Cognitive Ability Test

Cognitive ability tests, such as the Wonderlic test, Revelian tests and Predictive Index tests, have become a crucial part of many companies’ recruitment processes. They are a form of psychometric test designed to measure intelligence through logic, reasoning and problem-solving exercises.

This article will provide a broad overview of what cognitive ability tests are, how they are structured and how to prepare for them.


  1. A Brief History of Cognitive Ability Tests
  2. How Do Cognitive Ability Tests Work?
  3. Why Do Employers Use Cognitive Ability Tests?
  4. Types of Cognitive Ability Test
  5. How to Prepare for a Cognitive Ability Test
  6. Test Day: Tips for Approaching the Test Itself
  7. Final Thoughts
  8. Further Reading

A Brief History of Cognitive Ability Tests

Cognitive ability tests began to develop at the end of the 19th century as a way to measure ‘general mental ability’. Initially such tests were highly inaccurate, leading to psychologists developing standardized methods of qualitatively scoring intelligence and comparing test results.

For example, psychologist William Stern coined the term ‘Intelligence Quotient’ in 1912, as a means of finding the difference between a child’s mental age and their chronological age.

In 1904, psychologist Charles Spearman recognized that individuals who demonstrated the ability to complete one task, such as identifying patterns, would also do well at other tasks, such as solving arithmetic problems. Spearman theorized that individuals possess a ‘general mental ability’ similar to intelligence. Thus, the concept of a test to assess cognitive ability began to develop.

Since the groundbreaking work of psychologists such as Spearman and Stern, cognitive ability tests have become common recruitment tools across multiple industries, from the military to sales and everything in between.

In the United States, around 43% of all companies now use psychometric tests like cognitive assessments to measure a job candidate’s suitability, and the figure is 70% for FTSE 100 companies.

It is therefore highly likely that you will be asked to take a cognitive ability test by a prospective employer.

How Do Cognitive Ability Tests Work?

The classic cognitive ability test uses the following types of questions:

  • Numerical reasoning questions test your ability to understand, analyze and apply numerical and statistical data. You'll need to calculate percentages, fill out missing numerical data or work out the next number in a series.

  • Verbal reasoning questions test your ability to understand written information and use critical analysis. Classic questions will require you to read a passage then state whether statements about the passage are ‘true’, ‘false’ or ‘cannot say’.

  • Abstract reasoning questions test your ability to work with abstract ideas and concepts. Questions often include visual diagrams, which you must use to identify missing information or complete a sequence.

  • Spatial awareness questions test your ability to work with patterns and shapes. Common questions include mentally rearranging shapes to make new ones, or visualizing patterns and images when they are rotated or flipped.

  • Mechanical reasoning questions test your ability to use basic principles of mechanics, such as working with cogs, levers, springs and pulleys.

Most tests can be completed using a computer. Typically the test will be made up of multiple-choice questions of varying difficulty; the results will present an accurate profile of your intellectual capabilities.

Usually, cognitive ability tests will have a time limit for completion. Some will require you to complete all the questions; others will ask that you complete as many questions as possible in the time allowed.

You should always familiarize yourself with how your particular test will be timed during your preparation. Be aware that the length of time it takes you to complete the test may be taken into account in your results.

Why Do Employers Use Cognitive Ability Tests?

Psychologists tout cognitive ability tests as being an excellent predictor of a prospective employee’s future performance at work. The tests measure abilities such as:

  • Comprehending concepts
  • Abstract thinking
  • Problem-solving
  • Planning and organization
  • Learning quickly from experience
  • Adapting to unknown situations
  • Applying new knowledge

Demonstrating a high cognitive ability indicates that a candidate is good at adapting to new work environments, making intelligent decisions and learning new skills quickly – essential skills for excelling at a new job.

Candidates with higher test scores tend to be more productive and require less training than their lower-scoring counterparts. This can equate to significant financial benefits for the employer.

For these reasons, cognitive ability tests are a crucial and sometimes deciding factor in many employers' recruitment processes.

Types of Cognitive Ability Test

Employers source their cognitive ability tests from a variety of test providers depending on their individual needs. Here are some of the test providers and the companies which use them:

Wonderlic Test

The Wonderlic test assesses job candidates' aptitudes using a mixture of logic and puzzle recognition, fact recognition, word problems and verbal reasoning questions.

There are two versions of the test:

  • The Wonderlic Personnel Test: 50 multiple-choice questions with a time limit of 12 minutes.

