What is Psychometric Testing?

Ability Tests

Psychometric testing falls into three main categories:

  • Ability testing
  • Aptitude testing
  • Personality questionnaires

Ability tests measure a person's potential, for instance to learn the skills needed for a new job or to cope with the demands of a training course. Ability tests are not the same thing as Tests of Attainment

Tests of attainment assess specifically what people have learnt e.g. mathematical knowledge or typing skills. Of course what people have learned does depend on their ability in that domain in the first place, so the scores on the two types of test are conceptually linked. 

The major difference between tests of ability and tests of attainment is in the way the scores from both types of test are used. Many ability test items look identical to those on attainment tests but attainment tests are different in one crucial respect - they are retrospective: they focus on what has been learnt and on what a person knows and can do now. Ability tests are prospective: they focus on what the person is capable of achieving in the future or their potential to learn. Bear in mind that some attainment is required before certain abilities can be measured, for instance, we need a certain knowledge of mathematics before our numerical ability can be measured. In addition a test of attainment cannot be used to directly infer ability. School examinations are one example of measures of achievement or attainment, and while we might draw some conclusions about an individual's ability on the basis of GCSE results we would not use them as a direct measure of ability since a less able student may work harder than a more able student to produce a better score. 

General ability is usually divided up into specific abilities, reflecting the hierarchical structure of intelligence that is generally accepted by most workers in the field. So a general ability test might be composed of specific numerical, verbal and spatial ability scales brought together as a test battery. They can then be scored and interpreted individually as a specific ability or aptitude measure, or together as part of a general ability measure. 

Aptitude Tests

There is no widely accepted definition of the difference between ability and aptitude. Most people would agree that to some extent the two terms refer to the same thing: aptitude referring to specific ability, and ability referring to general aptitude. We could probably view ability as underlying aptitude, and aptitude as being more job related then ability. For instance a computer programmer might score highly on a verbal ability test and highly on a programmer aptitude test but not the other way around. 

Aptitude tests tend to be job related and have names that include job titles such as the Programmers Aptitude Series (SHL). Ability tests on the other hand are designed to measure the abilities or mental processes that underlie aptitude and are named after them e.g. Spatial Ability - GAT (ASE). We have also mentioned that ability tests can be either general or specific in focus. An ability test such as the General Ability Test (GAT) is made up of four tests of specific ability - numerical ability; verbal ability; non-verbal ability and spatial ability. They can be used separately to assess specific abilities or together to assess general ability. There are tests which measure only general ability such as the Standard Progressive Matrices (which is one of the purest measures of general ability available) and there are tests which only measure specific abilities such as the ACER Mechanical Reasoning Test. You will find with experience that some tests fall into more than one category and that the distinction between the various categories is not always an easy one to define.

Personality Tests

Personality is a term which is commonly used in everyday language but which has been given a particular technical meaning by psychologists. When we discuss personality we must remember that it is not a single independent mechanism but closely related to other human cognitive and emotional systems.   

Before we go onto discuss what exactly personality is it might be useful to just consider what personality is not. 

Personality is not the same thing as motivation which is goal directed behaviour designed to satisfy needs, interests and aspirations. Motivation is related to personality in that while personality may represent the way we behave motivation represents the why. Exactly how the underlying motives of behaviour are conceptualised depends very much on the school of thought to which one belongs, for instance a humanist might see the motivation behind behaviour as coming from a desire to achieve ones full potential whereas a psychoanalyst might look for unconscious motivations to do with unfulfilled sexual needs. 

Personality is not the same thing as culture which is the values, attitudes and beliefs we share with others about the nature of the world.

Personality is not the same thing as ability (usually held to be synonymous with intelligence) which is the ability to identify, understand and absorb the different components of a problem. Then to identify the way they are related to each other and the logical consequence of these relationships to work out the next step. 

A Definition of Personality

We can define personality as - 

those relatively stable and enduring aspects of an individual which distinguishes them from other people, making them unique, but which at the same time permit a comparison between individuals.

It is more useful to view personality not as something we have but rather as being to do with how we relate to the world, this is something which is rendered explicit in Goodstein and Lanyon's (1975) definition of personality as being - 

the enduring characteristics of the person that are significant for interpersonal behaviour.

Within this general definition a number of different theoretical approaches exist:

  • The Psychometric approach (Eysenck and Cattell).
  • The Psychodynamic approach (Freud, Jung, Adler).
  • The Social Learning approach (Mischel, Bandura).
  • The Humanistic approach (Maslow, Rogers).

These approaches to personality are theoretically very different and such a diversity of different theories exist because personality is a hypothetical construct which can never be directly observed but only inferred from behaviour. 

