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Psychological Testing: A Primer for Job Applicants

As more Wall Street firms make use of psychological testing, candidates do have options. Here are some of them.

More Wall Street firms are giving job candidates personality tests. If you’re required to take one while competing for a position, are there any ways to maximize your opportunities and avoid any pitfalls?

It won’t help to prepare in the conventional sense by studying or rehearsing, as you would do before an interview, experts we spoke with say. Still psychologists, career counselors and recruiters who have worked with pre-employment tests say you can take some positive steps.

Ask the employer which test you will be taking – both the general type, and the name of the test itself.

Books are available that contain the kind of questions included in general psychological tests, says Ken Murray, president of Mercury Partners, a New York executive search firm focused on the investment industry. However, well-designed tests include questions intended to trip up anyone who seeks to consciously manipulate the result, so it’s wise not to even try. “There’s no way you can cheat on it,” declares Murray.

For instance, answers may be graded on a “social desirability scale” that flags applicants as dishonest if they try to avoid responding in ways that look bad, says Dr. Barry Miller, manager of alumni career programs and services at Pace University.

“There’s no real preparation you can do from a content perspective,” agrees Dr. Ken Siegel, president of the Impact Group Inc., a consulting firm in Beverly Hills, Calif.

A psychologist, Siegel cites two ways trying to beat a test can backfire. In the first place, you’ll be presenting yourself as something you’re not. In addition, booking up in hopes of acing a test creates anxiety, and “anxiety always interferes with test performance,” regardless of the type of test, Siegel says.

If studying won’t help, what good is there in asking which test you’ll be taking?

Siegel counsels applicants to approach pre-employment tests as an opportunity for both the applicant and the employer to learn more about each other. So, an employer’s response to questions about the nature of the test and its role in the hiring decision can be revealing in itself.

Ask how the results will be used.

“Candidates should always ask, ‘How are the results going to be used. And, will you share the results with me whether I get hired or not?'” says Siegel.

Sharing such information is the ethical approach for employer to take, he says. A company’s refusal “tells you a lot about them,” so much so, Siegel says, “you might want to reconsider your choice” to seek employment with any companies that won’t explain the results’ use, and share them.

Applicants should also be wary of employers who seem to rely on test results over and above other relevant factors. “Anyone who uses a psychological test result as a (sole) reason to throw someone out, you probably don’t want to work for,” Siegel believes. He adds that testing should be used “as an enhancement of the interview process,” with the results contributing roughly 20 percent to the overall decision of whether to hire a particular candidate.

Hire your own expert to administer a “practice test” of the same type, and discuss its results with you.

“If you know what the test will be – for example, personality, emotional intelligence, etc. – there is no reason you can’t seek out a professional licensed to administer and evaluate these tests, and take a practice test,” says Neil J. Diller, a New York City based career counselor and former director of human resources for Wall Street firms.

If the professional finds any “red flags” in your answers, then “maybe there is some therapeutic help or developmental work that you could do to address those problems,” he observes, albeit probably not within the window you’ll have before you take the “real” test. Also, bear in mind that applicants often won’t know which specific test they’ll be taking, nor which specific qualities the employer will favor when viewing the results.

After you’ve taken the real test, ask to see the results so you’ll be better equipped to handle interviews that may follow.

For example, if you tested as “highly aggressive” and the employer doesn’t like that, Siegel suggests using the information as “a point of exploration – not a way of concluding the conversation, but a way of expanding it.” That could mean pointing out a past instance where an employer profited handsomely from your calculated risk-taking.

Have you had to take a psychological test as part of a job search? Tell us about it by posting a comment below.

Comments (16)

Comments
  1. I have had to take a personality test for a silly marketing position and I feel they are HUGE invasions of privacy. My friend who is an attorney in financial services, saw the test and she felt you were going to be backed into a corner and that it was very wrong to make that part of the interveiw process. The test showed I was stressed well, no kidding there were a ton of undesirable situations that I had say if I was most or least like. I kept wondering if I would come off crazy. I have also had to take a handwriting analysis test for another junior level position. Even if your personality test shows have on trait it does not mean that you will exhibit it on the job. I think we all have common sense not to show “highly aggressive” etc. behaviors when it is not called for. I think the job search process has become brutal unless you are a golden child with the top schools or if daddy knows people. Tests are more common in Europe and we know firms have made bad choices in the past. With all of the scandals and illegal behavior in financial services maybe they want to be more cautious. I think they know they have the upper hand and are trying to get away with a lot.

