Application – is it all in the mind?

Peter Weiss asks whether a new psychometric test for job applicants offers a fairer way of assessing candidates. Peter Weiss is a trainee solicitor at Nabarro Nathanson.

IN An age that holds up psychology as the darling of social sciences, the use of psychometric testing is probably inevitable. Perhaps as predictable is the controversy that surrounds it.

While some firms believe testing speeds up general applicant screening, many students and professionals voice a concern that it is a single and often inaccurate indication of ability.

Elizabeth Crookshank, a board member of the Association of Women Solicitors, is just one who is unhappy about the current practice of testing.

"Two of our younger solicitors applied for jobs in the legal profession and were told that as part of the interview process they would be given a psychometric test," she says. "One of them was given a test in the form of a phone interview and the only feedback she received was when she was told she didn't get the job."

Crookshank is worried that students who take the tests are not aware of their rights – the test must be properly administered, candidates must receive appropriate feedback and the test is only an adjunct to the rest of the application process.

Psychometric tests usually assess verbal reasoning or mathematical aptitude, and sometimes personality. Looking for a means of judging the suitability of candidates early in the application process, many of the big players in UK law have trialed them.

Norton Rose dabbled with a form of psychometric test but dropped it after trying it on its own trainees – the firm felt the results were unreliable. Clifford Chance, on the other hand, continues to use verbal reasoning tests in the second stage of application.

But a more recent version has been developed specifically for lawyers and other professionals in law-related careers.

The Legal Able Test, developed by Oxford Psychological Press (OPP), is designed to test how well and how quickly people are able to learn and apply concepts.

"In the past, legal firms have been resistant to psychometric tests," says Sarah Clark, marketing specialist at OPP.

"But employers are now looking for graduates who not only possess good critical reasoning skills but have the potential to learn quickly – something not measured by most psychometric tests."

The OPP test has been piloted on the trainees at a number of firms to determine whether ability according to the test correlates to ability on the job.

"I prefer this test because it is more job relevant," says Sarah Roberts, principal consultant at business psychologists Craig Gregg & Russell, which piloted the test at Nabarro Nathanson to mixed reactions. While many applicants felt they knew what the test was trying to accomplish, some said it was not clearly presented or directly applicable for lawyers.

Louise Halpin, a trainee at Nabarros who took part in the trial, is one example. "Rather than doubting myself, I doubt the test," she says. "My fear with this test is that there will be a tendency to place too much weight on it."

Jane Squire, Nabarros' head of graduate recruitment, recognises the students' fears. "Students seem very concerned about these tests," she says. "They see them as black and white and feel that if they do not pass they will be out."

However, she points out that the firm is looking at overall performance and not simply at how well applicants perform in the test.

"We are going to need to see a lot more data before deciding whether to use the OPP test or not," she says.

But given the vast number of trainee applications, and the associated cost of assessing them, many firms will be considering tests as an additional means of evaluating.

Dr Stephen Blinkhorn, the brain behind the Legal Able Test, believes students have no reason to be concerned – if they are good enough to apply for the job, he says, they should be good enough to do the test.

"Students should relax about it, there are no special tricks," he claims. "We are testing students' capacity to learn to handle material under time pressure. It is designed to stretch even the brightest people." Blinkhorn adds that students should not expect perfect scores.

It is easy for the test's designer to utter soothing words about relaxation, but less so for those trying to do it. The key to success is to balance accuracy and speed believes Roberts. "Lawyers especially have a tendency to spend too long checking each answer," she says. "The best way to improve your score is to get familiar with tests and get your speed up."

She advises students who are taking verbal tests to read newspapers and practise crosswords, while those taking maths tests should swot up on financial reports, practise mental arithmetic, and study numerical tables.

"Like playing the piano, you can only do as well as your natural ability," she says. "But you can improve with practise."

Pass notes

Applicants can learn more about psychometric tests from a range of sources.

Guidance notes on the administration of tests are provided by the British Psychological Society and many book stores and libraries have sample papers and books with hints on test taking. Students can also contact test providers like OPP or Psytech (whose Web site is at: http://www.Psytech.co.uk) for updates on test styles and formats and sample examinations.