Everything you need to know about cognitive ability assessments: what they are, different types, pros and cons, the science behind it, and best practices for implementing them to streamline your recruiting efforts in one neat guide!

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BY DEEPTI CHOPRA

Co-founder of Adaface

Introduction: Aptitude tests for better and faster hiring

According to a new CareerBuilder survey, companies lost an average of $14,900 on every bad hire in the last year, and making a bad hire is a common mistake — 74% say they've hired the wrong person for a position.

Aptitude tests have been used to screen potential employees across many different sectors and industries for long. They're now an integral part of the interview process for several companies across the globe. Companies also use these tests for promoting and training. The goal is to get the right people, with the right skills, in the right jobs.

⭐⭐⭐⭐⭐ 76% of organizations with more than 100 employees use tests for external hiring.

With 250 candidates applying to each corporate job according to this study, pre-employment tests can provide tremendous value for organizations looking for the right talent. Adding a pre-employment assessment to the hiring process gives companies better control of the candidate pool applying for open roles.

Technology made it easier for candidates to apply to a role without reading the job description with the click of the button. And technology makes it easy for companies to integrate pre-employment assessments into the hiring process.

Keep reading our ultimate guide to aptitude testing to find out more about how to get started!

What's included:

What are aptitude tests

Aptitude is variously defined as innate learning ability, the specific ability needed to facilitate learning a job, aptness, knack, suitability, readiness, tendency, natural or acquired disposition or capacity for a particular activity, or innate component of competency.

Cognitive aptitude, sometimes called general intelligence, is the single most accurate predictor of job performance. Employment aptitude tests assess qualities that are critical to almost all mid- and higher-level jobs.

Aptitude tests usually consist of questions that help in evaluating the cognitive, comprehension, critical thinking, logical analysis, and decision-making abilities of candidates.

Pre-employment tests are an objective, standardized way of gathering data on candidates during the hiring process. These tests are usually designed to help evaluate the potential candidates for the knowledge, intelligence, communication, analysis, cognition, and decision-making skills they possess.

Aptitude assessments are used to predict success or failure in an undertaking. The main reason companies use aptitude testing is to improve the quality of hiring and promoting.

Why do companies use aptitude tests

These days, any job vacancy is likely to attract a large pool of potential candidates. Pre-screening these applicants can help reduce the number to a more manageable size who then go forward into a more rigorous screening phase.

The following are some of the main reasons companies use aptitude tests to screen candidates.

  • They offer time and cost savings: Today employers like assessments because they greatly reduce the time and cost of recruiting and hiring. These short and engaging tests can be used early in the hiring process to quickly and reliably screen out unsuitable applicants - saving their time and yours.
  • They are an efficient filter: As long as the test is professionally developed and validated, it is an efficient and reliable means of gaining insights into the capabilities of prospective employees.
  • Aptitude tests offer objective comparisons:   Tests are often much more efficient than interviews for determining if a person has the potential to do a job well. And when designed properly, aptitude tests can fairly and objectively compare and contrast the potential of different candidates. Tests prevent interviewers from accepting/ rejecting candidates based on conscious or unconscious biases.
  • Aptitude tests can identify otherwise hidden talents: Some candidates are just not great at interviewing, irrespective of their ability to do the job well. Tests identify talented people who might not be recognised in any other way.
  • Tests offer a standard: Standardization means that the process is fair by definition. So if your recruitment practices are legally challenged at any point, the tests may help prove that you provide equal opportunity employment.
  • Tests widen the candidate pool: Aptitude tests can be administered remotely and scored automatically, so they widen the pool of candidates a company can cater to.

The aptitude test is a level playing field: companies value this method of screening because it is a fair way of comparing different candidates regardless of educational background. Pre-employment aptitude tests are the necessity of the modern corporate world.

