Psychological Testing: A Primer for Job Applicants

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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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