Should You Expect a Skill Test During a Job Interview?

A trig math problem with instructions to find x. The student mere circles the x on the diagram and writes: "Found it! Here it is."Spoiler alert!  Some people are less than truthful about their skill level on job applications and during interviews!  Gasp! Really?

Even if they don’t deliberately fib, at a minimum, applicants often tend to overrate their true skill levels.  After all, who doesn’t want to sound like a great candidate?  So, when the interviewer asks if you are proficient at a particular job skill, for example, such as using complex pivot tables in Microsoft Excel, it is real easy to just smile and say “yes.”  Even if you don’t really know what a “pivot table” is.  But hey, you’ve probably used Excel, at least a little. How hard can it be? However, if asked to prove it – right then and there – would you be ready?

The one pre-employment test most job applicants do expect is a drug test.  According to the Society for Human Resource Management (SHRM), over 80% of employers surveyed now require such tests.  So, no surprise there.  But testing for skills?  Having to show proof of a skill during a job interview catches many applicants off guard, even when the job posting specifically lists the skill as a requirement!

As you know, the cost to recruit, hire, onboard, and train an employee is very high.  If an employer has to let a person go because he or she can’t do the job and then repeat the process all over again, the cost more than doubles.  The organization loses valuable time.  An applicant who simply talks a good line about their skills cannot fool a smart interviewer twice.  Next time, the interviewer will want proof!  Can you blame them?

Pre-Employment Skill Tests

Some skill tests have been around almost forever and are no-brainers.  Applying for a clerical or data entry position?  No big surprise if a typing test is required!  In fact, you likely expect it.

Sometimes, though, skill tests come as a total surprise.  I interviewed once for a position in which the job posting required “data analysis skills and proficiency with Microsoft Excel.”  When the usual Q&A part of the interview was finished, the interviewer told me I would next be performing a little exercise.  Say what?  The interviewer then took me to a conference room and gave me a laptop loaded with Excel.  Next, the person handed me a sheet of data to analyze, along with a list of questions and a thumb drive.  Finally, the interviewer gave instructions to answer the questions within one hour and place the resulting spreadsheets onto the thumb drive. Didn’t see that one coming!  Fortunately, I guess I did fine because I got the job.

Sometime later, I learned that several of the applicants – all who claimed to be skilled with Excel – were unable to complete any part of the test.  They didn’t know how to use Excel.  At all.  Clearly, this was another case of less than truthful job applicants.  Since this had happened to them in the past, the interviewers thereafter always tested for Excel skills.

Wait a Minute – Are Skill Tests Legal?

I’m not an attorney, so I cannot give legal counsel.  However, the U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC) website contains a wealth of information on this subject.  According to information found there, in general, among other requirements, a pre-employment test must:

  • Be clearly job-related
  • Be necessary to the position
  • Not have a disproportionately negative effect on applicants of certain classes protected by law

Consider a problematic skill test discussed by the EEOC in a 2005 press release.  This case involved the use of a pre-employment “strength test” by a meat packing company to screen job applicants.  The employer argued the test was necessary to reduce on-the-job injuries.  As part of their job, workers in the plant had to routinely lift 35-pound products up to a height of about 65 inches.   The employer was simply testing applicants to see if they had the strength required to safely perform such a job-related task. Seems reasonable, right?

Unfortunately, the particular test used was found to have a disparate impact against women and therefore illegal under Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964.  Interestingly, the court determined the pre-employment strength test used was more difficult than the actual job itself!  Not just that, it seems the test was intentionally used to discriminate against women.  Due to these factors, an award of approximately $3.3 million to 52 rejected female job applicants was later upheld by a federal appeals court. Ouch!

The flip side of this issue, however, is that as long as skill tests do not violate applicable laws, it appears employers are free to use them – and many do.

Will I be Tested?

On its website, the Criteria Corp, a provider of web-based pre-employment testing services, cites a survey from the American Management Association (AMA) which found that 70% of responding employers use some sort of job skill testing.  The odds seem to suggest you very well might have to take a skill test during your next job interview!

The first way to find out is also the most obvious.  Check the job posting and employer’s job website to see if they state anything about a skill test.  While some employers may disclose this up front, many do not.  You can also ask about it when contacted to schedule an interview, but this might be awkward. After all, you certainly do not want to give the impression you might fear having to demonstrate your skills!  But, if you can ask comfortably, you could get a valuable heads-up.

