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  • Writer's pictureBen Kettle

Using Everyone Else's Misplacement of Cognitive Ability for Fun (and Profit!💰)

Updated: Jan 3, 2022

Measuring cognitive ability isn't wrong, but it's overrated as a candidate screener.

Which begs the question: how can you use their misjudgment to your benefit?

The vast majority of hiring managers initially screen candidates based upon cognitive ability proxies (things like G.P.A. and school attended), so there’s an opportunity for you to use a more productive screen.

What’s more productive? A work sample test. Work Sample Tests are the only hiring method that outperforms cognitive ability as a predictor of candidate success. This makes sense - the ability to do your job well is more important than any raw, intellectual horsepower because it considers other characteristics - traits like work ethic, professional ambition, and applied industry knowledge.

Another big advantage to emphasizing Work Sample Tests is that you open up your candidate pool to all those people who have been overlooked or undervalued. We’ve all worked with fantastic people who didn’t have the best grades, finish college, or were just poor test-takers. With the rising costs of college, increasing family obligations, and the heightened stress of college and grad school admissions, there are a lot of those people out there.

I’m not naive to the downsides of Work Sample Tests. They’re harder to conduct at scale, require more foresight and planning, and don’t measure a candidate’s potential as well as cognitive ability assessments. Like all things that are usually better, they’re harder to do too. We’ll talk more about Work Sample Test and how to integrate them into your process next week.

For now, challenge yourself and think about how you can measure someone’s ability to do the job you need before you look at the proxies of their intelligence. For example, maybe there’s something you can collect or ask during the application process?

In the meantime, cognitive ability is still important, so I put together some Do’s and Don’ts that can help you measure it correctly:

The Do’s and Don’ts of measuring a candidate’s cognitive ability


  • Base your first screen on a Work Sample Test, the best predictor of success, rather than General Cognitive Ability (GCA) assessments or proxies.

  • If you’re going to use G.P.A. or SAT/ACT to evaluate a candidate, understand the candidate’s context. Environment matters. Some candidates didn’t have the luxury of taking a college prep course, or maybe they had to work full-time during school or take care of a family member. The bottom line is that there are too many variables associated with these proxies to take them seriously.

  • If you’re going to use any GCA assessment, understand that there’s a risk of bias. It’s just a data point; it shouldn’t make or break any candidate.

  • Overindex on Test of Ability. Evaluating a candidate’s coachability and curiosity during the interview process, or having them walk through solving an unfamiliar problem, can be strong indicators of their ability to quickly learn and apply new concepts.


  • Unless you’re in a trade that requires explicit technical knowledge, don’t demand that a candidate graduate from a particular school, have a minimum G.P.A., or, in some cases, even have a four-year degree. Nine times out of ten hiring managers use those requirements to boost their egos. If you need to determine if they have strong technical skills, you can always give them a Work Sample Test.

  • Compromise on kindness and decency. There are plenty of brilliant people out there who are humble, collaborative, and fun. Life’s too short.



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