Cognitive ability tests for employment: The ultimate guide

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Every time they advertise an open role, recruiters need to screen stacks of resumes, many of them almost exact duplicates of each other. But assessing applicants by focusing on resumes doesn’t enable recruiters to predict future job performance. 

So, how can they do that accurately and reliably? 

With cognitive ability tests.  Cognitive ability tests are a recruiter’s secret weapon for employee selection. They bring numerous benefits to companies that use them, such as higher employee performance and productivity, decreased turnover, and significant cost savings.

And that’s because cognitive ability tests for employment assess a candidate’s mental abilities, highlighting skills that don’t show up on a CV or cover letter.

They help you get answers to questions like:

  • Can a candidate think abstractly?

  • How easily can they understand complex concepts?

  • How quickly do they learn?

  • How adaptable are they to change?

Recruiters try to assess these skills during interviews, but it’s not always easy. By directly testing a candidate’s cognitive abilities, you can add a level of clarity to the hiring process.

This article is your ultimate guide to using cognitive ability tests for employment. It’ll enable you to: 

  • Understand the theoretical underpinnings of cognitive ability tests and why they’re effective

  • Know exactly how to implement cognitive ability tests in your recruitment process (with our practical tips and do’s and don’ts)

  • Figure out the different types of tests and which ones best suit your hiring needs

  • Get access to other helpful resources, which will be particularly useful if you need to convince other members of your team

So, let’s see how cognitive testing can help you ensure you hire the right candidate every time.

What is a cognitive ability test?

A cognitive ability test is a pre-employment test used to measure a candidate’s cognitive skills and mental abilities, such as problem solving, spatial reasoning, and numerical reasoning. 

Cognitive ability tests are one of the many types of candidate screening tests you can use. They enable you not only to identify the best candidates but to actually speed up and simplify the recruitment process.

What does a cognitive ability test measure? 

A cognitive ability test measures a candidate’s mental abilities across several different categories. In short, they don’t measure what you know, they measure how you think.

What does a cognitive ability test measure graphic

You can use cognitive ability tests in recruitment to assess 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: Is a candidate capable of thinking analytically to solve logical problems?

  • Numerical reasoning: How well does a candidate work with and interpret numbers?

  • Reading comprehension: Is a candidate able to 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, cognitive ability tests enable you to measure candidates’ abilities to think on their feet and make important decisions while considering multiple variables. 

  • For junior roles, these tests help you identify and hire employees with high potential who are highly adaptable to change – which, according to McKinsey & Company, is one of the most important skills that enable employees to thrive. 

How is cognitive ability tested?

Cognitive ability is typically measured through short, multiple-choice tests. Tests can consist of logic puzzles, math problems, or reading comprehension questions.

Like other types of psychometric tests used in recruitment, cognitive ability tests for employment can either focus on one individual skill (e.g. numerical reasoning) or cover almost every type of intelligence, similarly to a general intelligence test. 

The questions themselves are not especially difficult on their own, but there’s usually a built-in time limit that forces the candidate to think quickly. In most cases, cognitive ability tests only take 10-30 minutes to complete.

Tests’ fast pace simulates the real world where we have to make quick, logical decisions hundreds of times a day. In this way, they help you accurately predict a candidate’s workplace performance and ability to react fast to new situations.

At TestGorilla, we’ve broken down the core cognitive abilities into individual 10-minute tests. You can combine up to five single tests in an assessment and use it to evaluate potential candidates’ skills. 

new assessment screenshot

This allows you to pick and choose the tests that are most relevant to the role you’re hiring for.

You’ll then receive cognitive ability test results as raw scores and as percentiles:

  • With raw scores, you can pre-screen candidates that meet a certain threshold baseline score. For example, you may choose to only interview candidates who answer at least 20 out of 25 questions correctly.

  • Percentiles enable you to assess a candidate’s test performance relative to that of 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. 

Keep in mind that percentiles are note the same as percentages.

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, or their ability to understand concepts and solve problems. In this loose sense, IQ tests and cognitive ability tests are similar.