  • The Wonderlic Personnel Test – QuickTest: 30 multiple-choice questions with a time limit of 8 minutes.

Some companies known to use Wonderlic are:

  • MENSA International
  • ThoughtWorks
  • Gulf Coast Commercial Group
  • Apple Chevrolet

Predictive Index Test

The Predictive Index Cognitive Assessment tests skills such as verbal reasoning, numerical reasoning and pattern recognition. It comprises 50 questions to be answered in 12 minutes.

Companies that use Predictive Index tests include:

  • IKEA
  • Chevron
  • Microsoft
  • Dell

SHL Tests

SHL is one of the leading providers of employment aptitude tests. Each SHL test is designed to assess one particular competency.

The test is usually conducted in two stages. First, the candidate completes the test online. Then, if the candidate is invited to an assessment day, they will be asked to complete another shorter version of the test to verify their answers.

Types of SHL test include:

  • Verbal Reasoning Test – 30 questions to be answered in 19 minutes, or 18 questions in 11 minutes, at an assessment day.

  • Numerical Reasoning Test – 18 questions to be answered in 25 minutes, or 10 questions in 15 minutes, at an assessment day.

  • Inductive Reasoning Test – 24 questions in 25 minutes; designed to evaluate your logic skills.

  • Deductive Reasoning Test – 20 questions to be completed in 18 minutes. Requires you to use logic to come to conclusions, identify errors in information, and evaluate arguments.

Companies that use SHL tests include:

  • Philip Morris
  • Gannett Company
  • Ford Motor
  • Microsoft

Revelian Tests

Revelian tests are taken by over 200,000 people worldwide and are the most popular psychometric test taken by graduate jobseekers in Australia.

Revelian has identified various characteristics typical of candidates with the cognitive ability required to succeed at work, and has developed aptitude tests in the following areas:

  • Cognitive ability
  • Verbal reasoning
  • Numerical reasoning
  • Abstract reasoning

Companies that use Revelian tests include:

  • Deloitte
  • BMW
  • Medina Hotels
  • Pepsico

How to Prepare for a Cognitive Ability Test

Many job candidates believe there's no benefit in preparing for cognitive ability tests. Some think their intelligence will speak for itself; others think that, since the questions are random and cannot be predicted, it's not possible to prepare.

In fact, you can (and should) prepare for cognitive ability tests by familiarizing yourself with:

  • The structure of the test.
  • The time frame in which you need to complete the test.
  • The types of questions that will come up.

The more familiar you are with the overall format of the test, the more time you can spend focusing on answering the questions during the time limit.

There are also countless cognitive ability sample questions and tests you can access online to prepare for the test. Although the questions won't be the same as on the real test, practicing similar styles of questions and timing yourself is the best way you can prepare.

If you’re looking for free cognitive test samples, here is a free numerical practice test sample and a free verbal reasoning test sample to get you started.

You can also find practice tests on sites such as Job Test Prep, AssessmentDay and Graduate Monkey.

As most practice tests aren’t timed, set yourself a timer of one minute per question to ensure your practice reflects true test conditions as closely as possible.

Test Day: Tips for Approaching the Test Itself

  • Get a full night’s sleep the night before your test and eat a good breakfast to ensure you are in top condition.

  • Drink plenty of water and don’t forget to take water to the test (if it’s being conducted under controlled conditions).

  • Work out the maximum time you can spend on each question (for example, one minute per question).

  • Take a stopwatch to time yourself and ensure you’re not spending too long on each question.

  • If you’re taking the test online, have a notepad or piece of scrap paper and a pen ready for the problems you can’t work out in your head.

  • Read every question twice and try not to answer too quickly. This is particularly important in verbal reasoning tests – look out for negatives, double-negatives or other modifying words, which could trip you up if you skim over them.

  • Don’t apply outside knowledge to the questions – all the information you need to work out the answer logically will be in the question.

Final Thoughts

Some final tips to bear in mind:

  • Ask prospective employers what cognitive ability tests they require as part of their application processes, so you can get a head start on preparation.

  • Practice, practice, practice. Replicate true test conditions by timing your tests.

  • Check whether you will be allowed to take notes during your test. If not, practice answering sample questions using just your memory and mental ability.

  • Don’t spend too long on each question, as this can affect your overall score.

Finally, try these helpful practice tests to help you get a feel for the real thing.

Further Reading

You may be interested in these other articles on WikiJob:

Psychometric Tests

Aptitude Tests

Mechanical Reasoning Tests

Spatial Awareness Tests

Wonderlic Test