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How to beat investment banks' psychometric tests

Investment banks have opened up their graduate programmes to applications. This means it’s time to perfect your CV, understand what it takes to get through the application form and highlight achievements that will set you apart from the competition. But there’s another element – the dreaded psychometric tests.

Numerical tests are well-known, but the reality is that – depending on the investment bank – students will also be tested on logical reasoning, verbal reasoning, personality profiling and situational judgement.

If this sounds daunting enough, bear in mind that the term ‘test’ is something of a misnomer. “Aside from the numerical tests, there’s no right or wrong answer,” says Mark Parkinson, a business psychologist who sets these tests for organisations. “They’re really questionnaires and giving the ‘wrong’ answer will ultimately come back to bite you, because you’re probably not suited to the job.”

Getting through numerical tests

Numerical tests are first applied during the initial screening stage of the investment banking recruitment process. These tests are online and are comparatively easy – banks will also subject their applicants to numerical tests at the assessment centre and these are more difficult.

However, to any graduate from a top university who’s studied a finance or maths degree – which, let’s face it, is where most banks tend to hire from – numerical tests should be a walk in the park. You’ll be assessed on arithmetic, fractions, decimals and ratios to varying degrees of difficulty.

“The name of the game is covering enough ground in the test so you don’t miss any questions,” says Parkinson. “It doesn’t take a mathematical genius, but if you’re not comfortable with numbers or used to a test environment, you will struggle.”

There are two common problems most people encounter. One is not making it through all the questions on time.The tests usually last 20-25 minutes and involve 18-25 questions - completing them all is a challenge. Another is not reading the question correctly - again, usually due to time constraints - and coming up with the wrong answer.

For example, you may see a simple XY graph where X is year one, year two etc. and Y is a numerical statistic. The question will ask you what was the Y figure in year three and candidates will jump to the graph and quickly tick their answer and move on, while missing that the Y column was actually cumulative. What's more, many tests ask multiple questions on the same data set, so not taking time to fully comprehend what's in front of you on one question can have broader implications on your score.

It’s essentially a vetting system put in place to filter out the huge number of applications banks receive. Even if you do well, you need to be in the top 30-35% of applicants to be considered, so it pays to be absolutely sure of your ability before taking the real thing.

There are plenty of places to practice – from the large psychometric test companies themselves, such as Kenexa or CEB SHL, while other sites like Grad Diary tend to benchmark students against one another. Another factor to consider is which banks use which test providers. Historically, Morgan Stanley, BofA Merrill Lynch and JP Morgan used Kenexa and Barclays uses CEB SHL. Different test firms have subtle differences in the rules they set, so it's worth familiarising yourself.

Testing your logical reasoning skills

A trickier proposition entirely is getting through the logical reasoning tests.

“Investment banks are essentially looking to test your abstract thinking and whether you have the intelligence to do the job,” says Cary Cooper, professor of organisational psychology at Manchester Business School.

Verbal reasoning tests look at your ability to comprehend written material and decide what follows logically from it. There's a standard format for these - you'll be presented with a statement containing a lot of logical information and asked to answer the question around three standard responses:

A – True

(Does it follow logically from the information or opinions contained in the passage?)

B – False

(Is it logically untrue based on information or opinions contained in the passage?)

C – Cannot Say

One example provided by CEB SHL is this:

“Many organisations find it beneficial to employ students over the summer. Permanent staff often wish to take their own holidays over this period. Furthermore, it is not uncommon for companies to experience peak workloads in the summer and so require extra staff. Summer employment also attracts students who may return as well-qualified recruits to an organisation when they have completed their education. Ensuring that the students learn as much as possible about the organisation encourages interest in working on a permanent basis. Organisations pay students on a fixed rate without the usual entitlement to paid holidays or bonus schemes.”

Statement 1: It is possible that permanent staff who are on holiday can have their work carried out by students."

Abstract reasoning tests assess your ability to identify rules or patterns in data and come up with a logical solution.

“Essentially these are testing ‘horse power’ of the mind rather than intelligence,” says Parkinson. “The sort of person who will succeed in the workplace is one who can look at a problem in various ways, work out a hypothesis and test if it works. If it doesn’t, close it down and come up with something else. It tests strategic versus tactical thinking, both of which are important and desirable to employers.”

Again, he says, the key is simply to practice. The tests can be relatively straightforward, but intimidating if you’ve never encountered them before.

The softer factors: personality tests and situational judgement

Some banks also indulge in online personality tests in an attempt to gauge the ‘traits’ of potential employees. This is not really something you can fake – these questionnaires tend to pick up inconsistencies and, if you’re not suited, you’ll end up miserable.

“What they’re looking for is extroversion, neuroticism, a sense of purpose, emotional stability and conscientiousness,” says Cooper. “If it’s done properly the responses should be tailored to the individual organisation. Banks are also looking for other factors – is this person ethical? There’s no point employing a conscientious person with no ethics.”

These are the most common traits banks look for, but you really shouldn’t try to game the system, says Cooper.

“You’re not going to guess what characteristics they’re looking for, so will end up being inconsistent and if you lie then you’re genuinely not going to have the personality that will fit into the organisation,” he says.

More recently, both investment banks and Big Four accounting firms have started introducing situational judgement questionairres. This is how it sounds, you’re given a scenario with a range of actions that could determine possible outcomes and asked to suggest the best ones.

“The answers are based on interviews with senior business people who are doing the jobs right now,” says Parkinson. “There’s a sliding scale on the answers and you can actually get negative points for the wrong response. This is quite a crude indicator of your performance on the job.”

If this sounds intimidating, the reality can be fairly self-evident. An example (originally from WikiJob) is this:

"At the end of a busy day at work you accidentally send an email containing an attachment with some confidential information to the wrong person.

Which of the following would be the best thing to do?

A Decide to leave the office and deal with any problems when you return tomorrow.

B Decide to over look your error, send the email to the correct person and leave things like that.

C Immediately send a follow up email to the "wrong" person,or if possible telephone them explaining your mistake. Then send the email to the correct person.

D Find your manager, explain what has happened and let them deal with any problems."


AUTHORPaul Clarke
  • Li
    15 January 2008

    Agree. Practice makes perfect. :)

  • AL
    9 January 2008

    please do not take the negative comments here anymore than something to laugh at. We do not know who these people are and whether they are really bankers. Some might just be losers who want to reduce the competition they face by persuading others not to practise for the tests. Those who have taken SAT maths will know that practice definitely helps. Enough said.

  • Ol
    7 January 2008

    Taking the numeracy test I believe enables employers to select those candidates which are able to adapt quickly to their different challenging work environments. Practice makes perfect and simply failing a numeracy test is not the end of the world, it simply means unsucessful candidates should need to practice more

  • Gr
    4 January 2008

    As a graduate looking for a job, I've done loads of these tests and come out tops on some (and completely flunked one or two!).
    The truth is, the questions are not hard at all, it is just a case of the firms having thousands of strong applications and only a few job vacancies. They have to find a way of filtering out a lot of good applicants in a "fair" way. Many people who are very numerate will not come up to scratch on the test, but those who are rubbish with numbers would not pass them. Definitely practise beforehand, not so much the maths but sitting the test under test conditions. Remember it's not about being able to do the maths, its about passing the test!

  • Al
    3 January 2008

    I have been struggling with these numerical tests, and unfortunately, even failed one for HSBC. But frankly, Banker and Mike's comment only motivates me to prove them wrong for their arrogance, and I would love to be able to come back next week and write about how wrong they were.

    My question is, roughtly, what percentage do you need to obtain for the numerical tests to pass for Merril Lynch and other banks ?

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