Ability tests - verbal, numerical and abstract reasoning
Ability tests, sometime called aptitude tests, seek to assess either your logical reasoning or thinking performance, usually in verbal, numerical or abstract reasoning. They are neither tests of general knowledge nor of intelligence.
Tests will usually consist of a timed series of multiple-choice questions. For tests of ability, candidates need to work both quickly and accurately and the tests are often designed so that few candidates will get to the end, so do not worry if you cannot complete every question.
Other types of assessments that you may face, such as Situational Judgement Tests and Critical Reasoning Tests, can also incorporate elements of numerical reasoning as scenarios may include data tables and graphs you need to interpret, and the precise and specific use of language reflected in verbal reasoning tests also applies to the formulation of content in these alternative assessments.
The section below on preparing for specific test types includes more details about the variety of content you can expect to meet when taking ability tests.
Personality questionnaires explore the way you tend to react to, or prefer to deal with, different situations. They are ‘self-report’ questionnaires and, unlike aptitude tests, there are no right or wrong answers, and tend not to be completed against a time limit. Your profile is based on your responses to questions or statements linked to personality factors, such as how you relate to other people, your ability to deal with your own and others' emotions, your motivations, determination and general outlook. They capture information about your preferences and behaviour, and can be used to clarify which fields of work and what kind of role(s) someone may find intrinsically satisfying.
Personality profiles are not generally used for selection, although occasionally they may be used as the basis for discussions in an interview to understand your motivation and work habits. This is because recruiters will not usually be looking for a rigid or ‘typical’ personality profile for a specific role.
However, companies may use a personality test to identify which of the many different roles or positions available might be the best fit for you, and a few offer these tests on their career pages which you can take without fear of being evaluated to help you make that judgement for yourself. Similarly, the Careers Service recommends using personality based tools to help explore career ideas. If you have taken a personality test and have any questions about how to use the insights offered, it can be helpful to discuss these in a one-to-one meeting with a careers adviser.
The Careers Service offers:
- Access to our new Career Weaver app, which provides a range of exercises to help you explore your values, motivations and core skill and strengths.
- [Note: This service is currently suspended due to Covid.] Monthly three-hour group sessions on understanding your personal style using the Myers-Briggs Type Indicator (MBTI), led by our Alumni Adviser. These sessions are most appropriate for researchers and alumni, and there is usually a charge to cover the costs of the MBTI test. Details can be found on the event calendar on CareerConnect.
The best way to approach personality questionnaires is to answer them as straightforwardly and honestly as you can. Trying to second-guess what the employer or questionnaire is looking for is difficult, and can be counter-productive because tests will also evaluate the internal consistency of your answers and anyone trying to 'game the test' is likely to have their results red-flagged as unreliable (and therefore, unusable). Even if you do successfully mislead the tool, it's worth considering whether you actually want to take on a job which is unlikely to really suit you and your preferred style.
Situational judgement and critical thinking tests
Situational judgement and critical thinking tests are used by many recruiters to assess candidates' judgement when solving work-related problems. Candidates are presented with work-related scenarios followed by a number of proposed actions or responses they can choose between. Scenarios may be presented as short written situation, but companies are now using video and occasionally VR technologies to make scenarios more accessible and engaging.
There are a number of different answer styles used to assess the candidate's judgement, for example:
- select what 'you are most likely' and 'least likely' to do.
- identify the 'most effective' and 'least effective' options.
- rank all the options from most effective to least effective.
- for each action, rate how effective the action is likely to be, but note:
- you may only be allowed to use each rating once in each question; or
- it may be possible for some (or all) actions to be rated with the same level of effectiveness, and not all points on the scale need be used.
Read instructions carefully and be sure you understand how you are expected to answer each question, even if you have already completed other SJTs.
Candidates are advised that the best way to approach these tests is to consider the detailed implications of the possible responses and then make an honest judgement, rather than trying to second guess the "best" response. However, remember that the context for your 'Judgement' includes the organisation and role, and that the subject matter experts who helped develop the test will have done so in relation to the organisation's values and culture. We recommend therefore that in your research you should aim to understand the organisation, how they see themselves and what that might mean in relation to the people they choose to hire and promote. Look at all of the advice on the company's website.
