Written by Ross Freeman and Dr. Sean Condon

In the modern job market, businesses are relying more and more on psychological tests as part of their overall assessment of potential candidates. Whether it’s the DISC Assessment, the Wonderlic Test or another professional personality test, if you haven’t encountered one of these tests yet, chances are you will soon. But how do these assessments work? What do they measure and how does that fit into businesses’ evaluation of you as a possible candidate? And, most importantly, what’s the best strategy on these types of tests?

Step one is to not be intimidated. If you’re like most job candidates, you probably haven’t even heard of most of these tests and may not have any idea how they work. But it turns out that they’re not as mysterious as they might seem. We turned to Dr. Sean Condon, a clinical psychologist and assessment expert, to fill in the blanks on what these tests are all about.

Dr. Condon points out that businesses’ reasons for using these tests are simple: They know what psychological factors differentiate the top 10% of their candidates, but they want to avoid the costly mistake of hiring someone who looks good on paper or interviews well but ultimately does not have the attributes of a “top performer.” Often what distinguishes the most effective performers is not just knowledge and experience, but aptitudes and personal characteristics that set them up for success in their new position. Factors such as decision-making, motivation, stress tolerance, handling conflict, and ability to engage and motivate others are critical to such success, particularly higher up the organizational ladder. Psychological tests provide quantitative data and more clearly defined benchmarks to help businesses assess such factors.

So what exactly are these assessments designed to measure? Dr. Condon points out that the tests fall into two broad categories: Tests of intellectual ability and tests of personality characteristics. Let’s take a closer look at these categories to see how they work.

Intellectual Ability Tests

While businesses generally will not use a full-scale IQ test—which is far too time consuming for their needs—they often rely on briefer measures such as the Wonderlic Test or Ravens Progressive Matrices to ensure the candidate has the mental horsepower to get the job done. These tests provide an overall score that correlates with successful job performance in various roles.

The Wonderlic, for example, has been used in a variety of industries since its first version was developed the late 1930’s and includes questions about vocabulary, arithmetic, and problem-solving. Your scores on these different types of items are combined into an overall index that provides businesses with a concise, measurable indicator of your ability to succeed in the position you’re applying for. (Newer versions of the Wonderlic also include sections on personality and motivation, which will be discussed in more detail below).

Your goal on the Wonderlic and other tests of intellectual ability is, quite simply, to do your best. While some jobs have a range of scores that are ideal, for most high-level and intellectually demanding positions the higher you score the better. Also, Dr. Condon recommends that you take your time and read questions carefully, even on timed tests. This is because items vary widely in difficulty but your overall score is based solely on the number of items you get correct. Therefore, missing easy items because you’re rushing hurts your score unnecessarily. Keep the time in mind, but read each question and think before answering. As the renowned basketball coach John Wooden used to tell his players, “Be quick, but don’t hurry.”

Personality Tests

In addition to measures of intellectual abilities, businesses also commonly use Personality Tests to get a clearer picture of various personal characteristics that are relevant in the workplace. These tests are helpful because they measure established personality constructs that have demonstrated relationships with work competencies. Probably the most well-known of these types of tests is the Myers-Briggs, which measures four dimensions: Introversion – Extraversion, Sensing – Intuition, Thinking – Feeling, and Judging – Perceiving. Another common test is the DISC, which stands for Dominance, Influence, Steadiness and Conscientiousness. Such tests assess these personality features by asking you a series of true-false or multiple-choice questions about yourself.

This may sound obvious, but Dr. Condon’s advice on these tests is simply to be honest. In other words, on each question, read it carefully, think about how it applies to you, and do your best to give your frank and direct opinion of yourself. Some job candidates try to game these types of tests by saying what they think the employer is looking for, but this almost always backfires. Here’s why:

  • Businesses are not trying to trick you. The characteristics measured by these scales actually correlate to job performance, and employers are just trying to get a more accurate sense of them. 

  • On these tests, there really is no right or wrong answer. The personality constructs being measured are very common and normally distributed in the population. They are not inherently good or bad.

  • Since businesses align the test results with models of specific jobs, what works for one job can actually be problematic for another. For example, you would want a salesperson to be high in extraversion and moderate to low in conscientiousness (otherwise they’re too cautious and uptight), but an air traffic controller to be low on extroversion (otherwise they’ll get chatty and distractible) and very high on conscientiousness.

  • Scores on any one scale are never taken in isolation. For example, scoring above average on a scale of social dominance is probably beneficial for a leadership role, since it would suggest a level of comfort with being in charge and giving direction. However, high dominance scores in the absence of interpersonal warmth and interest in other people can be a problem: Such managers are often distant and domineering, and tend to actually undermine morale and productivity.

  • Test results are evaluated in conjunction with all of the other information the employer has about you, including how you came across in the interview. Thus, if you present yourself differently on the tests than you did in the interview, that’s likely to be confusing, and is definitely not the best way to make the case that you’re a good fit for the job.

In other words, those who try to outsmart these types of tests you almost always end up outsmarting themselves. It’s better to be honest and let your true personality shine through: If you are a good fit for the job, the tests will only confirm this.

Final Thoughts

Let’s summarize the main points. When it comes to taking psychological tests as part of a job assessment:

  • Don’t be intimidated. The business is just trying to get a sense of attributes they can’t assess directly on resumes or in interviews.

  • On Intellectual Ability Tests, don’t rush yourself, think carefully and do your best.

  • On Personality Tests, don’t try to outsmart the test. Be honest and let your actual personality shine through.

Remember, you’re much more likely to excel in a job that matches not only your experience, but also your abilities and personality. So if you treat these tests as an opportunity to let employers see these qualities, you’re more likely to look better as a candidate and you’re more likely to land a position where you can be happier and more successful.