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Test of character

Assessment Centres September 16, 2007

Test of character

What will I do with my future? How can I better apply my skills? These are the questions on the lips of graduates and final year students everywhere. Thankfully, resorting to tarot cards and fortune-tellers is not the only answer. Derry Nairn finds that more scientific approaches exist.

Rob Stringer, 24, runs his own event-management company in Ireland. He took a career-focused aptitude test while still in university. "I took it around two-and-a-half years ago. The reason was that I was coming to the end of my course and still didn’t know what to do with my life," he explains.

"My degree was in manufacturing engineering but it didn’t interest me much. I couldn’t see where it was taking me. The pressure was building. I knew that I had to start doing something, but couldn’t see where to start. Then my aunt advised me to consult her friend who ran a careers advisory service."

There were three stages to Rob’s motivational test: "At a preliminary session I told the tester why I had come and what my motivations were. It was very informal: just a chat in her living room. Then came the actual tests, three in all. They were quite simple and covered various subjects. But they were very long. It took three to four hours per day and the period of testing lasted three days. On the last day, we compared the results and wrote up a plan for my future."

Robin Blandford
, 23, is a graduate technology trainee working for Reuters in London. He sat several tests as part of the selection process for his current position. He says, "Mine were all timed. There was only time to do half the questions, so they were checking for accuracy, rather than if you could complete them all.

"I took a spatial one and a language one," he adds, "They were booklets that were put on our tables like in a school exam. The spatial exam was a series of patterns and you had to pick the next in the series. The language one had exercises such as ‘pick a word that fits the gap’."

Giles Wilkes, 34, both sat and helped to oversee selection testing while working for a spread-betting firm in the City of London. A mature student, he is now studying for an MSc in Global History at the London School of Economics.
Giles recounts, "When I began, the process was rudimentary, but the company was growing and soon we had a personnel department and proper tests. As well as arithmetic tests, we threw in verbal reasoning and numerical tests such as graphs and ‘if it takes one man three days to dig six holes…’ type problems."

Aptitude tests make up the written part of what is known as psychometric testing. This can also include practical exercises such as role-play scenarios. Large corporations tend to employ psychometric testing as a means of gaining a more complete picture of their prospective job candidates.

It’s natural to be a little nervous about having your mind tested. This is especially true where the result might have a direct result on your career and future. But it’s important to remember that it’s impossible to "fail" an aptitude test like you can with an academic exam. What you get from its results depends largely on the reasons for you sitting it.
If an employer has set you the test, they are looking for specific qualities. For example, a job in journalism that revolves around literacy skills will not go to someone with below-par performance in this area.
"I was head of desk from 1999 and interviewing trainees," reveals Giles.
"I introduced an automated testing system – basically, a lot of quick maths questions. This was to screen out people who struggled with basic arithmetic. On a dealing floor it really gums up the wheels if people need calculators to add three-digit numbers together."

If, however, you are assessing your own strengths in preparation for a job application, then there can really be no wrong answers. As long as you are honest with yourself, then you will gain a clearer picture of where you stand. Many who take a personality-based aptitude test report that the results were just as they expected, but nonetheless gave them the confidence to pursue their objectives with renewed confidence.

Rob says, "I recommend it to people all the time. It’s really difficult coming out of college. Lots of people have no idea what to do. The testing turned out to be one of the best things I’ve ever done. It allowed me to focus and gave me some peace of mind."

For Giles, filtering out those who struggle with maths made a huge difference to the business. Likewise, many people taking the test are nervous and how they perform can indicate how they will cope under pressure.

He adds: "The tests were useful for sorting out different personality types for teamwork – learning in advance which people were structure-addicts, which people were introverts."
Being relaxed and informed is the most important way to prepare for aptitude tests. As Robin says, "I went at it not caring. I’d have liked the job but had ages to find one so viewed it as a test run. My scores weren’t wonderful but perhaps this attitude helped me to relax and perform well."

However, Giles, like many people, didn’t need a test to determine the direction of his career: "No test I have ever taken has helped me choose a career. Blind luck is the only technique that has worked so far," he says.

