Psychometric Tests

Psychometric tests are frequently used in graduate-level recruitment and fall into two broad categories:

  • Tests of ability, including verbal, numerical, spatial reasoning and critical thinking aptitude tests.
  • Personality and trait-based tests, which may include personality questionnaires examining your preferences, or ask you to make judgements about different work scenarios.

Online testing has now mostly replaced pencil-and-paper type psychometric tests. However, whether you are inflating balloons in a games-based assessment or answering multiple choice maths problems, the tests still measure the same well-established psychological traits. 

The online tests applicants face will have been developed by psychologists, who are usually specialists in this field. The test will also have been rigorously trialled and tested to ensure both that they measure what they are intended to measure, and that they do this fairly and consistently. In addition, recruiters will have been trained in the appropriate use of psychometrics for selection.

As a candidate, your score or performance will be evaluated against the results of a large, representative ‘Norm Group’. In a graduate recruitment situation, the ‘Norm Group’ may be recent graduates or even a large number of the company’s current staff working in related roles, which helps each organisation to calibrate the testing process to their own needs.

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The goal for the recruitment process is to make accurate judgements about which candidates have the greatest likelihood of future success in the position(s) being filled. It is an inexact science and psychometric tests will often be used as only one source of information. Companies should also set their 'pass' mark conservatively to avoid 'false-negatives' and the risk of screening-out high calibre candidates.

However, psychometric tests are considered to offer an objective assessment of candidates, with known levels of reliability and which are relatively free from bias and 'adverse impact' for candidates. For recruiters, they therefore offer a highly cost-effective method to evaluate a large number of candidates. Some organisations invite all applicants to take their tests, providing an additional layer of data to each candidate's application. Others may use testing to keep more candidates in the process for longer, and some companies will even re-test candidates at an assessment centre.

Psychometric tests can also be useful in evaluating a candidate's potential and ability in important areas that are difficult to evaluate in other parts or the recruitment process. This includes tests that can be used to evaluate specific skills related to a role, such as:

  • language aptitude tests, similar to those used by Oxford for admissions to modern foreign language degrees
  • spatial reasoning tests used in recruitment to engineering roles; and
  • numerical reasoning tests for financial roles. 

The next section looks more closely at some of the main types of tests.

 

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.

The section below on preparing for specific test types includes more details about the kind of content you can expect to meet when taking ability tests.

Personality questionnaires

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 of the larger companies are beginning to use 'game based assessments' (GBAs) taken on a computer or your mobile device. 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 and 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 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. They do encourage candidates to take as much time as they need to understand the instructions (not timed), but once you hit play, data for that game is being gathered, so be ready to 'go'.

 

GBAs have been developed to measure well researched psychological traits, collecting thousands of data points on each candidate. Data for each of the distinct personality traits being measured will be gathered from multiple games, making it extremely difficult to 'fake' results. 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. Two good free resources which include games similar to those used in GBAs include:

  • 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.

You want to be entirely focused on seeking the correct answer to each question rather than trying to understand what you are required to do when taking psychometric tests. Preparation and practice is therefore focused on becoming familiar with the test(s) and honing your test-taking technique.  Apart from Critical Thinking Tests (e.g. Watson Glaser CTA often used by law firms), additional practice will not boost your performance as these are tests of 'potential' rather than 'knowledge'.

There are four ways that practice can help you improve performance:

  • Understand the nature of the test and the time pressures you will face. How long the test takes and how many questions there are? Do individual questions have a time limit? Will question difficulty increase as you get more questions right? Can you use a calculator?
  • Know what you must do to answer the questions. Mostly questions are multiple choice, but are you selecting one answer, multiple answers or ranking options, and do questions sometimes include a 'none' or 'all' of the options offered? If there is a graph or table of data, will there be just one question or a series of questions based on this?
  • Gain insight into the type of challenges posed. What common numerical calculations are required? What fine distinctions of language are being judged in verbal reasoning questions? For diagrammatic questions, are you looking for a sequences or shared patterns, and have the test designers added extra irrelevant information/noise included to obscure a pattern? Can you use a calculator or not?
  • Understand how will the test be scored. Is your score simply the number of correct answers or is there negative marking where you are penalised for wrong answers?

