The Thousand Year Old Interview Exam

1st Nov, 2019

Some people will tell you that psychometric testing has been around for more than a thousand years. Seventh century Chinese historical records show that candidates for important dynastic jobs underwent a suite of aptitude tests to gauge their ability to manage income and expenditure, legal governance and military strategy. In the modern era, their invention tends to be associated with a nineteenth century English polymath, Francis Galton, who developed early measures of ‘intelligence’ through tests of sensory and motor skills. He charged people a small fee to give them a report on their cognitive strengths and weaknesses. Meanwhile in France, psychologists were developing what could be easily recognised today as psychometric testing to help measure the extent of learning difficulties experienced by children.

Fast forward to today and there is a whole industry built around psychometric instruments that promise reliable measures of verbal or mathematical ability, cognitive aptitudes, personality types and the capacity to respond productively to management issues or to handle stress. An important part of their rationale is to allow employers to compare candidates one against the other, or against an industry average, and to remove some of the subjectivity that can result from only assessing some-one on the basis of their free form responses to a set of interview questions.

The caveat for all this is that their dependability derives from the quality of training and expertise that those administering the tests can demonstrate from their interpretation of the data. As in any industry, employers and candidates will want to ensure that their test administrator is quality assured by a trustworthy company. Membership of bodies like the British Psychological Society or the Psychological Society of Ireland also sends a positive signal.

One question candidates ask themselves is whether or not these tests can be prepared for. When it comes to straightforward finance-oriented testing, there is nothing to stop you booking up on exercises over a period of time (i.e. not just the night before an assessment), and making sure you know how to interpret, say, a set of annual accounts. The same goes for verbal reasoning tests – you can find examples of tests online and hone your ability to comprehend and draft text. But preparing for personality tests? Not so much. ‘There are no wrong answers’ goes the cliché, but even clichés have some truth. You just need to answer the questions as they come up, without trying to game them. There would be no point.

Lastly there’s the question of getting feedback. Whatever your opinion might be of the validity of the tests, it’s always politic to bear in mind the test administrator’s faith in them. If the results are a surprise to you, it’s rare you’ll be granted an opportunity to get a re-sit. If the results highlight weaknesses, be ready to pivot any negatives into positives in any subsequent discussion (e.g. Took too long to complete a task? That’s because you were being careful).

The bottom line is that even the most ardent supporters of psychometric testing concede they can only ever paint a part of the candidate portrait. It’s important that employers are as aware of that as the candidates they assess.

Patrick Minne (ESTP and ‘Doer’ – google it)

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