Using selection tests

In addition to the interview itself, there are a number of selection methods and tests that you can ask your shortlisted candidates to perform. Which tests work best, and which are appropriate for your vacancy?

For many vacancies, the process of shortlisting candidates from an application form or CV, then conducting one or more interviews, will be sufficient for making an informed appointment. However, it is increasingly common to employ a range of selection tests as part of the recruitment process. Selection tests fit broadly into one of the following categories:

  • Aptitude tests (testing appropriate skills or knowledge required for the position)
  • Intelligence tests (commonly known as IQ tests)
  • Personality tests (attempting to match a candidate’s personality traits with those required of the job holder)
  • Work sample tests (asking the candidate to perform actual or realistic appropriate work tasks)

You will often hear cognitive or psychological tests referred to collectively as psychometric tests.

The skill is to introduce only such selection testing methods that are appropriate for the position for which you are recruiting. It is a good idea when reviewing the job and person specifications to consider how you might establish that a candidate fulfils each requirement. Is there a simple task that you could ask a candidate to perform that would confirm this? For some requirements, it is very simple. For example, you could ask a candidate to type a letter to check for speed and accuracy. But for other circumstances, it is much harder. How would you test that a candidate works well as part of a team, for example?

There are a variety of techniques available to make your recruitment decision more scientific, and less of a gut reaction.

Attainment tests

Attainment tests test a candidate’s basic skills or knowledge. They can be as simple as an elementary spelling, grammar or arithmetic test included as part of the first or second interview stage. Other examples include:

  • Speed typing test (if the vacancy is secretarial)
  • Financial calculations (if an accounting, bookkeeping or management position)
  • Translation test (if the vacancy requires two or more languages)

An attainment test can provide stark and irrefutable evidence of a candidate’s ability. Occasionally, the most impressive person at interview will fail the simplest of arithmetic tests, making them wholly unsuitable for the position. If you decide to use attainment tests, make sure that all candidates complete the same questions in the same conditions. It may sound obvious, but do not allow a favoured candidate to complete their test at home, and send it in at a later stage. The results of the tests are only useful if every candidate is treated in the same way.

It is also dangerous to assume that the standard of written English in a candidate’s CV or application form is a reflection of their communication skills at large. Someone may have helped them with their application, or even written it for them. An attainment test is a quick way to check.

Personality tests

How do you measure a candidate’s personality? Surely that is something you gauge when talking to them at interview? You form an opinion about whether the candidate is shy or outgoing, confident or nervous, challenging or submissive. To a degree, this is true. But there are now a number of personality tests available that are designed to predict how a candidate is likely to perform in a particular working environment. They range from the simple, quick questionnaire to the complex and sophisticated psychological evaluation.

Personality tests often follow a similar format: Candidates must answer a hundred or more multiple-choice questions in a short period of time. The principle is that a candidate must provide an almost instant, instinctive response to each question. There are no right or wrong answers, just personal ones.

In reality, personality tests can only give a broad indication of a candidate’s behaviour in a given situation, or provide a means for measuring extremes of personality. For example, a test might highlight that a candidate is confident to the point of arrogance, which would be inappropriate for someone joining a small, established team. The main drawback of personality tests lies in the belief that one is qualified to define the optimum personality required for a given role. It is straightforward to define the skills required in a job or person specification, but much harder to conclude from it the personality traits desired. Nevertheless there are occasions when using a personality test is desirable. Examples include:

  1. As an initial screening device in order to reject candidates who are obviously unsuited to the role.
  2. Recruiting a new member into an established team or department.
  3. Recruiting for roles demanding a particularly outgoing, confident person.

If you decide to include a personality test as part of your recruitment process, make sure that you:

  • Get expert and professional help to interpret the results
  • Balance the test results with other factors, such as how the candidate performed at interview
  • Do not read too much into the answers given. It is very easy to take one of the answers too literally (e.g. prefer playing squash to playing rugby), and draw an inappropriate conclusion (e.g. this person would not enjoy working as part of a team)

Handwriting tests

Some organisations employ handwriting experts to determine personality characteristics, and so aid the selection process. Handwriting experts, called graphologists, can measure factors such as self-esteem, creativity, energy levels, honesty and ability to work with others. Supporters of handwriting tests claim that they are as reliable a predictor of personality as a number of other more complex personality tests. But remember that the same shortfalls as for other personality tests will apply.

Results from handwriting tests are best used to confirm findings from other tests, and as just one part of the selection process. Always employ the services of an expert when interpreting a candidate’s handwriting. Never assume that you are able to do it yourself!