If you are completely new to a test, you can expect your initial practice to improve your scores quite quickly as you become familiar with the test. Once that initial boost is achieved however, more time practising is likely to yield much smaller gains in performance as you near your potential maximum. Because of this diminishing return on later practice, monitor your performance as you practise. For example, pause every half-hour to assess whether the last 15 or 30 minutes has helped to improve your score or understanding of the test.

How much time anyone should invest in practising for a particular test is a personal decision. Some may find an hour or two is enough to master one particular test type, but the same person may also find they need much more preparation for a different test.

Finally, we recommend candidates should always complete any practice questions offered by the company before taking their tests. This is an important last check that the test you are about to take does not include a new style of question that you have not met in your practice.

Free practice tests offered by the Careers Service

The Careers Service provides current matriculated students with free access to a comprehensive test practice site: JTP: JobTestPrep. This covers the full spectrum of traditional recruitment tests, including materials specifically developed to mirror the tests used by individual named companies. Importantly, whether practising one question at a time or taking practice tests under timed conditions, you can review your answers and see full explanations of the correct answers.

Ask for a JTP Access Code using the Queries tab in your CareerConnect account, and send us a request with the title: Request for JobTestPrep Access Code. Your Access Code gives you 12 months free access from the first time you log in. You should not share your code with anyone else. 

We offer a second free practice resource with Practice Aptitude Tests for staff and students, accessed using an Oxford University email address (i.e. one ending .ox.ac.uk). Other free resources available on the web are listed in the External Resources section provide plenty of material everyone can access. 

Numeracy reasoning skill tests

Remember that, unless a job requires a very high level of numeracy, numerical tests are not likely to be pitched higher than GCSE-level maths. Different test will include different elements, but expect tests to include:

  • addition, subtraction, division, multiplication.
  • calculations using fractions, percentages and ratios.
  • the ability to find and interpret information in charts, graphs and tables.

If you are unsure about your maths, or you are worried that your mental maths is a bit rusty, it will certainly also help if your start exercising your maths brain, and practise core mental arithmetic skills as well as practice using a calculator quickly and accurately. In Michaelmas Term, the Careers Service offers workshops on preparing for tests and improving your maths skills, but you can make a start, for example:

  • take time to examine graphs and tables in press and magazine articles to understand what they show before reading the explanation in the article.
  • use online GCSE revision tools and maths development games to practise (see suggestions listed in External Resources: Basic Numeracy below).
  • play mathematical games and set yourself challenges as you go through your day:
    • how many passengers were on the train to Oxford, and what percentage of seats were unoccupied? 
    • how many times will your bike wheels rotate between College and the Careers Service/your department?
    • estimate how many lamp-posts or man-hole covers are there in Oxford?
    • add up the costs of your shopping basket as you fill it.

It's useful to seek out data tables and graphs, for example by reading financial reports and studying charts in the quality/financial press. One accessible starting point is the FT's weekly Chart that tells a Story: sign up for free access using your Bodleian Library membership. Practise understanding these data sources quickly, for example by using titles, checking the labelling on axes and the other information provided to understand the information presented through the table/graph, the units and timescales covered, and so on.

In the tests themselves, the data tables and graphs used tend to be relatively simple, and the test is how quickly and accurately you can extract information. For example, you may be given pricing information and sales volumes for four or five products across five or six months. The questions posed can range from simple (e.g. Which product was sold most in March?) to more complex question which and require you to make some quick calculations or estimates (e.g. Which product showed the greatest percentage increase in sales revenues between May and June?).

Verbal reasoning skills

There is quite a range of question types you can encounter for verbal reasoning skills. The most frequently used are tests of comprehension and logical reasoning which assess your reading accuracy, your ability to extract information, and capacity to accurately judge whether or not the information provided allows you to identify subsequent statements as true or false, or if you have insufficient information.

Other tests may be a test of vocabulary and verbal dexterity, or ask you to identify and correct errors, and so it is worth knowing a few definitions, (e.g. what are antonyms; synonyms; homonyms) and being clear on differences between words and phrases that are commonly confused or misspelled (their/there; whether/weather; your/you're; it's/its)

Use the free resources sign-posted above to practice the range of tests to discover your strengths. Beyond this, reading unfamiliar academic and business journals, manuals and technical reports may help, and you can practise extracting and summarising the main points from passages of information.

Tips and Tactics for taking test

You can be asked to do a test online in your own time, or in a formal test-setting as part of an assessment day, and don't be surprised if you are re-tested at an assessment centre as this is quite common.