Potential problems of aptitude testing

While aptitude tests make it easier to compare candidates by assigning a number to each of them, predicting human performance on a task is way more complicated than that. This is why aptitude tests, even well-researched ones receive a lot of flak from critics. The main arguments against aptitude tests are:

  • They risk having a cultural bias: We develop our abilities through experience. And our experience includes our background, education, opportunities, and home environment, which can affect testing results. For example, most aptitude tests involve reading and understanding data, lack of experience in reading can negatively affect a candidate's score. Similarly, if a candidate is not well versed in the language the test is administered in, they might be at a huge disadvantage.
  • Aptitude and performance aren't perfectly correlated: Having an aptitude for a skill does not guarantee that a person will perform that skill well. There are several other factors that affect performance: interest, motivation, and training.
  • Aptitude tests need to be customized to various roles: There is no one-size-fits-all aptitude test that can accurately predict job performance for any role. The tests must be tailored to the various positions in the company.  Each job requires different skills and the tests must accurately capture those. The thing to keep in mind is that the tests must be kept current and relevant. This can make aptitude tests costly to develop and administer.
  • Aptitude tests can scare away candidates: Aptitude tests may induce anxiety and make the applicant quite stressed and the hiring teams must take into account the effect such a reaction will have on the outcome.
  • They offer an incomplete picture: One of the key challenges of pre-employment tests is to ensure they measure an applicant’s true capabilities and characteristics, as it’s widely known that pressure and stress can drag some job seekers’ test scores down. You may find that ‘perfect’ candidates, who have both the right experience and capabilities, are filtered out of the recruitment process merely because they didn’t pass the basic pre-employment test requirements.
  • Aptitude tests can intimidate candidates: One of the key challenges of these pre-employment tests is to ensure they measure an applicant’s true capabilities and characteristics. It is widely known that pressure and stress can drag test scores down for some candidates. It is possible that a few good candidates, who have the right experience and capabilities, are filtered out of the recruitment process because they didn’t pass the basic pre-employment test requirements.

The best way to reduce the chance of problems with aptitude tests is to use them as only one part of your overall hiring and promoting process. These tests, by themselves, cannot show a person's potential. You need a balanced approach to your recruitment and development systems.

Use aptitude tests for elimination, not for selection

One important thing we need to keep in mind while implementing aptitude tests in our hiring process is that it is an elimination tool, not a selection tool.

You want to use the test to eliminate the candidates who do not qualify for the role, not to select the candidates who come out at the top.

While these might mean the same thing in a lot of cases, it is important to understand that the cut-off score you use needs to be decided for the purpose of elimination, not for selection. While these tests are super valuable, they do paint the entire picture of a candidate’s abilities, knowledge, and motivations.

Types of aptitude tests

Aptitude tests can be broadly classified as speed tests or power tests. The types of questions you can expect will depend on which aptitudes and abilities are needed in the job you are applying for.

Categorization by experience level/ role:

Speed tests: In speed tests, the questions are relatively simple straightforward and the test measures how many questions a candidate can answer correctly in the allotted time. The scope of the questions is pretty limited. These tests are typically in selection at the administrative/ clerical level or for more junior roles.

Power tests: Power tests present a smaller number of more complex questions, and check the candidate's ability to solve these complex challenges. Power tests tend to be used more at the professional or managerial level or for more senior roles.

Categorization by skills tested:

There are different types of tests available based on the skills and capabilities to be tested. For instance, a sales/ customer representative job may need a candidate with fluent communication skills while a managerial role might require the individual to be adept at analysis and making good decisions promptly.

Based on the skills tested, these are the main categories of aptitude tests. An aptitude test can either focus on testing just one of the following skills, or it might cover multiple, depending on the role.

Numerical reasoning

Numerical aptitude defines the ability of an individual to execute tasks relating to the handling of numbers. Numerical reasoning tests help measure a candidate's mathematical and data interpretation skills.

  • These tests test basic mathematical concepts, formulas, and operators, such as percentage and ratio, fractions, number sequences, numerical logic, numerical word problems, and also to have knowledge of fundamental financial concepts.
  • Data interpretation questions are presented in the form of figures, graphs, charts, or tables and candidates need to deduce information from these for answering the questions.
  • These are generally administered for graduate and top-level managerial positions.
  • None of the questions are above high-school level, however, candidates need to be competent to do well on these tests.
  • Most general aptitude tests have at least a few questions on numerical reasoning because employers usually want some indication of a candidate's ability to use numbers even if it is not a major part of the job.

Logical reasoning

These tests are used for measuring the ability to analyze the logic and establish relationships between objects. The tests consist of diagrams, images, and patterns that one is required to examine for interconnection. They assess how well a candidate can follow through to a conclusion given basic information, or using current knowledge or experience.

The logical reasoning tests may be further divided into different categories depending on the types of questions they will contain and the logic required to deduce answers for them.

