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Which Cognitive Ability Test to Use and Why?


Testing for cognitive ability should be an integral step of your recruitment process. It’s a method for your HR team to identify the best applicants for the job from a wide pool of potential employees. As any manager knows, spotting the top applicant is an immensely difficult task, but it may be just about the most important task that an organization does.

However, there’s a variety of cognitive ability tests available to help with this process, but it’s important to choose the right one based on the position you’re hiring for. Different skills and abilities are suited to particular jobs and it’s important to select the right type of cognitive test.

In this article, we discuss:

How Important is General Cognitive Ability for Employment Success?

There are tests that measure general cognitive ability and provide an overview of various job roles that a candidate is suited for. But those tests are usually too broadly designed to help you with hiring for a specific position. When it comes to measuring a more specific set of skills, it’s important to use cognitive ability tests that map as closely as possible to the different job positions that you are hiring for.

Types of Cognitive Ability

Since the 1980s, psychologists have argued that there’s no one single type of intelligence or cognitive ability. Instead, it’s a spectrum of abilities that make up overall intelligence. Howard Gardner, in his famous work Frames of Mind: The Theory of Multiple Intelligences proposes that intelligence can be divided into 8 different subtypes:

Based on this research, different types of cognitive tests correspond to many of these intelligence types, which can contribute to cognitive diversity.

What Types of Cognitive Tests Are Available?

The type of test that your HR team selects should reflect the actual tasks that the employee will be performing. Based on the skills required in the job description, here are several options:

Testing Attention to Detail

Attention for detail is a complicated cognitive ability that extends beyond what the term itself infers. It measures the ability to evaluate new information once and to be able to choose what information is relevant and useful for a particular task.

There are four different skills within this definition:

This is a relevant skill for any position. However, it’s most relevant for positions in which small mistakes and minute information can make a big difference in the outcome. These include customer service representatives, administrative assistants, software testers and developers, accountants, financial analysts, and many others.

Testing Problem Solving Abilities

Problem-solving is another key cognitive ability to test for because it’s used in various positions within a company. It tackles the challenge of how well a candidate makes a sound decision based on the data presented to them. This may include the following skills:

This set of abilities is relevant for managerial positions. However, companies that offer customer support also tend to test for this skill, because customers are often contacting support for their issues that need to be resolved. Other suitable roles include hospitality staff, project managers, customer support staff, healthcare workers, and engineers.

Testing for Critical Thinking

Critical thinking may imply an “abstract” ability, but the term refers to the ability to use inductive and deductive reasoning to solve problems. The skills that are tested in this assessment include:

This type of test is often used for director-level (or higher) roles. If the position requires the employee to think independently and analytically, it’s a smart move to measure those skills before hiring. Such positions include lawyers, executives, developers, and scientists.

Testing for Numerical Reasoning Abilities

A numerical reasoning test will test how well the candidate handles numbers. The test will measure how well a candidate can read and understand graphs, charts, and number sequences. These are skills that will be critical if the job requires the candidate to make data-driven decisions. The skills that are tested in this part of the assessment are:

You’ll need to test numerical reasoning skills when hiring financial managers, engineers, researchers, architects, and business analysts. There are many other roles in sales and finances that require these abilities.

Testing Reading Comprehension Skills

Reading comprehension skills are the ability to read and understand written text. It’s an essential skill for most jobs. In some roles, it’s the main skill that the candidate will use every day, but in others, it’s more of a “soft skill” that isn’t a core part of the job, but that is still used often. The test will assess the following skills:

  • The ability to identify the main thought of a text
  • The ability to make inferences about the text based on it

Reading comprehension is a skill that proves useful for most jobs that require using a computer because that’s how the information is conveyed in the work environment, especially when working remotely. It’s an especially important skill for those who need to read and write reports and summarize their thoughts. The company should test reading comprehension when hiring administrative assistants, clerical staff, scientists, researchers, teachers, editors, and customer service representatives.

Testing for Spatial Reasoning Skills

Spatial reasoning refers to the candidate’s ability to understand abstract positioning between different objects.

A high score on this test shows that the candidate has good analytic thinking abilities when considering objects and the space between them.

The skills that are covered by this test include:

  • Mental rotation – the ability to imagine how the object will rotate in space.
  • Spatial working memory – the ability to keep spatial information active.
  • Mental folding – the ability to imagine how the object will fold.
  • Spatial visualization – the ability to imagine objects in space.

Spatial reasoning skills are especially important when it comes to those working in the STEM field (science, technology, engineering, and math). These include jobs such as mechanical engineers, chemical engineers, researchers, designers, and architects.

How to Use the Test Results?

Cognitive ability tests are complex and measure a variety of different skills. Hiring decisions shouldn’t be based solely on the test results. Instead, the results should be an important part of the hiring decision, with other parts including the interview, references, and any work or education history.

Choosing The Right Test for The Right Role

Cognitive ability tests are most critically needed for choosing the candidates for complex and high-level roles, as that’s where such skills are most needed. This isn’t to say that these ability tests should only be used for such high roles, as they can be relevant for lower roles too.

When hiring candidates for junior roles, it’s important for them to take the specific test for their roles. For senior roles, candidates may need to take more than one test. With that approach, you’ll take the whole scope of their abilities into account.

Should We Add Behavioral Interview Questions?

Completing a job and being a part of a company team is about more than just efficiently completing tasks. It’s also important to have the right attitude and be able to work with others on a day-to-day basis. Behavioral traits can be measured along with cognitive ability tests, although not usually in the same test.

One proven method is to use behavioral interview questions, which can tell you how a candidate will manage stress, be responsible and accountable, and their management style. All of these are essential for employees that will take leadership positions.

Keep Track of the Results

An HR team also has a responsibility to keep track of test results and show how they affect hiring practices. This will help the company create a hiring culture that goes beyond just finding a particular employee for a particular job. Over time you’ll need to review your candidate scores database to see how the candidates performed on the job. You’ll want high-scoring employees to have high job performance ratings, as it relates to the test subject. You’ll also want lower-scoring employees to have the same competency level reflected in job performance. This helps to measure how valid a test is for that particular job position.


The great news is that there are various cognitive ability tests available to help any size organization with its hiring process.  But it’s critical for every recruiting team to carefully choose the right test for the role they’re looking to fill. Whether it’s spatial relations, numerical reasoning, or critical thinking skills, there is a test that will help measure that competency.  With these tests acting as another tool in the “hiring toolbox”, the HR team can make the most informed hiring decisions for their organization.

EmployTest’s offer includes a variety of cognitive and reasoning assessment tests – check out a free sample to learn more about our testing process.