Fast Stream – Inside Info, Part 2

PLEASE NOTE: This blog post is from August 2008. Although some of the information about the format of the assessment centre may still be relevant, you should check for more recent information if you are currently applying to the Fast Stream.

The Fast Stream website has loads of information about how to apply, but here are a few extra insights into the process. You need a 2:2 to be eligible for some schemes (including the main Graduate Fast Stream) but a 2:1 for some others (eg the Economist and Technology in Business streams).

Applications open on 15th September, and for most posts, close on 30th November (31st October for Statisticians and Economists, but there is a second application round for these starting in February, and GCHQ and some other services recruit separately). In other words, it’s complicated, so check the Fast Stream website for the up-to-date info in case it has changed since I wrote this (or I’ve misread my dodgy handwriting on the recruitment day I attended).

Recruitment numbers do change (sometimes radically) from year to year, but if you want to look at how many people applied and how many were successful, there are reports on the Cabinet Office website for previous years. For example, in 2007, there were only 2 people recruited into GCHQ, though there were over 3000 applicants. Also, unfortunately, it doesn’t look like they’re recruiting into the DFID Technical Development scheme for next year, a disappointment to many as it’s a very popular department. If you apply to the general Graduate Fast Stream, you do get asked about preferences for departments at the end of the assessment process (if you get in). However the recommendation is not to name a specific department, but to give an idea of the type of work you’d like to do and find a home department that way. Anyway, they’re always at liberty to reorganise and close departments so you may find yourself moving in future, though most people do stay with the department in which they are first placed.

The numbers of people who apply are pretty high, but don’t let that put you off – even if it’s competitive, someone’s going to get in, and it could be you.

Fast Stream Application and Selection

The Fast Stream has a very comprehensive assessment process, with tests to mimic the work you’d have to do for real if you got through. I’ll talk you through the main Fast Stream assessment process, though it does differ slightly with a couple more stages for the specialist streams (economics, statisticians, diplomatic service etc). Obviously, this is the process as it stands, but as it’s always being improved, there may be some differences when you go through it.

There’s an on-line self-assessment test, which tells you whether it looks like a good fit for you even before you start the application process for real. You need to be realistic, but you can ignore a bad result if you think there are extenuating circumstances (cat sat on the keyboard etc) and still apply, but if you get no further than the first stage, don’t complain that they didn’t warn you.

They use on-line verbal and numerical reasoning tests, where you get the chance for practice (plus, you can always do the on-line test available through the Careers Service as practice – log-in required).

There is then an on-line competency questionnaire, where you choose between statements to say whether they’re like/unlike you. They seem to have done their homework to assess the validity of these tests, and say there’s a good correlation between success in this competency test and success at the final assessment centre.

If you get through this on-line sift, you fill out an application form, but it’s mainly personal details, checking you’re eligible for the scheme, rather than asking you descriptive application form questions. Assuming all is well after that, you get to do an e-tray exercise at a test centre – where they also re-test your numerical and verbal reasoning, just to make sure that it wasn’t your highly numerate granny who did the original on-line tests for you. The e-tray involves an hour to read background information presented to you in a number of (electronic) folders, then several e-mails to respond to, choosing most and least effective responses from a series of choices. This means that they can again come up with a standard score to objectively compare candidates.

From the e-tray onwards, it makes a lot of sense to find out more about the way the civil service works, its relationship to Ministers and a bit about UK politics in general. It doesn’t need to be a detailed knowledge (don’t need to know names of politicians etc) but you’ll feel much more comfortable if you know how different roles fit together. In fact, one of the successful Fast Streamers told us how she didn’t actually realise the difference between Ministers and Civil Servants when she went to her assessment centre – but she didn’t recommend that as a good way to get through.

Assuming you do get through all this, it’s on to the Assessment Centre, the final stage for the main Graduate Fast Stream (though the Foreign Office, the Technology in Business and Clerks for the House of Commons and House of Lords do add another assessment stage, and there are extra tests for Economists and Statisticians). You’ll be assessed by psychologists and civil servants, all trained in a standard assessment process, looking at you against their core competencies.

There’s a one-to-one briefing exercise, with 30 minutes to prepare. Then you give a 10 minute oral briefing on the topic and answer questions for 20 minutes. You don’t get too much info about the topic so they’re looking for your own imaginative ideas.

Then there’s a 40 minute one-to-one interview. It’s a fairly standard competency based interview (“give me an example of …” type questions) based on building relationships and your own ability to learn and improve. As with most good employers, the examples don’t have to be spectacular. They’re more interested in what you’ve made of the experiences that have come your way.

And then there’s the group exercise … Again, it’s not an unusual format, 5 or 6 candidates are given individual briefs on a problem, and a limited time to negotiate an effective solution, such as the best projects to deal with climate change (you know, small stuff like that – you really do get to make a difference in these jobs). The trick is to balance promoting the interests of the department you’ve been assigned to for the exercise, with working constructively with the other departments in the meeting. Time and time again, it was reinforced that being a civil servant is about working effectively with others, being “a decent person” who listens to others and can come to a reasonable agreement. Aggressive or over-dominant negotiators don’t get through, even if they feel they’ve won a good deal for their assigned department.

All the way through, they ask you about how you feel you did on the tests. This is also part of the assessment, looking at your understanding of how you can improve. Therefore, if you think you did really badly at any of the tests, admit it, discuss what you did and how you could improve, and all is not lost (one of the successful Fast Streamers mentioned in the previous post did disastrously on the Group Exercise but retrieved the situation by a candid self assessment afterwards).

Finally, there’s the written exercise, in two parts. My notes get a bit hazy here – I thought you did this at the e-tray stage but I’ve since been told that it’s at the Assessment Centre (but if you do find they’ve changed it and you have to do this along with the e-tray, you’ve got some forewarning!).

You are given a problem to work on, and asked to come up with a policy recommendation. For the first 15 minutes, you’ll be expected to come up with imaginative possible solutions. The strong recommendation was not to self-censor at this stage, and not to rule out ideas because they would be impractical or not cost effective. Then you’ve got 85 minutes to review a dossier of information, analyse it, sorting out the key points from the minor points, and write a persuasive recommendation (practicality does matter here, I don’t think it’s a good idea to use all the weird’n’wacky stuff you generated at this point). The big hint here was, “when we tell you to start writing, start writing!” I’d guess this may be particularly pertinent for postgrads who might be tempted to spend too much time analysing the detail, instead of getting on and delivering a workable recommendation in the time allowed.

If you get to the Assessment Centre stage, you do get written feedback, whether you’re successful or not. If you drop out at an earlier stage, you do get some limited information about how you’ve done on the tests (where you came in the range of candidates) but don’t expect detailed information about your answers.

So that’s chapter and verse on the Fast Stream, other than to say that many of their new entrants do come in from other jobs. It’s a role where experience and maturity really are an asset, so if you don’t get in at first attempt, or want to have an alternative career first, this might still be for you.