- Start with the recruitment pages: the 'person specification' and job descriptions for new graduate hires, and read other statements about 'who they look for'.
- Examine the company's competency framework to evaluate how it reflects the range and style of working behaviours and decision making in the organisation.
- And look beyond these pages for additional clues to the organisation's values and culture, from the 'founding myths' in their history, the awards and achievements they promote, their CSR programmes and the talking-head videos of recent hires.
If you can, meet people at career fairs, presentations and through your networking, ask them about the organisation's culture. Seek examples that show:
- "How we do things around here".
- What attracts praise and promotion.
- What kind(s) of people seem to thrive in the organisation.
Before taking any of these tests you will usually be given the chance by the organisation to take some practice questions (and examine the answers). This is another opportunity to get an insight into the company's way of thinking. If you get the practice questions right, then great - but for any you get wrong, review your answer against their answer with a view to understanding the subtleties of how the organisation's stated values and competencies are reflected in that choice.
Some organisations provide practice questions anyone can try and then review your answers (e.g., Diageo and the Civil Service Fast Stream). Remember, however, that firms with a different context and ethos may make different judgements so that. For example, the judgements made by someone suitable for a service-oriented role in the healthcare sector may well be different to those of someone seeking a business development or sales role in a highly competitive industry.
Gamification of psychometrics: new styles of test
Some large companies have integrated 'game based assessments' (GBAs) into their selection process. These can taken on a computer or mobile device, although there is evidence that candidates score slightly lower if using their mobile phone. GBAs are designed to be easily accessible. The individual games will be simple to play and are not biased towards people with gaming experience. Test providers and companies believe that GBAs offer a more enjoyable candidate experience, and cite very high completion rates and positive feedback from candidates as evidence of this.
As a candidate, you will be provided with a link to the test platform to take a series of video-based exercises. Whilst they may have the look and feel of quite simple games, remember that it is still an assessment, so approach these tests with focused attention and a readiness to perform at your best. Also, read all instructions carefully before starting each exercise even if you have met the same or a similar test before with a different company.
We recommend that you ensure you have:
- a stable internet connection;
- sufficient time to complete the exercises undisturbed - perhaps 20-30 minutes.
Typically, there will be many short games to play, perhaps 12 or more. Because each exercise will be simple to play, companies rarely offer 'practice' resources beyond those needed to familiarise candidates with the platform. Candidates can take as much time as they need to understand the instructions (not timed), but once you hit 'play', the tool will be collecting data on your performance for that game, so make sure you are ready to 'go'.
As mentioned in the introduction, GBAs seek to evaluate the individual against long established, understood and well researched psychological traits. However, the tool will collect thousands of data points on each candidate and data for each of the distinct personality traits being measured will be gathered from multiple games. This makes it extremely difficult for candidates to 'fake' results even if they are clear what traits are most desirable. The range of traits being assessed can be quite extensive and is likely to include some or all of the following:
- Speed and flexibility of thought.
- How you approach risk and reward.
- Your concentration.
- Your reaction time and impulse control.
- Short term memory: ability to follow a stream of increasingly complicated instructions or repeating numerical, word or visual patterns.
- Resilience and response to difficulties or failure within a task.
Your final candidate profile will be compared against profiles created for the recruiting company, quite often based on the performance of their current employees who have taken the same bank of tests.
Although GBAs rarely offer you any 'practice' resources, you may well have encountered similar tests in games that you have played for fun, rather than in a recruitment scenario. The practice resources on JobTestPrep offered free to matriculated students at Oxford (see Our Resources section below) includes resources to prepare and practice the most commonly used GBAs. Or if you are curious and want some free and fun resources to use in order to understand the kind of games you might be asked to play, try:
- Metro Trains Melbourne's "Dumb Ways to Die" [fun but a bit gruesome!] and
- the MENSA Brain training app, which you can download as a free 7-day trial.