That said, the technical term “IQ” (short for Intelligence Quotient) specifically refers to your score on a cognitive ability test relative to the average population in a given country. 

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 specific type of a cognitive ability test, which measures the test taker’s intelligence. 

Examples of commonly used IQ tests include  the Wechsler Adult Intelligence Scale (WAIS) and updated versions of the Stanford-Binet Intelligence Scales, Woodcock-Johnson Tests of Cognitive Abilities, and more. 

However, job IQ tests are obsolete and we don’t recommend using an IQ test for hiring. Instead, we advise you to use cognitive ability tests designed in line with the best practices in recruitment.

Why should recruiters use a cognitive ability assessment 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 for employment are just one of the many tools available, but they may be among the most underutilized ones, given how effective they are.

Here are seven reasons why you should start using cognitive ability tests right now:

seven reasons why you should start using cognitive ability tests

1. Predict job performance

One of the most compelling reasons to use cognitive 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.

cognitive ability was the strongest predictor of job performance table

If you need a Statistics 101 recap, here’s how to read the above chart: An r coefficient of 1 means a perfect positive correlation between two variables, while an r coefficient of 0 means no correlation.

Therefore, cognitive 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 for employment – in combination with role-specific tests and job interviews, for example – makes it even more likely you’ll find the right candidate.

2. Measure learning and problem-solving

Cognitive tests are effective at predicting job performance because they reliably evaluate a candidate’s agility and adaptability 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 ability, the faster they’ll learn, the quicker they’ll adapt to change, and the more effective they’ll be in finding solutions to new problems.

3. Identify hidden potential

Resumes tell us what a candidate has already achieved – but 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 few candidates will have any past experience in the specific role.

By hiring quick learners and stacking your organization with bright people – in whose learning and development you can then invest to help them grow – you’ll ensure you have brilliant employees at every level of the company’s hierarchy.

4. Save time and money

We saw above that a cognitive assessment was just as predictive of job performance as a structured 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’ cognitive ability helps you avoid interviewing too many candidates, which helps you save time and therefore money.

You can administer cognitive ability tests easily and affordably by using platforms like TestGorilla. For a few dollars per test, you can win back hours of organizational time.

5. Eliminate bias – when used correctly

Every recruiter should actively work to reduce and eliminate bias in their hiring process. Cognitive tests help add objectivity to recruitment.

But even those recruiters who are fully devoted to providing all candidates with equal opportunities may still have unconscious biases about intelligence. This, in turn, causes them to treat candidates unequally.

For example, a recruiter may unconsciously favor male candidates for technical roles or female candidates for people-oriented 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 make biased decisions, simply because of the systemic biases that are 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 often makes a long-term negative impact on women’s career prospects, even when they perform equally well as men (or better). 

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. You can also standardize the recruitment process to remove your unconscious ideas of what intelligence looks like and how it presents.

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. Impress candidates

Taking the time to thoroughly vet potential employees shows that you’re laser-focused on hiring the right people – and that you value their skills and potential above anything else.

You show them that: 

  • You’re forward-thinking and not afraid to embrace new and more effective methods of recruitment

  • You’re committed to eliminating biases from your hiring process

  • Everything your company does is well planned and a part of a comprehensive development strategy

By using modern screening tools, asking thoughtful questions, and giving candidates the opportunity to show their skills, you’re giving them a peek into what it’s like working at your company. 

All this enables you to build a positive and memorable candidate experience, which is essential for attracting the right talent.  

7. Improve retention

Cognitive ability tests can improve workforce retention by helping you to impress and hire the right candidates from the get-go. And employee retention is often one of the HR team’s most important KPIs (Key Performance Indicators). 

That’s because the cost of replacing an employee can be anywhere from half to two times their annual salary, according to Gallup.

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.

In fact, according to the same Gallup report, turnover is costing US companies a trillion dollars each year – and to a large extent, it’s a preventable problem, if you put in place the right processes. 

Cognitive ability tests for employment can be an important element of your retention strategy, if you use them correctly. 

