Guide To Cognitive Ability Tests For HR And Recruiters (2023)

March 14, 2022

cognitive ability tests

A strong recruitment strategy takes a holistic approach. It uses various assessment techniques that look not only at what an applicant has achieved in the past, but also at their potential for future success.

Cognitive ability tests are an integral part of the process. This article covers everything you need to know about them - their purpose, how they help with hiring decisions, and best practices for incorporating them into your recruitment plan.

What Is A Cognitive Ability Test for Employment?

When we refer to cognitive ability, we refer to a set of core skills that, together, determine an individual's capacity for completing everyday tasks - from the simple to the complex.

These skills include the processing of information, problem-solving, critical thinking and decision-making. Since these are used to some extent in almost every job imaginable, it's important they are evaluated as part of recruitment.

That's where cognitive ability tests come in. A form of pre-employment psychometric testing, these scientifically designed assessments measure an applicant's natural ability in one or more areas of cognitive function.

They're short - often taking between 10 and 30 minutes to complete - easy to administer at scale, and provide objective, comparable data on a skill set that is hard to measure through any other recruitment technique. They're also incredibly popular, used by around 75% of Fortune 500 companies.

It's not just large corporations that stand to benefit though. Cognitive ability tests can help any organisation find top talent through the identification of vital workplace skills.

What Cognitive Skills Should You Test For?

Cognitive function is complex, with multiple skills working together, all influential in how we understand and interact with the world around us.

In the context of recruitment - or more specifically, cognitive ability tests for recruitment - we can break these skills down into five key areas:

  • Attention - how capable a candidate is of sustained focus and concentration.
  • Memory - a candidate's ability to retain and recall new information.
  • Processing - the extent to, and speed at which a candidate takes information on board, be it visual, spatial, or contextual.
  • Logical reasoning - how a candidate then uses that information to form sound conclusions.
  • Executive function - a catch-all term for the skills that enable candidates to plan, organise and execute goals. These include pattern recognition, sequencing, flexibility and decision-making.

Types Of Cognitive Ability Tests

Several types of cognitive ability tests exist, and whilst they all measure a similar skill set, they do so through different applications of those skills. For example, some tests look at cognitive function in relation to spatial awareness, and some in relation to numerical information.

Most recruiters use a combination of test types to build well-rounded candidate profiles. The most common cognitive ability tests are:

Numerical reasoning - candidates must interpret data from tables, charts and graphs, and apply logic to form accurate conclusions.

Verbal reasoning - here, conclusions must be drawn from passages of text, statements of fact, inferences, assumptions and arguments.

Logical reasoning - these use sequences of images and symbols, where the candidate must identify sequential rules to complete each pattern.

Spatial reasoning - here, a candidate must mentally manipulate 2D and 3D shapes to determine their appearance after a specific change has been applied.

Diagrammatic reasoning - these tests use diagrams with inputs, processes and outputs that a candidate must apply to solve a given problem.

Cognitive vs. Non-Cognitive Skills

As important as cognitive skills are, they should not be taken in isolation.

A strong candidate will score well on a cognitive ability test, but will also possess non-cognitive skills - or soft skills - that enable them to become an effective part of the workforce.

There are tools that can help here too, like tests that measure interpersonal skills, teamwork, and communication.

Why Should Recruiters Use Cognitive Ability Tests For Hiring?

cognitive ability tests guide

The primary reason for using cognitive ability tests in recruitment is that they are scientifically proven to be a strong predictor of future job performance. Whilst academic qualifications and work experience tell you what a candidate has achieved to date, cognitive ability tests focus on potential, and the core skills held by employees that typically go on to exceed expectations.

There are other pros to using this selection tool, as well as some cons, and it's important to understand both sides so you can use this form of psychometric testing to full effect.

Advantages Of Cognitive Ability Tests

They're Time And Cost-Efficient

Cognitive ability tests can be administered online and taken remotely by a large pool of applicants. At the same time, they help you quickly identify the most promising talent, so you can progress those that you know have the required skill set.

This saves you from investing time and money in unsuitable candidates, and brings increased efficiency to the process, particularly in high volume recruitment.

They Help Remove Hiring Bias

By its very nature, unconscious bias in recruitment can be hard to detect. Though many recruiters actively try to address it, even the most well-intentioned professionals can harbour preconceived ideas that influence their decisions.

