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Cognitive Ability Tests: Examples, Benefits and Reliability

During the applicant screening process of hiring a new employee, businesses can use a range of tools to determine which candidates are the best fit for an open position. Cognitive ability tests are a popular way to screen job applicants for basic requirements and predict who has the potential to succeed.


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What are cognitive ability tests?

Cognitive ability tests are assessments that measure someone’s mental abilities and cognitive functions. Employers use these tests to help predict a candidate’s ability to complete different job functions and learn new skills. Cognitive ability tests are also known as General Mental Ability or GMA assessments and can be used as a simple diagnostic of a job candidate’s overall reasoning, memory and perception. 

Some cognitive abilities focus on one particular skill, such as numerical reasoning, while others provide a general overview of someone’s cognition level based on a range of questions. Cognitive ability tests are often timed, requiring the test-taker to reason their answer quickly.

Related: How to Properly Use Talent Assessment Tests in Business


Pros and cons of using cognitive ability tests

Cognitive ability tests can give you a fairly accurate idea of whether a candidate has the aptitude to succeed in the role they’re applying for, but they don’t provide a holistic understanding of all of a candidate’s traits and assets. Knowing the benefits of cognitive testing and their drawbacks before administering them can help company leadership use them appropriately and read their results in the context of other important factors:


Positive attributes of cognitive ability testing

Cognitive ability testing is an effective way to review and compare the mental skills of multiple applicants and build a staff of highly successful and capable employees. As a pre-employment assessment tool, cognitive ability testing has several benefits for employers:

  • It can help identify high performers. High scores on a cognitive test can indicate a candidate’s ability to set and achieve ambitious goals in the workplace and improve overall team performance. Using them during the hiring process can help you recognize employees with the most potential.
  • It can be applicable to a range of jobs. Because cognitive ability tests assess overall intelligence and mental faculties, their results can indicate a candidate’s aptitude for many different positions. 
  • It can be rather affordable. Many tests are free or cheap compared to other pre-employment assessment tests and tools.
  • It can be easy to use. Cognitive ability tests have clear, simple instructions that tend to be easy for candidates to understand. Some tests are available online or in a simple paper test format that is easy to fill out and score.


Negative aspects of cognitive ability testing

Cognitive ability testing is not a foolproof method for assessing candidates in all situations. Being aware of the drawbacks of cognitive ability testing before administering the assessments can help you use the results in a fair and equitable way. Some of the possible negatives of the tests include:

  • There could be adverse impact. Some cognitive ability tests have an implicit bias toward certain races and genders due to their creators valuing some types of cultural capital more than others. Female and minority applicants can be negatively impacted if your business highly prioritizes cognitive scores without considering possible bias in the test itself.
  • They may be limited in scope. While cognitive ability testing is applicable to many roles, it doesn’t consider different aspects of a candidate’s skill such as work ethic, interpersonally communication and leadership ability. This makes them an incomplete metric when hiring for customer service jobs, leadership positions and creative roles.


Types of cognitive ability tests

During the hiring process, you can use a single type of cognitive ability test or combine several different test types to test a range of skills. Each cognitive ability test uses different types of problems and question formats to assess a unique skill:


Verbal comprehension

Verbal comprehension and reasoning tests assess a candidate’s ability to process, understand and interpret written information. They can include questions that have candidates match words with synonyms, use context clues to guess information or read text passages then answer multiple-choice questions based on the passage. Verbal comprehension tests are a good way to assess a candidate’s ability to process directions and comprehend new information on their own.


Numerical reasoning

Numerical reasoning and ability tests focus on scoring how well someone can interpret and analyze numbers, including performing basic mathematical operations and recognizing numerical patterns. They can be short-answer style or multiple-choice, asking candidates to calculate integers, fractions, ratios and percentages.  Numerical reasoning tests also have candidates look at a chart or a sequence and extrapolate information about the data. This type of cognitive ability test is especially useful for positions that require math skills or data analysis.


Learning agility

Learning agility refers to how quickly someone can understand and master a new concept. Learning agility tests assess how people respond to new scenarios, solve problems and learn from their past experiences. As the workforce evolves and different jobs become essential to doing business, having staff who can learn and apply new concepts can make a big impact on your team’s overall success. Testing learning agility can help identify top managerial candidates or identify team members with a high potential for growth.



Cognitive tests can also assess how quickly and accurately people gather and retain information. Perception test questions often focus on memory, speed and accuracy, showing candidates images or blocks of text for a set period of time then asking the candidate about the information they just saw. Popular types of questions that test for perception include visual pursuit tests that require candidates to focus on an object and track it through a field of visual distractions and spatial understanding tests that ask the candidate to recreate the position of an arrangement of different shapes.


Logical reasoning

Logical reasoning tests provide candidates with a set of information and then require them to explain different scenarios based on the provided context. They often use abstract concepts to test people’s ability to apply logic to real-world scenarios. A common question format for logical reasoning cognitive tests is “If X, Y and Z are true, which of the following statements is accurate.” These tests are a good indicator of someone’s problem-solving, risk assessment and prioritization skills.

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Frequently asked questions about cognitive ability tests

Are cognitive ability tests reliable?

Cognitive ability tests are generally reliable because someone’s cognitive ability is unlikely to change in different scenarios. Unlike personality assessments where people rely on their own personal bias to choose answers, cognitive ability assessments review people’s instinctual and logical thoughts and behaviors.

Is cognitive ability the same as IQ?

Intelligence Quotient or IQ is one way to describe and measure cognitive abilities. Someone’s IQ does not always reflect their ability to excel at other cognitive ability tests. IQ tends to stay the same over time, while many cognitive abilities can improve over time with practice.

What is average cognitive ability?

Each cognitive ability test has its own scoring system, so there is not a standardized average for cognitive ability. People can score highly in one part of a cognitive ability test while earning low scores on another section. When using cognitive ability testing during employment screening, it is important to consider what abilities you value most instead of looking at an overall average score.

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