Tests, assessments and other tricky stuff

Jane Sunley CEO of PurpleCubed and author of 'It’s Never OK to Kiss the Interviewer' gives some valuable graduate advice on Tests, assessments and other tricky stuff

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It’s likely that at some time in your career you’ll be up against some sort of selection and/or assessment procedure. This might be part of the selection process for a new role, be included in a development programme or team build or because you work for a person or company that rates this sort of stuff.

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Stay calm. You are who you are and that’s to be celebrated, so rule one is: never try to be something you’re not. There’s no point landing a role because you cheated the test and then reverting to type once you’re there. It won’t do anyone any favours; least of all you.

Since the familiar is more comfortable than the unknown, it makes sense to gain some experience of various types of test. You’d be surprised how many people have never done one until they start job hunting. This is particularly true of more senior types who’ve been in a role for a long time and then suddenly find themselves on the job market. If you can get in some practice in a situation where the results aren’t career critical, then do it. That way you won’t be thrown when the real thing comes along. There are plenty of free ones on the internet.

Some of the tests you might encounter are:

Aptitude: these are work-related and test a person’s skills or knowledge around specific tasks. The responses are objective; there will be right or wrong answers. Generally the differentiation between those who answer correctly becomes the speed at which they complete. These tests are often constructed so that only a small percentage of the population would be able to answer everything correctly within the time allowed. Therefore it’s important not to panic and rush through making careless mistakes.

If possible, whizz through first answering everything you know and then go back and spend the remaining time working out the rest of the answers in the time you have available.

Verbal reasoning: these are very common because many roles expect you to understand, interpret and use written information. Verbal reasoning tests present a number of written facts or a piece of text whereby you’ll be expected to understand, analyze, draw conclusions and otherwise interpret the data.

Numerical: these check an individual’s ability to understand, interpret, analyze and use figures and other numerical data in order to draw conclusions, make logical decisions and solve problems. Leaders might be given a set of management accounts to interpret, for example.

Abstract reasoning: these use exercises based on shapes and other diagrammatic information to test conceptual awareness and lateral thinking – the ability to identify relationships between sets of images, spot trends, and exceptions and to be able to use this data.

Companies should not use personality tests purely as a ‘you’re in or out’ tool because there are many factors that could affect  the results. They should be using them responsibly, as an aid to the selection process, whereby they are validated at interview.

Standard interview questions
Here are a few to get you thinking:

1. What could you bring to this role/ our company?
This is not the time to be bashful or self-deprecating. Think hard about this question before you attend any interview because even if they don’t ask you outright, you need to be getting the information across. You have to sell yourself because if you don’t, someone else will. If you’re struggling to think of an answer ask a close relative, friend or other trusted advisor.

2. Why should I employ you above theother candidates?
a. This is similar to (1) and again you need to be ready with a list of your key strengths – preferably in the context of the role and company you’re applying to. Be prepared to back them up with examples.

3. Tell me about your weaknesses/ development needs:
Be honest, stick to one or two and always turn them into a positive e.g. “Sometimes I can be a bit impatient but it just means I want to get things done and maybe I work faster than some other people”.

4. Tell me about a time when you took a risk.
This can be tricky because some people will want someone  who will, others don’t. Be honest and illustrate how well your risk paid off.

5. Tell me about your worst failure.
If you say you don’t have one, the interviewer will assume you’re not being truthful. So give an example and show howyou learned from it.

Weird interview questions
It’s likely that at some point during your working life you’ll encounter weird interview questions. A lot of people get really freaked out about the prospect of being faced with these questions and it causes them to lose confidence, thus affecting the rest of their interview. You know the sort of thing:

  1. Entertain me for five minutes…
  2. If the Japanese are the smallest race how would you prove it?
  3. What do you think of garden gnomes?
  4. If you were an animal, what would you be and why?
  5. How many piano tuners are there in the UK?

The great thing about these questions is that there are no right answers. So as long as you can respond confidently, with some degree of logic and determination to find an answer and perhaps show your humorous side (if the situation allows), then you can triumph! So please don’t waste time tracking down every obscure question and working out a response because that would be a ridiculous waste of your time. These questions are designed to find out if you can think and apply reasoning, so do just that. Remember they don’t need the definitive response – they want a method for getting there or a creative reply backed up by some sort of rationale.

Taking the examples above, here are some ways you could tackle them – better to think up your own responses since this is about discovering the inner you, but to
get you started:

1. Entertain me for five minutes…
This doesn’t mean you need to leap onto the interviewer’s desk and belt out Whitney Houston’s ‘The Greatest Love of All’ (that one’s for Miranda Hart fans). Think about why the interviewer might make this request. Sure he or she might be an arrogant twit and you might decide you don’t want to work for someone so egotistical.  Or depending on the position you are applying for, thiscould give you an opportunity to demonstrate how you would handle the situation if put on the spot and left alone with a group of clients, for example. In which case you’d have to keep them entertained so they stay interested in your company. So tell whoever poses this challenge something interesting about yourself, maybe thank them for an opportunity to talk and take them through the reasons you’re perfect for the role, or talk about something you’ve witnessed, somewhere you travelled to, learned. The important point is to show yourself in a positive light, show you are interesting and creative and make them feel they would trust you with their clients, colleagues and others.

