?

Usually 1-2 minutes, but assessors often rush and don’t leave more than a minute for your to answer. Therefore it’s important that you don’t get lost in the external details (the context) but focus on your personal contribution to the situation you describe, including your views, emotions and motivation, before time runs out.

Is it a bad thing if an assessor interrupts my answer? Does it mean less points?

No, it doesn’t mean you lose any point - they can interrupt you for various reasons, both good and bad, ie you didn’t focus your answer the way they expected or they already heard what they were looking for… so in either case, just follow their lead.

Do we have to talk about professional experience only and not about private life such as, e.g. joining a choir as a singer?

As long as your private example is relevant, you may you use it (e.g. for your above example, it may be a good one for ‘learning and development’). Generally, though, try to focus on professional examples.

In what way the knowledge of other languages which we could claim in the initial questionnaire will be verified?

It will not be verified unless it is listed in the Notice of Competition. Optional language knowledge enriches your profile and can be helpful for quicker recruitment after you passed the competition and you are on the reserve list, but it doesn’t count towards your final score in the competition itself.

I will have a structured interview where field-specific knowledge and competencies will be tested. How can I prepare for this?

You should first of all revise the Notice of Competition’s Annex in which your future responsibilities are listed, along with the questions you were asked in the talent screener (if you had one). Also, make sure you check the relevant European Commission DGs’ website and their annual report to get a better understanding of their policy priorities and terminology they use, along with key projects they may be interested in. Finally, you can of course always revise your industry-specific textbooks and relevant websites to refresh your knowledge in the given field.

I do not think that I have many weak points. But I have noticed that when interviewed in the EU I was always asked: What is your weak point or what is a defect of yours. What would be the best way to answer this?

This question should not be asked in an Assessment Centre but it can of course easily come up in a job interview once you are on the reserve list or if you are being interviewed for a temporary job that did not require EPSO exam before. The answer would be either to choose a ‘false’ weakness (“I’m too detail oriented and a workaholic”) or to pick a real weakness which is nevertheless not a big deal, e.g. “I tend to accept too many assignments and it causes some extra work for me”. Also, make sure to add what you are doing to improve this weakness already, which will make it look much better than simply stating something negative.

Is the group exercise an oral or written exercise?

It is purely an oral exercise (with written background materials) and you are not expected to submit anything in writing. On the other hand, I do very much recommend that you take notes during the exercise so you can refer back to what others have said, but that’s a technique and not a formal part of the exercise.

How can I facilitate the debate in the group exercise?

You can summarize what each team member has said, ie their respective position on the matter at hand, you can ask questions from everyone, you can provide your own input and request feedback, and you can try to summarize where the common points are so you can come up with a compromise proposal.

How do I criticize solutions suggested by others constructively?

By acting like a good diplomat: giving credit to the person, always focusing on the issue instead of the person who said it, wrapping it in a bit of euphemism (‘this idea may have a small challenge, which is...’) and building its strong points into a new proposal that you come up with (‘so based on what you suggested, maybe we could...’). On a lighter note, you may want to check this fun list of ‘What British people say vs what they mean’.

In the group exercise, how can I incorporate arguments from others when bringing in new proposals?Can you give me an example?

“You mentioned that we should go for option 2 but with a 10-year phasing-in period. I think that’s a very good approach, at the same time, the ten year period may be too long. I think we should take your idea and propose a 3-year timeline, so it will make both ends meet and it sounds more realistic as well.Would you agree with this?”

If I understand everything in a group discussion, what questions can I ask to demonstrate that I am capable to learn and develop?

Understanding the topic at hand is just part of the task, you should aim to find out what others think about it. This makes it very easy to ask them questions, to clarify their position and make sure you double-check what they mean (“Do I understand correctly that you meant to…”?).

Is there a group exercise for secretaries too?

For the SC exams, currently there is none but make sure to check it for your specific exam, based on what is written in the Notice of Competition.

In the group exercise briefing, will we know which of the information is our unique information?

Yes, this is always indicated in the background document.

Do we all get the same score at the end? Is it possible that everyone gets high score?

Certainly not the same scores as the aim of the exercises is to evaluate your performance. Remember that you don’t get scores per exercise (e.g. group exercise or structured interview) but the scoring is done on the basis of the competencies, each of which is tested by two exercises, as discussed in the webinar.

Analysis and problem solving will be included in my group exercise. How can I get points in that competency?

They can evaluate that on the basis of your ability to understand the background file, notice minor details and come up with realistic, feasible ideas. So it is partly your ability to describe the problem and various paths to resolve it, and critically (but politely!) challenge what other team members propose to do.

How important is specialist knowledge in the group exercise?

Not important - it is not tested there. A general understanding of how the EU works is helpful and useful, but the group exercise is not about your specific knowledge in the competition’s field.

Will someone chair the discussion in the group exercise. Will somebody else be the scribe?

No, all of you are equal and have equal and have no role to play other than what is described as a situation in the background document you are given (e.g. you have a team meeting at the European Court of Auditors to discuss XYZ). Nobody should be appointed to be the scribe and all of you should work as a team - which does not prevent you from gently trying to moderate the discussion, all the while respecting everyone’s role and input.

Will non-candidates participate during the group exercise?

While in non-EPSO assessment centres this may happen, in the case of the EPSO AC only the participants are in the room and the assessors are only there to observe you but they have input or role to play.