If you still don’t know, carefully check the job description or posting for other clues.  If properly written, these documents will state the Minimum Entrance Requirements (MERs) for the position, also often known as Knowledge, Skills, and Abilities (KSAs).  Look for the mention of specifically-required KSAs such as proficiency with Microsoft Office, ability to use certain equipment and tools, math skills, writing abilities, etc.  Does the posting list such KSAs? If so, the employer might test for them during the interview.  After all, by applying, you are claiming to have such talents, right?


A test may actually help you by providing solid insight into which specific skills an employer feels are important for such a job.  Even if you don’t land this opening, such knowledge better prepares you for future interviews for similar positions.

If you REALLY feel qualified for the position and meet the stated MERs, then don’t worry too much about a skill test.  You probably already know the material.   Sure, maybe brush up in advance on areas where you feel a bit weak, but don’t let it panic you.  Unlike some of the other candidates, you have an edge mentally because you anticipate the possibility of a test.  The interviewers won’t catch you off guard! This is your chance to show ‘em what you’ve got!


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New Year, Think Career!

List of typical, but not usually kept, New Year's resolutions.Happy New Year!  Now is the time when people make their New Year’s resolutions, usually with the best of intentions.  How did last year’s resolution go?  Did you make it to the gym as faithfully as you told yourself you would?  Lose that weight?  If you’re like most people, probably not.

This year, consider a resolution which could really change your life.  How about a resolution to make this the year when you do something to change or advance your career?

Are you happy with your current job or employer?  If not, you’re not alone.  According to a 2016 research report by the Society for Human Resource Management (SHRM), “Forty-five percent of employees reported that they would be likely or very likely to look for other jobs outside their current organization within the next year.”   This seems to be true even though many studies suggest overall job satisfaction has trended upward in the past few years.

Is your career advancing as well as you would like?  Not really?  The same SHRM report cited above found that “The fewest employees were satisfied with career advancement opportunities within the organization (57%).”  Viewed another way, this means 43% were not satisfied with career advancement opportunities!  Are you one of these people?  Like them, maybe you feel stuck in your current job situation.

So, Now What?

Like other major aspects of your life, deciding to change something regarding your career is no small matter.  Really following through on that decision may not be easy.  But, one thing is for sure: do nothing and nothing will change.  Consider the following:

In the end, nobody really cares about or is responsible for your career except you.

Wow, that really sounds cold and grim!  Is that how the world should work?  Ideally no, but think about it.  As I have said elsewhere here on Career Lantern, others can help, offer support, mentor, or whatever, but in the end, it is YOU that has to do the heavy lifting.

Don’t try and blame someone or something else if your career isn’t where it should be.  Maybe you do have a crappy boss or employer, attended a lousy high school, have issues with your parents, spouse, or ex-spouse, were handed some bad breaks, or whatever.  Perhaps some of those factors really did contribute to your current situation.  While you can’t change the past, you CAN change the future.  Don’t let yesterday’s setbacks become excuses for inaction today or cause you to remain stuck in a bad place in life.  Even if someone or something else really did help throw you into a hole, you’re the one who has to now find a way to climb out.  Accept that fact and move on.

Take Action

Step one is to make a real decision to do actually something about your career.  Believe it or not, this is the hardest part.  Sure, you can say you want to make a change, but truly committing to act and take on the challenge?  That’s hard!  Yeah, you’ll have to put some other things on hold and disrupt your current routine.  It will take time. But won’t it be worth it in the end?

Next, take inventory of any barriers which stand between you and the career you want.  Maybe it’s a college degree you need to finish up.  Perhaps you need certain new skills, training or experience which you currently lack.  Is there a particular certification or license which you need to obtain in order to advance in your field?  In some cases, removing barriers might require changing jobs or even your career field altogether.

No doubt, these barriers probably look too big, even overwhelming.  After all, if it were easy, you’d have done this a long time ago, right?  Think about the old but true saying: How do you eat an elephant?  A bite at a time.

Finally, develop a plan to overcome those barriers.  How does a project manager build a 100-story skyscraper?  With a plan.  Step by step.  Breaking down a huge, seemingly impossible task into smaller and manageable pieces makes the challenge become possible.

You Can Do This!

One way to change your career in a logical and organized manner is to use an Individual Development Plan (IDP).  There are literally hundreds of such IDPs readily available on the internet and we also have one here on Career Lantern.

Think of an IDP like this.  To avoid getting lost when traveling someplace new and unfamiliar, you probably use Google Maps, a navigation app on your phone, or a similar tool.  The same approach applies here.  A carefully thought-out IDP can serve as your navigation guide and keep you from wasting time or getting lost along the way.

It’s a new year.  Isn’t this the year to make a resolution about your career?



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Featured image courtesy of U.S. Navy – flickr