  • Inductive reasoning: These are similar to diagrammatic or abstract reasoning tests, and often involve spotting patterns. In the inductive reasoning tests, a given set of occurrences is used to determine the common rule governing them all for finding a conclusion. There will usually be given a set of figures, wherein each figure will be similar to the others in the set with a slight variation. The variation in different figures of the set usually follows a specific pattern. The candidate needs to determine the underlying pattern and choose the option from the answer that might be the next figure in the given pattern.
  • Deductive reasoning: These are similar to logical reasoning tests. A deductive reasoning test usually requires a candidate to use a set of given statements and rules to deduce a conclusion from them. The questions in the tests typically consist of syllogisms or arrangement problems. A syllogism is a logical problem that has multiple propositions, also called premises, which are used to derive a conclusion. The arrangement problems define a specific set of rules and one needs to find the order of the arrangement of given objects in the question based on these rules.

Critical thinking

A critical thinking test, also known as a critical reasoning test, determines the ability to reason through an argument logically and make an objective decision.

  • The test requires candidates to assess a situation, recognize assumptions being made, create hypotheses, and evaluate arguments.
  • Assumption questions include a statement and a number of assumptions and the candidates are required to identify whether an assumption has been made or not. Argument questions test the ability to distinguish between arguments that are strong and arguments that are weak.
  • These tests are used in graduate, professional, and managerial recruitment. They are very common in the legal and banking sector.

Abstract reasoning

Abstract reasoning measures a candidate's ability to identify the underlying logic of a pattern and then determine the solution.  Abstract reasoning ability is believed to be the best indicator of fluid intelligence and the ability to learn new things quickly.

  • It measures a candidate's lateral thinking skills (fluid intelligence), which are the ability to quickly identify patterns, logical rules, and trends in new data, integrate this information and apply it to solve problems.
  • Employers use abstract reasoning tests to learn the extent to which a candidate is capable of efficiently learning new skills and processing and analysing new work-related data in a logical manner.
  • These questions appear in most general aptitude and intelligence tests.

Spatial reasoning or diagrammatic reasoning tests

Spatial reasoning is a category of reasoning skills that refers to the capacity to think about objects in three dimensions or to visualize three-dimensional objects presented as two-dimensional pictures and to draw conclusions about those objects from limited information.

  • It is one of the most basic reasoning abilities and is highly correlated to general intelligence, or cognitive aptitude.
  • They assess how well one can follow diagrammatic information or spot patterns. Spatial reasoning questions test the innate aptitude and how well one will be able to learn, solve problems, and make use of new information correctly.
  • Typical questions involve things like mentally unfolding a cube and rotating shapes so they fit together.
  • One of the reasons employers like to test spatial reasoning is that it is generally independent of education, culture, and language.  Being able to visualize and manipulate shapes and pictures doesn’t require any specific training.

Verbal reasoning

Verbal reasoning tests help to measure a candidate's cognitive and comprehension skills and the ability to understand language.

  • Questions are usually in the form of a textual passage and a set of statements that a candidate needs to evaluate based on the passage. The subject of the content in the passage may either be generic or it may relate to the domain of the job.
  • Tasks include also spelling, grammar, ability to understand analogies, and follow detailed written instructions.
  • These tests assess how well one understands written information and can evaluate arguments and statements.
  • Verbal reasoning tests are usually used for jobs that will require employees to have required strong communication skills. Employers want to be sure that candidates will be able to communicate clearly with both coworkers and customers, whether it is emailing members of the team, giving a presentation, talking on the phone, or helping clients.
  • They might be challenging for people who do not speak English natively.

Situational Judgment Tests

To evaluate performance in real-life work situations, situational judgment tests are usually used. Candidates are presented with a problem that might be encountered at the workplace with multiple solutions to choose from. The way the candidate approach and tackle the problem helps predict how they would perform at the job.

  • These exercises assess candidates’ natural responses to given situations. Usually, these are scenarios that one would be likely to face when in the job.
  • Several employers host tests in a game format on their websites to enable graduates to see if they would be a good fit. These tests are usually designed to be fun and appealing but can be a wake-up call if the candidates are less well suited to working for that particular organisation than they think.
  • These are used as part of the recruitment process, to gauge how a candidate might operate in the role. The test results may also help the recruiter decide which area of the business the candidate would suit best.

