The Ultimate Guide To Cognitive Ability Assessments

Cognitive Ability Assessment

Part of your role as a recruiter is assessing job candidates and predicting how well they would perform if hired—but with so many job seekers to screen for each open position, doing so effectively is often easier said than done. Cognitive ability assessments, which are also referred to as General Mental Ability (GMA) assessments, are considered a highly effective predictor of job performance for careers at every level. That’s why employers across industries in all types of businesses assess their candidates’ cognitive skills during the recruitment process.

In this article, we’ll tell you all about cognitive ability assessments: what they are, the different types, pros and cons, and best practices for using them to improve your recruiting efforts. 

What’s in?

What are cognitive ability assessments?

Cognitive ability assessments are a form of pre-employment testing used to measure each cognitive skills. These tests evaluate how well applicants use a wide range of mental processes, such as reading comprehension, working with numbers, finding solutions to problems, abstract thinking, and ability to learn (and apply) new information.

Measuring cognitive ability is essential in order to predict how well a potential employee will follow instructions, navigate training, and communicate with their coworkers. In fact, research has consistently revealed that general cognitive ability is the number one predictor of on-the-job success across job types, levels, and industries. As such, many of today’s top employers rely on cognitive ability assessments to improve their quality of hire.

“At least 80% of the Fortune 500 companies globally use cognitive and IQ tests during the hiring process. In today’s ever-evolving organizational landscape, organizations need their driving force – the people – to be aligned to their business goals and strategies. Aligning them with curated competencies for each and every job role will help them build winning teams which are leaner, meaner, fitter and inclusive,” explains Ketan Kapoor of the talent assessment company Mettl.


of companies that use pre-employment testing administer cognitive aptitude tests.

Source: CriteriaCorp

Cognitive ability testing is the most common type of pre-employment assessments.

Pros and cons of cognitive ability assessments in recruitment

Like with any selection tool, there are advantages and disadvantages to cognitive ability testing.


Predictive for job performance

Cognitive ability assessments are one of the best predictors of job performance across a variety of roles and industries. According to Aberdeen Group research, employers that use cognitive skills tests for recruitment are 24% more likely to have a high percentage of employees who exceed performance expectations.

Precise and reliable

Overall, cognitive ability tests are a highly precise and reliable way to assess the aptitude and predict the performance of each job candidate that you interview. Reliability means that candidates would achieve roughly the same results when reassessed.

By working cognitive ability tests into your recruitment strategy, you are able to make better, more consistent hiring decisions fast.

Easy to administer online

Thanks to modern technology, you don’t have to organize assessment centers or bother with marking up papers. Digital pre-employment assessment tools make it easy for recruiters to administer tests online and simplify the selection process for candidates. 

Relatively inexpensive

Another advantage is the cost—cognitive ability testing is relatively inexpensive. Rather than shelling out a significant amount of money upfront, you can either pay per test or per package, depending on your needs. And as previously mentioned, you don’t have to invest money in organizing assessment centers because everything can be done digitally.

Cognitive skills are


as great at predicting job performance than are interviews.

Source: Mettl

If implemented and administered right, cognitive skills assessment is an effective method to predict job success.


Risk of adverse impact

In some cases, cognitive ability assessments can be racially or ethnically discriminatory, which can have an adverse impact on your overall recruitment efforts. Non-minorities typically score one standard deviation above minorities, which can have a negative impact depending on how the assessment scores are used for candidate selection. For example, cognitive ability differences between male and female candidates (like mathematical skills) can adversely affect the scores of female applicants. 

Not ideal when hiring for leadership roles

Of course, cognitive abilities are important in leaders—but they’re not as indicative of job performance when hiring managers. Generally speaking, leadership positions require hard and soft skills that extend beyond high cognitive skills.  Management experience and interpersonal skills are important examples of other things to look for to hire the most effective leaders. As such, when hiring for higher-level positions you may want to consider using a more in-depth test.

Types of cognitive ability assessments

There are several different types of cognitive ability tests that can be used during the recruiting process to predict job performance. It’s common for recruiters to combine different types of cognitive tests to assess specific mental abilities of their candidates, depending on the nature of the job.

Here are some of the different types of cognitive ability assessments that recruiters can use to make great hiring decisions:

1. Verbal reasoning

Verbal reasoning tests assess reading understanding and comprehension skills. This type of assessment helps employers learn how well candidates can extract important details and articulate relevant information. Candidates are typically presented with a passage of text followed by true or false statements in a multiple-choice format; however, other variations are used as well.

Verbal reasoning assessments are useful for virtually every type of job across all industries, as they can help predict how effectively potential employees will be able to read and comprehend instructions in the workplace.

See cognitive ability testing in action.

Learn what makes cognitive ability testing the biggest predictor of job success.

2. Numerical reasoning

Numerical reasoning assessments are designed to measure each candidate’s ability to work with numbers accurately. The questions on these cognitive assessment tests cover things like ratios, number sequences, and percentages. When taking a numerical reasoning test, candidates are usually presented with graphs and statistical tables and are required to answer using numeric figures.