If you have a disability which may affect your capacity to access the test fairly, tell the employer before you are due to take their test(s) so they can make reasonable adjustments. Adjustments are likely to be in line with the kind of adjustments you receive on your academic work. See the section below for a fuller explanation.

Our advice to all candidates is:

  • Before starting, ensure that you know exactly what you are required to do - do not be afraid to ask questions if there is a member of the recruitment team present.
  • Use the 'reading time' given to understand the instructions before starting any test.
  • Read questions and answer choices carefully - do not lose points due to simple mistakes.
  • For multiple choice questions, eliminate as many wrong answers as possible. For example, with numerical tests a quick estimate may help you to discard options without working out every alternative.
  • Both speed and accuracy are important, so:
    • Keep an eye on the clock.
    • Do not waste time on difficult questions. If you are stuck on a question, leave it and move on.
    • Don't worry if you do not finish all the questions in the time - often tests are designed to stretch even the most able candidates.
    • If you finish early, go back to questions you skipped or quickly check over your answers. 

Whether it is a good idea to guess if you do not know the right answer will depend on how the test is marked. 

  • If your score is a simple count all the correct answers, eliminating definitely wrong answers and then guessing improves the chances of a right answer, and quickly guessing answers to remaining questions right at the end of the test time can help lift your score.
  • If the test is scored negatively - that is, you lose points for wrong answers - it is better to work more deliberately and not guess answers.

Try to find out the marking scheme will work and chose a strategy based on that.

If you do not progress after sitting psychometric tests it can be hard to be sure why you were not successful.

  • Firstly, you will not know if you were just below the cut-off, nor will you know how many other candidates there were and thus the likely proportion of candidates who will have also been screened out.
  • Secondly, it can be hard to judge your own performance: for example, many tests are designed so that few people sitting them will complete all the questions. In this situation, you cannot know whether completing 28 of the 35 questions was high or low in comparison to other test-takers or the 'Norm Group' used to anchor candidate evaluation.
  • Moreover, computerised tests can now include adaptive questioning, so that the difficulty of the next question you face will vary depending on your performance on previous question(s):
    • a useful methodology that allows the test to more accurately pinpoint an individual's maximum level of performance; and
    • it is a good sign for the candidate if the test becomes more and more difficult.

Further, the choice of where to set the 'pass-mark' can be affected by a number of factors that are not visible to candidates. For example:

  • the 'Norm Curve' used to calibrate the test: if candidates are assessed against a 'high-performing norm group', such as the firm's previous graduate hires or managers.
  • the number of applications received and quality of other candidates.
  • the stage in the recruitment process when the test is used.

Remember, it is inevitable that some test-takes will fall short, and falling short in one selection process does not mean you will not succeed in subsequent applications.

Review your performance on the day and consider whether you really were at your best. How good was your preparation and practice? Were you feeling tired or under the weather? How was your test-taking technique on the day - your focus and concentration? Was your set-up good - no technical concerns, interruptions or disruptions? Were you answering questions too slowly or did you panic or freeze? Do you need to prepare differently next time?

If you are concerned, you may decide that further practice will be sufficient, or decide to undertake some specific development work to further develop particular abilities or skills. In Michaelmas Term the Careers Service will run one or two preparation sessions, and at any point you may want to discuss your test technique with a Careers Adviser.

Psychometric tests can be useful to counteract the biases inherent in other evaluative techniques, such as interviews, because everyone who takes a psychometric test is given an equivalent assessment, and takes it under the similar conditions. However, to ensure that tests are fair and to provide a 'level playing field' for everyone, most companies will make reasonable adjustments where appropriate.

For candidates who have a disclosed disability, adjustment may be similar to those you can expect for your academic work, such as allowing time to sit the test, setting a lower pass mark, providing a personal reader/writer or signer, or providing specialised equipment (e.g. loop systems/Braille keyboards). In cases where reasonable adjustment is not possible, the company may even waive the requirement for an individual to take their tests, which will be judged on a case-by-case basis.

Additional general information for people with disabilities is provided in the British Psychological Society's Test Takers Guide.

