Don't let a surprise competency test stop you from landing the job.

Candidates who are in active job-search mode know that in order to land their dream jobs, they need a great resume and exceptional cover letter. They also know they need to prepare for the interview, research the employer, and look for interview tips for any situation. And yet, pre-employment competency testing doesn't get as much coverage, which is why many professionals are usually surprised to see one during the interview. 

So, why do employers conduct these tests?

The main reason is to validate the candidate's resume. After all, nearly four out of every five recruiters have encountered candidates who lie on their resume. Since past work experience and technical qualifications are both on the shortlist of common lies, it makes a lot of sense to test for those competencies and weed out unqualified candidates. This also explains why 82 percent of companies are now using some form of pre-employment aptitude test, according to a Talent Board's Candidate Experience Research report.

What does that mean for you? What do you need to know if you are facing a pre-employment assessment? How can you prepare? And what are some of the best practices to help your performance day of? This article will cover these questions (and more) in a comprehensive, all-you-need-to-know guide.

5 platforms for pre-employment competency testing

To start, it's important to know that there are dozens of testing platforms and apps that an employer could use — some industry-specific and some not. An assessment can measure any and all of the following: skill proficiency, honesty, cognitive capacity, emotional intelligence, and personality … or even several things at once. Some companies use standardized tests, while others customize tests before deploying them. In other words, it's difficult to know with 100 percent certainty what kind of a test you will have to complete. However, knowing the landscape, common practices, and pitfalls of popular platforms can certainly help. 

Here is an overview of five popular testing platforms to give you a taste of what to expect: 

1. Codility

What it tests: Codility is a skill testing and training platform for IT professionals with two tools that can be used in a pre-employment context. CodeCheck is a screening tool to assess development skills, fundamental programming skills, and technical knowledge, while CodeLive is an online room where candidates collaborate and code with the team in real-time tech interviews. Both tools allow the employer to standardize the recruiting process, receive insight into the candidate's communication style, and identify qualified candidates faster. 

Candidate experience: The test is designed to feel comfortable and user-friendly. Still, it may be beneficial to get familiar with the interface beforehand by taking a demo test. Some candidates also report that it's helpful to reframe Codility as a “get the program working ASAP” test assignment (as opposed to a traditional coding interview). This means it's probably better to have more modest positive results than to attempt an ambitious solution just to run out of time. 

Used by: Amazon, Microsoft, PayPal, Twitch, Intel, BMW

2. HR Avatar

What it tests: HR Avatar tests a range of skills and aptitudes, from cognitive ability to writing skills, emotional intelligence, behavioral history, and other simulated job tasks. Employers choose the appropriate test for the job opening from the 260 sample tests available. All tests are based on the U.S. Government Occupational Information Network (O*Net). 

Candidate experience: HR Avatar tests take between 20 and 45 minutes to complete. Some tests contain animated simulation modules while others include one to two virtual video interview questions.

Used by: Transportation Security Administration, McDonald's, ADP, Digicel IMAX Theatre

3. SkillsArena

What it tests: SkillsArena offers a variety of pre-employment testing tools, including professional skill tests (aptitude, vocational, and core skills), situational judgment tests, and personality profile tests. Industry-specific tests are also available for retail, legal, clerical, and finance roles. 

Candidate experience: Most SkillsArena assessments come in three levels of difficulty, with the interactive interface feeling less like a “test” and more like a work simulation. 

Used by: Secom

4. Sales Assessment by the Objective Management Group (OMG)

What it tests: The Objective Management Group uses “Predictive Validity,” which correlates to candidates' anticipated sales job performance. All questions are asked in a sales context, so this is not a “whole candidate” test that one might take lightly. The assessment measures ambition, willingness to accept responsibility, emotional objectivity, sales prospecting ability or “hunter skills,” decision making, need for approval, and relationship effectiveness. 

Candidate experience: Candidates complete a comprehensive set of questions. Then, results are emailed to the hiring manager to be used in an interview. 