If nobody starts the discussion, should I start or is it too risky?

As long as you know what you want to say and achieve with your input (e.g. proposing to the group how you should allocate your time or what the task is and what’s the next step etc.), then it’s perfectly fine to kick off the discussion.

In the group exercise, is it better to be the first or not?

As mentioned above, you need to have a good idea what you want to propose if you are the first to speak. Don’t just jump in for the sake of being the first as it can backfire if not thought through properly.

In the group exercise, do they take back the file after the first 10 minutes?

You indeed have 10 minutes to read the file before the discussion starts, but you can keep it in front of you throughout the exercise and use it as well. Don’t get buried in the documents, however, and make sure you participate in the discussion on a regular basis.

10 minutes to read the briefing may not be enough to do that, right? And 40 minutes for the exercise is always enough?

While 10 minutes to read the file is very short, it does give you enough information to get the discussion started. You can then ask questions from other members about their understanding of certain issues, which also helps you score well on many competencies. The 40 minutes for the discussion is usually enough for a meaningful exchange even if it doesn’t result in a conclusion (which may nevertheless happen, even before the time is up, in which case you may exceptionally turn to the assessors and ask them what you should do). As mentioned: your score does not depend on whether or not you reached an agreement, it is the process and your personal input that matters.

In the group exercise, is it a good idea to encourage a shy participant to speak more?

Yes, absolutely - as long as that person is ready to speak when you try to integrate him or her into the discussion, ie. make sure you choose the right moment for that and you don’t ask a very specific or challenging question in your effort to integrate the shy participant.

Candidates invited to the AC have usually a wide previous work experience in EU institutions?

It really depends - some candidates are already temporary agents, others are coming from the private sector, so there is quite a variation and no general rule applies. The assessors, on the other hand, are all EU officials, so they are by definition familiar with how the institutions work.

Do you have some video of a group exercise or a competency based interview?

Yes, the links are included in the webinar follow-up materials.

How can I use a limited amount of preparation time to the best effect? Is there an „ideal timetable” for the preparation phase? How can I train my memory to remember the small details? Can you recommend training methods?

Speed reading could be one option (see for instance here) and always start a task with a rough idea how you’ll allocate the time. E.g. 10% to read the instructions, 40% to scan the background documents, 40% to take notes and 10% to revise or write a few specific bullets or questions) - no matter how much time you have in total.

I feel weak at the verbal reasoning test. What can I do to improve and get at least 10 points? It is eliminatory, and doesn’t count.

We have several hundred practice tests, dozens of free demo tests and free packages, and a few e-books on methodology as well - make sure to check these out on our website.

Is it possible to get an assessor who is from the same country as me?

It is of course a possibility given the fact that assessors are coming from the 28 EU member states, but all assessors have been trained and under obligation to be as unbiased and objective in their evaluation as possible, regardless of such external factors.

Do you have to speak English, German or French as a bilingual person?

Certainly not - you are expected to master the language of your competition well but not as a native person.

Do you need a sophisticated and really high English level to do the oral presentation properly?

As mentioned before, it is of course helpful and important that you can express yourself fluently and easily even under stress during the exam.At the same time, your vocabulary or grammar is not evaluated as such, they are one of the many factors of the communication competency.

Please explain further on how to respond well to criticism in the oral presentation.

If, in the Q&A part of the oral presentation your views are challenged, you can always start by saying “Thank you for your question and I understand you have doubts about the approach I am proposing. Indeed, one issue that comes up is XYZ, but there is a valid explanation for that: XYZ.” This way you acknowledge that your position has just been challenged but you remain calm and confident about why your ideas hold true.

Can you please provide us some information about practical test assessing drafting skills and e-tray exercise for secretaries?

The drafting skills test usually requires you to write a letter or a short essay about a very light topic (your holiday, why you like biking etc.) as the aim is to test your written communication skills instead of your knowledge of a specific policy issue. Regarding the e-tray exercise, please see my comments above.

You mentioned many negative examples. Can you suggest strong positive attitudes you have to show and body gestures that are positively seen?

The most important is that you don’t close your body to the assessors by folding your arms, crossing your legs or looking down or up instead of at the assessors when answering an uncomfortable question. Also, even when talking about a negative experience in the structured interview or in the oral presentation, make sure you always add your ‘lessons’ and what you got out of the situation so you will not end your answer on a negative tone.

Is it possible that some assessors act rudely or without respect at the oral presentation or at the interview?

Exceptionally this might happen but there are various safeguards to prevent this from occurring, e.g. there are always two assessors in the room instead of one, and in extreme cases you can always file a complaint to EPSO if any kind of inappropriate behavior happened.

When there's a structured interview based on the talent screener, do they ask a question about every question in the talent screener or is it only loosely connected to the talent screener content?

The latter, though it is worth revising your answers in the talent screener to refresh your memory what information you had shared with them. They can also ask questions related to your knowledge in the field, along with questions about your professional experience, CV and related issues.

Do you have an idea of how long it generally takes to be informed if I have passed the Assessment centre?

Usually around 6-8 weeks from the last exam day of the assessment centre (not from your exam day). Regardless whether you passed or not, you will receive a detailed assessment report and scores which can help in your personal development in any case.

More questions? Comments? Wish to share your experience? Contact us now!