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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.

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AUTHORJon Jacobs Insider Comment
  • Vi
    Virginia
    29 May 2013

    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.

  • ca
    carrie
    30 March 2008

    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.

  • Pi
    Pissed
    31 January 2008

    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.

  • Mi
    Mickey Sabbath
    5 July 2007

    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

  • an
    anon
    2 July 2007

    these tests are junk science, like a "lie detector"

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