Cognitive ability tests are a recruiter’s secret weapon for employee selection.
Why? Because companies that use a cognitive ability test for hiring see higher employee performance and productivity, decreased turnover, and significant cost savings.
And that's because cognitive ability tests assess a candidate’s mental abilities, highlighting skills that don’t show up on a CV or cover letter.
They help you identify answers to questions like “Can a candidate think abstractly?” Or, “How easily can they understand complex concepts?”, “How quickly do they learn?”, and “How adaptable are they to change?”
Recruiters try to assess these skills throughout the interview process, but it’s not always easy. By directly testing a candidate’s cognitive abilities, we can add a level of clarity to the hiring process.
This article is your ultimate guide to using cognitive ability tests for employee selection. It covers everything you need to know if you want to learn how to use cognitive ability tests to hire better employees.
We’ll help you understand the theoretical underpinnings of cognitive ability tests and why they’re effective, and we’ll also give you practical tips on how to use them as part of your hiring process, with test examples, dos and don’ts, and other helpful resources.
- What is a cognitive ability test?
- Why should recruiters use cognitive ability tests for hiring?
- Why are there so many different types of cognitive ability tests?
- Types of cognitive ability tests
- A step-by-step guide to hiring using cognitive ability tests
- Dos and Don’ts: Cognitive ability testing tips
- Cognitive ability testing tools & resources
- Make cognitive ability tests part of your recruitment process
- Key takeaways
What is a cognitive ability test?
A cognitive ability test is a pre-employment test used to measure a candidate’s cognitive skills.
Cognitive ability tests are part of a growing body of candidate screening tests that not only help identify better candidates, but actually speed up and simplify the recruitment process.
That’s why 76% of organizations with more than 100 employees use some form of screening tests when assessing external job candidates.
What does a cognitive ability test measure?
Cognitive ability tests measure a candidate’s mental abilities across a number of different categories.
These tests don’t measure what you know, they measure how you think.
In a strictly literal sense, cognitive ability tests are designed to measure mental skills like:
- Attention to detail: How closely does a candidate pay attention to detail when processing new information?
- Problem solving: How well does a candidate use information to make correct decisions?
- Critical thinking: How well does a candidate solve logical problems and think analytically?
- Numerical reasoning: How well does a candidate work with and interpret numbers?
- Reading comprehension: How well does a candidate understand the key messages in a piece of text?
- Spatial reasoning: How well can a candidate understand, remember, and reason about the spatial relationships among objects or space?
In a recruitment context, cognitive ability tests measure a candidate’s likelihood to succeed at their job:
- For senior roles, they measure a candidate’s ability to think on their feet or make complicated decisions with many variables involved.
- For junior roles, they can identify high-potential candidates who are quick learners but haven’t had a chance to prove themselves yet.
How is cognitive ability tested?
Cognitive ability is typically measured through short, multiple-choice tests. Tests can be made up of logic puzzles, math problems, or reading comprehension questions.
A cognitive ability test can be designed to test one individual skill (e.g. numerical reasoning) or can be formatted as a general intelligence test that covers every category of intelligence.
The questions themselves are not especially difficult on their own, but there’s usually a time limit built into the test that forces the candidate to think quickly. In most cases, cognitive ability tests are only 10-30 minutes long.
The fast pace of the tests simulates the real world where we have to make quick, logical decisions, hundreds of times a day, therefore accurately predicting a candidate’s workplace performance.
At TestGorilla, we’ve broken down the core cognitive abilities into individual 10-minute tests that can be delivered to potential candidates as part of an assessment package. This allows you to pick and choose the tests that are most relevant to the role you’re hiring for.
Cognitive ability test results are delivered as raw scores or as percentiles.
With raw scores, you can pre-screen candidates that meet a certain threshold baseline score. For example, you may choose to only accept candidates who answer at least 20 out of 25 questions correct.
Percentiles, on the other hand, assess a candidate relative to other candidates. For example, you may choose to only look at candidates in the 50th percentile or higher, meaning those who score in the top half of all candidates tested.
