We are an increasingly data-rich, data-driven society. Although “big data” is garnering most of the media hype these days, using personal data to drive hiring decisions is on the rise. If you have pursued a new job in recent years, chances are you’ve encountered some kind of pre-employment test. Also known as psychometric tests, most pre-employment tests are developed by behavioral psychologists to apply standard scientific measurements for individuals’ cognitive abilities and personality traits to help identify how well a candidate can perform in a given job. In addition, employers collect data from some psychometric tests to reveal hidden characteristics of an applicant that face-to-face interviews might miss and to screen out unqualified applicants while seeking out those most likely to succeed.

It makes sense that we are seeing a rise in pre-employment testing. The relative ease of developing secure, online testing software coupled with advanced data analytics have given rise to a number of outsource testing providers. Test makers pitch their approach as a way to gather more relevant candidate data and improve the odds of hiring the right person. Cloud-based software makes the use of these tests practical and easy for nearly all job candidates. Indeed, the Washington Post reported earlier this year that two of the larger providers in the testing market, IBM and CEB, each administer over 30 million pre-employment tests each year. Researchers also reported in the Harvard Business Review that service firms are spending over $750 million a year globally on assessments, with potential for much more testing and a push to use them earlier the hiring process.

In Alumni Career Services we are hearing about more frequent use of screening tests for Darden alumni job-seekers.  This includes assessments at every stage of the interview process and at all levels of management hiring.  C-suite candidates are not exempt from screening tests, and in fact the pressure for executive hires to have the right “fit” is even greater. In my alumni coaching, I’ve seen a marked increase in testing, but no precedent for the type of test or timing. Some have been required to test as an early screen in the process; others have had assessments added to the line-up of formal on-site interview days.  One recent alum encountered multiple tests for a single job opportunity.

What exactly are these tests measuring?  There are myriad tests with different perspectives, assessing job skills, critical thinking, personality, emotional intelligence, language proficiency, and even integrity. Most tests fall into three broad categories:  1) Cognitive Abilities – these include problem solving, reasoning, writing samples, mathematical calculations, etc.  2) Personality or Behavioral Tests – these might assess interpersonal or leadership characteristics, motivations, ability to work in teams, and other personal traits, and 3) Dependability Tests – these are meant to predict things like honesty, reliability, impulsiveness, work ethic, etc.

How do you prepare for pre-employment tests? Generally speaking you can’t study for these type tests, but it does help to approach them with the right attitude.  Don’t be intimidated, or irritated, and follow these tips to be prepared:

  • Understand the Purpose – ask the employer about the type of testing and how they plan to use the results.
  • Take it seriously – even if you feel the test isn’t necessary, show respect for this part of the employer’s evaluation.
  • Anticipate the time and place – some tests are administered at the employer’s office during the course an interview schedule; more commonly tests are taken on-line as the candidate’s schedule allows. Either way, it helps to anticipate the length of the test, and whether you’re expected to finish. Taking an assessment independently, you’ll want to set aside the appropriate length of time, without distractions, and try to take the test when you have your peak mental energy.
  • Practice – most psychometric tests don’t have ‘right or wrong’ answers, so studying isn’t really necessary; however, some of the larger vendors, like CEB and Criteria, do offer ways to practice tests;  practicing will get you used to answering questions under time pressure, and can familiarize you with various testing approaches.
  • Relax – it’s in your best interest to be open and honest; trust your instincts, give difficult questions your best shot and move on.
  • Request Feedback – ask the recruiter whether, how and when the company will share results of your tests.

Remember that pre-employment testing is only one element of the complex hiring process.  Consult our Job Search Toolkit for more information on how to succeed in interviewing and landing a new job.

Marty Speight MBA ‘96, Associate Director of the Armstrong Center for Alumni Career Services at the University of Virginia Darden School of Business