NEO Personality Inventory Test Guide: Purpose, Structure, and Tips

The NEO Personality Inventory test (NEO-PI) is a psychometric assessment tool widely used by employers as a key part of their recruitment process and increasingly as an on-job assessment tool.

Also known as the Big Five, OCEAN or CANOE, the personality model used by the NEO-PI test measures five aspects of the personality and has versions for adults, adolescents and children. Perfectly optimized content goes here!

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The NEO-Personality Inventory assessment is a psychometric tool used to assess personality traits. It is recognised worldwide and used by recruiters and employers pre-employment, as well as more generally to assess career potential.

a person standing in front of the board

What is the NEO PI test used for?

The NEO Personality Inventory uses the ‘Five-Factor Model’ (also known as the ‘Big Five Personality Test’) to measure personality traits. This theory suggests that each person’s personality boils down to five core areas – and the test examines these separate areas of personality to draw conclusions.

The NEO-PI test grew out of academic psychology work carried out in the 1970s by Costa & McCrae who developed the ‘five trait’ model, following on from work that started in the 1920s.

By 1978 their work had led them to conclude that there were three broad personality traits: Neuroticism (N), Extraversion (E) and then Openness (O) – which they called ‘Neuroticism-Extraversion-Openness Inventory’ or ‘NEO-I’.

puzzled human head illustration

Further work led to the addition of Agreeableness (A) and Conscientiousness (C), with the test then renamed ‘NEO Personality Inventory’ or ‘NEO-PI’.

Further iterations to the model were developed by the pair during the 1980s and 1990s, including adding various subsections. The model currently used by academics, clinicians and recruiters is the ‘NEO PI-3’ and can be used by adolescents as young as 10, as well as those for whom English is not their first language.

A shortened version named ‘NEO FFI-R’ (‘Five Factor Inventory’) is also available.

As Neuroticism (N), Extraversion (E) Openness (O) Agreeableness (A) and Conscientiousness (C) can also spell out OCEAN or CANOE, you may also see it referred to by those acronyms.

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What is the NEO PI-R test?

The NEO PI-R, the standard questionnaire measure of the Five Factor Model (FFM), provides a systematic assessment of emotional, interpersonal, experiential, attitudinal, and motivational styles–a detailed personality description that can be a valuable resource for a variety of professionals.

The NEO PI-R is a concise measure of the five major domains of personality, as well as the six traits or facets that define each domain.

Taken together, the five domain scales and 30 facet scales of the NEO PI-R, including the scales for the Agreeableness and the Conscientiousness domains, facilitate a comprehensive and detailed assessment of normal adult personality. Although the manual has been updated with the introduction of the NEO-PI-3, NEO PI-R norms and forms have not changed.


The NEO PI-R is self-administered and is available in two parallel versions. Each version contains 240 items and three validity items, and requires a 6th-grade reading level.

  • Form S, designed for self-reports, is appropriate for use with adults, including individuals of college age.
  • Form R, designed for observer reports, is written in the third person for peer, spouse, or expert ratings. It can be used as an alternative measure or as a supplement to self-reports from adult clients.
  • Each item is rated on a 5-point scale.
  • 2-part carbonless answer sheet, usable with either form, eliminates the need for separate scoring keys or templates.
  • Self-carbon page of the answer sheet contains item values for rapid computation of scale raw scores.
  • Three profile forms facilitate score-plotting and conversion to T scores.
  • 1-page “Your NEO Summary” feedback sheet gives clients easy-to-understand information about the five domains of personality.
  • Internal consistency coefficients for both Forms R and S range from .86 to .95 for domain scales and from .56 to .90 for facet scales.
  • The NEO PI-R is validated against other personality inventories as well as projective techniques.
  • The NEO PI-R also can be scored and/or administered electronically using the NEO Software System™.
  • The NEO Job Profiler helps make hiring decisions by weighing candidate’s traits against the qualities needed for success in a given position.
  • The NEO Style Graph Booklet provides an innovative way to provide feedback to respondents based on their NEO profiles. Each graph shows clients how their particular FFM domain results interact with each other and form different areas of their personality. It is helpful in occupational and clinical settings.
  • The NEO Problems in Living Checklist offers additional information about NEO Inventories results and aids clinicians in planning treatment and assessing progress. Spotlighting particular problems individuals may be facing depending on their test outcomes, it is excellent for providing information about client problems, setting goals, and planning interventions.
  • The Your NEO Summary feedback sheet enables you to give clients a summary of their NEO performance.