Disabled students

Recruiters are keen to have a diverse workforce and many will have policies and processes that are proactive in recruiting students and graduates from diverse backgrounds. An increasing number of recruiters are offering traineeships, internships and Insight events and many are being recognised for their approach to being inclusive employers. To find out the policies and attitudes of the recruiters that you are interested in, explore their equality, diversity and inclusion policy. Search their website to see if they have any specific staff networks, look out for external accreditation such as whether they are a Disability Confident employer, a Stonewall Diversity Champion or part of the Mindful Employer charter promoting mental health at work. Check to see if they are partnering with organisations such as Rare Recruitment, SEO London, MyPlus Students' Club (disability), EmployAbility (disability and neurodifference) and there are many more that are working for specific communities. A key place to look is to see what they do to celebrate diversity on their Facebook and Twitter pages.

The UK Equality Act 2010 has a number of protected characteristics to prevent discrimination due to your age, disability, gender reassignment, race, religion or beliefs, sex or sexual orientation. For further information on the Equality Act 2010 and to find out where and how you are protected, and what to do if you feel you have been discriminated against, visit the Government’s webpages on discrimination.

Non-native English speakers

If English is not your first language, you may be anxious about the effect this might have on your performance in psychometric tests, in particular in verbal reasoning tests. Do ask whether or not the company can make any appropriate adjustments as some tests may be available in you native language, while test providers can sometimes give employers an idea of the extent to which language ability may affect scores.

While recruiters may take your concerns about your level of English into account, different companies will be more or less flexible about this. Remember though that good English language ability will usually be important to organisations recruiting into UK based positions.

Practice resources from Oxford Careers Service

JobTestPrep: The Careers Service offers free access to current matriculated students: Request your personal Access Code by using the Queries tab in CareerConnect. An extensive range of preparation and practice tests across many different test types, including Situational Judgement Tests; the Waston Glaser CTA (frequently used by law firms); e-tray exercises; and tests designed to mirror tests used by some named companies.

Practice Aptitude Tests An additional free resource accessed using an Oxford University email address (i.e. one ending .ox.ac.uk)

Web-based resources for everyone

Other advice and free sites you can use include the following, given in alphabetic order. Please note that inclusion of a resource here is not an endorsement of the content or quality of the materials offered as we are not able to evaluate all the providers listed.

Graduate Career Websites

Online test specific resources

  • 12 minute prep.com - Series of free short introductory videos on different types of tests and advice on practise and maximising your performance.
  • Assessment Day Practice Aptitude Tests - includes numerical reasoning, verbal reasoning, inductive reasoning, psychometric tests and assessment centres
  • Assessment-training.com offers unlimited practice with fully worked solutions, and a personal progress tracking system to find weak spots.
  • Cubiks: Practice Tests - take free five-minute verbal and numerical reasoning tests (answers given, no feedback). Click on 'Cubiks online - Ability tests' to access them
  • Mensa - not aptitude tests as such, but the pages might get you used to thinking quickly in test situations. Also, try down the free 7-day trial of the Mensa Brain Training App for short games to test your Memory, Concentration, Agility, Perception and Reasoning.
  • Pearson TalentLens: Practice Tests - numerical reasoning and critical thinking tests
  • PracticeReasoningTests.com offers articles and advice on different test types: the articles on verbal, numeric and inductive reasoning provide a link to one free test example.
  • Morrisby - contains advice and sample abstract, verbal, numerical, perceptual, shape and mechanical test questions.
  • Psych Testing - information from the British Psychological Society on tests and test usage
  • Psychometric Success.com - free practice tests in a range of reasoning skills
  • SHL Direct - examples of verbal, numerical and diagrammatic tests plus practice tests and feedback from one of the largest UK test publishers
  • Test Partnership - examples of numeric, verbal, inductive reasoning and critical thinking tests and some personality/style questionnaires. Use the "Candidate Preparation" button to launch a practise test.
  • TryTalentQ - click the Try Elements Ability Test to register for their free tests

Personality questionnaires

Read our Generating Career Ideas briefing for advice and suggestions of many personality based resources you might use to support career planning and development. 

  • Diagonal Thinking TestA free test offered by the Institute of Practitioners in Advertising (IPA) that helps you check whether your skill-set fits a career in the advertising sector.
  • Team Technology: Personality Tests - useful introduction to personality questionnaires with links to several examples

Situational judgement and critical thinking tests

Sector-specific tests

Basic numeracy

Equal opportunities

  • The British Psychological Society's Test Takers Guide provides general information about preparing for a test, information for people with disabilities, what happens during and after a test session and what psychological tests measure.
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