Mind Games: Understanding Psychometric Assessments

by Mark Ellwood

Brain works and tests in a recruitment process.

In today’s market, many employers are using psychometric assessments as part of the hiring process. Many of the larger global firms, especially consultancies, have been using them for generations, but the industry continues to grow on a global level and especially in developing markets – a reflection of the refining of the assessments, tailored packages and increasing confidence in the assessments themselves.


So what are psychometric assessments? And can you prepare for them?


Psychometric assessments fall into two major categories: personality and ability. In short, personality assessments attempt to predict how a person will perform at work under different circumstances and in relation to other people, while ability assessments assess how adept a person is at certain cognitive abilities, such as verbal reasoning or numerical reasoning.


These assessments can be employed at different stages of the recruitment process – either at the start, alongside the candidate’s application to filter down the candidate numbers, or in the final stages of the selection process, to help the hiring managers decide between perhaps three or four applicants who may otherwise look very similar on paper.


Ability assessments


Ability assessments cover a very wide range of cognitive abilities such as IQ tests, verbal reasoning, numerical reasoning, analytical reasoning, mechanical reasoning, spelling, grammar and logical thinking.


Naturally, these assessments have specific types of questions according the ability being evaluated, but an example could be abstract reasoning, where the candidate is presented with an abstract shape in three different rotations and is asked to select the next rotation in the pattern from multiple choices.


Ability assessments do have a score, they do have a pass/fail threshold that is set by the assessor, and they are usually timed.  But there’s more to it than that.  For example, if it is a test included in the process for hiring English teachers, then you would expect the pass mark for spelling and grammar to be set quite high.  However, if this is part of the recruitment process for field service technicians, then the aim would be to ensure they have enough grasp of correct spelling and grammar to effectively communicate with customers and complete paperwork.  Therefore, the pass mark would not be so high, but instead the assessment ensures a minimum level of ability has been achieved in the candidates taken to the next stage of the hiring process.  So how easy or hard it is to pass these assessments very much depends on context. In fact, ability assessments can get very specific for particular jobs – such as clerical checking, filing ability and fault diagnosis ability. Verbal and numerical reasoning are the most standard tests included as part of an assessment and are very common.


Furthermore, as with personality assessments, scores are usually compared to a ‘norm’ group. This is a compilation of the average scores of people in a similar position to the person taking the assessment.  So, for example, average scores for school leavers in South Africa would be different to average scores for company directors in the USA. This is a case of comparing apples with apples.


Can you prepare?


Yes.  Evidence suggests that the act of taking the tests can improve your score. There’ a number of obvious reasons for this – such as familiarity with the structure of the tests and the types of questions. But also there is an element of ‘brain training’.  Essentially, if you practice abstract reasoning tests, it stands to reason that you’d get better at them. 


Personality assessments


Personality assessments are a slightly different proposition. They tend to be a single assessment with many questions and are not usually timed. Unlike tests, they do not have a pass/fail mark. Indeed, there are no right or wrong answers – rather, the answers you give help to paint a picture of your personality in the workplace.


Questions tend to be structured to force you to choose a response to an activity or scenario. 

For example:
The statement is ‘I enjoy meeting new people’ and you are asked to rate how strongly you agree (from ‘strongly disagree’ to ‘strongly agree’ on a five-point scale)


Personality assessments fall into two major categories: trait based and type based. 


Trait based assessments, such as the SHL Occupational Personality Questionnaire (OPQ), cross-reference your responses with each other to assess where you sit on a continuum for a number of personality ‘traits’, such as ‘conscientiousness’ and ‘extraversion’. Trait based assessments focus on the differences between people and the extent to which they display these traits.


Type based assessments, such as the Myers Briggs Type Indicator (MBTI), attempt to compare responses to similar responses from other people and to place the individual into certain ‘groups’ -i.e. ‘types’ - according to these responses. Types based assessments try to identify similarities between people and the ‘types’ tend to be bi-modal – i.e. you are assessed as one type or the other, although more recent developments, such as Insights Discovery, attempt to show the extent to which you are a mic of certain ‘types’.


Type based indicators have been wildly popular in the past. This is partly because the concept of being in a similar ‘group’ to other people is easy to grasp. However, their popularity is waning in favour of trait-based assessments due to the sheer volume of evidence and scientific rigour involved in the development of trait based tools. Trait based assessments have also been shown to be more valid and more reliable.


Can you prepare?


Not really. What’s important to remember is that these assessments are only a guide for hiring managers. They will be comparing responses against a set of the most important traits they have identified for the particular role. The reports produced by the assessment software are feeding back the answers that you put into them – they are really showing how you see yourself.  This is where 360 assessments come in, so you can compare how you see yourself with how others see you. But that’s more related to ongoing talent management than recruitment. And over time, your responses may well change and so it is advised that these assessments have a shelf life.  Personality assessments can’t be ‘improved’ with practice as they are not tests and also the circumstances are very specific. They can be taken a few times to familiarise yourself with them but attempts at ‘gaming’ the system – i.e. attempting to give answers that you think the hiring managers want to see – is usually picked up in a consistency score.  The same questions are asked in different ways and so your consistency across responses can be assessed in this way. A low consistency score can mean you are asked to re-take the assessment.


Whatever assessment you may encounter (and usually it’s a mix of ability plus personality), you shouldn’t view them with alarm or distrust. Completing these assessments is a useful exercise in itself and can tell you how strong your abilities are in particular areas at the current time and also reveal some strengths of personality traits that you hadn’t realised.