Is a cognitive ability test the same as an IQ test?
Yes and no.
Culturally, we often use the term “IQ” to refer to a test of someone’s general intelligence—their ability to understand concepts and solve problems. In this loose sense, an IQ test and a cognitive ability test are similar.
That said, the technical term ‘IQ’ (Intelligence Quotient) specifically refers to your score on a cognitive ability test relative to the average population. Historically, this was calculated as a ratio relative to other test takers your age. Today, IQ is calculated as how many standard deviations you fall away from the median test taker.
In simpler terms, IQ is just one way to describe the result of a cognitive ability test, which measures the test taker’s intelligence.
Why should recruiters use cognitive ability tests for hiring?
There’s no secret formula for hiring the perfect candidate every time, but recruiters should take advantage of any tool that improves the hiring process.
Cognitive ability tests are just one of the many tools available, but they may be the most underutilized based on their effectiveness.
Here are seven reasons why you should start using cognitive ability tests right now:
1. Cognitive ability tests predict job performance
One of the most compelling reasons to use cognitive ability tests is that they are a strong predictor of job performance.
For instance, in 1998, Frank L. Schmidt measured 19 different employee selection techniques on their ability to predict job performance.
He assessed the most common methods recruiters use to select candidates: education level, job experience, structured and unstructured job interviews, job knowledge tests, and cognitive ability tests.
Schmidt’s research found that cognitive ability was the strongest predictor of job performance.
For those who need a Statistics 101 recap, an r coefficient of 1 means a perfect positive correlation between two variables, while an r coefficient of 0 means no correlation.
Therefore, cognitive ability tests show a moderate positive correlation with job performance (r = 0.51), compared with education level (r = 0.10) or job experience (r = 0.18), which only show weak positive correlations.
It’s important to note that these factors compound with each other. Using cognitive ability tests in combination with job interviews, for example, makes it even more likely you’ll find the right candidate.
2. Cognitive ability tests measure learning and problem-solving
Cognitive ability tests are effective at predicting job performance because it reliably predicts how agile a candidate is when navigating an ever-changing work environment.
Often, your job performance is determined by how quickly you can learn on the job rather than what you already know.
The higher an employee’s cognitive abilities, the faster they’ll learn, the quicker they’ll adapt to change, and the more effectively they’ll find solutions to new problems.
3. Cognitive ability tests help you identify hidden potential
Resumes tell us what a candidate has already done—not necessarily what they’re capable of.
By testing for cognitive ability, you can identify the “diamond in the rough” candidates who may have thinner resumes but have all the skills needed to thrive in your organization.
This is especially helpful when hiring for junior positions where it’s likely few candidates have past experience.
By hiring quick learners and stacking your organization with bright people, you’ll ensure you have brilliant employees at every level of the company hierarchy.
4. Cognitive ability tests save time and money
We saw above that a ten-minute cognitive assessment test was just as predictive as a one-hour job interview.
But Schmidt’s 1998 study also determined that cognitive assessment tests were the most cost-effective method of hiring great employees. That’s because pre-screening applicants based on cognitive ability helps you avoid interviewing too many candidates, saving you time and therefore money.
Cognitive ability tests can be easily and affordably administered online using platforms like TestGorilla. For a few dollars per test, you can win back hours of organizational time.
5. Cognitive ability tests avoid bias—when used correctly
Every recruiter should actively work to avoid bias as part of their hiring process. Cognitive ability tests help add an objective perspective to hiring.
But even the most equal-opportunity recruiters may carry unconscious biases about intelligence that cause them to treat candidates unequally.
For example, a recruiter may unconsciously favor male candidates for technical roles or female candidates for people-person roles because of societal stereotypes.
Another example of bias is basing a decision on someone’s accent, as it may be a marker of their social and educational background. An interviewer might make unfair and unconscious assumptions about a candidate’s intelligence based on their accent.
It’s even possible to be completely objective in your ability to evaluate candidates and still hire with bias because of systemic biases built into our societal fabric.