Role specific aptitude tests

Some employers administer aptitude tests that are specific to the roles that a candidate may be performing at the new job position. For example: for a job position relating to manufacturing and production, mechanical comprehension tests may be given to determine knowledge in this sphere. An error checking test may be conducted to analyze a candidate's ability to thoroughly read information, and compare sets of data containing the same information in different formats.

Can aptitude tests really predict employee success

Valid tests help companies measure three critical elements of success on the job: competence, work ethic, and emotional intelligence. Though employers still look for evidence of those qualities in resumes, reference checks, and interviews, they need a fuller picture to make smart hires.

Aptitude tests typically tests skills that are critical to most all mid/ high level jobs.

  • Problem-solving
  • Critical thinking
  • Attention to detail
  • The ability to learn, digest, and apply new information

Research shows that tests for such traits are much better predictors of performance than are years of experience or education—the sort of data that candidates typically highlight in their applications.

Employment aptitude tests provide you with a rapid and precise way of measuring the abilities required to succeed in nearly every occupation. Administering tests to your candidates helps you make better talent decisions. Candidates who score well on employment aptitude tests are more likely to successfully complete training, better equipped to adapt and evolve and learn new skills in fast-changing work environments, and tend to be better decision-makers.

Research shows that cognitive aptitude is one of the best predictors of your job performance. It's significantly more predictive than interviews, previous job experience, and your education level. Cognitive aptitude tests are twice as predictive as job interviews, three times as predictive as experience, and four times as predictive as education level.

History of aptitude tests

Pre-hire assessments have known to be around at least since the Han dynasty in the third century. Chinese imperial leaders used them to evaluate knowledge, intellect, and moral integrity when selecting civil servants.

The first known test was described as an intelligence aptitude test. However, it differed significantly from tests of today. The history of the aptitude testing officially starts with Sir Francis Galton. He created the first test in the early 19th century. But while Galton’s experiments were mainly physical and sensory, today tests focus more on mental/ cognitive ability.

Modern personality and intelligence tests were introduced in the United States and Europe during World War I to aid in military selection, and after World War II companies started adopting them to screen applicants.

During the First World War, Robert Yerkes, a leading member of the new IQ testing movement, persuaded the U.S. Army to let him test all recruits for intelligence. This test--the Army Alpha--was the first mass administered IQ test. One of Yerkes' assistants was a young psycholoist named Carl Brigham, who taught at Princeton.

After the war, Brigham began adapting the Army Alpha (mainly by making it more difficult) for use as a college admissions test. It was first administered experimentally to a few thousand college applicants in 1926. Today, aptitude tests are commonly employed in selection and placement decisions.

Which companies use aptitude tests

Companies across the globe use aptitude tests to filter candidates as the first step of their hiring process:

Citibank is the consumer division of financial services multinational Citigroup. Citibank provides credit cards, mortgages, personal loans, commercial loans, and lines of credit.

  • Citibank uses aptitude/ reasoning tests as the first step after the application.
  • Candidates need to score above 70th percentile in their online aptitude tests to move on to the next recruitment stage.

JPMorgan Chase & Co. is a leading global financial services firm and one of the largest banking institutions in the United States, with operations worldwide.

  • Every year JP Morgan receive tens of thousands of job applications in the UK alone. There are only a few job openings at JP Morgan and so the competition is extremely tough. In order to streamline the recruitment process, JP Morgan use online aptitude tests.
  • JP Morgan Chase Bank rejects 80-90% of job applicants based solely on the results of online psychometric tests.

P&G short for Procter & Gamble, is an American multinational consumer goods corporation. P&G strives for hiring the best, investing in talented people and developing them to their maximum potential.

  • Every year almost a million applicants worldwide go through the P&G screening process, and only about 1% get through the door.
  • The recruitment process at P&G usually involves an assessment with aptitude tests in it. This test is called the P&G Reasoning Test. This online assessment is used to measure skills and abilities that generally do not emerge from interviews.
  • Their PEAK Performance Assessment test (once called the P&G Success Drivers Assessment), is similar to the Situational Judgement Tests.

Ford is a large international car manufacturing company. Ford is the largest publicly traded company in the world. It employs over 190,000 people and is active in 73 countries worldwide.

  • Ford offers a variety of engineering positions: process, project, mechanical, electrical, software design, program management, product development, among others. All of these positions, including process coaches and supervisory positions, are filled using the same application process.
  • This process begins with three tests, after which candidates go through a phone screening followed by an on-site interview. Two of the tests are designed to measure reasoning skills (numerical and verbal), while the third test assesses if a candidate's personality fits with the company's culture.

