A Test of Talent?

One frustrated applicant tells us why psychometric tests fail to measure up.

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Most people who’ve come to Cambridge haven’t known much failure before. We blazed through our GCSEs and A Levels leaving behind a slightly sickening trail of A*s. Parents’ evenings were an exercise in self-congratulation.

Probably the biggest setback I faced was failing my driving test. Twice. Even at university (if you’re an arts student at least), you can get by okay as long you do a passable amount of work and a late night in the library every now and then.

So when I came to think about applying for jobs, I assumed it would be a walk in the park too. Does the admissions team not dedicate a considerable amount of effort to saying how much employers love Cambridge? And as the university counts anyone from William Wilberforce to Quentin Blake among its alumni, it’s hard to fault them.

Being the keen bean that I am, I thought I’d apply for some summer internships so I’d be ahead of the game come my third year. I filled in some applications, did a few tests and checked my emails expectantly waiting for an invitation to interview and a fast track to a glorious career in business to pin into my inbox.

What came instead was a handful of ‘We are sorry to disappoint you but…’s. They all came on the same evening, I might add – fate does so love to reinforce the blow. Once I’d got through the ‘all businesses are bastards’ stage, I started to think about the application process itself.

I don’t wish to sound bitter – I think a lot of us here are lulled into a false sense of security about success. But there are some profound flaws in the way that employers select students for their graduate programmes.

Let’s look at some examples: many employers get you to fill in the infamous ‘personality test’. They’ll list a few personality traits and you have to pick the ones that most appeal to you. This sets alight all manner of questions: ‘I want to show them I’m a team player but I also know they value innovation’ or ‘I love being in charge but will they think I’m an arrogant dick?!’

But the honest answer is that no personality test could ever show you what someone was really like. You spend hours and hours working on the perfect application but if you can’t fill in a test that seems entirely arbitrary in the right way, the computer will literally say no and all your hard work will go to waste.

Then there are the reasoning tests – a particular issue for me bearing in mind I decided to drop Maths after GCSE when I was approximately five! I thought my trigonometry days were numbered. Sure no one can succeed if they don’t know how to read a profit and loss account but what really irritates me are the more abstract tests. If I were to get a job in any field of business that doesn’t centre around assessing squares in painstaking detail, aren’t the skills being assessed entirely irrelevant? I may be great at arranging shapes but if I can’t make an impressive presentation, how could I ever work in sales? And how will I ever demonstrate that I’ve got the skills to do so if I can’t get past the computer?

I’m not entirely naïve – it is obviously very difficult to give detailed attention to the applications of 5,000 people when you have maybe five vacancies. Yet just because it’s hard to read tons of applications doesn’t mean that you should perpetuate a system that doesn’t work. At the end of the day, a great business is only as good as the people it employs and surely it should not let some of the best candidates slip through the net? How can the current system with its impossible personality tests and absurd reasoning ones do anything but?

I could have the skills to found a company like Deloitte or Sainsbury’s but if I can’t answer a questionnaire in an entirely conventional way, I’ll still be sitting at home with my mum watching MasterChef reruns once I graduate