Used by: Adobe, Blue Cross Blue Shield, Infosys, Staples, Johnson & Johnson

5. LinkedIn Skill Assessments

What it tests: The LinkedIn platform is a fantastic resource for networking, but it comes with a significant drawback for recruiters and hiring managers: As LinkedIn gets bigger, it gets harder to verify details about each and every individual on it. The platform's new Skill Assessments feature is meant to bridge that verification gap. Candidates can now demonstrate their knowledge of the skills listed on their LinkedIn profiles by completing specific assessments. These short, multiple-choice tests can help verify candidates' knowledge in areas like computer languages, software packages, and other work-related skills.

Candidate experience: A typical assessment consists of 15 to 20 multiple-choice questions with each question testing at least one concept or sub-skill. All questions are timed and must be completed in one session. Each time a candidate completes an assessment, a score report is generated — if you are not happy with your score, you can delete it. If you score in the 70th percentile or above, you'll receive a passing score and get a "badge" for your public profile.

Limitations of pre-employment skill and competency tests

Wouldn't it be great if a candidate could take one test that would determine, with 100 percent accuracy, their fit for the job?

It sure would be. But unfortunately, there is no skill, competency, or other aptitude test that can boast that kind of track record. Here are some limitations worth noting: 

  • These tests rarely give the whole candidate picture. For example, a writing test may capture a candidate's ability to communicate clearly in writing and a mastery of words. However, it won't tell you whether that candidate is a quick and willing learner, how well they take feedback, or how they will work with others — a.k.a their soft skills. In order to evaluate a candidate fully, an employer would have to administer multiple skill-specific assessments as well as personality tests, which could frustrate candidates. 

  • It is extremely difficult to design a test that accounts for all the job functions directly related to the job description. As such, most tests are limited in their ability to simulate on-the-job performance. 

  • Tests can be “gamed,” especially when the stakes are high. This is particularly true of assessments that rely on self-reported measurements of soft skills as opposed to the testing of hard skills. For example, candidates can over-report their social skills and degree of extraversion if they feel that those qualities would be highly valued on the job. 

Benefits of skill tests

No test is perfect, but well-designed competency tests have solid merits. 

First, standardized tests can allow employers to screen all candidates in a similar manner. As a result, every candidate has the same chance to do well. That dynamic can help eliminate any unconscious bias that might prevent a qualified candidate from standing out.

Second, a well-designed and well-rounded assessment can validate certain aspects of a candidate's technical ability to do the job. In other words, the employer doesn't have to just trust the resume. A structured interview with a skill-based test can form a quantifiable basis for the hiring decision. 

While tests of cognitive ability are tricky, they can be helpful in estimating a candidate's general intelligence as a predictive measure of performance. 

How can you best prepare for a pre-employment competency test?

What can you do to give yourself the best shot at success?

First, refresh your memory of the technical knowledge that will be tested. The specific steps here will depend on your technical field. Some of the things you might do include reviewing sample tests, looking over notes and technical summaries, and practicing the skill to make sure you are sharp. 

Second, get your body and your mind into a good shape to pass the test. Don't try to cram the night before the test; at that point in the game, a few extra hours of sleep will probably do more for your performance. Eat a balanced meal, stay hydrated, and limit your caffeine and alcohol intake to prevent any negative effects on your cognitive abilities. 

Third, if you are given a choice about where to take the test, think carefully. Pick a location with a fast and stable internet connection where you won't be interrupted. This is especially important for timed tests where focus and steady progress without distraction are key.

Then, once in the test, try to answer every question — it's better to get partial credit than no credit at all. If the test is timed, keep a close eye on your watch and do your best to power through. Also, remember that stress can influence your performance by making you careless or even overly cautious and uncertain. Many competency tests are long, tedious, and repetitive; it's easy to lose focus, miss an important detail, or read a question too quickly. Whenever possible, practice the test beforehand so that you know what to expect. 

Finally, remember that any tests you may take are only one piece of your candidacy. Your resume, performance in the interview, and references still matter. So, do take the skill-based testing seriously, but don't ignore the other components of the application process either. 

Worried about your next interview? Try one-on-one coaching with TopInterview. Our experts can walk you through the process so you're ready for the big day. 

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