How Career Tests Work

Since the 1960s and 70s, the U.S. Armed Forces have used aptitude tests to help determine who's qualified to join and what jobs suit members best.

Whether you're in school and planning what to study, or an adult considering a career change, it can be difficult to decide what you want to do for a living. There are lots of competing factors: the job market, salary expectations and the possibility of relocation. Two factors -- the kind of job you'd enjoy and what type you'd be good at -- have been the subjects of numerous aptitude tests. You've probably already taken several of them.

These tests attempt to quantify a seemingly enormous topic -- your career goals -- with huge ramifications for the test subject. After all, your career can define a significant portion of your life, and career decisions impact the course of your life for decades. It makes sense, then, that these decisions wouldn't be made on a whim, but rather with some cold, hard data showing exactly what you are and aren't suited for; which jobs will keep you satisfied and fulfilled; and which ones will leave you bored and frustrated.


Sometimes, employers use career tests to help place employees in positions they would tend to excel in -- or even to weed out applicants unsuited for the company.

In this article, we're going to look at career tests, when you're likely to take one, and how the results are tabulated and used to determine your aptitude and interests.


Career Aptitude Test

A career aptitude test attempts to distill many aspects of a person's education and interests into a set of recommended career paths or specific job choices. There are many different aptitude tests and theories regarding how best perform these tests.

Some aptitude tests may resemble the standardized tests you took in school, like the Scholastic Aptitude Test (SAT). You're being tested to determine your strongest knowledge areas. If you struggle with math, the test administrators probably won't suggest jobs in accounting or engineering. If you struggle in English, then public relations may not be for you. There might also be more esoteric sections that examine your ability to grasp spatial relations or figure out logic puzzles. Each section is related to certain job characteristics, which the test administrators later use to decide what you might be good at.


A good example of an aptitude test many Americans take is the Armed Services Vocational Aptitude Battery (ASVAB). This test is given to anyone interested in joining the United States military. In addition to determining basic abilities in a number of areas, such as automotive information, general science and verbal expression, the military also composites these scores to determine a subject's aptitude in a number of military occupations. The Army's Field Artillery Military Occupational Specialty (MOS) score is a composite of the ASVAB's mathematics knowledge, mechanical comprehension, coding speed and arithmetic reasoning scores.

While some results might seem obvious (you probably already know if you're any good at math), some things surprise you. You might not know that you have a knack for mechanics and spatial relations -- and would have never considered a career as a prototype builder or machinist -- until you complete the test.

Next, we'll look at career personality tests.


Career Personality Test

You may not have considered a career as an architect or structural engineer, but a career test might reveal a latent talent for that type of job.

You can encounter career personality tests as separate entities or as parts of a larger aptitude test. These tests are less about specific knowledge areas and more about certain personal tendencies of yours as they relate to various jobs. They can seem vague at first, and often ask the same questions repeatedly in different ways (i.e., "Do you prefer to work on your own?" and "Given the choice, would you rather work with a large group setting or in your own private office?"). Sometimes the questions might not seem career-related at all, simply asking you about how you respond to certain situations.

These questions attempt to give employers an overview of your temperament and personality. Certain personality traits can make a person more or less likely to succeed at a particular job. For example, office workers typically have a very structured day, with scheduled meetings, deadlines, managers walking by to oversee their work and so on. An electrician, on the other hand, has a more freeform day, driving from job to job without direct supervision over the exact methods used on each task. A personality test might show that a person desires structure and lacks the discipline to excel without it -- thus, one could infer that he or she would be a better office worker than electrician.


Perhaps the most famous personality test which is often used or adapted for career tests is the Myers-Briggs Type Indicator. It has been refined and altered since its development during World War II, but the basics remain the same: A series of questions leads to the test taker being placed along four axes. They are extroversion/introversion, sensing/intuition, feeling/thinking and judgment/perception. The result is a four-letter code based on the end of each axis that suits the test taker's personality best.

In the next section, we'll assess the accuracy of career tests.


Career Test Accuracy

Career tests have their critics. One common complaint is that they're overly vague and don't offer any meaningful information about the subject being tested. In addition, the results are usually self-evident. Research has shown that the majority of students achieve their best grades in the classes in which they had the most interest [source: Athanasou]. It doesn't necessarily require a test for people to determine what they're good at and what they enjoy doing.

Another problem with career tests is that factors aside from aptitude and enjoyment play a huge role in people's career decisions. Occupational researchers have found that, when competing factors come into play, potential employees tend to throw personal interests out the window. Why? Higher salary, a better work environment, preferable co-workers or simple job security [source: Athanasou].


Anecdotally, this writer took several career tests while writing this article. Suggestions included agricultural engineer and account auditor, neither of which seem remotely accurate -- but may indicate strong mathematical and analytical aptitude.

Ultimately, career tests shouldn't be used to define a person or limit their choices. Instead, they can be used as helpful guides that get people to consider new options and alternative careers, or explore abilities they didn't know they had.


Lots More Information

Related Articles

  • Athanasou, James A. "The Intersection of Vocational Interests with Employment and Course Enrollments." Australian Journal of Career Development, Vol. 18, No.1; Autumn 2009.
  • "ASVAB Scored and Military Jobs." (Sept. 13, 2010),,ASVAB_MOS.html
  • Myers & Briggs Foundation. "Type Use in the Professions." (Sept. 13, 2010)