Designing interview tests

A good recruitment process will help ensure you employ and retain suitable staff with the required skills.  A poor recruitment process could lead to the opposite situation, with performance/capability issues, high staff turnover, increased recruitment costs (in both time and money) and lower morale in the existing workforce.

Therefore, it pays to prepare your recruitment process well, starting with the job description and selection criteria.

Candidates must be assessed against the selection criteria on the application form, at the interview or by using exercises or tests in tandem with the interview.

Here are some examples of the types of tests you can use:

  • Presentation
  • In-tray/inbox exercise
  • Role exercise
  • Case study (sometimes referred to a critical incident reviewing)

Some employers also use psychometric testing and/or personality questionnaires, but I am not going to discuss these here for the following reasons:

  • They can be expensive, and few libraries use them
  • Tests need to be administered by trained staff, and the results interpreted by people who thoroughly understand what they do – and don’t – mean: again, this cost means they are little used in our sector
  • I don’t believe that psychometric/personality tests give evidence about a candidate’s ability to do the job that cannot be elucidated from a good selection process

So I will return to the list of good examples of tests you can use.  For the best results, plan your interview questions and test(s) in combination, so you can ensure you have covered all the selection criteria without unnecessary repetition (you’ll soon realise if you’ve doubled up, as you will feel bored of asking the same questions to each candidate after the second or third interview!).  For example, if you’ve asked the candidates to tell you about their experience of working in a customer service environment in their covering letter or application form, don’t ask them exactly the same question at interview.  Modify the enquiry or give them an example situation to respond to instead, and you will learn more about their skills and experience.


  • Decide whether you are assessing each candidate’s presentation skills, the content of their presentation, or both
  • Consider the type of skills their job will require and set a topic for their presentation that is relevant
  • Allow adequate preparation time – let the candidates know that they will have to give a presentation when you invite them for interview, and always provide details of the equipment that will be available to them on the day (including software and version)

In-tray/inbox exercise

  • This is an example of a time management task, in which you give each candidate a scenario in which they have just arrived for work and have the following tasks to do (for example): an unopened letter, 10 unread emails, a telephone message, a meeting to attend and a person waiting at their desk to speak to them
  • The candidate has to decide how to prioritise the tasks and explain the decisions they made
  • This is a great example of a scenario that doesn’t have one correct answer, but has a lot of potential pitfalls
  • The most important part is the candidate’s explanation for what they would do and how.  It will reveal how they prioritise and can tell you a lot about their people skills, flexibility and ability to work under pressure, so be sure to give them plenty of time to explain their rationale to you
  • Ensure that the examples relate to a typical day’s work in the role
  • The task can be set as a written exercise, but don’t forget the discussion part
  • Think about how you will assess/score the responses.  You could give each candidate 20 points to begin with and deduct marks for ‘mistakes’

Role exercise

  • These are particularly useful if the job involves practical skills, such as boxmaking, conservation work, or a lot of lifting and carrying
  • Role exercises allow you to test for the ability to carry out a typical task they would encounter in the job
  • Again, consider carefully your objectives (what you are trying to measure) and scoring

Examples include:

  • manual handing  – e.g. invite the candidate to lift a box of books and ask them if they would be happy to do this many times a day. They may say no and withdraw from the recruitment process, which saves you interviewing someone who has decided the job is not for them
  • word processing or spreadsheet task – so many people claim “I have good IT skills” in their application, and this is a great way to see if they really do! It’s also good for testing if they can follow instructions
  • telephone skills – do they answer the call politely? Do they offer to take a message, and do they note all the key information?
  • finance test – similar to a spreadsheets test, but specifically using financial skills such as calculating VAT or exchange rates
  • dexterity test – e.g. covering/labelling a book, paper conservation or preservation work
  • drafting a response to an email – a good opportunity to test their written communication skills; spelling, punctuation and grammar; and attention to detail
  • write a press release – tests ability to use information provided in a new form, and ability to write for a particular audience
  • shelving test – I’m sure I’m not the only person to have seen candidates for shelving jobs who perform well at interview but can’t put books in alpha order