For example, when controlling for work hours, spousal employment and other factors, women spend 8.5 more hours per week on domestic activities and are three times more likely to take time off work if their usual child care arrangement is disrupted. That’s certain to make a long-term negative impact on women’s resumes.
When all of these factors start adding up, that’s a lot to take on as a recruiter!
By using cognitive ability tests, you can evaluate a candidate for their actual intelligence rather than their laundry list of past jobs, and standardize the recruitment process to remove your unconscious ideas of what intelligence may look like.
That said, some standardized intelligence tests have been shown to exhibit bias towards certain cultures and backgrounds. We’ll come back to this later in our guide.
6. Cognitive ability tests impress candidates
Taking the time to thoroughly vet potential employees shows that you value hiring the right candidates.
You show off that you’re forward-thinking, that you act without bias, and that everything your company does is well thought out.
By using modern screening tools, asking thoughtful questions, and giving candidates the ability to showcase their intelligence, you’re giving candidates a positive peek into what it’s like working at your company.
7. Cognitive ability tests improve retention
Cognitive ability tests can improve your organizational retention by helping you to hire and impress the right candidates from the get-go. And employee retention is often one of the HR team’s biggest KPIs (Key Performance Indicator).
That’s because the cost of losing an employee can be anywhere from tens of thousands of dollars to double their annual salary.
That may seem excessive, but after you factor in the cost of advertising the role, interviewing, screening, hiring, onboarding, training, management time, lost productivity, lost engagement, lost customer service, increased errors, ongoing training costs, and cultural impact, you can see how the costs start to add up!
Why are there so many different types of cognitive ability tests?
Once you’ve convinced yourself that it’s time to start using cognitive ability tests, you’ll quickly discover that there are many different tests—and that’s what we’ll cover in the next section.
But why is that?
Cognitive ability tests are made to measure intelligence. Unfortunately, psychologists, neuroscientists, and philosophers can’t come to an agreement on what intelligence actually is.
Even though there’s no universally proven theory of intelligence, we can agree that intelligence is multifaceted and therefore can’t be simplified into one test.
Before you jump into administering cognitive ability tests, it’s helpful to understand some of the basic theories of intelligence and why tests are split into different cognitive categories.
Is there one general intelligence?
Early theories on intelligence assumed one general intelligence, which justified the existence of more general IQ tests.
Charles Spearman was the original proponent of General Intelligence Theory. He found that an individual’s performance on one type of cognitive task was highly correlated to their ability on other cognitive tasks.
This led him to theorize that people possess a general intelligence impacted by attention, speed, memory, and visualization. He called this general intelligence the ‘g factor'.
Are there multiple intelligences?
But what if there is no single form of intelligence? In that case, recruiters would want to test a variety of cognitive abilities when vetting candidates.
Howard Gardner first proposed the theory of multiple intelligences in his 1983 book Frames of Mind: The Theory of Multiple Intelligences.
Based on brain damage research, evolutionary history, and a number of other factors, he proposed that intelligence should instead be broken into eight distinct cognitive abilities that are not strongly correlated with each other.
He proposed eight different abilities:
While Gardner’s theory certainly isn’t the only accepted model of human intelligence, most modern theories include at least some form of multiple intelligences.
As a result, recruiters often use separate tests to evaluate different skills, including verbal skills, math skills, logic, and even creativity or emotional intelligence.
The more variety we use in our tests, the more likely we are to identify candidates with a wide variety of cognitive abilities.
Types of cognitive ability tests
As there are so many different facets of intelligence, there are many different cognitive ability tests to match them.
At TestGorilla, we have six different cognitive ability tests that measure candidates on their:
- Attention to detail
- Problem solving
- Critical thinking
- Numerical reasoning
- Reading comprehension
- Spatial reasoning
Here’s a quick explanation of what each test measures and the roles they’re most suitable for. But keep in mind, these cognitive skills are helpful for nearly any position. We'll also include links to examples of cognitive ability tests for employee selection.
