What is a skills assessment test and how is it used?

Updated 4 September 2023

Skills assessment tests are one of several methods that companies use to decide if a candidate is the right person for a job. If you're applying for jobs, you may be asked to take a skills test to determine whether you're suited to the role. These tests can take various forms and could happen at different stages of the recruitment process, depending on the company. In this article, we explain what a skills test is and why companies use them, explore the different types of skills tests and provide tips for preparing for a test.

What is a skills assessment test?

A skills assessment test is a type of test that is designed to ascertain whether you have the right skills for a job. Some companies require their current employees to take occasional or regular skills tests to establish whether their skills are up to date and determine where further training would be useful. However, they are primarily used during the recruiting process, when employers use them to narrow down applicants for a job.

Different types of skills assessment tests

There are many different types of skills tests that an employer might use to assess your suitability for a job. For example:

Hard skills tests

Hard skills tests are designed to assess whether a candidate has specific skills which are needed for the role. There are many different types of hard skills tests depending on the requirements of the job, but it's very common to have candidates take a hard skills test in subjects like coding, mathematics, typing or operating certain types of machinery. Hard skills tests are the same for every candidate and provide an employer with valuable information about each person's proficiency at certain tasks.

Related: What Are Hard Skills and How Do They Differ From Soft Skills?

Cognitive ability tests

Cognitive ability tests assess skills that are less directly related to the role than hard skills tests, such as critical and lateral thinking. They do this by asking the candidate to complete questions that require them to use numerical and verbal reasoning. These tests are very useful to employers in that they tell them about a candidate's problem-solving skills, which are important in any role. People usually do cognitive ability tests online. These assessments can be in the format of games, which some candidates find to be more approachable and less stressful than traditional cognitive ability tests.

Related: What Are Aptitude Tests? Definitions and 11 Free Resources

Personality tests

Personality tests are designed to tell an employer about your interests, values and motivation, which allows them to see whether you would be a good fit for their company. There are many different types of personality tests, such as the Myers-Briggs Type Indicator (MBTI), which places you into one of 16 personality groups. If you're asked to take a personality test, you're usually given a set of statements describing various ways of feeling or acting and asked to note to what extent you agree with them. There are no wrong answers in a personality test.

Work sample tests

Work sample tests are meant to mimic actual day-to-day tasks to determine whether a candidate is capable of coping with them. They can take various forms, including case study tests where you are asked how you would respond in specific situations or coding tests, where you may be asked to write or correct a piece of code that you would need to produce as part of the job you're applying for. These tests are very useful to employers as they give them a real idea of how a candidate might perform in a role.

Related: Pre-Employment Tests: Definitions, Types and Benefits

Why do employers use skills tests?

Employers use skills tests to assess various skills, both in new candidates and in their existing employees. These tests may be used:

  • to narrow down a field of candidates when many of them seem equally qualified for a job

  • to verify candidates' claims about their experience, skills and qualifications

  • to find out how the skills of a company's existing workforce compare with others in the market

  • to determine which employees are suitable for promotion or for being given extra responsibilities

  • to figure out where skill gaps exist in a company, which could be resolved by hiring new talent or providing extra training to existing employees

Related: What to Do If You Aren't Hearing Back From Employers

Other types of assessments used in recruitment

Employers use a lot of different methods to eliminate candidates and decide who is the most suitable person for a role. Other ways of assessing candidates include:

  • Candidates' CVs. Employers use these to compare different candidates' skills, experience and qualifications.

  • Application forms. Employers spend time designing application forms that ask the right questions and using the information given to determine who is the best for the job.

  • Structured interviews. This type of interview uses the same questions for every candidate. This means that it is a good way of obtaining objective information about a candidate and eliminating bias from the recruitment procedure.

  • Unstructured interviews. Although they are still organised and meticulous, unstructured interviews don't use the same pre-determined questions for each candidate. Instead, the interviewer focuses more on building dialogue and rapport with a candidate and finding out about their suitability for a role in a less formal way.

  • Role-play exercises. Some employers require candidates to complete role-play exercises as part of the interview process, for example, by acting out a situation in which the interviewer plays an angry customer on the phone and the interviewee has to react to them as they would if they were offered the job.

  • Checking references. Employers contact the references you provide to verify the information you have given them about your past experience and to gain insight into your skills, performance and work ethic.

Related: A Practical Guide To Structured Interviews With Tips and Questions

How to prepare for a skills assessment test

If a company has asked you to do a skills test by a potential employer, don't panic. Although some people may find skills tests stressful, the employer is really just looking to gather as much information as possible about you and your skills before moving forward with the application. Although you likely won't know exactly what the test entails until you take it, there are some steps you can take to prepare for a skills test:

1. Find out as much as you can about the test

If you're nervous about taking a skills test, try to find out as much as you can about the test before you take it. Ask the employer what type of test it is—for example, whether it's a hard skills test assessing a specific skill, a cognitive ability test designed to test your critical thinking or a personality test. You can also ask them how many questions there are, what format the answers take (i.e. multiple choice or free text) and whether there's a time limit for completing the test.

2. Prepare in advance as much as possible

You may not know exactly what questions are going to come up on the test, but depending on the type of test you're being asked to do, you can still do a certain amount of preparation in advance. If it's a hard skills test, be sure to brush up on the specific skill that's being tested. If it's a cognitive reasoning test, look up example tests online and try them out. You can also do this if you're doing a personality test, so you know what type of questions to expect.

3. Set aside enough time and make sure you can focus

Often, employers ask candidates to do a skills test at home on their own time. If this is the case, make sure you give yourself plenty of time to complete the test, check that you have all the technical requirements, such as a stable Internet connection or a pair of headphones and try to eliminate distractions as much as possible. This might mean arranging to do the test at a time when no one else is at home or letting the people you live with know when you're doing it.

If you're asked to go and do the test at the company's office, be sure to give yourself plenty of time to get there so you're not stressed about being late and can simply focus on being prepared for the test.

4. Read all instructions and each question carefully

Before you begin the test, make sure you read all the instructions very carefully. Try to stay calm and spend a moment taking in the information so that you understand exactly what is required of you and how to answer the questions. Also, be sure to read each question and any answers provided carefully before submitting an answer, even if it seems obvious. This is particularly important for multiple-choice questions, where there are sometimes several similar answers.

Related: A guide to assessment strategies (with types)

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