There are many books published that will both help you self-assess and advise you on what to expect. Read our interview with the author of one such book on the following page. You can also read about and practise for aptitude tests online as many large organisations are open about their selection processes. Also, check out the tips on the Real World website:

Jim Barrett is the author of Career, Aptitude and Selection Tests, a new book designed to help people in their choice of career path or those facing Selection tests at work. He is a chartered psychologist who has helped to develop testing methods for a variety of large organisations.

How reliable are aptitude tests as a selection method?
Well, a growing number of organisations certainly seem to think they’re useful. All any test can do is approximate what people generally do, think, or how they behave. We all have abilities and aptitudes and personality characteristics and emotions in common. It’s simply a question of how we use them, depending upon our past experience and our genetic make-up. Your test might not be bang-on for you, but it might tell you a lot about yourself and enable you to know yourself that much better. Then it’s up to the individual to deal with it as they will, and like any advice; it’s either good or bad, relevant or irrelevant.

On that subject, I was quite surprised to find that a test in your book recommended that I should become, among other things, a thatcher, a shepherd or even a gun-maker…
The test you took has obviously picked up on a natural ability for creativity allied with a practical awareness. A test result such as this might force someone to go to a careers library and discover something perfect for them they hadn’t previously been aware of. Alternatively, they might reject it. But at least they explored the possibility.

Isn’t there a danger for organisations overly reliant on aptitude testing that groups who excel will be too similar?
Any two people will do a job in different ways. If you look at a job like being ‘prime minister’ – no two people have done that job in the same way. They’ve applied their characteristics to it differently. It’s wrong for an organisation to say: ‘We want this profile and nothing else.’ Modern organisations need to be flexible and adaptable. They need to ask ‘who is the person who will ask questions and offer something different?’

How does the personality section of the test account for people with skewed opinions of themselves and of how others see them?
We all see the world, and see ourselves, through our own lenses. Where one person thinks they’re studied and thorough, another might regard them as slow and boring. How people relate to themselves and to each other speaks volumes about how their personalities will act in professional situations. An increasing number of my tests use what is called ‘oblique’ methods, such as these, to move closer to ‘the truth’.

What’s the best way to prepare for an aptitude test set by an employer?
Always seek as much information from the firm testing you in advance. They owe it to you to tell you what sort of test you’ll take and what will be expected of you on the day. Let them give you every chance to just be yourself. If they don’t test you in a sensible and supportive way, they’re going to get the wrong results and the wrong person.
Most tests are timed. Naturally, some people will get further with some types of tests than others, but that is their purpose – to assess where people’s strengths lie. Work as quickly and as accurately as you can. Don’t try to get to the end and don’t guess answers unless you think it will benefit you. Ask yourself if the company is looking for a risk-taker or someone who’s going to make sure they get every answer right?

So being yourself is the most important thing to remember?
Many people, having passed the tests, find they have serious problems with the organisation. It’s sometimes the case that organisations don’t know how to interpret aptitude tests properly. They want a quick answer and sometimes that’s not possible.
I heard a sad story recently where an organisation got it wrong. A young person passed through two interviews only to be handed an aptitude test, which he failed. What information could the test have given the company, at that stage, which they didn’t know from two interviews? It was the wrong way around and hopelessly inefficient!

Your field of occupational psychology is quite specialised. What has your own career path been like?
My careers guidance was appalling. It took me a long time to sort out what I wanted to do and to find a niche where I could earn a living. I didn’t get into occupational psychology until well into my late twenties. Perhaps because of this, I’m a great believer in people’s potential. Most people don’t know themselves that well. They are also let down by schooling that values uniformity. I always felt that organisations and individuals would benefit from having a structured approach to selecting and developing people.

There’s nothing like getting experience of things. However, personality and aptitude tests can help you narrow down what it is you’ll get the most value from. It helps to provide a structure, but it’s not the whole story. In the end it comes down to an individual having to discover their talents for themselves.

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