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Recruiters mine your mind
Published on Thursday, 28 Apr 2011
Illustration: Bay Leung

Psychometric tests are becoming popular among recruiters who want to know more about job applicants, especially information that résumés and portfolios don't reveal.

"Psychological tests, if properly designed, validated and administered, will provide an assessment of the person much more objectively than an interview can," says Harry Hui, industrial and organisational psychologist of the University of Hong Kong's department of psychology.

There are many types of psychometric tests, depending on what your recruiters want to measure. For instance, if you are applying for an air traffic controller post, you may have to take tests that measure specific capabilities such as spatial awareness.

Most tests measure general mental ability such as verbal and numerical reasoning and language skills. "These are the basic skills required for all types of jobs," says Winton Au, associate professor at the Chinese University of Hong Kong's (CUHK) psychology department.

Some companies also look into the applicants' personality and motivation. Au says many personality tests are designed to measure traits under the five-factor model of personality that covers extroversion, agreeableness, conscientiousness, neuroticism and openness. Many employers deem conscientiousness, which includes paying attention to details, self-discipline and goal-directed behaviour, as the most important trait. There are also instruments that measure integrity, Au adds.

However, many personality tests have a major drawback. Developed by researchers in North America and Europe, their application to a Chinese population may have potential biases due to cultural differences. "The Chinese emphasise interpersonal relationships and this is a dimension less covered in the big-five model," Au says.

To fill the void, some local scholars have developed personality assessment tools for Chinese people. For instance, CUHK has developed The Cross-Cultural (Chinese) Personality Assessment Inventory (CPAI), adding attributes relevant to the Chinese work culture - such as interpersonal relationships - to major Western personality references.

The application of the test in Chinese workplaces has been well received, Au says. "The test is not only used for recruitment but also for development and team-building purposes as well. Some companies want to train staff and the test can help people understand more about themselves and their colleagues," he adds.

So how do you outwit these aptitude and personality tests to land a dream job or get a promotion? For aptitude tests, there's no substitute for practice. Get familiar with these tests by reading chapters on psychological testing in any textbook on industrial-organisational psychology, Hui suggests.

As for personality tests, the situation is trickier. The general rule is to be honest because testers will know if you are lying. Even if you manage to get by, you will eventually suffer, Hui says.

"First, most well-designed personality tests have ways to discourage, control and monitor applicants who fake their response. Second, when employers use personality tests for hiring, they are looking for the best fit. By pretending to be what you are not, you are actually hurting your chances of finding a suitable job," he adds.

Perhaps we should take heed of the advice given by Greek philosophers centuries ago, which is to "know thyself", says Jared King, managing partner for workforce innovation company e3 Reloaded.

"For those of us who understand our strengths and what we love to do, put that into action and happiness is possible. All it takes is hard work and finding the right opportunity," King says.


Who's afraid of psychometric tests?  

  • Don't panic if you can't complete an aptitude test on time because it's normal. These tests are designed to be very difficult in order to seek out the best talents. Never lose faith in yourself.
  • For some multiple choice tests, points will be deducted for picking the wrong answer. Make sure you understand the grading principles of the test before you proceed.
  • You can't improve your numerical and verbal reasoning skills overnight, but you can familiarise yourself with the format and style of the test questions through careful revisions. Being prepared will be your big advantage.

Advice from Winton Au, associate professor at the Chinese University's department of psychology