Attention to detail tests
Attention to detail is more than just paying attention: It’s the ability to take in a large quantity of information and quickly filter out irrelevant aspects of it.
We get lots of information thrown at us in our day-to-day work—much of it noise—so the ability to focus only on what matters can help anyone excel in their role.
The attention to detail screening test examines the candidate’s ability to:
- Match information: Can they match statements to relevant supporting information?
- Filter information: Can they deduce key takeaways from lengthy paragraphs?
- Compare statements: Can they spot differences between two similar pieces of information?
- Evaluate consistency: Can they evaluate a piece of text for its logical consistency?
Attention to detail is necessary for nearly every job, but it’s most relevant for jobs where every last detail matters, and making a small mistake can have a big impact. This includes roles like:
- Customer service representatives
- Administrative assistants
- Software testers and developers
- Accountants and financial analysts
- Writers and editors
Example test question:
For more examples, check out our attention to detail sample questions.
Problem solving is the ability to make smart decisions based on the data at hand. It also encompasses the ability to define and evaluate a problem in the first place.
How someone handles novel situations will depend largely on their problem solving skills.
Problem solving tests assess a candidate’s ability to:
- Prioritize tasks: Create and adjust schedules
- Think logically: Interpret data and apply logic to make decisions
- Interpret rules: Prioritize and apply order based on a given set of rules
- Draw conclusions: Analyze textual and numerical information to draw conclusions
Problem solving ability is key for any role that involves managing constantly shifting variables with tight deadlines, especially when it comes to customer service. Example roles might include:
- Customer support
- Hospitality staff
- Project and product managers
- Healthcare workers
Example test question
For more examples, check out our problem solving sample questions.
Critical thinking is the ability to solve inductive and deductive reasoning problems.
In the workplace, this means the ability to identify, analyze, and apply information in a meaningful way. Critical thinking tests also indirectly assess a candidate’s working memory, as those who score well tend to be able to hold lots of information in their head at once.
Critical thinking assessments test a candidate’s ability to:
- Use deductive reasoning: Draw correct conclusions from the provided information
- Interpret sequences: Understand the ordering or arrangement of items
- Determine cause and effect: Create connections between actions and outcomes
- Recognize assumptions: Identify what claim was made or not made in a statement
Critical thinking tests are most relevant for complex roles that require a high degree of analytical or independent thinking. This includes roles like:
Example test question:
For more examples, check out our critical thinking sample questions.
Numerical reasoning is a candidate’s ability to work effectively with numbers.
Numerical reasoning tests assess a candidate’s ability to draw conclusions from graphs, tables, number sequences, and text. These skills are especially important for roles that require drawing data-driven conclusions.
Numerical reading tests assess a candidate’s ability to:
- Interpret numbers, fractions, and percentages
- Understand number patterns
- Interpret text and tables
- Interpret charts, graphs, and diagrams
Numerical reasoning is—unsurprisingly—most crucial for roles that deal with data, whether it’s financial data like budgets and forecasts, or whether it’s interpreting employee data from productivity spreadsheets. This includes roles like:
- Financial managers
- Business analysts
Example test question:
For more examples, check out our numerical reasoning sample questions.
Reading comprehension is the ability to quickly and accurately read and interpret information from a piece of text.
Reading comprehension is invaluable in the workplace, as it’s helpful for interpreting emails, learning new skills online, and digesting information quickly.
Reading comprehension tests evaluate the candidate’s ability to:
- Identify the main thought of a piece of text
- Make inferences based on a passage
Reading comprehension is especially key for roles where someone works at a computer all day—because the majority of the content they consume, including communication, is text.
- Scientists and researchers
- Customer service representatives
Example test question:
For more examples, check out our reading comprehension sample questions.
Spatial reasoning is the ability to understand, remember, and reason about the spatial relationships among objects in space. This test shows candidates' analytical thinking skills in terms of objects and space.
Spatial reasoning skills play an important role in science, technology, engineering, and math (STEM) related jobs, like:
- Mechanical engineers
- Chemical engineers
Example test question:
A step-by-step guide to hiring using cognitive ability tests
If you’re not sure how to integrate cognitive ability tests into your hiring process, here’s an easy way to start.