A History of Test Development

Attempts to measure differences between the psychological characteristics of individuals can be traced back to 400 BC when Hippocrates attempted to define four basic temperament types each of which could be accounted for by a predominant body fluid or humour; blood - sanguine (optimistic), black bile - melancholic (depressed), yellow bile - choleric (irritable) and phlegm - phlegmatic (listless and sluggish). Hippocrates' methods and the numerous other attempts that have been made since then were hardly scientific. The first attempt to scientifically measure the differences between individual mental abilities was made by Sir Francis Galton in the 19th Century who tried to show that the human mind could be systematically mapped into different dimensions. He studied, among other things, how people differed in terms of their ability to discriminate between stimuli and by collating the results he obtained he devised a system which would allow an individual's abilities to be compared to those of others - an idea on which we rely heavily today. 

From the work of people like Galton and his French contemporary, Binet, a picture of the human mental domain emerged which saw general human ability as being composed of a number of specific abilities - a view which is still held today. The basic tenet of testing nowadays is based upon the principle of measuring human mental performance under different conditions and then making comparisons between people. Of course, the statistical rigour with which this is done today is much greater than was generally applied in Galton's day. There is a bewildering array of tests available to us measuring anything form hand-eye co-ordination to high level cognitive operations such as spatial reasoning. 

How Are Psychometric Tests Constructed?

In it's simplest form a test will have a set of questions or tasks for the subject to complete, these are known as test items. Unfortunately, the layman associates the everyday use of the word 'test' with an examination which you either pass or fail. In the context of psychological testing the tools used are not generally viewed in this way, usually they are more concerned with describing rather than judging a person's abilities or aptitudes. It is the case however that most lay-people will view the word 'test' with some trepidation and it is difficult to convince them that their abilities or aptitudes are not 'on trial'. For this reason it is important that you avoid the use of the word test wherever possible; use the term assessment instead and describe the tests themselves as instruments. This becomes especially important in the case of personality assessment which is purely descriptive and where any implication of a good or bad personality, or a pass/fail mark on a test can prove seriously damaging to the individual. When we use the word test in this training manual it is in the technical sense and not the everyday sense. 

All tests should come with a test manual which will contain information on how to carry out a standardised administration of the instrument as well as its technical specifications. The manual should always be carefully and thoroughly scrutinised before a decision is made on whether or not to use a particular test. The manual should include information about the test's reliability i.e. how stable or consistent a measure the test is, and the strength of its validity i.e. how well it actually measures what it claims to measure. (Note that validity depends on reliability and that a test cannot be more valid than it is reliable). The manual should also say something about the nature of the group of people on whom the test was standardised which will allow us to see how a person's performance on a particular test compares with that of other people. Sometimes information is presented on the performance of more than one type of group - this is because while it would be unfair to compare the performance of a school leaver on a particular test with that of a group of graduates it would not be unfair to compare his performance with that of a group of similar school leavers. Information about the groups with whom the test has been standardised is known as normative information. 

The reason we need all of this information is that what psychological tests measure, such as numerical ability, cannot be directly observed and therefore cannot be directly measured. Something like numerical ability can only be inferred from the behaviour of the individual and as such is a hypothetical construct. For the same reason, exactly how much ability we can infer an individual has in a particular ability domain on the basis of a test score is seldom clear. What is important is that you go beyond the simple appearance of the test items into the technical details of the test construction and rationale. It is unacceptable to simply make a superficial inspection of an instrument's surface characteristics - many of the questionnaires we see in newspapers and magazines with titles such as 'test your word power' or 'how attractive are you to women' seem plausible enough and if presented in an attractively packaged set complete with manual might seem to be highly sophisticated and well designed instruments when in fact they are not and only look as though they are.


 Dealing With Different Tests

Very often the interview will be the first contact you will have with the organisation after applying for a job. The interview is generally used as part of a battery of measures and if all goes well and if both you and the organisation decide to proceed to the next stage there are a number of more rigorously structured and detailed forms of assessment, which you may be asked to undergo.

Psychometric tests are becoming more and more widely used. They are standardised methods of eliciting a sample of responses from a candidate which can be used to assess various psychological characteristics by comparing them with a sample of the results obtained by a comparable group of people.

Tests can be classified under four headings; manual ability, mental ability, personality and interests, and motivation. Manual ability tests are not commonly used in management selection. Mental ability tests can measure general ability and are frequently composed of a battery of sub scales measuring such specific abilities as verbal reasoning, numerical ability, abstract reasoning and mechanical reasoning.

The use of personality questionnaires in selection is more contentious, however if used correctly by suitably qualified individuals trained in administration and interpretation they can play a valuable role in identifying preferred ways or dealing with the world. Tests of interests reflect the fact that tasks often have their own intrinsic motivation and a person who finds the work interesting will be happier and more productive. Tests of motivation are used to determine which situations increase and decrease individual motivation and may measure things like a need for power, affiliation or achievement. Generally tests of interest and motivation are rarely used in selection.