Intelligence tests

A number of sophisticated techniques exist to test a candidate’s visual, numerical and verbal reasoning. You may remember having to answer questions that involve identifying a pattern or sequence amongst words or numbers. For example:

2 – 4 – 8 – 16 – ? – 64 – 128

Spatial awareness is often tested by having to identify the odd one out in a series of similar shapes. Before incorporating intelligence tests into your selection process, you should consider how important intelligence is for the role. A repetitive manual role would not require a highly intelligent person so, as with all selection methods, make sure that the test you use is appropriate for the role for which you are recruiting.

If the role requires an ability to learn quickly, reason or act decisively, you may wish to use intelligence tests as part of the selection process. Remember, though, that roles requiring high intelligence probably also require common sense, communication skills and interpersonal skills, so make sure that these are given equal priority.

Work sample tests

Ideally, you would like to know how well a short listed candidate would perform in the actual job before you appoint them. Although this is rarely possible, you could ask the candidate to perform an actual or simulated task that is typical to the role. Such tasks are called work sample tests, or analogous tests. They are reasonably straightforward to devise, and you can base them on actual events, or you can create a scenario or problem that the job holder is likely to face. The examples below demonstrate how to include a work sample test into a variety of jobs.

Customer service roles

Typically, the role may involve responding to customer requests or complaints by letter. An appropriate test might be to give the candidate an actual or fictitious letter of complaint, and ask them to respond to it. If the role requires good telephone skills, get a colleague to assume the role of a customer, and ask the candidate to phone them.

Accounting roles

Junior accounting roles often involve bookkeeping, bank reconciliation or maintaining simple balance sheets. You could give the candidate a sample balance sheet containing errors, and asking them to correct it.

Cashier roles

You would have to give the candidate a few simple instructions first, but why not get them to cash up an actual till? This gives you a very accurate picture of how quickly and efficiently they would perform this task in the role.


There are a variety of work sample tests you could set for secretarial recruits. For example, you could provide handwritten notes from a meeting, and ask the candidate to design and type up the Minutes. Or you could mark up some corrections in pen to a previously typed report, and ask the candidate to correct it. In fact, you could create a realistic in-tray of a number of appropriate tasks, giving you the opportunity to see how the candidate prioritises and sorts their workload, and then how they perform each task.

Sales roles

Selling often involves making presentations to key clients. Why not ask candidates to give a ten-minute presentation as part of the second interview? This may put some candidates off, but that is probably a good thing: It demonstrates that either they are poor presenters, or that they cannot be bothered to spend time preparing for it. Either way, you have identified that they are wrong for the role.

For most roles, it is possible to think up a suitable work sample test to include as part of the selection process. But, as with other testing methods, do not place too much emphasis on the results of a single test. A candidate who has done a similar job before is likely to perform the task much better than someone who is new to the role. But that does not mean that the candidate new to the role could not learn how to perform the task just as well. So you should employ work sample tests to confirm a short listed candidate’s suitability for the role, rather than simply appoint the person who performs the task best. And don’t forget that you are only testing how a candidate performs a task, not how well they work with other people.

Games / role play

There are some testing methods that are best used with a short listed group of candidates. It might be appropriate to bring together the short list, and ask them to work collectively on a variety of tasks. If you think that this approach is appropriate for the role you are recruiting for, you will get more from it if you employ a professional team builder of psychologist to work with you. Try to get the short list together for three or four hours, so that you can try out a number of group tests.

Problem solving

You could present a problem, real or imagined, for the group to solve collectively. Look for the leaders, the followers, the know-alls and the reflective candidates. How quickly do they start working as a team, rather than a collection of individuals? Who is binding this team together?


The right role-play scenario will vary from job to job, but split the short list into pairs, and provide them with realistic situations to work with. You will notice that some candidates love role-play, and others hate it. Some candidates treat it as a big joke, while others take it very seriously.


It can be useful to bring the group together around a table, and give them a topic to discuss amongst themselves. You can steer them to get them started, but then leave the momentum to them. This can be a very stressful scenario for the candidates, so do not expect the conversation to flow straight away. You should not intervene, however, but take a back seat and observe how the group performs. Who is bold enough to start the conversation? Who remains quiet throughout? Who argues strongly?

Social situations

It may be appropriate to end the event with a social gathering with other members of the organisation. If the role requires good social skills then this may be particularly appropriate. You can observe who introduces themselves confidently, and who cowers in a corner of the room. Who eats with their mouth full? If it forms part of the role, then these things matter.

Selection tests: Checklist:

  • Would a selection test assist your recruitment procedure?
  • Which selection test would you use?
  • Is there a suitable work sample test you could devise?
  • Would a role play exercise fit the culture of your organisation?