Cognitive ability tests: 6 common tests used in hiring

7 minute read

Posted by Chris Platts on 23 November 2021

The primary aspect of recruiting is predicting how a candidate will perform in the job. The difficult part is figuring that out. How do you know if a candidate is able to make effective decisions under pressure? How can you figure out if they have the required problem-solving skills? Cognitive ability tests provide answers to these questions.

When making a hire, you need assurance that the individual will deliver results. For many businesses, vacancies attract a large pool of applicants, and it can be difficult to efficiently assess ability. It’s at this point that cognitive tests come to the rescue. As a recruiter, these tests are invaluable tools with demonstrable benefits. They are a highly effective predictor of job performance at any career level [1]

In this post, we’ll take you through the ins and outs of cognitive ability tests used in hiring, and introduce 6 common cognitive tests that recruiters are currently using. We’ll cover the following:

What is a cognitive test and why is it important?

Cognitive ability tests (sometimes called mental agility tests) are a form of pre-employment test that evaluates how well applicants use a range of cognitive skills.

Examples of commonly tested cognitive skills include sustained attention, reading comprehension, working with numbers, problem-solving, and the ability to comprehend and implement new information.

The ability to measure such aptitude is often an essential indicator of future performance in a role. 94% of companies that use pre-employment testing administer cognitive aptitude tests [2].

According to psychological research, general cognitive ability is consistently one of the most powerful predictors of success across job types, levels, and industries.

The way they measure how accurately they predict success is called a correlation coefficient. A correlation coefficient of 1.0 would mean it’s a perfect predictor 100% of the time. Unfortunately, a test that achieves such a feat is yet to exist (although we’re working on it).

Predictors of performance chart. See ERE Webinar from 8/3/11, presented by Paul Basile, adapted from I. Robinson and M. Smith Personal Selection (2001) British Psychology Society.

As the image above shows, cognitive ability tests are top of the pile with a 0.51 correlation coefficient to predicting job success. Greater than unstructured interviews, reference checks, and years of job experience.

If they’re not in your hiring toolbox, you need to add them.

Common cognitive ability tests used in hiring

There are a number of pre-employment cognitive ability tests available to recruiters. Depending on the nature of the job, some types will be more suited than others. It’s also very typical for recruiters to combine multiple cognitive tests in order to assess the specific abilities of prospective candidates.

Below are 6 of the most common tests used by recruiters when hiring:

1. Numerical Reasoning

Numerical reasoning tests are focused on, you guessed it, a candidate’s ability to work with numbers. These typically incorporate standard maths questions centering on sequences, fractions, ratios, and percentages.

Numerical data are presented, such as graphs and tables, and the candidate needs to answer mathematical questions pertaining to this data. These types of assessments are particularly useful for roles that often focus on numerical data; often finance and banking.

Read more about Numerical Reasoning Tests here.

2. Verbal Reasoning

Verbal reasoning assesses a candidate’s reading comprehension. This cognitive assessment will enable an employer or recruiter to learn how well an applicant can analyse details from a piece of text and extract the most important information.

A piece of text will typically be shown to the applicant, followed by a number of true or false statements. The candidate must evaluate the efficacy of the statements according to the piece of text.

These tests are a great way for recruiters to vet candidates on their ability to understand written instruction in the workplace.

Read more about Verbal Reasoning Tests here.

3. Spatial Ability

Spatial ability tests focus on an individual’s ability to visualise and manipulate shapes, forms, or objects. This is an important cognitive test utilised by recruiters in the design world. It has been closely linked to strategic thinking as success in the test means the candidate is able to visualise a whole from its contingent parts. Candidates will be presented with three-dimensional objects on a computer screen and are then asked to establish what form or shapes can be constructed.

Architecture, engineering, and game design recruiters often adopt this test in their employment process.

4. Logical Reasoning

Logical reasoning assessments will measure the extent to which a candidate is able to comprehend patterns, sequences, and shapes. This cognitive test analyses how well they are able to understand abstract concepts, theories, and ideas. Success requires good critical thinking ability and strong skills in risk analysis.

Such tests are popular for industries that require effective management of complex and high-risk tasks; such as law.

5. Learning Agility

Learning agility relates to how well individuals are able to comprehend new information and apply what they’ve learned to ongoing situations. It’s about learning from experience. It gives an employer the ability to indicate whether a candidate is able to adapt to changing circumstances and environments.

Such tests are popular amongst recruiters of higher-end roles where cognitive agility is important. However, they are also a useful tool for junior roles that require varied and fast-paced skill advancement.

6. Perceptual Speed and Accuracy

Perceptual speed and accuracy are important cognitive skills in the workplace. Recruiters look for candidates that have a sharp memory, can quickly comprehend information, and make effective decisions.

This test assesses that; it looks at a candidate’s ability to comprehend, process, analyse, and rearticulate information. It measures how quickly an individual is able to process new work and deliver a task in a set amount of time.

To see how much information a candidate is able to comprehend and retain, they will be asked to memorise a set of random objects. Then a set of questions will be presented on those objects without the candidate being able to look back.

Bespoke Test vs “Off the shelf” Tests

One key consideration when using cognitive ability tests is whether to use an off-the-shelf assessment or partner with an assessment design expert (spoiler alert: that’s what we do at ThriveMap) to create your own assessment that measures the specific skills and behaviors required to be successful in your roles. The right approach for you may depend on whether you believe that context matters to cognitive ability or not. e.g. whether someone can demonstrate cognitive ability in one area of work, but not in another. Evidence on ecological validity suggests that environmental factors have a distinct impact on cognitive ability, so testing people via generalist methods may not be very predictive of actual job performance.

Contextual vs non-contextual intelligence

Contextual intelligence can be a critical component of assessing job suitability. Off-the-shelf assessments can’t measure this as every job and work environment is unique. Bespoke assessments can measure cognitive ability in the context of the specific tasks someone is expected to perform when in the role.

Norm groups in cognitive ability tests

Similarly, when asking candidates to complete a cognitive ability assessment, they will need to be compared to a norm group. Off-the-shelf assessments have to generalise norm groups by arbitrary measures such as candidate seniority or location. These norm groups are usually void of other important information, such as whether they have any experience in the role you’re recruiting for. With bespoke assessments, however, you can create your own comparison groups. We typically recommend that they are people who are applying for the same position(s) since these applicants will have similar motivations to do well and will have more comparable levels of experience. This approach results in the output being more reliable and valid as an assessment tool.

If you’d like to know more about how ThriveMap creates bespoke, more predictive assessments you can speak to us here.


Cognitive ability assessments are an essential tool for any recruiter looking to improve the quality of hire and recruitment efficiency.

In order to get the most out of them, choose your assessment type wisely according to the nature of the job role, or commit to building your own assessment.

Used correctly, they’re a powerful predictor of performance and provide the critical nuggets of insight that enable your business to make informed and effective hiring decisions.


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About ThriveMap

ThriveMap creates customised assessments for high volume roles, which take candidates through an online “day in the life” experience of work in your company. Our assessments have been proven to reduce staff turnover, reduce time to hire, and improve quality of hire.

Not sure what type of assessment is right for your business? Read our guide.

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