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Psychometric tests

Psychometric tests are often used by employers as a first step in the recruitment process.

Why they are used

All selection methods seek to bring together evidence that you have the abilities and qualities to be successful in the job, but different methods are better at measuring particular things. Psychometric tests measure whether you have specific abilities or personal qualities in relation to the job specification.

Psychometric tests and questionnaires

These are structured pencil and paper or computer-based exercises, often in the form
of multiple choice questions. They are designed to assess your reasoning abilities or indicate how you would respond in certain situations. Tests from major test producers will have been thoroughly researched and trialled to ensure that they are fair to all people sitting them. Your results are usually compared with how others have done in the same tests in the past. This is known as the norm group or comparison group.

  • There are three types of psychometric tests: Aptitude or ability tests aim to assess your capabilities in tests of reasoning (the level and nature of your thinking competencies).
  • Personality questionnaires gather information about how and why you do things in your own particular way. They look at how you react or behave in different situations and at your preferences and attitudes.
  • Questionnaires on interests and values are also produced but they are rarely used in selection processes.
    Remember that no test is used as a complete measure of your ability or personality and employers will always use them in conjunction with other selection tools.

Aptitude or ability tests

These test your logical reasoning or thinking performance; they are not tests of general knowledge. They are administered under exam-style conditions and are strictly timed. A typical test might allow 30 minutes to complete 30 or more questions. The questions have definite right and wrong answers which you often have to select from a range of alternatives.

As you go through the tests, you may find that the questions become more difficult and there may be more questions than you can comfortably complete in the allotted time. Your score is compared with how other people have done it that test in the past. This group (the norm group) could be other students/graduates, other applicants to the same post, current job holders or a more general group. This enables selectors to assess your reasoning skills in relation to others and to make judgements about your ability to cope with the tasks involved in the job.

Obviously the validity of such tests rests on how closely they assess the abilities necessary for the job. For this reason, there is a variety of tests, for example tests of reasoning with written information (verbal reasoning tests), numbers, charts and graphs (numerical reasoning tests) or abstract figures (diagrammatic or spatial reasoning tests). The choice of test used should be related to the work tasks involved in the job.

Tests are usually used in conjunction with other selection methods, so it is your overall performance in the whole process that matters - the tests do not necessarily carry more weight than other elements. However, aptitude tests are sometimes used prior to a first interview and at this stage there is often a pass mark or cut-off point which you have to achieve to move on to the next stage of the selection.

Employers may send you some sample questions before you sit the test to give you an idea of what to expect. You should also be given some practice questions at the beginning of the test.

Personality questionnaires

How successful you will be in the job depends not only on your abilities, but also on your personal qualities. Interviews and group exercises can be used to assess social skills, but personality questionnaires can further explore the way you tend to react to or deal with different situations. They are self-report questionnaires which means that a profile is drawn up from your responses to a number of questions or statements. These focus on a variety of personality factors such as how you relate to other people, your work style, your ability to deal with your own and others' emotions, your motivations and determination, and your general outlook.

Unlike aptitude tests, there are no right and wrong answers and personality questionnaires are usually untimed. The selectors will not be looking for a rigid "typical" personality profile, although certain characteristics will be more or less appropriate for that particular job (e.g. independence, social confidence and persuasiveness are important characteristics for sales personnel).

From your responses the selector gains information about your style of behaviour - how and why you do things in your own way. You may receive some feedback on the profile which your answers produce and occasionally it may form the basis for discussion in a subsequent interview.

The best way to approach personality questionnaires is to answer them as straightforwardly as you can. Trying to second guess what the employer is looking for is difficult and could well be counter-productive - after all, you do not want to end up in a job which really does not suit you.

Interests/values questionnaires

Questionnaires exploring your interests and values are much less commonly used in selection. The tests are designed to clarify what fields of work interest you or what factors make work worthwhile for you. You are more likely to come across them in a careers guidance setting or in an appraisal/ development context once you are at work. An example of this type of test - Adult Directions, is available by visiting the Careers Service.

How to prepare

The Careers Service is often asked about practice questions to help students prepare for psychometric tests. We have a variety of materials available, some of which are listed below. However, you will not be able to get copies of actual tests used by employers. You cannot buy psychometric test papers, take copies of them or get 'past papers', since companies feel that it would undermine the tests' effectiveness if candidates could practise limitlessly. Also, unlike in examinations, the same test questions are used for several years. There are, however, a number of things you can do to prepare yourself.

Numerical reasoning tests

Brush up on your maths. Practise basic mental arithmetic so that you can quickly do simple calculations in your head. Addition, subtraction, multiplication, division and calculations of percentages, averages and ratios are commonly required. Some of the books held in the Careers library may be helpful. Remember that unless the job requires a very high level of numeracy, numerical tests will not require complex mathematics. The ability to extract information from charts and graphs is as important as the actual calculations in these tests. Having a go at word games, mathematical teasers, puzzles with diagrams, etc. may help you get into a logical and analytical frame of mind. Reading financial reports and studying data in charts (e.g. in the quality financial press and company annual reports, etc.) could also be useful practice.

Verbal reasoning tests

These are more difficult to quickly brush up on than mathematical tests. Reading manuals, technical reports, academic and business journals may help, as well as keeping up with the quality press. Practise extracting the main points from passages - try producing a short summary of the key points. Work on improving your vocabulary as this will help your understanding of complex materials.

On the day of the test

Ensure that you know exactly what to do - do not be afraid to ask questions before the test begins.

  • Read through the questions and select your choices very carefully.
  • Eliminate as many wrong answers as possible. For example, with numerical tests, a quick estimate may help you disregard several of the options without working them all out.
  • Work as quickly and as accurately as you can.
  • Do not waste time on difficult questions. If you get stuck on a question, leave it and move on.
  • Whether it is advisable to guess answers depends on how the test is marked. Ask if there is negative scoring (i.e. you are deducted marks for wrong answers). They may not tell you, but if in doubt, assume this is the case. This clearly means wild guessing would be a risky strategy.
  • Don't worry if you do not answer all the questions in the time, but if you do, go back and check your answers.
  • If you have a disability and think you may require any additional assistance to enable you to take a test, do discuss this with the employer in advance of the test session.

Final thoughts

Practice will help prepare you and familiarise you with the demands made by aptitude tests. This can help you feel more confident. However, do not spend too much time preparing for them, especially if you are in your final year. Although some improvement is possible, it is unlikely that you can improve your score beyond a certain level. Do not neglect your course work as your degree result will be more significant to your future than an aptitude test result.
If you have not done well in a test, remember that there can be a number of reasons, so poor test results do not mean that you necessarily lack ability or are unsuitable for the job. Just as some students always have difficulties with exams, some people find aptitude tests a real challenge. This does not reflect on your intelligence - it may only mean that you are not primarily a logical person. You may have a much more intuitive approach to solving problems which could be equally valuable in a successful career. Remember that as in any test, you can only try your best.

Practise an aptitude test

The Careers Service runs mock aptitude tests to give students the chance to try tests out for real. This is probably the best practice you can get as the tests are administered under exam conditions, as you will experience with employers. The results are for your own use only and are not shared with academics or employers. Dates of the test sessions are available on CareersHub.

Register with Graduates First with your City email address to access free practice tests. You get 10 free tests on registration.  Contact the Careers Service if you would like more.

You will find useful resources and websites where you can practice tests on CareersHub. Type "psychometric test" in the search box for a list of sites with free practice tests.

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