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Unpack your suits: Assessment Centres in the Covid era

Pink sunset at Canary Wharf in London
Reading time: 4 minutes

Do you miss receiving the details of your flight instead of a Zoom link? So do we, but virtual assessment centres do not fail to deliver the escapist experience we might need now more than ever.

What to make of online assessment centres? Our most loyal readers might recall how the author got the privilege of experiencing what was probably one of the first virtual assessment centres back in February. I have since grown older and wiser, gone through another round of applications and constructed a somewhat decent sample of both versions.

As I was staring – fully suited – at my computer while virtually sitting in a Zoom lobby I was hit with full-fledged nostalgia of ‘old’ and, perhaps, better times. Sure, by now we are probably used to the online version of anything, but this did not prevent me from dwelling on what exactly I was missing. I would dare say it is safe to exclude squeezing in the London underground at rush hour. Ruling out one-day round trips and sleepless nights in some hotel would not prove too brave of an assumption either.

There are few memories that, instead, I hold very dear to my heart. It was an ungodly hour, something between 4.00 and 6.00 AM of an unspecified date of fall 2019. I was at the Linate airport, wearing my usual black suit and carrying a cabin-size trolley. At the gate for the flight to London City, I found a silent mass of businessmen and businesswomen, each with their own suits and trolleys, just like me. It was probably the university student version of playing grown-up, and yet I felt like I was part of something.

Shortly after, I randomly met other Bocconi students on their way to – who would have thought? – an assessment centre. As usual, our sense of community is more than enough to bring us Bocconiani together in times like these and travelling with someone I could relate to most certainly helped ease the tension.  

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Fast forward a few hours, I vividly remember getting off the Jubilee line, joining the orderly yet hasty multitude heading towards the exit, running along the imaginary ‘fast lane’ of the escalator and looking up to the Canary Wharf skyline. On the right, Thomson Reuters with its characteristic news ticker. On the left, the behemoths I dreamt of working for. Everything screamed ‘finance’.

Waiting together with the other candidates was part of the package as well. Awkward silence and small talk might not be anyone’s favourite, but I enjoyed having a look at the competition, sharing impressions of the interviews or simply meeting new people. What is more, I could not help but notice how Bocconiani were overrepresented in the pool – a pleasant reminder of what a bright bunch we are. Another major difference I have personally noticed so far is how I could once get a sense of the impression I had made on interviewers and feel a distinct positive or negative vibe as I walked out, which I now lack completely.

I might surprise you in saying that perhaps I miss the after-AC part even more than all of the above. I have a sort of tradition of mine of going to a specific restaurant with the other candidates once interviews are over. The Covid-adjusted version of this ritual was ordering delivery from the same chain here in Milan, but somehow it does not taste quite the same. A creature of habit, I also sit all year round in ‘my spot’ in class (first row, right at the centre, in case anyone was wondering). However, after an assessment centre I would make an exception and sit close to the exit (or entrance, actually, as they were still interchangeable at the time), an eye on my phone, ready to sprint out and take the call. A casual observer could even have mistaken this for a remake of ‘He’s just not that into you’. I miss that too – just sitting at home knowing I cannot possibly ignore the loud ringtone I set up for the occasion feels awfully plain.

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Should we get the offer, we are out of options in terms of celebrating – virtual drinks on Zoom? We are also left asking ourselves whether we will physically make it to London this time around. And will we ever have in-person interviews again? I wonder if firms have come to the conclusion that maybe paying for our travel is not worth it, Covid or not.

Sure, there are perks to the new format too. One can now save time and energy once devoted to travelling and invest them in extra rest or preparation. We can wait in the comfort of our own home in lieu of a room full of strangers. No need to polish our shoes nor to worry about our handshake being too aggressive or too unassertive. As soon as we are done with the video-calls, we can throw ourselves on our bed and enter a coma in a matter of minutes.

In the pre-Covid era, skipping lectures in the name of AC prep was a sort of irreversible action – I have been guilty myself of having skipped perhaps one too many statistics classes – while now we can watch recordings at 2x speed and get to convince ourselves that we are catching up, a possibility I was most recently delighted to take advantage of.

But there is more to the story. You might agree with me that, under lockdown, every day can easily start feeling the same and most activities distinctly lack any excitement– Netflix, making bread, you name it – not exactly what makes you feel alive, despite being entertaining. Instead, when we receive an invitation, this represents a disruption to an otherwise dull schedule: we can trash our study plan while barely feeling guilty and forget about everything else, even – may I? – coronavirus and lockdowns.

Playing the upcoming assessment centre card still works like wonder when it comes to avoiding some of my responsibilities, I admit it, and I continue to feel part of a community that gets just the same experience, be it Women in Finance or Bocconi at large.

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This form of escapism is a rare commodity nowadays, and I soon realised how I had started to crave something that might cause some stress or disrupt my routine, but at least makes my heart beat a little faster. It wakes up the dormant Bocconian spirit: ambitious, determined, open, resourceful and – why not? – competitive. Let us dust off (the part framed by the camera of) our favourite suits, our best-lit rooms and fastest internet connections. It takes more than a screen to prevent us from coming through, from getting the call and the offer, in the best Bocconian tradition.

Author profile
Barbara Balcon

I’ve been part of Tra i Leoni since my first semester at Bocconi up to becoming Deputy Director. I’m a third year BIEF-Economics student and I mainly cover finance and campus life. In 2019 I wrote “Word on the Street”, a weekly column about the story behind the names of campus buildings and spots, while last semester I was the head of our Global Edition.

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