Pre-employment testing is used to effectively and fairly shortlist candidates, ensuring that only the most suitable candidates are invited to interviews, assessment centres, or other late-stage selection procedures. As a result, pre-employment testing is most commonly used during the early-mid stages of the recruitment process, and their objective is almost always to decide who progresses through the selection process, rather than deciding who is directly hired.

A wide range of pre-employment assessments are available, and their utility in employee selection can vary considerably depending on the assessment method. Similarly, the costs associated with pre-employment testing and the administrative effort required to administer or score them varies massively between assessment modalities.

Here is a list and overview of the most commonly used pre-employment test on the market today:

  1. Ability tests
  2. Personality questionnaires
  3. Situational judgement tests
  4. Skills tests
  5. Job knowledge tests
  6. Work-samples tests


1. Ability Tests

Ability tests, also known as cognitive ability tests, aptitude tests, and reasoning tests, measure the specific cognitive abilities which strongly underpin performance at work (i.e. numerical reasoning, verbal reasoning, logical reasoning etc). When multiple ability tests are used in combination, this provides an indication of a candidate’s general cognitive ability, which is the strongest predictor of job performance known (Schmidt, 2016). This is because cognitive ability strongly underpins complex problem solving ability, and the ability to acquire workplace relevant knowledge.

Although ability tests used to be administered in-person using paper / pencil testing, these days they are administered online. To help discourage cheating and question leaking, modern ability tests employ item banks, ensuring that each candidate receives a unique set of questions. Ability tests can be completed on a range of devices, however for assessments that employ large and complex images (graphs, tables, charts etc), they may need to be completed on a desktop or laptop device. Other assessments, especially ability tests with a gamified format, may be best suited to mobile or tablet devices, depending on the context and task requirements.


  • Very strong predictors of future performance in moderate-high complexity work
  • Easy to automate and administer en-masse to candidates online
  • Usually quick to complete (usually around 10-20 minutes per test)
  • Emerging talent are familiar with, and thus are comfortable completing ability tests


  • Time-limits and exam conditions may cause test anxiety in nervous candidates
  • Senior level candidates may protest needing to complete ability tests
  • Abstract-spatial reasoning tests may appear less work relevant to candidates

2. Personality Questionnaires

Personality questionnaires are designed to measure the specific behavioural traits which underlie a person’s character, temperament, values, and motivational predispositions. Certain personality traits, such as conscientiousness, integrity, and resilience are useful predictors of job performance in the majority of roles, although to varying degrees. Other personality traits, such as openness to experience, extraversion, and agreeableness are predictive of performance in some roles, but not others. Personality questionnaires are also very useful indicators of job-fit and organisational-fit, which is essential to ensure employee engagement and minimising employee attrition rates.

Personality questionnaires, although initially completed using paper / pencil testing, are almost always completed online now. They usually employ an agreement scale response format, allowing candidates to state their level of agreement to specific behavioural questions i.e. “I enjoy working alone” – Strongly Disagree, disagree, Neutral, Agree, Strongly Agree. The results of the personality questionnaire are normally presented in a PDF report, outlining the candidate’s propensity towards to measured behavioural traits. Personality questionnaires can usually be completed on any device, and almost never require time-limits, allowing candidates to take their take and complete the assessment at their own pace.


  • They measure a wide range of potentially work-relevant traits
  • Easy to automate and administer en-masse to candidates online
  • Personality questionnaires aren’t time-limited, putting candidates’ minds at ease
  • Mid-senior level hires are likely to feel comfortable completing personality questionnaires


  • Requires careful forethought as to which traits are relevant, and which are not
  • Often have 30-40 minutes completion times, which can get repetitive
  • Reviewing personality PDF reports can be time-consuming

3. Situational Judgement Tests

Situational judgement tests (SJTs) measure a person’s behavioural propensity towards good judgement and decision making in a workplace relevant setting. As pre-employment tests, research does suggest that situational judgement tests are effective predictors of future performance, and they add incremental validity over ability tests, personality questionnaires, and interviews. Although SJTs are often advertised to measure specific competencies (i.e. commercial awareness, resilience, initiative etc), research suggests that SJTs actually measure a fairly unidimensional judgement and decision making factor.

Candidates are presented with a scenario, taking the form of a workplace relevant problem, along with a range of possible remedies to that problem. Candidates then need to rate or rank the effectiveness of those remedies, highlighting their ability to identify the most effective course of action. Deciding what constitutes an effective, ineffective, or counterproductive action is a major source of contention in the SJT literature, and many competing scoring methodologies exist. Generally speaking, most SJTs use a consensus scoring approach, designing scoring keys based on the consensus of subject matter experts, relevant trial populations, or incumbent high performers.


