Despite the time and difficulty involved in finding the right candidates, more employers are adding a big step to their hiring process: assessment tests. The reason, recruiters and career experts say, is that businesses are determined to find candidates who can contribute on their first day, quickly fit into team and company culture, and communicate effectively with both customers and colleagues. Assessments, said Will Kelly, national delivery director for the IT staffing firm Diversant, improve an employer’s odds of making successful hires the first time: “[They] can draw out traits that not everyone with a 4.0 average and a computer science background is going to have, and that certainly aren’t going to be readily identifiable in a phone screen or face-to-face interview.”

What’s the Point?

Assessments shouldn’t be confused with whiteboard interviews or skills tests. For one thing, skills tests are more granular, said Tiffany Shortridge, North American Talent Assessment Leader for Saville Assessment, which provides aptitude tests and personality questionnaires for use in hiring. Skills tests measure a candidate’s knowledge of C++ or different aspects of Microsoft Azure (for example): things that you can learn, in other words. Another difference: Most assessments aren’t something you can study for. “Behavioral” assessments measure different aspects of your personality, such as your potential talents and your motivation, Shortridge explained. The other major type, “aptitude” assessments, examines cognitive abilities such as verbal talents or your attention to detail. Assessments are meant to give employers an idea of whether a candidate will perform well in a given role. For example, Kelly said, a consulting company may need sales engineers whose skills go beyond technology. Assessing pertinent traits will help identify people who can handle situations like a salesperson while solving technical issues as an engineer. A sales engineer will take the time to consider the customer’s business goals and suggest appropriate ways to accomplish them, whereas a “pure engineer” might state that something just can’t be done.

Don’t Sweat Assessment

Many candidates are leery of assessments because they’re usually not something they can study or prepare for, said Rita Friedman, a certified career coach in Philadelphia. But that doesn’t mean they’re something to fear. In fact, she said: “I think it’s one of those things where the more you try to prepare for it, the worse you’re going to screw up.” That’s because assessments are often designed to make people question themselves as they go along. As Friedman added: “You get to, like, the eightieth question and you go, ‘Well, you asked me the same question 14 different ways and I think I gave you 16 different answers.’” The reason some tests ask the same question in multiple ways varies. “If you think something is the right answer, then they’re trying to get you to question that,” Friedman explained. Assessments are nuanced, often asking about issues that may not have “correct” answers. For instance, they may examine your approach to relationship management or problem-solving from multiple angles, in order to tease out even slight differences in your replies. Doing that allows companies to get a more detailed picture of whatever it is they’re trying to assess. “If it’s not needed for the job, then we shouldn’t be measuring it in the assessment process, no matter whether it’s a skills test, a behavioral test or an aptitude test,” Shortridge said.

Intelligence for Job Seekers, Too

If a potential employer plans to give you an assessment, “you can absolutely flat-out ask them to tell you what they’re looking for,” Friedman said. Besides putting the exercise in context, the answer will reveal hints about the company’s culture. If the assessment is meant to help pair you with a suitable mentor, that’s one thing; if the company doesn’t like to hire certain personality types, that’s another. In any case, “I think just talking about it can be really reassuring,” Friedman said, “because hopefully the company has a good line for why they’re doing it and that will put your mind at ease a little bit.” How a company approaches assessments can also flag potential conflicts. For example, you might discover the employer’s culture is based on assessments of personality type or communication style as opposed to real person-to-person interaction. “That might be sign to you that maybe their culture isn’t rooted in the same things that you’re looking for,” Friedman said. Today, more companies are assessing candidates for data privacy and data security roles, Shortridge said. When hiring for those jobs, employers have become interested in a candidate’s behavioral traits as well as their technical proficiency. Leadership potential is also important for these hires, since the demand for data-privacy and data-security talent is growing rapidly. In addition, the tech pros who take these jobs often have to work with a number of other departments; that makes leadership skills, team orientation and a high level of conscientiousness necessary to succeed.