Cognitive ability tests for employment: all you need to know

Anouk van Barneveldt

Anouk van Barneveldt

Content Marketer

Cognitive ability tests are powerful tools in modern recruitment, offering a more objective, data-driven way to evaluate candidates’ potential and skills that are difficult to determine from someone’s CV.

This blog explains what cognitive ability tests are and why they are valuable in recruitment. It also covers the different types of cognitive ability tests available and provides guidance on how to start using them in your hiring process.

What are cognitive abilities tests?

A cognitive ability test is a type of pre-employment test used to assess and objectively measure a candidate’s cognitive ability – or General Mental Ability (GMA) – which generally refers to the capacity to mentally process, comprehend, and manipulate information. For example, solving complex problems, reasoning analytically, or adapting to changing circumstances. 

A cognitive ability test looks forward and focuses on assessing a candidate’s potential by evaluating their abilities and how they apply them in relevant job scenarios.

Why would you use a cognitive abilities test?

There are three main ways in which cognitive ability tests for employment can boost your recruitment process: (1) they are better predictors of future job performance; (2) they enable you to conduct a more objective and fair selection process; and they can measure learning ability.

1. Cognitive ability tests are better predictors of future job performance​

These types of tests focus on measuring someone’s General Cognitive Ability also known as general mental ability (GMA), which is the most important trait determinant of job performance. Cognitive ability is a lot more predictive of someone’s future job performance, as it has a correlation of .65 with job performance, which is a much stronger correlation than work experience and education. 

2. Cognitive ability tests enable you to conduct a more objective and fair selection process

Cognitive ability assessments allow you to objectively focus on someone’s true abilities instead of assumptions based on someone’s CV. 

Humans often stereotype and generalize to simplify the world. In CV screening, a top-notch education and key certificates impress recruiters, while lacking certain attributes can make candidates seem unfit for the job.

Mari Järvinen –  Organisational psychologist, founder of Profounder

3. Cognitive ability tests can measure learning ability

We are in a constantly changing labour market. According to the World Economic Form, in 2025 85 million jobs have disappeared that we still had in 2020. In contrast to that, 97 million new jobs will arise. This means it will be impossible to screen candidates based on previous experiences, while learning ability will get more and more important.

What is the difference between a cognitive ability test and an IQ test?

While both concepts centre around general mental ability (GMA), they vary in their evaluation methods. Cognitive ability tests evaluate an individual’s learning potential, problem-solving capabilities, and decision-making skills, which are essential for diverse roles. These assessments are widely utilised in talent acquisition and personal development to measure whether candidates have the skills necessary for specific job roles.

On the other hand, IQ represents a person’s cognitive abilities as compared to others through numerical scores obtained from standardized tests. Traditionally, these scores are employed to assess an individual’s overall intelligence and serve as a benchmark for comparison.

Different types of cognitive ability tests in recruitment

Traditional Cognitive Ability tests

The most traditional cognitive ability assessment includes tests such as numerical reasoning, logical reasoning, learning agility, etc. A well-known example of a logical reasoning test is the Figure Series test. 

Downsides of traditional Cognitive Ability tests

Some major downsides that come with a traditional cognitive ability test include:

  • Trainable: Research has shown that traditional cognitive test results are affected by the so-called Practice Effect: Practising cognitive tests improves test results, while it is important to measure innate traits (source).
  • Stressful and high drop-off rates due to their length (often 45-90 minutes)
  • Culturally biased: these traditional tests are text-heavy and words can be differently interpreted by different cultures. 

New and innovative Cognitive Ability tests

Another, more innovative, type of cognitive ability test is a game-based cognitive ability assessment that uses game elements to measure a candidate’s problem-solving, learning ability, etc., in an immersive environment where they show their true abilities.

This innovative format is based on and validated through the same science, while simultaneously solving the weaknesses of traditional formats:

  • Game-based assessments don’t purely assess on outcomes, instead they take all actions of the candidate in consideration. Thereby, they become untrainable and way less likely to be influenced by the Practice Effect.
  • They are more immersive, meaning that they make a candidate forget that they are assessed. This reduces stress and anxiety, resulting in a much better Candidate Experience.
  • No room for (cultural) bias as game-based cognitive ability tests do not include a lot of text and are focused on the application of game technology elements to measure traits.


Curious about how you’d do in a cognitive ability test? Click here to try a game-based assessment yourself!

How to start using cognitive ability tests in recruitment?

1. Choose the right cognitive ability test that fits your hiring needs.

Your choice of a cognitive ability test highly depends on your hiring needs. Here are 7 factors to consider when choosing a pre-employment test. 

2. Create an internal benchmark to identify the needed cognitive skills 

By assessing the current team first, you will get a clear overview of the current representation of your team – so for example, if your high performers consist of highly flexible people only, or not. This will help you determine what to look for in the next hire. 

Exercise: How to identify which competencies are crucial for success in your next hire

3. Incorporate the cognitive abilities test in the application process

Once you decide on screening criteria, adjust your job descriptions and incorporate the cognitive ability test for candidates when applying. Starting the hiring process with this assessment is recommended, as it promotes inclusivity by focusing solely on candidates’ competencies. This provides a more objective, data-driven screening method compared to the subjective nature of CV screening.

4. Interview the best-fit candidates.

Filter the best-fit candidates by comparing their scores to your internal benchmark. This ensures you spend your time wisely by inviting those with the highest potential for the interview round. To minimize the influence of biases, ask all candidates the same structured interview questions to assess the required competencies or serve as in-depth questions based on previous assessment results. 

Listen to our ‘Oops I’m Biased’ podcast episode with Zanina Katiro, Senior Recruiter at Miro, to learn about creating an inclusive interview process. 

5. Make a final decision based on the data that you have gathered.

Ultimately, select the most suitable candidate based on the data you have gathered, not gut feeling or personal connection. Using objective data in the hiring process enables you to make data-driven decisions and justify them to your team.

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