  • Substantial face validity, appearing conspicuously work-place relevant to candidates
  • Easy to automate and administer en-masse to candidates online
  • SJTs are usually time-limited, putting candidates’ minds at ease


  • Less predictive of performance than ability tests or personality questionnaires
  • Have long administration times, usually over 30-40 minutes
  • Often need to be designed specifically for a role or organisation

4. Skill Tests

Skills tests are perhaps the most commonly used form of pre-employment testing outside of the UK. Skills tests are designed to measure specific workplace relevant skills, such as proficiency with programming languages or software packages. These assessments may include multiple choice questions with a single correct answer, or simulation exercises which present candidates with a realistic problem to solve. Certain skills lend themselves well to the skill test approach, particularly in domains where success and failure are very easily detected and quantified.

The practical utility of skills tests, however, depends very much on the context of the role. For example, using programming skills tests for freelancer software engineers would prove highly useful, as freelancers typically receive no training and are expected to be fully competent from the start. Using MS Excel skills tests for a graduate scheme however, where successful candidates are likely to receive full training in excel anyway, would not add value to the recruitment process, and would present an opportunity cost to the employer. As a general rule, assessments measure specific skills should only be used when candidates must hit the ground running in their new role, and there is no scope for relevant training or onboarding.


  • Substantial face validity, appearing conspicuously work-place relevant to candidates
  • Easy to automate and administer en-masse to candidates online
  • Particularly useful for freelancers and contract staff


  • Focuses on narrow elements of the role, limiting their ability to predict overall performance
  • May be redundant if employee receive relevant training anyway
  • Time-limits and exam conditions may cause test anxiety in nervous candidates

5. Job Knowledge Tests

Job knowledge tests differ from skills tests by measuring a candidate’s knowledge and understanding of a workplace relevant topic, rather than specific practical skills. For example, a financial services firm may test a candidate’s knowledge of finance and economics, or a management consultancy may test a candidate knowledge on management theory etc. Research suggests that job knowledge tests are powerful predictors of job performance in moderate-high complexity work and are thus useful pre-employment tests. However, because knowledge acquisition is predominantly determined by cognitive ability, the validity of job-knowledge tests is at least partly due to a correlation with cognitive ability. 

Job knowledge tests typically use a multiple choice format, presenting candidates with a relevant question, a single correct answer and multiple incorrect options. The candidates score is then determined by the number of correct responses, perhaps with a norm referenced score highlighting how they performed relative to a relevant population. Because job knowledge tests tend to be quite niche, often organisations design them inhouse and use them in fairly low volume, typically at an interview or assessment centre. Although they can be administered online, organisations who have developed job knowledge tests inhouse often prefer to use a paper / pencil format.


  • Highly face valid, and thus likely to be well received by early-mid career hires
  • Easy to automate and administer en-masse to candidates online
  • Knowledge as a psychological construct is measured well using tests


  • Limited generalisability, are only useful for specific roles
  • Are usually designed bespoke for a specific organisation, which is expensive
  • Senior level hires may protest to job knowledge testing
  • May be somewhat redundant if you are already using ability tests

Work Sample Tests

Work samples tests are hands-on simulations of a workplace relevant task, or indeed of the job itself. For example, candidates may be required to repair a broken device, respond to simulated customer enquiries, or operate a simulated workstation for a fixed period of time. Initially, research suggested that work samples tests ranked among the strongest predictors of performance known (Schmidt and hunter, 1998), but more recent research has scaled back that estimate considerably (Roth et al, 2005). This is because research has found that white-collar work samples tests are especially ineffective at predicting performance, reducing their overall predictive validity.

In-tray and E-tray exercises are well known examples of work-samples tests used in white-collar work. Typically, this involves giving a candidate either a stack of paperwork to file, or a simulating workplace in which to respond to emails and online communications. Candidates are then scored on their effectiveness at completing the tasks made available to them, serving as a proxy for how well they would perform in the workplace. Although in-tray and e-tray exercises were very popular in the 1990s and 2000s, they have steadily fallen out of favour in recruitment circles. This is partly due to their low predictive validity when predicting performance, the administrative effort required to use them in selection, and their comparatively high costs compared to more effective selection tools.


  • High face validity and perceived job relevance
  • High predictive validity when predicting performance in blue-collar work
  • Can be engaging and interesting for candidates


  • Requires considerable administrative effort from assessors
  • Usually incurs high costs to use in selection
  • Low predictive validity when predicting job performance in white-collar work
  • Long administration time for candidates

Free Trial

Discover why thousands of companies love our modern assessment platform. Fresh new assessments built with the latest science.

Free Trial Contact Us

Discover more in our resources section

Videos, ebooks, and more…

Join the discussion

Recent Posts