Cognitive ability tests bring objectivity to the process. Candidates are compared fairly based on their actual skill set rather than assumptions - be they based on gender, age, ethnicity, or educational background.

They Improve Employee Retention

High employee turnover is expensive. In fact, it's estimated that a bad hire can cost a company three times the salary of the respective role.

Cognitive ability tests help you make the right hire the first time round, and because each hire has the skills to thrive in their position, they're a key part of a good employee retention strategy.

Disadvantages Of Cognitive Ability Tests

They Can Cause Adverse Impact

Whilst cognitive ability tests can help reduce bias, they are not flawless in their approach. Adverse impact might be caused where testing has a disproportionately negative effect on the results of one group over another.

They May Give Skewed Results

Recruiters also need to keep in mind that not everyone is comfortable under test conditions. The pressure of the event may impact a candidate's performance, resulting in an inaccurate picture of their skill set.

How To Use Cognitive Ability Tests When Hiring

cognitive ability tests guide

If you're new to cognitive ability tests and would like to incorporate them into your recruitment strategy, follow the steps below.

1. Select The Appropriate Test Or Tests

There's no one size fits all for psychometric testing, and you should consider the most appropriate cognitive ability tests on a role-by-role basis. For them to be useful, they must be relevant to the specific job function and level of employment.

2. Set A Scoring Benchmark

To know what a strong candidate looks like, you need criteria to compare them against, so look to establish a benchmark score for each test given.

Use your existing workforce for this, testing the strongest employees in whatever department you're hiring for. Cognitive ability is inherent, as opposed to taught skills, so you're likely to see similar levels of cognitive function in high calibre employees both present and future.

3. Administer Your Tests Early On

Cognitive ability tests are an effective screening tool and should be used early in the recruitment process - ideally between application and interview. This will help speed up selection and ensure only the best candidates are progressed to the more costly interview stage.

Some employers test twice - once as an initial screening tool and again as part of an assessment centre. This helps to verify the test taker's scores, ensuring they did not result from lucky guesswork or cheating, though both of these are extremely rare.

4. Evaluate Results And Create A Shortlist

With your benchmark score as a guide, narrow down the applicant pool to a qualified shortlist. Anyone that falls significantly below the benchmark can be eliminated, but keep an open mind on those that score near.

Remember these tests are only one part of a wider strategy, and results should be considered alongside academic achievement, experience, character, and any other behavioural or skills tests you administer.

With your shortlist created, you can then move on to interviews and/or assessment centres to further evaluate each candidate's strengths and weaknesses.

Cognitive Ability Testing Tips

Consider the candidate experience - be transparent about what you're testing for and why, provide clear instructions, and give applicants sufficient time to complete their tests. The experience a candidate has throughout selection will influence how they feel about the role, so if you want to attract the best talent you need to make it a good one.

Look out for adverse impact - implementing a well-structured recruitment process and applying multiple selection criteria will help minimise the risk of adverse impact but it's still something to be mindful of - particularly if an opening attracts a diverse applicant pool. Consider using the rule of 4/5ths to determine if adverse impact is present.

Use test results, but not in isolation - just because a candidate scores impressively well on a cognitive ability test, it does not mean they are the best person for the role. You need to use various hiring methods to build detailed applicant profiles. Equally, don't dismiss a candidate's test scores either. Use every bit of information you have to make a well-informed decision.

Continually update your benchmarks - with every recruitment cycle, assess the scores of past participants and how they compare to your existing benchmark. If the standards are consistently higher - and those high-scoring applicants went on to prove valuable employees - it might be time to put higher benchmarks in place.


Why Are Cognitive Ability Tests Used By Employers?

Employers use cognitive ability tests to objectively, and efficiently, measure skills essential to the workplace, primarily those skills that contribute to reasoning ability. A candidate's results can be used to predict how well they'll perform in the role, helping to inform better hires.

What Questions Are Asked On A Cognitive Ability Test?

This depends on the type of test administered. For example, numerical reasoning tests may include questions on chart analysis, number series and general arithmetic, whereas verbal reasoning tests may cover reading comprehension, verbal analogies and evaluation of arguments.

Are Cognitive Ability Tests Reliable?

Cognitive ability tests have been subject to much research, and are widely considered as a reliable predictor of job performance. However, they are just one part of an effective recruitment strategy, and a candidate's test results should be considered alongside other skills, experience and achievements.

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