Over the past few years, there has been a big increase in the use of situational judgement tests (SJTs) as a tool for selecting candidates for jobs.
What are situational judgement tests?
They are generally multiple choice tests, where you are given a scenario and asked to choose what you would do in that situation. You may be asked to choose just one answer, or to rate the answers according to what you would be most and least likely to do. Like most tests, they’re now commonly done online, but unlike verbal and numerical reasoning tests, they are often not timed.
However, a specific variant which is normally timed is the e-tray exercise, which tests not only situational judgement, but also time management, ability to absorb information quickly, to prioritise and to take decisions often on limited information.
An e-tray exercise simulates an email inbox where you have to make decisions based on the content of the emails which arrive in your inbox. These may be presented as multiple choice, or may require longer written answers – or a combination of both. The e-tray is a core part of the UK Civil Service Fast Stream selection.
Who uses situational judgement tests?
Traditionally, the scenarios have related to the job and organisation for which you have applied. This allows the recruiter to assess your reactions to a situation they have had to tackle in real life, where they know what worked and what didn’t. It takes a lot of time and money to develop these bespoke tests, which is why they used to be common only in large scale recruitment exercises, such as the Civil Service Fast Stream, or selecting candidates for medical school.
However, it looks like more large recruiters are now prepared to invest in this form of selection. In addition, test companies are now offering off-the-shelf tests to employers, based on general “graduate-level” scenarios, so they’re now becoming increasingly common.
How can you prepare for a situational judgement test?
The long term view:
The best preparation is to have some familiarity with the kind of workplace you want to enter. That’s why it’s so invaluable to get some work experience, even at a different level, with the sort of employer who interests you.
- Reflect on how people acted round about (and above) you.
- What sort of behaviour was seen as acceptable?
- How did the people who “got on” in the organisation operate?
- What was the impact of actions taken by managers, including the impact further down the organisation?
- Why were they taking these actions, even if they weren’t popular with other staff?
- What were the differing interests they were having to balance – what judgements were they having to make?
If you haven’t worked in exactly the kind of workplace you’re hoping to enter, don’t panic. Many organisations have to deal with very similar issues requiring similar judgements, so any work experience in a broadly similar environment (office, laboratory, industry etc) may help.
“But I’ve got to sit one of these tests next week!”
At this stage, as usual, part of the answer is “practise”. At the very least, this familiarises you with the format of the tests. As most of these tests are now online, it also lets you check that your preferred mode of accessing the internet lets you complete the test (will it work with your browser, do you need to enable pop-ups, does it need Flash player etc?). I’ve included links to a range of online situational judgement tests below, plus some more extensive lists collated elsewhere on the web.
There’s a trickier problem though: what if you can guess “the right answer” but know full well that it’s not really what you would do?
For example, a scenario might ask whether you would tackle someone directly if you knew they were doing something wrong. You can probably guess that “I’d ignore the problem” isn’t a good option – but it may be exactly what you know you’d do in reality. I think you’ve got a number of choices:
- Answer honestly and risk being filtered out at an early stage.
- Give a more obvious “right answer” and increase your chances of getting through that part of the assessment process.
- Start to think more seriously if this job is really for you.
I think the last option demands serious consideration. If you bluff your way into the job, are you setting yourself up to fail?
It might be worth gambling on choosing a “right answer” if you feel you could learn to do this pretty quickly (even if you’d struggle at the moment). However, if it’s something you really disagree with, or you know it would take you a long time to learn to act in “the right way”, wouldn’t you be better putting your energy into finding a job which is a better fit, rather than risk being sacked for underperforming?
Why are situational judgement tests used?
The best constructed tests should relate to good performance in the job the employer is trying to fill. Asking what you would do at least identifies those who know what they should do, to be successful. Of course, whether you would actually do what you say could be a very different matter.
They are also, frankly, another way of filtering a large number of applications at relatively low cost (particularly if an employer buys an off-the-shelf test). It is claimed that well-constructed tests are objective and neutral with regard to gender/ethnicity/age etc, so a fairer filter than more subjective interviews. One company providing the tests recommends that the more generic graduate tests should be used at an early stage in assessment, aiming “to sift out the weakest candidates, rather than to choose the very best ones.”
It would be unusual for a recruiter to use a situational judgement test as the only form of assessment. You might still have to go through verbal and numerical reasoning tests, phone interviews and full assessment centres.
Where can I find example situational judgement tests?
- UK Civil Service Fast Stream, e-tray exercise – a very detailed example test with full instructions, a tutorial, and timed and untimed exercises to go through. If you plan on applying to the Civil Service, you’d be daft not to have a go at this first!
- Assessment Day practice aptitude tests: Situational Judgement Test – free (and paid for) example tests, and a good detailed explanation of the different forms of these tests, how and why they’re used.
- Assessment Day practice eTray test (as above)
- European Personnel Selection Office (EU) sample tests – the scary part is that it says you take the situational judgement test in your second language.
- Mark Parkinson’s list of practice psychometric tests – a helpful list of links to online tests. It’s a pretty good source, but just check out the providers to make sure they’re delivering what you really want (I spotted that a link focussed on Civil Service recruitment, with a “.co.uk” address and a union flag in the corner of the website, seemed to have all Canadian links and contacts…)
- For other tests and links, see our own assessment centre pages on the Careers Service website.
Careers Consultant (Postgraduate) at the University of Manchester, UK