Psycho-metric, baby…or just crazy?
Are you an extrovert, an introvert, or just a bit neurotic? Or have you never taken a psychometric test? For those not currently scouring the job market, these tests have become basic filters for recruitment and are deemed by 65% of employers to be an efficient and accurate way of measuring intelligence and ability. Long gone are the days of hand-written CVs and multitudes of interviews: companies can now easily sift through the mountains of application forms to source the best talent that our graduate pool has to offer with a few online questions. But when put to the test, do they really work?
You may remember the old IQ test. Although their results remain highly regarded, they became politically unpalatable. People were no longer comfortable with the idea one’s fate was secured with the outcome of one’s IQ. Yet in the employment sector, this test and its various equivalents remain strong and are used all over the world.
I recently applied to BBC North and was sent an email inviting me to complete an online assessment. I would have three minutes to answer each question – a surprisingly short amount of time to recover from a mind blank – and the questions would be multiple choice. I was presented with an array of video scenarios and what-would-you-do questions. Four answers: one obviously wrong, and three very similar and possibly right. I chose haphazardly and pressed “next” until, to my relief around one hour later, the test came to an end.
I sat back and exhaled. I couldn’t believe that was it. But what about all my journalism experience? What about my work placements? What about…me? How is BBC North going to get to know any of that since I’ve just most likely failed their “basic filter”?
Psychometric tests are a quick, cost-effective method used by larger companies with a significant number of vacancies to fill. They were first developed in America to deal with mass immigration in the work force and, combined with our flat degree system, have since become a multi-billion dollar industry. But not all firms take the same route to find the perfect candidate.
One fourth year at Durham, recently contracted by one of the “magic circle” law firms, Allen and Overy, criticizes the use of psychometric tests as an effective screening process.
“They are totally ambiguous and have nothing to do with how intelligent you are. It’s not just Allen and Overy who avoid them: other law firms such as Slaughter and May, commonly known as one of the most prestigious companies in the industry, only ask for a covering letter and CV. If they like you, you’ll get an interview. That’s a much better way of getting to know someone and assessing their strengths.”
After submitting his CV to the law firm for an internship, for which around 1200 hopefuls applied, he was accepted for a two week placement. He then was offered a full training contract and sponsorship for his conversion course.
“You never get any feedback for the tests,” he adds. “So with all the other firms I applied to such as JP Morgan, I never knew where I went wrong or right, unless they invited me to interview.”
So, can you describe the meaning of “latent”? Do you know the opposite of “impervious”? Can you smoothly dissect and analyse a pie chart? If these questions leave you reaching for “next”: simply google “psychometric test” and you will be presented with a whole array of websites where you can practice your skills. Again, the question has to be asked: does real “aptitude” increase parallel to the amount of time spent practising beforehand?
Not according to psychology Professor Paddy O’Donnell from Glasgow University.
“Practise makes little difference. The online sites which claim to help you are mostly con-jobs. Unless the tests are always using the same items, practising might move your mark up by about 2-3%.”
But practise aside, how accurate are these tests in the first place?
Worryingly accurate, so it would seem.
“There are plenty of cowboys out there who sell unauthenticated tests to companies. But there are many other tests which have been validated against tens of thousands of people, maybe over 40 years. And the reality is that these validated tests are reliable and accurate.”
Professor O’Donnell explains that there are two types of accuracy: reliability (producing a stable result) and validity (testing what it claims to be testing) and, in both cases, O’Donnell estimates that these online exams are 90-95% accurate. Therefore, when it comes to general ability and problem solving, the tests are well adapted at picking out the suitable candidates.
“Personality tests are also reliable and valid as they produce the same results with different variables, for example a change in your mood,” O’Donnell says. “It maps onto your behaviour and can accurately predict how you will behave in real life.”
According to various careers websites, these tests help to orientate people on their career path by matching suitable job roles to their capabilities. So don’t be surprised if the extroverts become RAF pilots and the neurotic introverts become accountants.
But there are different measures of intelligence, and those who are inadequately experienced in verbal reasoning or numerical accuracy are simply being swept under the carpet. Professor O’Donnell agrees that testing for specific qualities can be problematic.
“The trouble with leadership ability tests, for example, is that there are various ways of being a leader: therefore testing for very specific qualities tends to mean that the test is not very well authenticated.”
A blogger for the Guardian, Harry Freedman, would agree with this point. Along with the fact that these tests can neither preclude the job seeker from using Wikipedia to find the test answer during his allotted response time nor differentiate one potential employer from another, he writes;
“Psychometric testing is a very broad brush approach to understanding the specific traits and skills of very complex human beings”.
But Freedman might be reminded that with most graduates churning out 2:1s, we “complex human beings” do tend to look similar.
O’Donnell gives me one last, chilling predicament: American universities often use what is called the “scholastic aptitude test” to select candidates for grad school. With rising fees and thousands of A* pupils to choose from, is Durham far behind? I suddenly find myself longing for that arduous, traditional process we call UCAS.
As fate would have it, I must have chosen the correct answers for BBC North as, two months later, I found out that I had passed their test. However, I still like to think that my personality is like a (very complex) piece of string: there will always be a degree of latitude.