Dealing With Ability/Aptitude Tests

The whole area of psychometric testing is a technically complex and often confusing one. Many people (including some who actually use tests professionally!) often misunderstand or misinterpret the terminology and procedures involved.

Most ability tests tend to share a number of characteristics:

  1. There is usually a time limit - up to 40 minutes for subjects like verbal or numerical reasoning, down to just a few minutes for something like perceptual speed and accuracy.

  2. There are usually right and wrong answers.

  3. Your score is usually interpreted in comparison to the scores obtained by some other group e.g. the general population or graduates. Usually, you are not penalized for getting an answer wrong, other than not getting a mark for answering it correctly. 'Negative' scoring is very rare. 

  4. Ideally you should receive feedback, although logistical or practical issues may mean that this does not always happen. If you are invited to the next stage of selection, for example, an interview, then the results of the tests will usually be explained to you then. If not, then you could ask or write to see if you can receive feedback. Actual copies of test answer sheets etc will usually not be released to you.

Many of these points may seem like common sense, you should try to remember -

  1. Get a good night's sleep beforehand.

  2. If you wear glasses or a hearing aid then take them along. If you have any disabilities tell the test administrator about them beforehand.

  3. Eat breakfast. Research shows that skipping breakfast reduces intellectual performance (although it can be difficult to make yourself eat if you are very nervous!).

  4. Test administrators follow a standard set of instructions. Don't be worried if they seem a little rigid or unfriendly - this is what they are supposed to be doing and it helps to ensure that everyone takes the test under exactly the same conditions.

  5. Stay calm - arousal too can decrease intellectual functioning. Try to remember that ability tests usually measure underlying ability rather than overt knowledge. Even though something such as a numerical reasoning test may look very complex, the actual mathematics involved is likely to be very simple - do not be 'blinded by science'.

  6. Reassure yourself that you cannot prepare for a psychometric test in the same way you can for a school examination - traditional revision is likely to be pointless. Although if you have an idea of what type of test to expect, for example, numerical ability, then you might practice writing some test questions yourself and then trying to answer them.

  7. Try to picture what the session will be like. This program provides a close approximation to the three most commonly used ability tests, both in terms of item style and the time allowed to complete them.

  8. Be systematic, try to work out a routine or system for analysing the test items.

  9. Avoid 'skimming' to seek out obvious easy answers. This wastes time.

  10. You will almost certainly be taken through a practice or instructions stage before the test proper. This will give you the chance to try one or two practice items, practice making you answers on the answer sheet, and ask questions of the administrator. Listen carefully to test instructions. Experienced test administrators often see candidates just 'switching off' for one reason or another during the instruction or practice phase and then struggle when it comes to the test itself.

  11. Get the most out of the examples or practice session and do not be afraid to ask questions. If you need a little more time for practice, then ask for it. Although test administrators' instructions will often say something like - "Allow approximately five minutes for candidates to work through the practice examples," they should still take the time to ensure that everyone understands what is expected of them. Although there will come a time when they will simply ask you to begin the test proper.

  12. If you have a certain amount of time to complete the psychometric test, try to work quickly through the questions, but do not despair if you do not finish the test, not all psychometric tests are designed to be finished!

If you know beforehand which type of test you will be taking then you could try writing some test items yourself. This is not as easy as it sounds but is an excellent method of preparation. Also remember that if one of the response options is 'none of these' or similar you will need to be extra careful. At least with five definite answers to choose from we can know that the right answer is in there somewhere.

Abstract Ability Tests

Abstract reasoning is concerned with solving problems that are not verbal or numerical in nature. The items tend to take the form of a series of shapes or diagrams from which you have to pick the odd one out, or identify which would come next in the sequence from a set of alternatives. This is a very common type of test.

The ability being measured here is to do with how well a person can identify patterns and meaning from a mass of seemingly random or very complex information.

When completing abstract reasoning tests, be aware that there is only one clear answer.
In particular try to remember -


  • The answer is very often simple or obvious.

  • There is usually only one correct answer.

  • Look for a common theme to every shape or pattern in the question. For example, is a small square the only shape common to them all, and if so is there another shape or position that appears with it four times out of five?

  • Is there one characteristic which every option shares e.g. size, colour, position, and shape.

  • Always look for other possible answers, as your first may not always be correct. 

Verbal Ability Tests

This type of test typically involves items that measure grammar, spelling, language use or comprehension. Above all else it is important to read each question carefully. Concentrate on a single word or even letter at a time. We often skip from word to word and pick the general meaning of a sentence. When one is being asked to look at specific aspects in a sentence or set of words, then one does have to concentrate on individual words or even letters. This is something we may not be used to doing.

