How to Create Effective Programming Tests for Recruiting

coding test design

One crucial aspect of the recruitment process is designing coding tests that effectively assess programming skills. This allows for objective evaluation based on abilities rather than resumes, cutting costs and saving time along the way. 

In this article, we’ll focus on how to create programming tests for hiring software engineers, step-by-step. The goal is to help you revise and improve your recruiting process by building a solid question library while using evaluation best practices.

Let’s dive in.

1. Test Objectives

When creating programming tests for recruitment purposes, it’s crucial to define individual test objectives as a foundation to build upon. Otherwise, you risk creating an incoherent test that does not serve you reliably and may even be confusing to candidates. 

There are two main aspects to look out for: determining the desired skills for the role and establishing the primary goals that the programming test aims to achieve.

Determine the desired skills

Start by gaining a thorough understanding of the job requirements, including technical expertise, programming languages, frameworks and any domain-specific knowledge.

This way, you can tailor the programming test to assess candidates in these areas only and ensure that it’s relevant to the role.

Define the test goals

Next, establish the primary goals of the programming test. This will depend on the specific requirements of the role you have identified above. Below are a few examples of test goals you may consider:

Evaluate problem-solving abilities
Rather than prioritizing accuracy and speed, you can examine the candidate’s approach, critical thinking and creativity.

Assess Coding Proficiency
You can also test for candidates’ familiarity with specific programming languages, syntax and coding conventions. This helps determine their ability to write clean, maintainable and efficient code.

Test Algorithmic Thinking
Your programming tests can assess candidates’ understanding of algorithms, data structures and their ability to implement algorithms to solve problems efficiently.

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2. Design and Structure

It’s tempting to start with creating test content and specific questions. However, you should first consider the proper format, duration, difficulty and other factors to make your tests more effective and simplify your work going forward. Here’s what to keep in mind: 

Select the right format

Common formats include coding exercises and multiple-choice questions (MCQs). Coding exercises allow candidates to demonstrate their coding skills and problem-solving abilities while MCQs can assess candidates’ theoretical knowledge. You can also consider using a combination of both formats for a more comprehensive assessment. 

Set the duration

Determine the appropriate length for the programming test, taking into account the complexity of the problems and the time constraints candidates will face in real-world scenarios. Striking the right balance is essential, as the test should be challenging enough to assess candidates’ abilities but not excessively time-consuming. Consider the average time it would take a competent programmer to complete the tasks to set realistic expectations.

Establish difficulty levels

Prepare to include easy, medium, and difficult questions so you can assess candidates’ abilities across different levels of complexity. This ensures that the test can accommodate both entry-level candidates and those with more advanced skills.

Provide clear instructions

This includes general instructions that apply to all questions (e.g. how to take and submit the test) as well as detailed instructions for specific questions that you will create later on. 

The specific instructions should have a problem statement, define any constraints and clarify the expected output or behavior. Sample inputs and outputs can also help candidates understand the expected results. You should plan for such instructions ahead of time so you can create effective test content. 

3. Test Content

Now, on to the interesting part.

Creating well-rounded tests with varying difficulty and focus can highlight strengths and weaknesses so you can progress only with the most relevant candidates. But what specific approach should you take when coming up with unique questions? 

Focus on core concepts

Include questions that assess candidates’ understanding of fundamental programming concepts, such as variables, loops, conditionals, functions and object-oriented programming principles. These questions help evaluate candidates’ grasp of the basics and their ability to apply these concepts in practical scenarios.

Additionally, assess candidates’ knowledge of essential data structures, algorithms and design patterns. These concepts form the building blocks of software development and are crucial for developing efficient and scalable solutions.

Incorporate real-world scenarios

Present candidates with real-world problems and evaluate their ability to devise effective solutions. Focus on scenarios that resemble the challenges they are likely to encounter in their roles.

Assess coding skills

Include coding exercises that require candidates to write clean, maintainable and efficient code. Evaluate factors such as code readability, performance optimization, error handling and code reusability. Consider providing guidelines or coding conventions to assess candidates’ adherence to best practices.

Implement time constraints

Introduce time limits for each question to evaluate candidates’ ability to manage their time effectively while maintaining code quality. Time constraints simulate real-world scenarios where programmers need to deliver solutions within deadlines. This assesses candidates’ time management skills, the ability to prioritize tasks and their efficiency in problem-solving.

Include domain-specific challenges

Tailor some questions to specific technologies or domains relevant to the role. For example, if hiring for a web development role, include questions related to web technologies, frameworks  or security considerations. This helps assess candidates’ practical knowledge and their ability to apply their skills in domain-specific contexts.

4. Managing the process

Consider the following aspects when administering programming tests for recruiting:

Choose the right platform

Technical assessment tools provide a controlled environment for candidates to write and execute code, ensuring a consistent and standardized testing experience. Look for features such as code syntax highlighting, code compilation and test case validation to enhance the coding experience.

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A platform like CodeInterview helps eliminate potential technical barriers and ensures that candidates can focus on showcasing their skills rather than struggling with the testing environment.

Set a regular review for biased or discriminatory questions

Scrutinize the test content monthly or quarterly as you create new questions. All questions should be fair, unbiased and avoid any implicit bias or stereotypes. For example, avoid questions that assume a particular cultural background or personal experience.

Creating an inclusive and unbiased test environment is essential to provide equal opportunities for all candidates and to foster diversity in your recruitment process.

Pilot testing

Prior to deploying the programming test, conduct pilot testing with a small group of current employees or volunteers. This allows you to identify and rectify any ambiguities or shortcomings in the test content, instructions or evaluation criteria.

By gathering feedback from participants and making necessary adjustments, you can refine the programming test and improve its effectiveness before administering it to a larger candidate pool.

5. Evaluation and Scoring

Consider the following aspects when evaluating programming tests:

Define a scoring rubric

Establish a clear and well-defined scoring rubric that outlines the criteria for evaluating candidate responses. Consider factors such as code correctness, efficiency, elegance and adherence to coding best practices. Each criterion should have specific guidelines and weightage assigned to it.

By defining a scoring rubric, you ensure consistency and fairness in evaluating candidates’ solutions, enabling a standardized assessment process.

Consider partial credit

Account for partial solutions or approaches that exhibit a sound thought process, even if they don’t achieve a complete solution. Programming problems can be complex, and candidates may demonstrate solid problem-solving skills and logical thinking even if their code is not fully functional. Consider partial credit to recognize their efforts and their ability to approach the problem correctly.

Manual code review

For more complex or critical positions, consider conducting manual code reviews to gain deeper insights into candidates’ coding styles, problem-solving strategies and attention to detail. Manual code reviews involve analyzing the candidate’s code line by line to assess its quality, readability, modularity and extensibility.

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Creating programming tests for recruiting is a crucial aspect of identifying the most qualified candidates. By defining clear objectives, structuring well-designed tests, focusing on core concepts and utilizing appropriate evaluation methods, you can effectively evaluate candidates’ programming skills and make informed hiring decisions. We hope the practices in this guide will help streamline your recruitment process and improve the overall quality of your team.

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