The next time you apply for a job or a promotion, don’t be surprised if one of the tools you’ll need is a number-two pencil. More and more employers are using job role and skills testing as part of their candidate evaluations. Candidates who do well on the tests move to the top of the short list of applicants, so it’s important to be well prepared to take them. And if you’re not especially keen on tests, take heart: Companies conducting them are likely to be those you want to work for.

Why testing is a good sign
When the labor market was tight, as it was a few years ago, many companies skipped testing in the rush to get projects staffed. But now that the labor market is flooded with job seekers, companies must evaluate numerous candidates applying for too few positions. Testing helps employers distinguish between those who can do the job and those who just say they can.

Demonstrating your skills by passing a test may make you feel like you’re back in school again, but it could indicate that the company is serious about putting together the best team possible. That’s been the experience of Jim Kuthy, senior consultant for Biddle Consulting Group, a firm that develops and administers tests for computer skills. He suggests that a lack of testing may reflect a lack of commitment.

“Companies that don’t test are sending a message to prospective employees and current employees that the company doesn’t care about skills and quality of skills,” he said. He also pointed out that studies have shown that one reason people quit a job is that they don’t have the knowledge or ability to handle the job. So it’s better to find out before you accept a position that your qualifications are not in line with what the company wants or needs—and skills testing can help you determine this.

What kind of testing to expect
To measure a candidate’s skills, companies either create their own tests or turn to outside vendors for the tests and/or testing services. Most of the tests are written or computerized and involve multiple-choice or true/false questions. The format of such tests is much like that of the standardized tests used by colleges and IT certification programs.

Other tests are more interactive and involve real-life scenarios, such as tests where you are asked to use software or hardware to achieve a specific set of tasks. The tests can be simple, such as setting up a printer or document format in the most efficient way, or more advanced, such as troubleshooting a network failure or debugging program code.

Companies are also asking would-be employees to take other kinds of tests, such as intelligence, ethics, and personality exams. And even though you’re an IT professional, don’t wince if you’re asked to take a simple test to evaluate your basic PC skills—after all, not every IT guru is a whiz at using word processing software. Finally, you may be required to take a general literacy assessment to evaluate the quality of your written and verbal skills.

If you want to learn more about workplace testing, check out the U.S. Department of Labor’s detailed report “Tests and Other Assessments: Helping You Make Better Career Decisions.” It is available free on the department’s Web site.

Getting prepped
Although most of the tests that companies use to qualify job candidates are not available to individuals, you can find similar tests that will help you assess your skills before you apply for a job. Doing so will provide you with an objective look at your strengths and give you a chance to prepare, at least in part, for any tests you might have to take.

You can even offer your test results when you interview. The employer may waive part or all of the company’s tests if you scored well on a similar standardized test. Several online test vendors that offer tests to individuals, including Brainbench and TopCoder, offer IT tests, and some of them are free. For a list of more companies that offer workplace tests for individuals, visit America’s Career InfoNet Web site and click on the Testing and Assessment link.

Declining test requests
If you’re asked to take a test, but you think that a certification or degree you have should be sufficient proof of your abilities, you can request to be excused from the tests. However, you might be better off just taking them. You don’t want to give a prospective employer the impression that you’re going to be difficult to work with—especially at this early stage. If the notion of being required to take the tests really bothers you, perhaps you’d be better off just looking elsewhere for a job.

Some people avoid testing because they don’t do well on standardized tests. If that’s your situation, you should ask to take an oral or interactive project-based exam instead of, or in addition to, the standardized written test.

Asking for alternative testing methods is also a good idea if you have a learning disability that makes it difficult to take written tests. For more information about testing options when you have a disability, check the federal government’s site on the Americans with Disabilities Act.

Testing tips to keep in mind
You don’t have to be the top scorer in the group to get the job. Employers use the test results as just one part of their overall evaluation. You should ask the weight of the test scores to determine how much they tie into the candidate selection process. You can also ask whether you can retake a test if you felt your score could have been higher or if you had any problems the day a test was given.

If you take a test and decide that it was unfair or did not measure what it was supposed to measure, be sure to mention your concerns to the company. If you don’t get the job and feel that a faulty test (and your resultant low score) was partially to blame, you always have the option to speak with a labor law attorney who is familiar with the laws regarding workplace testing.