Seeing as there wasn’t much out there on the PA application process, I thought I would give you a post covering my expereinces from the beginning to (near) the end.
Some things to know about PA:
- they are structured in two ways: there are service sections (strategy, change etc) and specialist sections (government, defence, etc). Two or more areas will combine for specific projects.
- They’ve had an up and down financial history over the last ten to twenty years, with profits falling dramatically recently with the start of the financial crisis and an embarrassing incident where they lost a USB with government data on it - which lead to the end of some contracts with the government.
- As I understand it, you can apply to any of the service sections or the specialist sections, but (despite their internet site telling you differently) HR will only allow you to one area.
- The whole process takes around 3 months and most of the deadlines are in December.
- If you are applying for a specialist area - like defence say - they expect you to have 18 months to 2 years experience (approx.) and you will come up against expereinced candidates.
- Within one of the specialist sections, there are about 4 - 8 places each year. APPLY EARLY - don’t wait for the deadline. They do fill up their limited number of places.
The application process:
First of all you have to submit a cv and covering letter. I gave my letter a simple structure (3 reasons why I thought i was right for the role and 3 reasons why PA was right for me).
Without too much fuss, I passed onto the telephone interview. This was relatively easy compared to KPMG’s. There were the normal questions based on the compentencies (see a post on telephone interviews at KPMG or similar), but none on a current news or business story. The whole thing only lasted around 25 to 30 mins and at the end the HR person (yes you are interviewed by an HR person rather than someone from your business line) told me that I had passed it.
online tests: normal thing, SHL again. Maths and Verbal.
Assessment centre: after applying back in December, I finally got to the assessment centre over 2 months later. This is effectively the final stage, and the one most tailored to PA. I prepared pretty intensely for it, doing practice case studies from Case In Point and revising up on PA and my interview answers.
I arrived at around 9.40 for a 10am start. The PA offices can be a little hard to find. Go out of Victoria station, turn left (away from Buckingham Palace and Westminster), cross a small road and up a wide step of stairs into what looks like a covered row of shops.
Arriving on the fourth floor of the building, there were 3 others waiting to also take the assessment centre, mostly with similar levels of experience (1 or 2 years) except for one person who had a bit more.
After an introduction by HR, I had a pretty simple interview with someone from my service line: the usually competency questions (tell me about a time when you had to communicate to a difficult person) and “what would your friends say about you” and “where do you see yourself in ten years.” Practice and doing research on PA pays off here. The only tricky bit was a case study question at the end. They ask it like it’s a flippant thing, but take your time to answer and take it seriously. They don’t want you to solve it, but rather just to outline how you would go about solving it. Plan your response before answering because there’s usually a catch in the question.
The second part was to a case study/ role play. The task was to prepare for a meeting with a senior executive from a fictional firm. You were given an outline of the situation, with objectives for the meeting, and a mock newspaper article (note the date to see if it is current - mine was from 2008). You’ve 40 mins to prepare. I took the time to break down the problem and then plan how I was going to take the senior executive through my thinking. There isn’t much data to look through or work with.
- don’t worry if you slightly run out of preparation time. I did and they didn’t comment on it in my feedback.
- plan how you will use the time you have with the executive (you only have 20 mins), then tell them the plan at the start of the meeting.
- The senior executive (played by a member of PA, not an actor) won’t try to be disruptive, but they do want to see you pick up on their ideas and work with them towards a conclusion. I was worried that I led the conversation too much, but they were very appreciative of my style in my feedback.
- Think how you will use to flipchart to help faciliate the conversation: you can use it to write up the structure of the meeting, to highlight key words, to graph different options or to issue tree (google it) the different options the executive has. Not all of these will or are possible, but be creative.
We then had lunch with the people from PA. They seemed alright, if hardly likely to set the world alight. They weren’t as smooth or insightful as people I’ve met from BCG, McKinsey or even KPMG, but seemed like a nicer bunch to work with.
The final part was a group exercise. This was another business problem. This time there were more numbers involved. You had 5 minutes to read the paper through, before you had 30 mins to discuss it as a group, observed by 6 people from PA. Our group did alright, though the person next to me kept cutting it. We delegated some of the number crunching to one of the group and then went through each of the questions they had asked us to consider. At the end, we had to present back our thoughts for a total of 5 minutes (which we divided between us). The PA consultants then asked us a few mildly challenging questions which we had to think up decent responses to. They were mostly things like: have you remembered to include this in your costing (we hadn’t), why not?
The only feedback I got about this stage was that I was slow to get involved at the beginning, before warming to the task and then presenting very well.
The HR person rang me whilst I was on the train home to say that I had performed well - they only had two small pieces of feedback - but benchmarked against the other candidates and one from another assessment centre, I hadn’t won the one space they had left. (Hence why you should apply early). And that was that.