Types of cognitive ability tests for employment: Why are there so many different tests?

Once you’ve convinced yourself – and the rest of your hiring team – that it’s time to start using cognitive ability tests, you’ll quickly discover that there are many different tests. To help you make sense of all this, we’ll explore them below.

So, why are there so many types of cognitive ability tests?

Cognitive 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 (and therefore no single definition of it), we can agree that intelligence is multifaceted and therefore can’t be simplified and measured with one single test.

Therefore, before you jump into administering cognitive ability tests, it’s helpful to understand some of the basic theories of intelligence and see why tests are split into different cognitive categories.

Is there one general intelligence?

Early theories on intelligence assumed one general intelligence, which justified the creation of general IQ tests.

Charles Spearman was the original proponent of the General Intelligence Theory. He found that an individual’s performance on one type of cognitive task was highly correlated to their ability to perform 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 research on brain damage, evolutionary history, and a number of other factors, he theorized that intelligence should instead be broken into eight distinct cognitive abilities that are not strongly correlated with each other.

He proposed the following eight abilities:

  • Musical-rhythmic

  • Visual-spatial

  • Verbal-linguistic

  • Logical-mathematical

  • Bodily-kinesthetic

  • Interpersonal

  • Intrapersonal

  • Naturalistic

 eight distinct cognitive abilities

While Gardner’s theory certainly isn’t the only accepted model of human intelligence, most modern theories include at least some form of the concept of multiple intelligences.

So, it makes perfect sense that recruiters often use separate tests to evaluate different skills, including verbal skills, math skills, logic, and even creativity or emotional intelligence.

The more varied our tests are, the more likely we are to identify candidates with a wide range of cognitive skills.

Types of cognitive ability tests

Because there are so many different facets of intelligence, there are many different cognitive ability tests to match them.

At TestGorilla, we have 13 different cognitive ability tests that evaluate candidates’:

Here’s a quick explanation of what each test measures and the roles they’re most suitable for. But keep in mind that 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 (textual)

Attention to detail is more than just paying attention. It’s the ability to take in a large quantity of information, quickly filter out irrelevant aspects of it, and focus on what matters most. 

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.

Covered skills

This test evaluates applicants’ attention to detail when working with text and examines their ability to:

  • Match information: Can they match statements to relevant supporting information?

  • Filter facts: Can they extract 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?

For which roles should you use an attention to detail test?

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:

Attention to detail (visual)

Attention to visual detail refers to a person’s ability to pay close attention to images and make meaningful observations, find similarities and differences, notice patterns, identify small but important details, and catch errors. 

This skill is essential for anyone working with visual marketing materials, among other roles. Creating an immaculate brand image involves not only defining the key elements of your brand in a brand book but actually making sure that all marketing images align with it and contain no errors or discrepancies. 

Covered skills

Attention to detail tests usually cover the following skills: 

  • Finding differences and similarities between images

  • Matching images that are the same

  • Identifying details, patterns, and errors

For which roles should you use an attention to detail (visual) test?

Here are some of the roles for which you hire with the help of this test: 

Problem solving

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 new situations will depend largely on their problem-solving skills. 

Covered 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

For which roles should you use a problem solving test?

A person’s problem-solving ability is key for any role that involves managing constantly shifting variables with tight deadlines, especially in customer-facing environments. Examples include:

Critical thinking

Critical thinking is the ability to solve problems with inductive and deductive reasoning.

In the workplace, this means the ability to identify, analyze, and use information in a meaningful way. Critical thinking tests also indirectly assess a candidate’s working memory: Those who score well tend to be able to hold lots of information in their mind at once.

Covered skills

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

For which roles should you use a critical thinking test?

Critical thinking skills are most relevant for complex roles that require a high degree of analytical or independent thinking. This includes roles like:

Numerical reasoning

Numerical reasoning is a candidate’s ability to work effectively with numbers. 

Numerical reasoning tests for employment 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. 

Covered skills

Numerical reasoning tests evaluate a person’s ability to:

  • Interpret numbers, fractions, and percentages

  • Understand number patterns

  • Interpret text and tables

  • Interpret charts, graphs, and diagrams

For which roles should you use a numerical reasoning test?

