Should You Expect a Skill Test During a Job Interview?

Humorous math skills test.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!

Cover of "6 Readiness Factors for Planning, Changing, or Advancing Your Career."Be sure to check out my book The 6 Readiness Factors for Planning, Changing, or Advancing Your Career available from Barnes and Noble and Amazon.

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 provided a laptop (with no internet access) loaded with Excel.  Next, I was handed 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 this 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 claimed it was simply testing applicants to see if they had the strength required to safely perform a normal 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?


Assuming you are competent in the requisite skills, a test may actually help you. It can enable your abilities to stand out compared to other lesser-skilled applicants who may be nothing more than slick talkers. A test may also provide solid insight into which specific skills an employer feels are important for such a job.  Even if you don’t land this opening, the knowledge better prepares you for future interviews for similar positions.

If you REALLY feel qualified for the position and meet the stated KSAs, 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!

NOTE: Be sure to check out the update to this article at Skills Tests Update along with the podcast Skill Tests and Assessments.

Agree? Disagree? Share your experience or thoughts? Feel free to leave a comment!

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