When you think about psychological assessment or testing, what comes to mind? Some of us might picture the famous Rorschach Inkblot Test. Others may remember taking intelligence tests with the school psychologist as children. Many might picture a situation that feels mysterious and maybe a little scary. So, if you are considering these services, it makes sense to have some questions about understanding psychological assessment.

Although psychological testing might sound intimidating, it’s important to know that modern measures are designed to help you and your therapist better understand how to help you. A big part of understanding psychological assessment is just knowing that these services are meant to give you and your treatment team more information so that they can tailor a treatment plan that fits your needs, just like a blood test at the doctor’s office.

The type of assessment your therapist suggests depends on your diagnostic history and your goals for therapy. There is no “one-size-fits-all” battery of psychological assessments. Some questionnaires might be done quickly with your therapist, and others might require a referral to a psychologist who specializes in a particular type of assessment. You might complete a couple of short surveys or several longer assessments in-person. For example, if you are coping with depression and anxiety your therapist might have you fill out some short questionnaires about your symptoms. These can be scored by your therapist very quickly and might help you both track your progress in therapy over time. Alternatively, perhaps you’re recovering from a concussion and you and your therapist are worried about memory loss and trouble focusing. In that case, your therapist may refer you to a specialized clinic. Here, a psychologist would do an in-person assessment designed to measure cognitive functioning. That psychologist would then write up a formal report with your results and her recommendations, discuss it with you, and share it with your therapist with your permission.  Sometimes the psychologist may also do a clinical interview, in which she speaks with you about your history and concerns. This can be a helpful way to clarify your diagnosis and put other assessments in context. Depending on your concern, your appointment may be only an hour or you may be asked to return several times to complete additional assessments. A full assessment can include all of the components listed above and more, depending on the questions you and your therapist have.

Understanding Psychological Assessment: How Does It Work?

It’s important to understand that there’s no way to “pass” or “fail” a psychological assessment, but they’re still scored in a way that is as objective as possible. Specifically, many psychological tests and assessments are norm-referenced. This means that, when the measure was being developed, thousands of people took the test and their results were recorded. These results create a bell-curve (insert pic). Most people’s scores fall in the range where the curve is tallest. This is called a “normed average”. It can be given any value you want, as long as it represents the tallest point in the curve. For example, standard intelligence tests like the Weschler Adult Intelligence Scale are normed to have an average of 100. So if your IQ is 110, that means it is 10 points higher than the average score of the thousands of people who took the test when it was being developed. This is also the way projective tests, like the Rorschach Inkblot test, are scored. The same picture is shown to thousands of people and the images they see - butterfly, woman, motorcycle, etc. - are tallied. When you take the test, your psychologist scores your answers based on how different they are from what most people say. This means that the interpretation of the test isn’t based on one psychologist’s opinions, but instead on many years of data collection. Results from tests like this can help you and your therapist understands aspects of your personality and problems that you might not be aware of yet. Overall, norm-referencing means that you don’t have to worry about getting answers “right” or impressing the psychologist, you just have to answer and react as honestly as you can.

Understanding Psychological Assessment: How to Prepare

Lastly, if you’ve been referred for or are considering psychological assessment here are some quick tips to remember before, during, and after you meet with your psychologist:

  1. You can’t pass or fail a psychological assessment. Even though these measures can sometimes feel challenging, they are not like school or work. Parts of the assessment you have trouble with will give your psychologist more information about what might help you. They want to understand how your brain is working now, so there’s no need to “study” or stress-out about doing everything “right”.
  2. Don’t peek at the test ahead of time. This can be really tempting, especially because it’s possible to find some versions of commonly used questionnaires online! However, doing this usually backfires. If you try to fill out the test in a certain way, your answers might come out inconsistent or wonky, which can actually make you look like you have more problems than you actually do! The more honest you are, the more likely it is that the results of the test will be genuinely helpful to you.
  3. Know your rights. Your psychologist should explain the purpose of each test or assessment to you in a way you can understand. He should also give you feedback within a couple weeks of your visit, either over the phone or in person, and provide a chance for you to ask questions. If you request that his report be forwarded directly to your therapist, it’s important to know that you are able to request a copy of that report at any time.

Remember, psychological assessment is a powerful, evidence-based way for you and your treatment team to learn more about what might be helpful for you. If you’d like to talk with a therapist about whether additional assessment is right for you please click the link on this page to schedule an appointment.