Case study

  • This type of test is more relevant to senior posts with greater responsibility
  • An example of a case study test would be to give each candidate some information about a crisis that could happen in the library (e.g. flood, fire, electrical failure, moth infestation – ‘crisis’ doesn’t need to be life-threatening), give them time to think and make notes, then  ask them to explain what they would do, the resources and people they would deploy etc
  • A case study test is useful for assessing their knowledge of particular subject area or their approach to handling situations
  • Like the in-tray/inbox exercise, the most valuable part of this exercise is hearing the candidate’s explanation of their actions and justification for decisions they would make, so allow they plenty of time to talk

Things to consider for all types of test

  • Is the test appropriate/relevant?
  • Candidates should be informed in advance of what they will be expected to do on the day of interview, and let them know if they are expected to prepare anything in advance
  • Choose a suitable location for the test – perhaps a quiet and uninterrupted environment, or maybe in a busy open-plan area if that’s where they will be working if they get the job
  • Test results should be taken into consideration after the interview, so the interview remains the most important part of the process, but think again about someone who performs well at interview and poorly on the test
  • Scoring and weighting – decide this in advance.  A scoring system can be simple (yes/no, pass/fail) or marked (positively, with points awarded for good performance, or negatively, e.g. starting with 20 points and making deductions for mistakes as mentioned above)
  • Consider equal opportunities and make sure activities are accessible or can be modified to allow participation by all candidates

May your well-planned recruitment yield a candidate and a role that were meant for each other!

What types of interview tests have you taken part in or designed?  Let me know in the comments.

For more posts in this series, click the “Recruitment” tag below.


Top tips for getting things done

  1. Five Minute Rule: if a task will take you five minutes or less to do, do it straight away.
  2. As well as using a calendar to record meetings, use it to block in time for doing particular tasks.  This will help you estimate how much of the rest of the day you have free, and help you avoid scheduling meetings at points when you have a lot of other projects to work on.  If you share your calendar with colleagues, you can mark these blocks of time as ‘Private’ so that only you can read the details of your appointment.
  3. Do your most difficult tasks at the time of day when you are most alert – for me, this is mornings.  I save more routine jobs for the afternoons when I am feeling less energetic.
  4. Spend the last 15 minutes of your day preparing to hit the ground running tomorrow morning.  I like to ensure my desk is tidy and my tasks for tomorrow are planned so that I know where to begin when I arrive in the morning.

Use tools to remember things so you don’t have to:

  1. Create folders for your sent emails: mine are called ‘Awaiting Reply’ and ‘Finished’.  Most emails I send are moved to the ‘Finished’ folder, but if I need to make sure the message is followed up, I put it in ‘Awaiting Reply’.  A few times a week, I check over what’s in the ‘Awaiting Reply’ folder and either move it to ‘Finished’ or chase up the person if they haven’t yet replied.
  2. Use a to-do list such as Tasks in MS Outlook.  Give each task a due date.  If the due date comes and there are more urgent things to do, bump the task to another future date but add to the notes field that you’ve done so.  When it comes around again, either (a) do it! or (b) move it to your ‘Dream list of non-urgent things to do when I have more time/money/staff’ or (c) if it really doesn’t need to be done, delete it.

Wrangle your email:

  1. Use rules to automatically move emails (especially from distribution lists) into folders.  Catch up on that folder once a few messages have accumulated – they are unlikely to be urgent.
  2. Aim for Inbox Zero: having read each message in your inbox, decide if it needs (a) just to be read, (b) a reply or (c) a longer action – then (a) move it to a folder, (b) do it or (c) add it to your tasks list.

Most important of all, be prepared to change your plans when circumstances change.  Some days it’s not possible to get everything done, especially when other things crop up, as they always will.  Be kind to yourself if you fall short of your ideal organised self, and start fresh the next day.