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The Big 5 Personality Factors explained

The NEO PI-3 gives insight into the six facets that define each domain:

Neuroticism (N)

Are you prone to emotional stress? Are you excitable or calm? How do you react under pressure? The facets tested here suggest how you might react psychologically to stress, which can be important for high-octane work.

This personality trait is all about how well balanced you are emotionally and to what extent you are affected by stress. The scale for this trait runs from ‘stable’ to ‘neurotic’.

A high score for neuroticism denotes that you are sensitive and nervous, a worrier, prone to the effects of stress and subject to mood swings.

If you have a low score, you are calm, secure, deal well with stress and are generally emotionally stable.

  • Anxiety
  • Angry Hostility
  • Depression
  • Self-consciousness
  • Impulsiveness
  • Vulnerability

Extraversion (E)

The areas tested here conclude whether you dominate a situation or are quieter and less assertive.

This personality trait is linked to how you interact with other people and the extent to which you seek stimulation from others.

Think about whether busy social situations energize you or drain you and if you cope well with time alone. This trait is measured on a scale of ‘introverted’ to ‘extroverted’.

If you score high in extraversion, you are outgoing, energetic, assertive and sociable, but you may also be excitable and attention-seeking.

A low score indicates that you are happy with your own company and are reserved and reflective but may appear withdrawn and need time to recover from social situations.

  • Warmth
  • Gregariousness
  • Assertiveness
  • Activity
  • Excitement-seeking
  • Positive emotions

closeup of people working together

Openness (O)

This considers how you embrace the unknown and whether you are imaginative. High levels of openness are desirable in some industries; in others, they may suggest inability to focus. This personality trait is all about how open you are to experiencing the world around you. Openness is measured on a scale of ‘closed’ at one end to ‘open’ at the other.

A high openness score denotes that you are creative, inventive, happy with abstract concepts and adventurous, but may struggle to maintain focus and be prone to unpredictable behavior.

If you have a low openness score, you may be reliable, perform consistently and be cautious, but dislike change and seem close-minded. At the other end of the spectrum, low levels can be perceived as discriminatory or narrow-minded.

  • Fantasy
  • Aesthetics
  • Feelings
  • Actions
  • Ideas
  • Values

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Agreeableness (A)

Are you easily led and submissive, or at the other end of the scale, suspicious and argumentative? This considers whether you are cooperative and a team player, or disagreeable and untrustworthy.

Agreeableness describes how you tend to behave in relationships with others, how you treat them and if you are compassionate and trusting or aloof and suspicious. This trait is measured on a scale of ‘hostile’ to ‘agreeable’.

A high score indicates that you are co-operative, friendly, caring and are genuinely interested in others, but may act in a submissive way to avoid giving offense and allow others to take advantage of your trust.

If you score low on agreeableness, you are analytical and competitive, but do not trust others easily and may be manipulative.

  • Trust
  • Straightforwardness
  • Altruism
  • Compliance
  • Modesty
  • Tender-Mindedness

Conscientiousness (C)

This looks at whether you are spontaneous or self-driven and motivated. Extreme responses to this area can either suggest inflexibility and stubbornness, or being unreliable and flighty.

Conscientiousness describes how dependable, organized and self-disciplined you are. It also looks at how well you can control your impulses. This trait is measured on a scale of ‘spontaneous’ to ‘conscientious’.

If you have a high score, you are well-organized, efficient, detail-minded and hard-working, but you may be perceived as stubborn and inflexible.

A low conscientiousness score indicates that you are easy-going and flexible, but also impulsive, careless and disorganized.

  • Competence
  • Order
  • Dutifulness
  • Achievement Striving
  • Self-Discipline
  • Deliberation

When all the facets and personality types are considered in the round, the assessor can use this information to build up a pretty accurate picture of how you might think or behave in a particular context.

organized items on the desk

The results for each individual will then be matched to the culture and expectations of the company’s successful candidates.

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What is NEO-PI used for?

The NEO-PI is used by recruiters as part of their employment process. By ascertaining the personality type of the prospective employee, they can match this with other psychometric test results and the interviews to make better decisions about who might thrive and perform well in the role.

