Are You Made Of The ‘Right’ Stuff?

Miles Cooper delves into the world of psychometric testing…

Psychometric tests have been used since the early part of the 20th century and were originally developed for use in educational psychology. These days, outside of education, you are most likely to encounter psychometric testing as part of the recruitment or selection process.

Tests of this sort are devised by occupational psychologists and their aim is to provide employers with a reliable method of selecting the most suitable job applicants or candidates for promotion. Psychometric tests aim to measure attributes like intelligence, aptitude and personality. They provide a potential employer with an insight into how well you work with other people, how well you handle stress, and whether you will be able to cope with the intellectual demands of the job.

Most of the established psychometric tests used in recruitment and selection make no attempt to analyse your emotional or psychological stability and should not be confused with tests used in clinical psychology. However, in recent years there has been rapid growth of tests that claim to measure your integrity or honesty and your predisposition to anger. These tests have attracted a lot of controversy, because of questions about their validity, but their popularity with employers has continued to increase.

Psychometric testing is now used by over 75% of the Times Top 100 companies in the UK and over 80% of the Fortune 500 companies in the USA. As an indicator of your personality, preferences and abilities, psychometric tests can help prospective employers to find the best match of individual to occupation and working environment. As a recruitment and selection tool, these tests can be applied in a straightforward way at the early stages of selection to screen-out candidates who are likely to be unsuitable for the job. They can also provide management with guidance on career progression for existing employees.

Because of their importance in making personnel decisions it is vital that the tests themselves are known to produce accurate results based on standardised methods and statistical principles. A psychometric test must be:

  • Objective: The score must not affected by the testers’ beliefs or values
  • Standardised: It must be administered under controlled conditions
  • Reliable: It must minimise and quantify any intrinsic errors
  • Predictive: It must make an accurate prediction of performance
  • Non Discriminatory: It must not disadvantage any group on the basis of gender, culture, ethnicity, etc.

Psychometric tests fall into two main categories: Personality Questionnaires, which try to measure aspects of your personality, and Aptitude and Ability tests which try to measure your intellectual and reasoning abilities.

Aptitude Tests
Aptitude tests measure abilities such as verbal, numerical, or abstract reasoning. They are always presented in a multiple-choice format and the questions have definite right and wrong answers. They are strictly-timed and to be successful you need to work through them as quickly and accurately as possible.

There are in excess of 5000 aptitude tests which employers can use in the selection process and new tests are continually being developed and added to the already huge number of tests available. The companies that sell aptitude tests need to differentiate their own test from those of their competitors and this has produced a bewildering range of test names and acronyms.

However, all of the tests you are likely to come across when applying for a job can be classified into six types:

  • Verbal Ability: These questions appear in most job selection tests because employers usually want to know how well you can communicate. The test may include questions on spelling and word meanings as well as those that require you to understand analogies and follow detailed written instructions.
  • Numeric Ability: These questions appear in most general aptitude tests because employers usually want some indication of your ability to use numbers even if this is not a major part of the job. The test may include basic arithmetic, number sequences and simple mathematics. In management level tests you will often be presented with charts and graphs that need to be interpreted.
  • Abstract Reasoning: This is believed to be the best indicator of fluid intelligence and your ability to learn new things quickly. These questions appear in most general aptitude tests. The questions take the form of a series of diagrams.
  • Spatial Ability: These questions not usually found in general aptitude tests unless the job specifically requires good spatial skills. These tests measure your ability to mentally manipulate shapes.
  • Mechanical Reasoning: These questions are used to select for a wide range of jobs including the military and emergency services, as well as many craft, technical and engineering occupations.
  • Data Checking: Measure how quickly and accurately errors can be detected in data and are used to select candidates for clerical and data input jobs.

You can significantly improve your scores in aptitude tests by practicing the types of question that you will face. You should make your own decision about which types of question to practice. You could either concentrate on your weakest area or you could try to elevate your score across all areas. Whichever strategy you choose – keep practicing. Because of the way that aptitude tests are marked, even small improvements to your raw score will have a big influence on your chances of getting the job.{mospagebreak}

Personality Tests
Personality tests are used to determine how you are likely to behave under various conditions. There are supposedly no right or wrong answers, and the questionnaires are usually completed without a strict time limit.

There are currently well over 2,500 personality questionnaires on the market and each year dozens of new companies appear with their own ‘new’ products. Whilst, many of the well established companies who provide personality tests do operate to the highest ethical and professional standards, this market should be seen for what it is. One with low barriers to entry and one that is very poorly regulated. Anyone can set up a company to develop and sell personality tests and can make whatever claims they feel like, secure in the knowledge that they are very unlikely to be challenged.

