Testing is becoming increasingly common in all forms of application and recruitment processes. Each time you take a test you are not just up against a passing score; you are up against the other job applicants as well. In addition, it is likely that you will have just one chance to take the test. Practise is the key to improving your psychometric test score. Here we will discuss this idea and look at some research that shows this to be the case.

Practising should not only be done for quantitative standardised exams such as numerical or verbal reasoning tests, but also for softer assessments such as interviews and assessment centres. To get ahead when taking any one of these assessments, you first need to think about how to get better at taking them. Studies have shown that practising ahead of taking these tests can have a positive impact on your score (Schleicher et al). Many studies have also looked at how preparing for tests thoroughly can reduce the gaps in achievement between different groups (De Soete et al; Sackett et al; Hausknecht et al). However, these studies have also shown that everyone benefits from practice when it comes to taking (or retaking) tests (Sackett et al). So, in short, if you are asking yourself how to improve your test-taking skills, the answer is to simply practice.

Why should I practise, what good can it really do?

Many studies have looked at the impact of preparing for resitting exams. Yet when you are applying for a job, you usually only have one chance to take these tests so you will need to prepare before taking them. One study even goes so far as to put numbers on to how much better you can get through practice. According to Schleicher and co, applicants who scored in the 50th percentile the first time they took a test could move up to the 60th percentile the second time they take that same test, and the 71st percentile the third time. In other words, by taking and retaking tests, you can move up to a far more competitive score compared with other candidates.

How can practising make me better at taking psychometric tests?

Hausknecht et al have given five ways in which to explain the impact of practise. These are:

  • Reduced anxiety
  • Memory of previous responses (when sitting an identical test)
  • Actual development of abilities
  • Enhanced test taking strategies
  • Regression to the mean (or aligning to the average the more times you take a test).

By becoming more at ease with the tests you are taking and more familiar with the process of being tested, you are able to work through quantitative and analytical problems more quickly. This will ultimately lead to you achieving a higher score (Hausknecht and co). For many of you, the biggest benefit of practise is to teach you how to work better under time pressure.

Whilst many tests are aimed at assessing your abilities, practising ahead of time will benefit everyone in different ways. Schleicher and others identified five features of tests which show how much of an impact practice will make for non-academically inclined individuals. These are:

  • The extent to which the test is based on cognitive ability testing. The study found that cognitive ability stays stable (although as discussed above, familiarity with tests can help improve scores).
  • How new the test is to the person taking it. If you have never done a type of test before, every part of the test will be a learning experience, and you can learn a lot about what to do better next time.
  • How fakeable the test is, i.e. how far you can plan your reaction to the test in advance. Your plans can be based on your previous experience of taking the test or thinking about what it involves.
  • Whether the test you are taking is identical to the forms you have taken or practised, or simply parallel.
  • Whether or not the recruiters are looking for signs of potential through the tests, rather than a score against a sample group.

The Practise Debate

There are debates about whether or not you can improve your cognitive ability through practise. Some employers will even tell you that there is not much you can do to prepare for their tests. This debate is carried out in the academic sources. Schleicher et al feel that cognitive ability is fairly static and as such, practice will have a limited effect. However, Hausknecht et al found that empirical studies have shown that improvements can be made in cognitive ability, but you as the individual have to put effort into doing so. This effort can be performed by practising on your own, or by receiving formal instruction or coaching.

However, your attitude towards the preparation you are doing will impact how effective your practise is. Reeve and Lam (as quoted in Schleicher et al) in a study of undergraduates in the US, found that test performance was affected by the students’ belief in the tests and in their own motivation when preparing for and taking the tests. In other words, your test-taking performance will improve if you take your tests seriously. Attitudes towards tests can be influenced by whether or not you as the applicant feel that the test is relevant to you, or to the job you are applying for (Krumm et al).

Another warning: don’t simply take test after test without thinking about what it is that is going wrong. In order for you to improve between tests, you need to think about what it is that you are doing wrong, and how you can solve the problem to get it right the next time (Schleicher et al).

Practising for Interviews and Assessment Centres

As mentioned above, practise can improve your performance in less-defined tests such as interviews and assessment centres as well. In fact, these tests can be a great leveller, as success is not defined by ability alone. Whereas improvement in written tests (such as numerical or verbal reasoning) can be impacted on by ability. The closer a test is to mimicking a real-work situation, the less ability impacts the result (Schleicher et al).

So, should I just take my chances at an interview or assessment day?

Absolutely not. Schliecher et al found as a by-product of their analysis that the more novel or fakeable a test is (i.e. the newer or more unusual a test is for the applicants, or the more chance there is for candidates to plan their approach in advance), the more practise ahead of time can help applicants achieve a better outcome on the day.

In Summary

Practise is a good thing, everyone can benefit from it. It is not just about how to improve your overall score, but also how to improve your score against others. Practise is key to improving your confidence, developing your abilities, and improving your test-taking strategies. It can improve your performance in not just aptitude tests, but also in interviews or assessment centre tests. It all depends on how seriously you take your practise, and how much effort you put in. Just be careful, there is a fine line between preparing for optimum efficiency and doing too much. Take care not to reach a point where you start getting diminishing returns from the preparation you are doing.

The sources used:

De Soete, B., Lievens, F., Druart, C. (2012). An Update on the Diversity-Validity Dilemma in Personnel Selection: A Review. Psychological Topics 21.3 399-424.

Krumm, S., Huffmeier, J., Dietz, F., Findeisen, A., Dries, C. (2013). Die Akzeptanz von kognitiven Leistungstests: Entwicklung und erste Validierung des Reasoning Ability at Work Test. Journal of Business and Media Psychology August 20/2013.

Hausknecht, J.P., Halpert, J.A., Di Paolo, N.T., & Moriarty Gerrard, M.O.M. (2007). Retesting in Selection: A Meta-Analysis of Coaching and Practice Effects for Tests of Cognitive Ability. Journal of Applied Psychology, 92, 373-385.

Ployhart, R.E., & Holtz, B.C. (2008). The Diversity-Validity Dilemma: Strategies for Reducing Racioethnic and Sex Subgroup Differences and Adverse Impact in Selection. Personnel Psychology, 61, 153-172.

Sackett, P.R., Schmitt, N., Ellingson, J.E., & Kabin, M.B. (2001). High-Stakes Testing in Employment, Credentialing, and Higher Education: Prospects in a Post-Affirmative-Action World. American Psychologist, 56, 302-318.

Schleicher, D.J., Van Iddekinge, C.H., Morgeson, F.P., & Campion, M.A. (2010). If At First You Don’t Succeed, Try, Try Again: Understanding Race, Age, and Gender Differences in Retesting Score Improvement. Journal of Applied Psychology, 95, 603-617.