  2. First we must remember that no matter how sure the ‘experts’ are that their tests can’t be manipulated, they are wrong. Personality tests are like all other ‘tests’. If you know the structure there is no reason you cannot work around it. Their tests get credability because so few people understand statistics and psychology. They normally rely on asking the same question five, or more, slightly different times. They also rely on breaking you down with the size of the test. If they ask 100 unique Qs * 5 each Q, it soon becomes a 500 question test. After 1 hour staring at paper you may forget.
    Personally you can prepare. List the personalities you want to portray and find out how the ‘personality tests’ identify those traits. Then practice, practice, practice. In front of a mirror may help, convince yourself of this new you. But…The problem remains that this is not you, and job might really suck…and do you want to act for the duration of your employment or do you want to find the right fit? What one man can do, another man can undue.

    Nicholas Rader Reply
     
  3. I agree with commentor Jordan. How relevant is this test to the position? Why should employers have a right to this information? — In some cases I can see its usefulness, but the I see it as part of a larger, and disturbing trend by employers who are unreasonably risk averse, not to mention just plain nosy and meddlesome, to intrude on ones right to privacy. If it IS relvenat, there should be an overt statement by the company that they will promise to use it only as truly needed and should take necessary steps to ensure its confidentiality.

  4. Several experts I spoke with voiced reservations about a test’s “relevance to the position”; I didn’t mention this, largely because I couldn’t derive any practical advice from it.

    My sources feared an employer might be in trouble if someone they rejected because of a test sued, and the employer couldn’t prove the test predicted success in the job.

    It sounds to me like you are stretching, though, when you complain that probing an applicant’s thoughts and feelings via test questions, is an “invasion of privacy.” If they probe your self-image and how you react in hypothetical situations, why is that any more an invasion, than asking the same questions in an interview? And if you feel “stressed” by certain questions, doesn’t the employer need to know that? Work often involves stressful situations; so employers have good reasons to examine what stresses a candidate and how they react.

    Of course if the results of an applicant’s personality test were leaked, that would be an invasion of privacy. But I’ve never heard of that happening; while plenty of other private data of applicants and employees does get leaked (from medical records, to Aleksey Vainer’s video resume).

  5. The questions on the personality tests I took are nothing like ones you would get in an interview. It had a big section where I had to state what I was most or least like and many of the choices were undesirable. I felt trapped by them. I did research on the test and it is mainly used to find sales people and I was not going for a sales position. I think personality tests are best for jobs in any type of law enforcement or military not for writing marketing materials. I am sure in firms that use these tests you still have people who are bad managers or who do not do well in the job. I would happily be an avocate of the personality test to filter out micromanagers and bad communicators.

  6. I have taken three such test. On one of them I was verbally given an analysis of how the results presented against the “model”. In the other two I received no such analysis. My problem with the testing at least the way the tester presented the results is that the company is looking for people like the model group. Especially at a senir level why do you wnat people to fit a mold. Companies need new ideas and fresh opinions. Otherwise they will stagnate. In one of the situations the role I was applying for was a new area altogether where the company lacked a vital skill set. If they were trying to get someone who fit the mold the testing obviously had a hole in it since there wasn’t anyone in the test sample that had the requisite qualifications. So I clearly believe that this type of profiling robs companies of qualified personnel as well as people with different ideas than the company all ready has.

  7. Do you want the job? Most large companies use some sort of test to cross-reference with your hiring manager’s decisions. Companies that rely on tests to select employees do fail. You, however, are in no position to distinguish between good and bad tests: They rarely are testing for the factors they seem to address.
    All (every) test can be correlated with success factors in every field, no matter what the test’s supposed utility may be. The correlation may be surprisingly good for the most bizarre test questions. Would you rather be a pilot or a professional bowler? That question will correlate more closely with one financial profession than another, which might actually make it useful. Do you want the job? If so, take the test and stop whining.

    John K / Channel Synergy Reply
     
  8. These tests are designed by highly intelligent people who have a profound understanding of human behavior. Certainly, the hiring manager is obviously not properly trained on how to percieve the applicant’s psychological profile, thus making it very necessary to bring in these sophisticated tools.

