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All selection methods are seeking to gather evidence that you have the abilities and qualities to be successful in the job, but different methods are better at measuring particular things. For example, an application form gathers information on your qualifications and work experience, demonstrates your written communication skills, and may ask you about other skills; an interview allows you to demonstrate your oral communication skills (often while giving examples of skills and previous experiences); while psychometric tests measure whether you have specific abilities or appropriate personal qualities in relation to the job specification.
Employers may therefore use a variety of methods to gain an overall view; the greater the variety of situations in which a selector can see you perform, and the greater the number of skills that are being tested, the more accurate and objective the assessment should be. So what are psychometric tests and how do they fit into the selection process?
These are structured pencil and paper (and increasingly computer based on-line) exercises, often in the form of multiple choice questions. They are designed to assess your reasoning abilities, or how you respond to different situations. The tests should have been carefully 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 tests in the past. There are two main types of psychometric tests:
Aptitude or ability tests: aim to assess your capabilities in tests of reasoning, that is, 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 your preferences and attitudes. Questionnaires on interests and values are also produced, but are rarely used for selection purposes.
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, the questions may become more difficult and there are frequently more questions than you can complete in the time. It does not matter if you fail to finish the tests (though you should complete as many questions as possible), it is the number of correct answers which counts.
Your score is then compared with how other people have done on the test in the past. This group (the ‘norm’ group) could be other students / graduates, current job holders (who have been successfully recruited in the past) 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 tasks involved in the job.
Obviously the validity of such tests rests on how closely they assess abilities necessary to 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 reasoning’ or ‘spatial reasoning’ tests). The choice of tests used should relate to the work tasks involved in the job.
Tests are often used in conjunction with other selection methods, so it is your overall performance which is important - the tests do not necessarily carry more weight than other elements. however, aptitude tests are sometimes used prior to a first interview (often with or shortly after completion of the on-line application form) and at this stage there is often a ‘pass’ mark or cut-off score, which you have to achieve to continue your application.
Employers may send you some sample questions (or refer you to appropriate part of website) before you sit the test to give you an idea of what to expect. You should also be given some practice examples at the start of the test session itself.
How successful you will be in a 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 tend to react to, or deal with, different situations. They are usually ‘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 number of personality factors such as: how you relate to other people; your workstyle; 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 questionnaires are frequently untimed. The selectors will not be looking for rigid ‘typical’ personality profiles, although certain characteristics will be more or less appropriate for that particular job (eg 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 at a subsequent interview.
Questionnaires exploring your interests or values are much less commonly used in selection. These are designed to clarify what fields of work interest you or what factors make work more worthwhile for you – an example of these might be the ‘Prospects Planner’ programme available through the Careers Information Room.
The best way to approach all of these questionnaires is just to answer them as straightforwardly as you can. Guessing what the employer is looking for is difficult and could well be counter-productive – after all, you do not want to be given a job which really does not suit you.
There are, however, a number of things you can do to prepare yourself.
If you have not done well on a test, remember that there can be a number of reasons for poor performance. These could include: feeling tired or unwell; being unable to concentrate due to personal problems; misunderstanding what you had to do; answering questions too slowly; panicking; a lack of practice eg mental arithmetic. Poor test results on the day do not necessarily mean that you are lacking in ability.
It is however a fact that, just as some students always have difficulties in exams, then some people just cannot do aptitude tests. 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. Test performance is not the be all and end all, and even if you don’t get this job there will be others.