Despite the dubious validity of many of the personality tests used in selection, there is very little real advice about how to approach them. There are literally dozens of books and websites with advice on how to prepare your CV or how to answer ‘tough’ interview questions. However, when it comes to preparing yourself for a personality test, the advice is usually limited to ‘just be yourself’. Why? After all, if you’re going to spend considerable time and effort preparing your CV and preparing for the interview, then why not prepare yourself for the personality questionnaire?

One argument that you may hear, is that if you try to influence the test results then you will have to operate ‘outside’ of your personality type for 40 hours a week. This is overstating the case to the point of absurdity – very few people would ever consider applying for a job which was totally unsuitable for them. It would be foolish to attempt to fake a 180 degree change in your personality, but you may need to modify how one personality trait appears in the results of a test. This is perfectly reasonable as most of us modify our behaviour at work anyway and these tests are attempting to infer behaviour from our personality traits.

Despite all of the platitudes to the contrary, either you have the ‘right’ personality or you get rejected in favour of someone who has. The idea that there are no right and wrong answers is patently untrue. The test publishers and the organisations that use the tests admit as much when they say ‘personality questionnaires help to replace subjective judgments with objective ones’.  If there are no right and wrong answers, then what exactly is the test replacing subjective judgments with?

You may find it difficult to accept the idea of attempting to influence a personality test. However, before you make that decision, you need to understand what it is that the tests try to measure, how they measure it and how the employer uses this information.  Remember, there is very little consensus outside of the personality test industry about how accurate some of these tests really are, compared to aptitude tests or the tests used in assessment centres. This is one area where you really do have to make your own decision. 

Preparing Yourself for Selection Tests
Psychometric testing can take place at any stage in the recruitment process. Although it is usually used to screen candidates prior to the first interview, it can be used later in the process, for example prior to a second interview. Some organisations apply psychometric testing in ways that are directly relevant to the job. For example, you may only have to take numerical reasoning tests if the job you’re applying for requires good numerical skills. However, many organisations use verbal, numerical and abstract reasoning tests as a matter of routine irrespective of the precise demands of the job.

After they have received candidates’ CVs the organisation will screen them against the job specification, discarding those where the qualifications or experience are judged to be insufficient. The remaining candidates will each be sent a letter telling them when and where the psychometric testing will take place and what form it will take.

The test date is usually set one to two weeks after all of the CVs have been processed. You will usually receive sample questions, so that you have an idea of the type of questions used in the test. This is to ensure that everyone has the opportunity to prepare for the test and that nobody is going to be upset or surprised when they see the test paper. You will usually be told the date, time and place of the test as well as the format, duration and whether there are any breaks scheduled. You should also expect to be informed of the types of test you will be given, any materials that will be supplied and whether the test is paper based or uses a PC or palm-top computer.

When you receive this letter, if you have any special requirements you must notify the test centre immediately. This would include disabled access and any eyesight or hearing disability you may have. Large text versions of the test should be available for anyone who is visually impaired and provision for written instructions should be made for anyone with a hearing disability.

In addition, if you are asked to sit a psychometric test as part of the recruitment process, you should:

  • Be briefed about the purpose of the test before taking it
  • Have the results of the test provided to you in a private feedback session
  • Be informed of organisational policy about distribution and storage of the results

It is perfectly normal to feel some stress and nervousness when you are told that you need to take psychometric tests as part of the selection process. This can be a particular problem if you haven’t taken this type of test before. Most of the nervousness is simply a fear of the unknown and a feeling that you will ‘let yourself down’ and that the test will not be a fair reflection of your strengths and abilities. If you do not act immediately to tackle this stress then its effects will become more corrosive as the test date gets closer. You may experience physical symptoms such as a lack of ability to get to sleep and psychological symptoms such as loss of concentration and mild depression.

The job selection process will always involve an element of stressfulness which is mostly due to confronting a situation over which you do not have total control. For example, you cannot predict or influence the personality or behaviour of the interviewer or know in advance which questions you will be asked. However you can, and probably have already, prepared for the most likely questions. You can also make educated guesses as to which areas of your CV the interviewer will concentrate on.

With regard to the psychometric test component of the selection process, your preparation can and should be far more straightforward. You can influence your scores in these tests significantly by understanding the question types and practicing them.  Not only will this improve your test scores and increase the chance of you getting to the next stage of the selection process, but by taking positive action you will tackle the cause of the stress directly.

You will hear a lot of advice for coping with the symptoms of stress and anxiety, including: relaxation, exercise and visualisation. While all of these things can help, the most effective solution is to take direct action and spend your time practicing these tests in the most systematic and efficient way possible.