How do Psychometric Tests Work and Why They Matter

Feb 24, 2022

In the graduate recruitment market, you would be hard pressed to find a major employer who doesn’t incorporate psychometric testing at some point within their selection process. Most use psychometrics (particularly ability tests) early on in the recruitment process, hoping to automate the process of short-listing. Others use a more comprehensive battery of tests as part of an assessment centre, usually at the final stages of the interview process. In whatever way they are used, the messaging to candidates is often rather nebulous, leaving candidates unsure of why they need to complete these assessments at all. In this article, I will outline the practicalities of psychometric testing from a candidate’s perspective, helping shed light on why early-stage careers candidates can (and should) expect to encounter these assessments.

Aptitude Tests and What They Are

By far the most common assessments that graduates / apprentices / interns can expect are ability tests, also known as aptitude tests. These typically include numerical reasoning, verbal reasoning, and inductive reasoning tests, usually given in combination.

The scores from these assessments are typically averaged, ensuring that a high score on one assessment can compensate for a lower score on another. Together, they measure how well a candidate can work with words, numbers, and abstract information more generally, which constitute the only three forms of information that one can reasonably expect to work with in the real-world. This aggregate score is then used to form the basis of early-stage selection decisions, allowing employers to conveniently short-list. When used at assessment centres however, they are aggregated with the other exercises, accounting for a smaller proportion of the overall score assigned to candidates.

Ability tests tend to follow a consistent format, whereby candidates are presented with an information source, usually a graph / passage of text / sequence of images, and are required to answer questions related to that information source. Each test is likely to contain between 15-30 questions, and usually takes between 15-30 minutes per test to complete. As a result, candidates can expect to spend between 30-60 minutes completing their assessments, not including any preparation work or application related administration. The vast majority of these assessments are completed remotely, allowing candidates to choose where and when they start their assessments. It is strongly recommended to complete them in an environment that is both quiet and has a stable internet connection, minimising the likelihood of distractions or technical issues.

Why They Are Used

Although these abilities may seem basic, they are the cornerstone of all learning and decision making, and the academic research suggests that ability tests rank among the strongest predictors of job performance known (Schmidt and Hunter, 1998). This means that, generally speaking, those who score higher on ability tests, tend to perform better in the workplace. This relationship has been observed in almost every job studied, and their predictive power is especially high in white-collar and highly technical roles. This is particularly important for emerging talent recruitment, as fresh graduates / apprentices will rarely have relevant work-experience, and thus their potential must be assessed in different ways. Moreover, ability tests are also powerful predictors of training performance (Schmidt and Hunter, 1998), with higher scoring candidates showing greater propensity to learn and benefit from formal training programmes. This is especially important for graduate and apprentice schemes, which represent a huge investment from the employer in the form of training, and is thus essential that employers hire candidates who are highly trainable.

Research also shows ability tests to be even stronger predictors of performance and trainability than academic achievements, which is why they are used even when candidates have good degrees. Naturally, many factors outside of a person’s cognitive ability influence their propensity to do well academically, most notably the resources associated with higher socioeconomic status. This makes psychometric testing a fairer and more objective method of screening compared to academic criteria, especially when hiring from a diverse applicant pool. As a result, psychometric testing is often employed to assist diversity and inclusion initiatives, ensuring that successful applicants come from a wider range of backgrounds than would otherwise occur when relying solely on academic selection criteria.

Not only are psychometrics highly predictive and fair, but they are also extremely convenient and scalable, allowing human resources departments to screen tens of thousands of applicants in a few days. Compare this to the traditional employment interview, which requires a significantly greater time and resource commitment, including 45-60 minutes of interviewer time per candidate, plus significantly greater administrative effort and planning for both candidate and employer. Not only do ability tests save the employer significant time and resources, but in reality this is passed onto the candidate also. Instead of attending rounds of interviews, which require candidates to potentially book time off work, physically attend an office, and possibly even arrange local accommodation, ability tests allow candidates to be assessed from their own home. This is especially beneficial to candidates with limited mobility and related disabilities, allowing them to apply to a wide range of jobs without inconvenience.

What Does the Future Hold?

Understandably, candidates are less enthusiastic about psychometric testing than HR professionals (and much less than business psychologists), but they are an essential (and inevitable) part of emerging talent recruitment, at least for the foreseeable future. It is therefore pertinent for candidates to familiarise themselves with the layout, format, and structure of these assessments, which helps to avoid unwelcome surprises. Understanding the reasoning behind why these assessments are used is also important, as it will highlight to candidates the (likely considerable) weight that employers place on psychometric test scores in selection processes. Although you may never grow to love psychometric testing, it is my hope that you will now at least understand why they are utilised and see them as a necessary evil rather than a total waste of time.

Next Steps: Practise

Now that you understand how psychometric tests work, and why they are important in employee selection, the next step is to practice and prepare. Example assessments and practice test are a candidate’s best friend when it comes to maximising the probability of success in psychometric testing and is always recommended before attempting them as part of a live recruitment process.

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