Numerical reasoning is – unsurprisingly – most crucial for roles in which employees deal with data, whether it’s financial data like budgets and forecasts or performance data from productivity spreadsheets. This includes roles like:

Reading comprehension

Reading comprehension is a person’s ability to quickly and accurately read a piece of text, interpret it, and extract the most relevant information.

This skill is invaluable for most roles: It’s helpful for understanding instructions, learning new skills, and digesting information quickly.

Covered skills

Reading comprehension tests evaluate the candidate’s ability to:

  • Identify the main thought of a piece of text

  • Make inferences based on a passage

For which roles should you use a reading comprehension test?

Reading comprehension is important for most roles where someone works at a computer all day, because the majority of the content they consume, including communication, is text. Here are some examples: 

Spatial reasoning

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.

Covered skills

Spatial reasoning tests evaluate applicants’:

  • Mental rotation and folding skills

  • Spatial working memory

  • Spatial visualization skills

For which roles should you use a spatial reasoning test?

Spatial reasoning skills play an important role in science, technology, engineering, and math (STEM) jobs such as: 

Verbal reasoning

Verbal reasoning tests measure a candidate’s verbal agility, including their ability to reason, comprehend, and express themselves verbally or in writing. They also assess your candidate’s ability to make accurate conclusions from written information and how well they can extract important details.

Covered skills

These tests usually ask candidates to identify relationships between words, replicate words with analogies, and answer a series of true/false/cannot be determined questions. 

With our test, you can assess applicants’ ability to: 

  • Find analogies

  • Understand premises and inference

  • Draw conclusions

For which roles should you use a verbal reasoning test?

Verbal reasoning tests are handy when hiring for jobs that require employees to analyze text and reports and are used across a wide range of industries and roles, most commonly in the legal, engineering, and consulting sectors. 

Here are some of the roles for which you might want to use a verbal reasoning test: 

Mechanical reasoning

To function properly and be safe to use, any piece of equipment needs to be installed and serviced correctly – and for this, strong mechanical reasoning is essential.  

Mechanical reasoning is a person’s ability to understand and apply mechanical concepts and principles by understanding the functioning of tools and equipment, visualizing how different parts fit together, and predicting their movements. 

It’s essential for professionals working with mechanical systems, such as manufacturing workers and engineers, automotive or household repair technicians, and more. 

Covered skills

Mechanical reasoning tests are a type of cognitive tests for employment that evaluate applicants’ understanding of: 

  • Force and movement

  • Velocity

  • Pulleys, gears, and wheels

For which roles should you use a mechanical reasoning test?

Some of the roles for which you might want to assess applicants’ mechanical reasoning skills include: 

  • Engineers 

  • Installation and maintenance technicians for HVAC systems and household appliances

  • Electricians, welders, plumbers, carpenters

  • Facility maintenance technicians and managers

  • Machine operators, mechanics, maintenance technicians

Understanding and following instructions

Understanding instructions means interpreting and following guidelines – and asking for further clarifications whenever necessary. This ability is crucial across all industries and roles and ensures that your workers can avoid mistakes and complete tasks quickly and efficiently. 

Covered skills

Tests that evaluate applicants’ ability to understand instructions assess their ability to follow written, verbal, and visual guidelines.

For which roles should you use an understanding instructions test?

You can assess applicants’ ability to follow instructions for any entry- to mid-level role in industries such as: 

Basic double-digit math

Basic double-digit math skills refer to a person’s ability to perform calculations with double digits using addition, subtraction, multiplication, and division. It's also a preliminary step that enables a person to move on to more complex math concepts. 

Covered skills

Double-digit math skills tests usually cover the following skills: 

  • Addition and subtraction

  • Multiplication and division

  • Time calculations (days, hours, minutes)

  • Finding the nearest number

For which roles should you use a basic double-digit math test?