Ericsson, is a Multinational Telecommunication company, headquartered in Sweden.

  • The selection procedure will consist of four rounds- Aptitude Test, Group Discussion, Technical Interview and HR (Human Resource) Interview. The Aptitude Test has three sections- Quantitative Aptitude, Logical Reasoning and Verbal Aptitude of 45 minutes with no negative marking.

BHP Billiton is the world’s largest mining company. This multinational company uses numerical reasoning, logical reasoning, and verbal reasoning tests for graduates.

Australian Defence Force uses aptitude tests during the online testing process and during the assessment centre day. The online test focuses on cognitive and analytic abilities, while the assessment centre aptitude test will focus on problem-solving skills, communication, resourcefulness, and technical proficiency.

When in the process to plug an aptitude test

Evidence suggests that > 50% of applicants today embellish their CVs, reducing their utility as initial screening tools. At the same time, web-based psychometric testing tools have made testing less expensive and more convenient. Recent research across industries shows that these tests are good predictors of performance.

You must first understand what you want to accomplish with your testing process, and then find the appropriate test. By doing a little research, carefully choosing your tests, and combining them with other assessment methods, you can improve your hiring and promoting process – and increase the chances of matching the right people with the right jobs.

Most companies can reduce costs and make better hires by using short, web-based psychometric tests as the first screening step. Such tests efficiently weed out the least-suitable applicants, leaving a smaller, better-qualified pool to undergo the more costly and personalized aspects of the process.

Enhance candidate experience for higher completion rates

Companies want to create a good candidate experience while at the same time, get the relevant job-related information they need to evaluate the candidates applying for the job. At times these objectives can be inconsistent with each other, but at the end of the day, it doesn't need to be that way.

Candidates tend to respond more positively to scenario based high quality tests than they do to conventional tests. The idea is to engage the candidate in a fun environment without forgetting the purpose of the tests. Whether the candidate gets hired or not, it is important to make them feel like they had a fair shot to showcase their abilities and potential through an engaging process of assessments. Aptitude tests help with that. Communication and support are imperative.

Here are some ways you can make your screening process more candidate friendly, and drive up completion rates:

  • Let candidates know what to expect: Letting the candidates know that they should expect an email with details on how to complete the aptitude test is seen to improve completion rates. This is primarily because this helps candidates know that you are actively hiring, and their results will be looked at and they will be invited to interview if they do well on the test.
  • Share your hiring process in advance: One way to let candidates know well in advance is to detail the hiring process in the job description or career page. This helps candidates alleviate anxiety and lets them know that their application will not end up in a black hole.
  • Let them know if they need to prepare: For instance, candidates might need access to a scratch pad and a calculator to complete numerical reasoning tests. Letting them know in advance avoids last minute panic.
  • Reiterate that the tests are quite simple: This helps put their mind at ease. The most common psychometric aptitude tests are designed at the high school level. There’s just a lot of questions in a short space of time.  
  • Use a mobile responsive assessment: Use an aptitude test that is optimized for completion on smartphones, so that applicants can complete the tests at their own convenience on any device. Make sure that candidates do not need to download any software to complete the assessment, it is hardware agnostic and will work seamlessly in low bandwith scenarios.
  • Gamification can keep things engaging: Gamified elements enhance the experience, making serious situations more engaging. The challenge is not to get so caught up in making a test into a cool game that we forget about the primary purpose of the assessment, which is to measure specific job related competencies in an accurate and fair manner.
  • Take feedback from candidates: One opportunity a lot of companies miss out on is asking their candidates for feedback on their screening tool and hiring process. Since the candidate is the one who took the assessment on the platform you chose, they're your best shot at getting accurate feedback about the quality of questions, the experience of going through an assessment on that particular platform and the overall hiring process at your company.
  • Use a candidate friendly assessment tool: Use a tool that has a modern look and feel, does not feel like a test, and uses friendly and encouraging messaging. The rise of chatbots in the recent years makes it possible to test candidates and get insights into their skills without intimidating them.
  • Send rejection emails: Let candidates know if you will not be proceeding with their application.

Research has shown that aptitude tests are powerful predictors of long-term professional success. No other psychometric assessment tool provides as much added value for HR decisions.