1. Choose the right cognitive ability tests - Select the most relevant cognitive ability tests based on the needs of the role you’re hiring for. For example, if a role involves lots of communication over email, you could administer the reading comprehension test.
2. Create a benchmark - Your candidates’ cognitive ability scores will be much more insightful if you have a baseline to compare them to. Test your existing high performing employees and use their scores to create a benchmark for what a qualified candidate looks like.
3. Test your candidates - One of the major benefits of using tests for hiring is that they speed up the screening process significantly. Pair your cognitive ability test with a role-specific test to surface the candidates most suited for the position you’re hiring for.
4. Evaluate the results - Evaluate each candidate relative to the benchmark you created. If a candidate is too far below the benchmark, consider eliminating them from contention. If they meet the benchmark, consider inviting them for an interview.
5. Interview the qualified candidates - Interview each candidate that passed the initial benchmark. If there were any particular weak or strong points in the candidate’s test, consider asking questions that dig deeper during the interview. You can also follow up on any weak points with their job references.
6. Make a decision - Use the results of the cognitive ability test in combination with any other assessments you conducted, including the interview and reference checks. The cognitive ability test should never be the only deciding factor.
7. Update your benchmarks - Over time, continue to assess your high performers’ test scores and adjust your benchmarks. The more data you gain, the more power you have to make smart decisions.
Using this method, you’ll be on your way to hiring better performers in no time.
Dos and Don’ts: Cognitive ability testing tips
While cognitive ability tests are a powerful tool, they have to be used as part of an intelligent hiring process.
The tests on their own will provide you with useful data, but what you do with that data is the tricky part.
Here’s how to get the most value out of your cognitive ability testing.
Do: Test transparently
If you’re testing candidates as part of the hiring process, you should be as transparent as possible as to why.
Candidates deserve to know what is being tested, the data you’re collecting from them, how their test scores will impact your decisions, and how you may continue to use that data after they’ve been hired.
By being transparent, you prevent any possible legal or privacy issues.
Don’t: Be intimidating
That said, don’t be too intimidating!
You should be positive and friendly in all your communication with candidates to get them excited about the test(s) they’ll have to perform. The tests aren’t meant to scare anyone off.
Ultimately, it’s a great opportunity to gain trust with the candidate by showing that your company culture is open and honest.
And as we mentioned above, it shows candidates that you care about bringing in great people and high performers into your organization.
Do: Use the test results
It can be easy to dismiss a candidate’s low scores because they interviewed really well or they have a long resume of past accomplishments.
If you choose to use cognitive ability tests as part of the hiring process, you have to be dedicated to actually using the test results.
Keep updating your internal benchmarks by monitoring employees’ performance over time.
The more you can correlate test scores to internal success, the more you’ll get organizational buy-in as to their effectiveness.
Don’t: Rely solely on the test results
That said, don’t be unreasonable. Test results should be used as one input in the process—as one piece of the puzzle.
It’s been proven that cognitive ability tests are more predictive of success when used in combination with other hiring tools, so don’t rely on test scores alone.
And remember what the tests actually measure: intelligence and ability to learn. In some roles, experience and accumulation of knowledge matter more than being able to learn new things.
Being a great problem solver isn’t always a better substitute for already knowing the answer to the problem.
Don’t: Give the same tests to every role
Because they measure a candidate’s higher-thinking skills, cognitive ability tests are best-suited for complex jobs with higher training demands.
For more senior roles or leadership roles, you should use a wide variety of tests.
For junior roles, you should use only the tests that are relevant for that role. For example, you may want to test an entry-level developer on numerical reasoning and problem solving, but you may feel it’s okay to skip the reading comprehension test.
Don’t: Create an adverse impact or reinforce biases
One of the main goals of using cognitive ability tests is to hire without bias.
But what if bias is built right into the test?
In 2011, Berry, Clarke, and McClure found that there are subgroup differences built into some cognitive ability tests. Their study found that white participants’ test scores are more directly correlated with their job performance than the test scores of black or Hispanic participants.