You can use a basic double-digit math test for roles such as: 

  • Cashiers

  • Hospitality workers

  • Customer service representatives

  • Manufacturing workers

Basic triple-digit math

Doing basic triple-digit math involves performing arithmetic operations – addition, subtraction, multiplication, and division – with triple-digit numbers, for example adding 567 to 432. It’s an essential skill for many roles and enables a person to plan tasks, budget, and solve problems that involve mathematical thinking. 

Covered skills

Tests for triple-digit math cover the following skills: 

  • Addition and subtraction

  • Multiplication and division

  • Time calculations (days, hours, minutes)

  • Finding the nearest number

  • Working with prime numbers and fractions

For which roles should you use a basic triple-digit math test?

You can use a basic triple-digit math test for roles such as: 

  • Retail staff

  • Hospitality workers

  • Technicians

  • Customer service representatives

  • Manufacturing staff

Intermediate math

Intermediate math skills go beyond basic arithmetics and refer to a person’s ability to work with fractions, decimals, ratios, percentages, and time calculations. This enables them to analyze data and relationships between variables to solve problems of moderate complexity. 

Covered skills

Intermediate math tests typically assess applicants’ understanding of: 

  • Ratios and percentages

  • Fractions

  • Decimals

  • Time estimates

For which roles should you use an intermediate math test?

You can use an intermediate math test for the following roles: 

A step-by-step guide to hiring using cognitive ability tests for employment

Unsure how to implement cognitive ability tests into your hiring process? Here’s an easy way to start.

 how to implement cognitive ability tests into your hiring process

1. Choose the right cognitive ability tests: Select the most relevant tests for the role you’re hiring for. For example, if a role involves lots of communication over email, you could administer a reading comprehension test and combine it with other skills tests. Check out our test library for ideas.

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 enable you to speed up the screening process significantly. Pair cognitive ability tests with role-specific and personality tests and to surface the candidates who are best suited for the position you’re hiring for.

4. Evaluate results: Evaluate each candidate’s results relative to the benchmark you created. If a candidate is too far below the benchmark, consider eliminating them from your selection. If they meet the benchmark or are above it, consider inviting them for an interview.

5. Interview qualified candidates: Interview each candidate that passed the initial skills assessment. If there were any particular weak or strong points in the candidate’s test results, consider asking targeted questions to dig deeper during the interview. You can also follow up on any weak points regarding references or other skills.

6. Make a decision: Use the results of skills tests in combination with any other assessments you conducted, including the interview and reference checks. Cognitive ability tests should never be the only deciding factor.

7. Analyze results and 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 and best practices

While cognitive ability tests are a powerful recruitment 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

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 candidates’ trust 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 an impressive resume with many 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 leadership buy-in as to their effectiveness.

Don’t: Rely solely on the test results

Test results should be used as one source of input in the process. Otherwise said, they are one piece of a larger puzzle and shouldn’t be used in a vacuum. 

Cognitive ability tests are the most effective and predictive of success when used in combination with other hiring tools, such as interviews, personality assessments, and role-specific skills tests. 

Consider what the tests actually measure: applicants’ intelligence and ability to learn. In some roles, however, a person’s 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: Use the same tests for every role

Because they measure a candidate’s higher-thinking skills, cognitive ability tests are best suited for entry- to mid-level roles with high on-the-job training demands.

For senior or leadership roles, you should use a wide variety of tests. Cognitive ability is key, but so are a person’s management skills, and their knowledge of your industry and sector. 

For junior roles, using cognitive ability tests is an excellent way to identify high-potential employees. You can combine them with a Motivation test to see whether your candidates’ expectations match what you have to offer. 

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 or disparate impact: an unintentional action that results in the discrimination of a group of people

So, just because you intended to build a hiring process that is free from bias, this doesn’t mean it actually is.

It’s not uncommon for systemic bias to be built into standardized tests. The National Education Association points out that standardized tests nearly always have an implicit, built-in bias, resulting in poorer outcomes for black students than for their white peers.

And to compound that effect, Steele and Aronson showed that students perform worse on tests when they are simply reminded of negative stereotypes related to the group to which they belong.  In their case, girls’ math scores were negatively affected by the expectation that they would perform worse than boys in a Dutch high school setting.