In particular try to remember:

  • Strange as it may sound, the answer, which ‘looks’ right, may often be the correct one. We are good at recognizing whole words as patterns rather than individual letters. So, for instance, you may have previously seen the word spelt correctly, but may never have actually spelled it yourself.

  • Read each word carefully. Sometimes similar sounding or similar looking words are put in to confuse you and add irrelevant 'noise'.

  • If you are unsure of the meaning of a word, try eliminating the answers, which you know, are incorrect to reduce the response options open to you. 

Numerical Ability Tests

Numerical ability looks at how well a person can reason with numbers, and may involve either straightforward mathematical calculation e.g. division or subtraction, or problems that require mathematical calculations to solve them.

In the case of numerical problem solving, the actual mathematics involved may be very simple, but you are being assessed on your knowledge of how to apply them.

In the case of numerical sequences, which ask you to identify a pattern, you should try to look for simple sequences first. For instance, do the numbers increase or decrease, do they seem to have common denominators, is there a sequence of positive or negative figures. Then begin looking for combinations e.g. add one, subtract two, add three, and so on.

In the case of items requiring multiplication or division you may be presented with very complex numbers. These may be an attempt to see how well you can look for the 'big picture'. Sometimes, seeming
ly impossible problems can be solved easily by applying some lateral thinking. Remember your basic mathematical principles; for example, anything divided or multiplied by zero is zero. Two even numbers multiplied by each other will produce another even number. Any number ending in zero that is multiplied by any other number will always produce another number ending in zero. A negative and positive number multiplied by each other will produce a negative number. Two negative numbers multiplied always produce a positive number, and so on.

Answering Personality Questionnaires

Unlike ability tests these types of questionnaire tend not to have right or wrong answers, nor do they have time limits. The results from a personality questionnaire will usually be used to compare some personality trait of yours to those of the general population, or some other group.

If you are asked to complete such a questionnaire the best advice is:

  1. There are no "right" or "wrong" answers. (Although there is a very popular questionnaire with a number of reasoning items at the end, but the test administrator will explain this to you.)

  2. Do not spend more than a few seconds thinking about the answer to any one question. It is best to give the first answer that comes to mind.

  3. Answer all of the questions.

  4. Be truthful, give answers that you feel describe you best. Some questionnaires measure the extent to which you present a positive impression of yourself, and this may influence your questionnaire results.

  5. If you are stuck on a question, mark the answer that would best describe how you would behave in general or how you would behave if you had the choice.

Although in all cases, the instructions given to you by the test administrator will take precedence.

The best advice that can be given concerning psychometric tests is to answer questions honestly - some psychometric tools are designed to detect an inconsistent style of answering and if you are offered a job on the basis of your performance on a test in which you have been less than truthful then it is unlikely that you and the job will suit each other.

Work Sample Tests

Well-designed tests assess those characteristics required of a candidate to do the job. Sometimes a test may actually ask you to demonstrate behaviour, which is different to the ultimate job behaviour, for instance you may be asked to sit an intelligence test rather than a test of your skills as a manager. One approach identifies a representative sample of work behaviour and observes the applicant carrying it out in conditions, which are as near to the work environment as possible. These are known as Work Sample Tests and you are likely to come across one of three types.

Firstly, there are those which are concerned with job related information where the amount of knowledge you have relevant to a particular job is assessed, strictly speaking this is not a work sample test rather it is a test of achievement or attainment. Professional examinations are attainment tests.

Secondly there are those concerned with individual situational decision-making where you are asked to take decisions similar to those taken in the job. These can include in-tray exercises, which sample the contents of an existing employee's in-tray (memos, letters, reports etc.), which you have to deal with within a set time period. In-tray exercises are often used to assess planning and organising skills, decision-making, communication, and financial or problem solving skills.

Finally, there are those concerned with group discussions/decision making where your performance in a group setting is evaluated, these are used for positions where team work is important and are used more for managerial jobs than anything else. Popular forms include the leaderless group discussion, or the leader led group discussion where candidates are appointed in turn to act as leader during problem solving exercises (this is commonly used in officer selection in the armed forces). Almost always selectors will be looking for teamwork rather than leadership skills. Remember that selectors are impressed by people who can generate ideas and encourage others to do the same or persuade the group to adopt theirs. Always try to encourage everybody to participate and never try to steal the limelight.

It is often the case that you may not have been trained in the job in question in which case a trainability test may be used to assess your suitability to undergo a training course. This will typically incorporate a structured and controlled learning period and may well examine how you perform the task as well as the outcome.

Why not try our SOLUTIONS STANDARD and SOLUTIONS ADVANCED downloadable software, which enables individuals to practise completing psychometric tests.