    Of course if we separate the concept of a leader from that of a follower, we will find that most people will fall somewhere in between these two concepts. I would imagine that most people who have to take pschycological tests are usually more tilted toward being followers and also are probably not very talented in thier respective fields. (of course the middle managers on this blog will scoff at such a notion).

    Like John K says be a good boy like John and take your test. Although I guarantee this man does not consult for the likes of Mckinsey, I am sure he is talented in advising we the mediocre :)

  9. Graphology (determining personality traits from handwriting) is poppycock. Only the French are mad enough to use it.

  10. Tests in large part don’t work. Some real “winners” pass the test while really great performers do not do as well. If an interviewer spends an hour getting to know your finer points and then slides a stupid test toward you at the end–for good measure, since “everyone in the company takes the test, its no big deal…there is no right or wrong answer”…then respectfully tell the interviewer you trust their judgement more than anything positive coming from an abstract test method. Employment is a two way street–JUST SAY NO and put the idiots selling these useless tests out of business. If I want to test someone, I do a drug screen, background check, and check their credit. It works like a charm and I’ve hired a lot more people than I’ve had to fire. Idiots give idiot tests. Show your integrity and stature by having a spine in the interview–if you’re as good as you say you are–they’ll find a way to bypass the test.

  11. I’ve met several of the “highly intelligent” people that design these tests… don’t give them that much credit—Good companies will rely on their good people to make good judgements everyday. They can’t take a test analysis every time they have to make a decision–good people hire good people. You’ll know a good employee long before any “idiot” test designed by “highly intelligent” people returns results that would better be left to a behavioral science class in college.

  12. these tests are junk science, like a “lie detector”

  13. The tests work because the purpose is to weed out those that are trying to hide something that makes them not suitable for the job. If you are reading this you probably are one of the chosen few to make it to Wall Street, which has a sceening process equal to none. They need to weed out anybody who breathes spirit and life, and recruit, like the army, only those that are conformist, obedient and without scruples or moral judgement

    Mickey Sabbath Reply
     
  14. OK I have taken a few test for Insurance Companies- one being a Wic. test, I have a major issue with these test, 1st I have been in the auto industry for 10 years I have handled $175,000 in DRP accounts, Major customer interaction, But for me not being a dang Psych major I cant get the job, Is this considered whinning maybe but to a person who has enough experience to start with a company at its highest level is just maddness. These test need to be further examined to to the Professinal talent that is being shown the door.

  15. i have been in the same field for the past twenty years. entering a new company last year that gave me three different pre employment test but put me to work during the process thus raising my hopes that the position was mine and they liked me enough to keep me? they did not pay me for the time i was awya from the company taking the tests. is that legal when it was being done on company time?
    the position is not a political police fireefighter bank orgovernmment job but they give test as if you are working for the fbi. the only thing they did notdo was fingerprinting. i dont understand why they go so far expecially why they do not pay for the testing done during company hours.

  16. I don’t really understand why they would use this test. I have been trying to find a job after being a stay home mom for 4 years and cannot pass these test for the life of me. I have been working since I was 15 non stop with of course different jobs throught the course. I have never been at a job less than 2 years with 10 being the most. So I feel my work ethics and habits are pretty good. The fact that it makes it seem like you have to have some what manipulating, have a high IQ or a psychologist to pass these test to get a job is absolutely wrong. There are alot of evil geneisis out there who have high IQ’s like Charles Manson and Jodi Arias and possibly the guy who shot a bunch of people in the theatre in the Colorado masacre.. but I’m sure they can pass that test. So what does that say? I feel i’m a hard worker and the fact that I can’t pass these test that seem to be biased towards people who either know how to morph into the minds of what a boss would want to here or are just plain smart and understand the relevence of asking the same question over and over again with different senarios. It upsets me and brings me down and makes me feel stupid.
    They never had these test when I was applying for jobs in the past and the fact that I can’t land a similar job that I worked for for 10 years due to the fact of not being able to pass a pschological test is wrong. This is wrong. They need to stop discriminating against people who may have issues with taking test (like me) and go back to the old school way. Most psycho path killers have high IQ’s and can pass this test. It makes it unfair for those who are genuinely willing to be taught and learn.

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