November 2016

A Search Committee Chair Asks:  Would you tell us about your policy on, or experience with, the use of psychological tests in the screening process?

Psychological tests, or personality inventories as they are sometimes called, are among the inputs search committees are increasingly using to narrow the pool of potential candidates. But the use of such instruments raises questions of validity and reliability – as well as a range of concerns on the part of the search committee and the individual candidates being assessed. In my early years of training as a psychologist, I administered countless psychological and personality tests in the private sector. I myself have reservations about the validity of existing tests for use in identifying leaders for the academy.  I guess I will continue to have reservations until such time as there is agreement on the unique set of skills that define a successful leader in higher education. 

A recent presidential search exemplifies some of the other concerns raised by testing. The search committee opted to use psychological tests to assess the leadership potential of the finalists –but not without significant division among committee members. Some of their questions were: 

  • Will you provide test options, or assist us in the selection of an instrument?
  • Where can we turn to identify appropriate instruments?
  • When in the process should candidates be informed about the use of tests and when should they be required to take the tests?
  • What can we expect in terms of additional costs in the administration of the tests and analysis of results?
  • What are the ethical and legal responsibilities borne by the institution in the use of these tests?

More importantly, we must realize that for some people, these tests produce varying degrees of stress and anxiety, perceiving that very personal aspects of one's identity and personality will be exposed and made public.  And no matter how much one tries to allay such feelings or beliefs, some candidates will take the tests willingly, others will do so while under stress, and a few may decide to withdraw from a search rather than undergo testing. In this search, the decision to test the finalists was made after they had been selected.  If the decision had been made earlier, and all applicants were aware at the time of submission of materials that such testing would be included in the process, I am certain many would have asked the following questions:

  • How and by whom will the test be administered and who will have access to the results?
  • If I am not selected, what will happen to the test results or, if I am selected, how will the results be used?
  • Will I be given the results and will someone explain the results to me?
  • Where and how long will the results be kept?

Of the three finalists in the above search, one had experience with such tests in the past, and earlier in his career had been involved in test development. The second had not experienced such tests, did not want to be tested, and considered withdrawing, but was convinced finally to proceed.  The third finalist simply agreed.

As the use of psychological and personality inventories increases, one can imagine that more questions about these tests will emerge – but that more answers will as well. In any case, we need the best possible approaches to identifying potential leaders.