2. If the Japanese are the smallest race how would you prove it?
You could take a logical approach and explain how you would prove this statistically – either by researching average heights of the various nations on the internet or you could come up with something more creative like ‘Call Diesel, or Levis and ask them what distribution of jeans they sell around the world. Their jeans are sold just about everywhere, so except for the possibility that leg length isn’t an exact indicator of overall height they should be able to tell you how tall people are in any given country based on the jeans they sell there’. Or find out from kitchen manufacturers what height their standard worktops are built to and compare these geographically. It doesn’t matter – the point is that you stayed calm, had a go and didn’t talk complete drivel.

3. What do you think of garden gnomes?
This one is just about having some sort of opinion that is sensible, rational and not too extreme (unless the situation requires it). So you could say things like:

  • They make good profits for gnome manufacturers – margins are good since they can keep producing the same traditional styles and models; there have excellent distribution channels via the many garden centres throughout the country.
  • They motivated Elton John to make an animated movie so you could say they’re inspirational. You’ll have to think about what value they offer – maybe they scare away birds, or their bright colours attract bees and butterflies, and presumably they give pleasure to their owners, some of whom might be lonely and perhaps feel as though they’re part of the family.
  • They’re certainly diligent and reliable workers – they’re out there in all weathers, toiling at their manual labour, lifting heavy wheelbarrows and fishing for huge goldfish in their ponds.
  • They are an affront to style and taste and should be banned.

4. I f you were an animal, what would you be and why?
Again, it really doesn’t matter what you choose though perhaps steer clear of extremes like killer shark or mouse unless for very specific occupations that might desire the
accompanying traits. The important thing is to articulate the positive traits of your chosen animal so as to show yourself in as positive and attractive light as possible. For instance:

“Lion – a strong, courageous and powerful leader, inspiring the respect of others, also inhabits a pride so can lead a team.”
“Dolphin – intelligent, friendly, good communicator, team player, cares for the welfare of others, work hard/play hard mentality.”

These could be viewed as rather predictable responses though, so maybe go for something more interesting. Below are the traits of the animals of the Chinese zodiac to start you off:

  • Rat: quick-witted, smart, charming and persuasive
  • Ox: patient, kind, stubborn and conservative
  • Tiger: authoritative, emotional, courageous and intense
  • Rabbit: popular, compassionate and sincere
  • Dragon: energetic, fearless, warm-hearted and charismatic
  • Snake: charming, gregarious, introverted, generous and smart
  • Horse: energetic, independent, impatient
  • and enjoys travelling
  • Sheep: mild-mannered, shy, kind and peace-loving
  • Monkey: fun, energetic and active
  • Rooster: independent, practical, hard-working
  • and observant
  • Dog: patient, diligent, generous, faithful and kind
  • Pig: loving, tolerant, honest and appreciative of luxury

5. How many piano tuners are there in the UK?
You could demonstrate your logical train of thought
– for example:

Well, the population of the UK is about 60 million. So let’s say 1% own a piano so that’s 600,000 pianos. Let’s also estimate that a piano tuner tunes about two pianos a working day so that’s about 500 pianos a year. So on that basis I’d estimate there are 1200 piano tuners in the UK.

This might, of course be complete rubbish though you will have shown you can think things through and problem solve. If you’re not very good at estimation and/or mental arithmetic or holding a logical train of thought, don’t embark on this approach. And avoid saying you don’t know at all costs. Simply tell the interviewer how you’d go about finding out, for example “I’d find the UK professional body for piano tuners and call them up”.

Don’t get hung up about these weird questions, this is just preparing you for whatever those tricky interviewers throw at you. Chances are you’ll never come across them. If you do, sit
up, stay calm and enjoy the challenge.

Assessment centres
These last from half a day to two or more days and combine a variety of activities tests and challenges (some of which are listed above) to test your performance in a pressurized
situation. In addition to your knowledge, skills and attributes, the employer will be observing your interaction with others, teamwork, assertiveness, leadership potential and your general attitude and approach. Some of these are so well constructed that they are fun, informative and help parties decided who is the best fit (if you’ve applied to Urbanest, for example, you’ll know what I mean)

Above all, be yourself – you have no idea what the selection panel is looking for so listen, think, act and, above all be a good person.
If you only do three things:

  1. Stay calm, think and learn to enjoy the challenge.
  2. Be yourself – they are looking for cultural and role fit.
  3. Practise your approach and possible responses – in the mirror if neces

About the author

Jane Sunley is an experienced employment expert who works with universities, charities, schools and corporates here in the UK to help
people find the jobs they love and keep them. Her latest book is essential reading for anyone in the beginning, middle and even the end of their careers as it is never too late to affirm good habits for employability even in a difficult jobs market. It’s genuinely inspirational.

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