It can also be used by candidates themselves to understand their personality type better, to perform better at work, to understand their preferred management style and ultimately to make career decisions.

Is the NEO-PI valid?

A great deal of research has been carried out in relation to the NEO-PI and its validity and effectiveness. It has been found to demonstrate high consistency. You should not worry about the results of the test unless you are a pathological liar – if you answer the questions honestly and genuinely in a reflective manner with an open mind, you should receive a valid and effective analysis.

Can you fail a NEO-PI test?

It is not possible to fail a NEO-PI test unless you do not complete all the questions. Even then, it would only be incomplete. There is no right or wrong personality type, even though some traits will mean some people are more suitable for some roles than others.

What does NEO in NEO-PI stand for?

The ‘NEO’ stands for ‘Neuroticism-Extraversion-Openness’, which were the first three personality traits to be added to this model of understanding personality.

The format of the NEO-PI

The NEO PI-3 invites the test-taker to answer a number of questions, from which it draws conclusions on five personality areas, aiming to build up an accurate reading of how a person thinks and behaves.

In a recruiting context, this information is used as part of the process to determine how successful the candidate may be in a particular role or team, or could be used once employment has commenced, to ascertain the best strategy for career progression.

Both the NEO PI-3 and NEO-FFI are untimed tests.


This test takes around 35–45 minutes using an online test platform, in which the candidate provides a score for 240 behaviour descriptions (e.g. whether they agree or disagree, or find it most or least like themselves).

There is a self-reporting section and an external observation section. The answers from both are combined.

Features and benefits

  • The NEO-PI-3 is a revision of the revised NEO Personality Inventory (NEO PI-R™), the standard questionnaire of the five-factor model. In addition to measuring the five major domains of personality (Neuroticism, Extraversion, Openness, Agreeableness, and Conscientiousness), the NEO-PI-3 gives insight into the six facets that define each domain.
  • Retaining the reliability and validity of the NEO PI-R, the NEO-PI-3 features new normative data. A total of 38 items from the NEO PI-R have been revised or edited to lower the reading level and make the instrument more appropriate for younger examinees or adults with lower educational levels.
  • The two-part carbonless hand-scorable answer sheet, usable with either Form S (for self-reports) or Form R (for observer reports), eliminates the need for separate scoring keys or templates. Completed scannable answer sheets can be sent to PAR for scoring and interpretation, or they can be used with the On-Site Scanning Module of the NEO Software System™. The NEO-PI-3 also can be scored and/or administered electronically using the NEO Software System.


This test is a shorter version, taking around 15 minutes to complete, with only 60 behavioural descriptions to consider.

A paper version of both tests can be used, but it’s more usual to take them online.

The NEO-FFI-3:4FV provides information on four personality domains: Extraversion, Openness to Experience, Agreeableness, and Conscientiousness. It is designed for use in employment and personal counseling settings involving activities such as career counseling, career development, and employee training, where these four domains are the main focus. Items, norms, and scoring are taken from the E, O, A, and C factors of the NEO-FFI-3.

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How are NEO-PI tests scored?

Each section will show a separate summary and score in a report that is presented to either the employer, you, or both. Descriptions of your personality type as assessed by the test will be divided into each of the five factors.

The scores will be marked (using high, medium or low) and the strengths associated with that gradation will be summarised too.

The report will also be presented in a visual format to make it easier to understand and compare to other results.

Tips for taking a NEO-PI test takers

Be honest

The NEO-PI test relies on the person taking the test being accurate and honest. If you try to ‘game’ or second-guess what is being asked, or what you perceive the employer carrying out the test would find appealing, the process will break down and not work.

Remember it is diagnostic

There are no right or wrong answers and there is no need to prepare or revise. You cannot practice to get ‘better’ answers as it is not a pass or fail situation – everyone’s personality types are different.

You can prepare

While you cannot practise to get ‘better’ answers, you can alleviate stress and anxiety over facing an unknown situation by researching practice questions so that you are familiar with the format and how you should think about the questions. You can also take similar tests to gain a better understanding of how the results might be presented.

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Practice makes perfect, so making use of our sample test questions, online lessons, STAAR practice tests, and other preparation materials will help you test and improve those skills.

We are all about building your confidence and helping you with test prep so that you can ace whichever test and wow your teachers with your abilities in each subject.

The thanks we get will be when you successfully pass the actual test on test day!

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