These types of assessment – along with basic math tests – are often utilized for those working in banking or another field in finance.

3. Logical reasoning

Recruiters use logical reasoning tests to measure how well candidates can interpret patterns, number sequences, and shapes. This type of cognitive skills test helps employers assess how potential employees handle more abstract concepts and ideas.

Candidates take logical reasoning tests when applying for jobs that require extensive critical thinking skills and the ability to assess risks and manage complex tasks, such as lawyers and law enforcement officers.

4. Spatial ability

Spatial ability tests evaluate each candidate’s ability to visualize and manipulate forms or objects, such as piled blocks. Spatial visualization is particularly important in fields like architecture, engineering, and game design.

When taking an assessment focused on spatial reasoning ability, candidates are shown three-dimensional objects and asked to mentally reconstruct them.

Blog Insert - Cognitive Ability Mobile and Desktop

Spatial ability has also been linked to strategic thinking, as it requires to see a whole behind individual parts.

5. Learning agility

Employers assess learning agility to determine how well candidates learn from experience and how they can apply those insights to new situations. By measuring learning agility, you can gain an understanding of how potential employees function and adapt in ever-changing environments.

Learning agility assessments are often used when hiring for a higher-level role with more responsibility than entry-level employees but can also be used for junior roles requiring rapid skill advancement.

6. Perceptual speed and accuracy

A person’s perceptual speed and accuracy is a cognitive skill related to short-term memory that plays an important role in the ability to reason and make decisions. Perceptual speed and accuracy assessments test how well candidates learn, process, remember, and rearticulate information. They measure the candidates’ ability to work effectively on unknown tasks in a limited amount of time.

They require candidates to memorize a series of random objects or details and then answer questions about them after-the-fact to see how much information is retained.

7. Other types of assessments

These are only a few examples of the different types of cognitive ability tests that recruiters perform to measure critical skills and characteristics. Other tests measure things like rapid problem solving, attention aptitude, word fluency, visual accuracy, symbol reasoning, information processing, and more.

The type of test of a specific combination of assessments that you conduct is dependent on the jobs you’re hiring for and what skills they require. 

Best practices for cognitive ability assessments

Cognitive ability testing can be extremely valuable in the recruiting process—but only when it’s done correctly. Here are a few best practices to help you make the most of your cognitive ability assessments and improve your company’s quality of hire. 

1. Measure things related to the job

It’s not a good idea to measure cognitive ability just for the sake of doing so. Make sure that you’re using relevant assessments that relate to the specific position you’re hiring for and the tasks associated with that role. Also take into consideration that some jobs only require basic forms of testing, while others may need a more thorough assessment to accurately predict performance. 

2. Watch out for adverse impact

It’s important that you keep an eye out for adverse impact when using cognitive skills tests to screen candidates. Adverse impact is the negative effect that a biased selection process has on a protected group of people, like members of a certain race, sex, age, religion, and disability or veteran status.

Measure the adverse impact of your testing regularly by tracking if the four-fifths or 80% rule applies to your selection. Here is an example of how you make the calculation:

Adverse (Disparate) Impact Example

3. Be transparent with candidates

It’s good practice to be as transparent with your candidates as possible. Make it clear to them why you’re using cognitive ability assessments, what data you’re collecting, and ultimately how their test scores will impact the selection process.

This way, you can prevent potential privacy or even legal issues arising from the testing.

4. Use the score as guidance

Cognitive ability testing is an essential part of the screening process—but it’s only one piece of a larger puzzle. An outstanding score on the cognitive ability assessment isn’t a guarantee that a certain person is the best candidate for the job.

That’s why cognitive skills tests should be used to guide hiring decisions, but should never be the sole reason for including or excluding job candidates. Instead, combine cognitive ability tests with other assessments and hiring methods to make a fully informed decision.

5. Make your assessments fun

Gamified cognitive ability tests are a fun, interactive alternative to more traditional assessments. By making cognitive testing more fun for candidates, you can enhance their experience—and your employer brand in the process! Gamified assessments are less likely to intimidate or even scare off your job candidates.

When implementing assessment games like pathfinding, code-cracking, and puzzle-solving, make sure that they are validated and reliable.


of companies view candidate experience as “extremely important”.

Source: CriteriaCorp

Providing a good candidate experience throughout the cognitive ability assessment will help enhance the applicants’ overall outlook on your company.

Wrapping it up

When implemented and analyzed the right way, cognitive ability assessments are a great tool that can improve your quality of hire and recruitment process as a whole. To get the most out of cognitive ability testing at your organization, be mindful of the kind of tests you choose and whether or not they’re the best way to hire top performers.

Want more reading on improving your selection process? Learn about other types of pre-employment tests that can be used alongside cognitive ability assessments to shortlist the best candidates for your business!

See cognitive ability testing in action.

Learn what makes cognitive ability testing the biggest predictor of job success.



Heather Bates is an experienced writer with a focus on HR, recruitment, and tech-related topics. When she’s not writing, you’ll find her taking photos, wire-wrapping crystals, and/or drinking iced coffee.
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