In other words, the tests they studied unintentionally favored white candidates. This is called creating an adverse impact.
According to the Society for Human Resource Management, disparate or adverse impact “occurs when a decision, practice or policy has a disproportionately negative effect on a protected group, even though the adverse impact may be unintentional.”
So, just because you intended the test to be free from bias doesn’t mean it actually is.
It’s not uncommon for systemic bias to be built into standardized tests. For example, there’s well-documented evidence that black students in the United States score poorer on standardized tests than white students.
And to compound that effect, Steele and Aronson showed that black Americans perform worse on tests when they are simply reminded of the stereotype that they are expected to perform worse on tests than white students.
And this isn’t confined to race. In a 1999 study, women were tested on their math abilities when encountered with negative stereotypes. Women who were reminded of the stereotype that women are worse at math than men right before taking the test performed worse on the test than the control group.
Without going into all the societal and psychological mechanisms behind these effects, we can still acknowledge that simply being aware that our tests may favor one subgroup over another is reason enough to be careful when using them
Do: Measure the adverse impact
So what can we do to avoid creating adverse impact or perpetuating biases?
First of all, use cognitive ability tests as only one part of the process. Having a variety of selection criteria decreases your odds of having bias in the system.
Secondly, scrutinize the communication that you send out as part of your testing procedures. Make sure that you don’t unintentionally bring up any stereotypes or use gendered language that may impact test scores.
Finally, we can actually measure adverse impact. Here’s a four-step process as outlined by the SHRM:
- Calculate the selection rate for each applicant subgroup (whether that’s race, gender, or another category) by dividing the number of candidates who pass the cognitive ability test by the number of total applicants from that group.
- Determine the group with the highest selection rate. This group will become your baseline.
- Calculate impact ratios by comparing the highest group to each other subgroup. Divide each subgroup’s selection rate by the highest group’s selection rate.
- Determine if any groups are under 80% of the highest selection rate. If they are, that may indicate an adverse impact.
For example, the selection rates in the table below indicate that Caucasian candidates are hired at twice the rate of Latino candidates, indicating an adverse impact.
If you see an adverse impact, adjust your processes, or adapt your selection criteria to ensure you remove any potential biases from your hiring process.
Cognitive ability testing tools & resources
There are many tools available to help deliver cognitive ability tests to your candidates.
TestGorilla’s cognitive ability tests
- cultural fit assessment (actually, we prefer to think of them as "culture add" assessments)
- personality tests
- language tests
- situational judgment tests
- role-specific skills tests
Using TestGorilla, you can build assessments for specific job roles by selecting or creating tests that are most relevant to that role.
You’ll receive real-time assessment results that allow you to easily compare your candidates’ cognitive abilities.
Other common cognitive ability assessments
Outside of the tests available TestGorilla, some of the most common cognitive ability tests include:
- Cubiks Logiks
- McQuaig Mental Agility Test
- Thomas International General Intelligence Assessment
- Hogan Business Reasoning Inventory
- Predictive Index Learning Indicator
- Revelian Cognitive Ability Tests
- Wonderlic Cognitive Ability Test
- Criteria Cognitive Aptitude Test
Equal employment procedures
The U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission has a number of equal employment procedures and guidelines in place to ensure that any screening tests used do not discriminate based on race, color, sex, national origin, religion, disability, or age.
Adverse impact toolkit
To help you avoid creating any adverse impact when using cognitive ability tests, the SHRM put together a toolkit, titled “Avoiding Adverse Impact in Employment Practices.”
Make cognitive ability tests part of your recruitment process
There’s no better predictor of job success than high performance on a cognitive ability test. So if you’re not using cognitive ability tests as part of your recruitment process, it’s time to start.
TestGorilla helps you send cognitive ability tests to your applicants, which allows you to identify the best candidates for your organization in a way that’s fun, easy, and incredibly effective.
To start using TestGorilla, request a demo or get started with a free trial now.