Without going into all the societal and psychological mechanisms behind these effects, we can still acknowledge that simply being aware that tests may favor one subgroup over another is reason enough to be careful when using them.

Do: Measure disparate impact

So what can we do to avoid creating adverse impact or perpetuating biases?

First, use cognitive ability tests as only one element of recruitment. Having a variety of selection criteria decreases your odds of letting bias seep into your hiring process.

Secondly, scrutinize the messages 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 the SHRM’s four-step process:

  1. Calculate the selection rate for each group of applicants, whether that’s race, gender, or another category. For this, divide the number of candidates who pass the cognitive ability test by the number of total applicants from that group.

  2. Determine the group with the highest selection rate. This group is the most advantageous group when measuring positive traits and abilities.

  3. 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. 

  4. 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.

example calculations to measure disparate impact graphic

If you see an adverse impact, this means that you need to either:

  • Adjust your selection 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

At TestGorilla, we have a comprehensive library of 300+ candidate screening tests, including more than 10 cognitive ability tests. 

To get the most of your assessment, we advise you to use cognitive tests in combination with other test types, such as: 

Using TestGorilla, you can build assessments for any job role by picking the tests that are most relevant to that role – or you can even build customized tests. 

As soon as someone takes your assessment, you’ll instantly receive their results, enabling you to easily compare your candidates’ abilities.

Other common cognitive ability assessments

Outside of the tests available TestGorilla, some of the most common cognitive ability tests include:

  1. Cubiks Logiks

  2. McQuaig Mental Agility Test

  3. Thomas International General Intelligence Assessment

  4. Hogan Business Reasoning Inventory

  5. Predictive Index Learning Indicator

  6. Revelian Cognitive Ability Tests 

  7. Wonderlic Cognitive Ability Test

  8. Criteria Cognitive Aptitude Test

Equal employment procedures

The U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC) has put together several equal-employment procedures, best practices, and guidelines to ensure that any screening tests used do not discriminate based on race, color, sex, national origin, religion, disability, or age.

Make cognitive ability tests part of your recruitment process

One of the best predictors of job success is a candidate’s high score on a cognitive ability test. Here are just a few ways in which cognitive ability tests are great predictors of future job performance: 

  • They evaluate a candidate’s agility when navigating a dynamic work environment

  • They assess a candidate’s capacity to learn quickly on the job

  • They help you uncover raw intelligence that a resume might not reflect

  • They help pinpoint the unique skills and abilities of strong performers

So, if you’re not using cognitive ability tests as part of your recruitment process, it’s time to start.

TestGorilla offers a selection of ready-made cognitive ability tests that you can start using today. Identify the best candidates for your organization in a way that’s fast, easy, and incredibly effective.

To start using TestGorilla, request a demo or check out our free trial now.

FAQ: Cognitive ability tests for employment

What is a cognitive ability test?

A cognitive ability test, or cognitive ability assessment, is a pre-employment test used to measure a candidate’s cognitive skills, like spatial reasoning, verbal reasoning, reading comprehension, problem solving, attention to detail, critical thinking, and numerical reasoning.

What does a cognitive ability test measure?

Cognitive ability tests measure different types of cognitive ability (spatial reasoning, verbal reasoning, reading comprehension, problem solving, and more) to help you evaluate their ability to think critically, analyze information, learn quickly, and make the right decisions in the workplace. 

How is cognitive ability tested?

There’s no one-size-fits-all cognitive ability assessment. Each cognitive ability requires different questions to gauge a candidate’s skills. 

For example, reading comprehension tests involve reading, processing, evaluating, and recalling written information to identify the main idea or make inferences. 

Verbal reasoning questions ask candidates to identify logical relationships between words and draw accurate conclusions from written information.

What is an example of a cognitive ability?

Examples of cognitive abilities include skills like spatial reasoning, verbal reasoning, reading comprehension, problem solving, attention to detail, critical thinking, and numerical reasoning.

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