When I walked into the psychologist’s office early on a Monday morning in September last year, I was so nervous I could feel the sweat on my palms. I had just passed an interview and writing test for a copywriter role at an advertising company in Buenos Aires, but there was just one final exam: the HR department had sent me for a full physical and psychological evaluation.

In my case, the medical procedure included blood tests (to check blood sugar and haemoglobin), a urine sample, an electrocardiogram (to test for signs of heart disease), a chest X-ray and a vision test. A physical examination is a legal requirement for candidates in Argentina, designed to protect employees from workplace accidents and illnesses.

The psicotécnico included a Rorschach inkblot test and a test which involves drawing a person standing in the rain

Then it was off to the psychologist’s office, which turned out to be the living room of his small apartment, to begin the “psicotécnico” – an evaluation specifically for work purposes, usually for hiring or promotions.

With roots in psychoanalysis, the psicotécnico included a Rorschach inkblot test and what is called the “persona bajo la lluvia,” a test which involves drawing a person standing in the rain. Every aspect of the drawing is examined to create a psychological profile: size, placement on the page, pen pressure, the way the lines are drawn, even the time it takes to finish.

A drawing that’s too small is supposed to indicate shyness and introversion; a large drawing might indicate that someone is a show-off; an oversized drawing, sometimes creeping onto a second piece of paper, could indicate megalomania and delusions of grandeur. If the rain is shaped like teardrops, it’s meant to indicate anxiety.

Friends had warned me that it was important to draw an umbrella, to make sure my character’s face was visible, and most of all to draw the ground. With my stick-figure talents I tried my best to make my character as compelling as possible, but the end result still looked like a smiling piece of spaghetti.

I wasn’t sure how discussing my parents’ divorce and interpreting a few ink blots could predict my future success as a copywriter

The tests continued for 45 minutes. I was asked to complete short sentences about myself, to draw abstract shapes and describe what they represented, and complete a simple maths test. The psychologist asked some very personal questions about my life and my family. I tried not to let my scepticism show, but I wasn’t sure how discussing my parents’ divorce and interpreting a few ink blots could predict my future success as a copywriter.

I left the building with a burning curiosity to know what my doodles said about my personality. But by law my company can’t tell me my results, so my neuroses will remain a mystery to me.

Right as rain?

As an expat, this was a completely foreign process. But comprehensive physical and psychological tests are standard practice during the hiring process in Argentina and in much of Latin America, even for jobs that aren’t physically demanding or for upper management positions.

Comprehensive physical and psychological tests are standard practice during the hiring process in Argentina and in much of Latin America

While there are few statistics on exactly how many companies use it, a 2011 study into the most common selection tests in Argentina found the ‘person under the rain’ test was used 24.6% of the time, and the Rorschach test 13.8%.

This process assesses whether you will be good at your future job and a good fit for the company, says Argentine psychologist and human resources consultant Carla Bafico.

“The ‘person in the rain’ test measures how a person deals with something unexpected,” says Bafico. “Or how they deal with the pressures in their surroundings.” The rain is meant to represent external pressure, and the way the character is drawn gives the psychologist clues on how the candidate will react when facing adversity.

Bafico says such psychological evaluationsdo provide companies with useful insights into candidates’ personalities, but not all experts agree.

There have never been studies that prove that the person who will draw ground will really be a grounded person – Sophia Stockinger

“The problem is there have never been studies that prove that the person who will draw ground will really be a grounded person,” says Sophia Stockinger, a German occupational psychologist who has worked in recruitment across Europe and Latin America.

Stockinger also dismisses Rorschach tests and almost every other test my psychologist gave me. “The Rorschach test has not been designed to assess people in a work context,” she says. She says most of the tests Argentina uses have not been proven effective for hiring – a fact that hasn’t stopped many Argentine recruiters.

“They’re useful,” says Regina Moirano, co-founder of recruitment firm COUL. Moirano says every client asks for psychological evaluations, and the psicotécnico is used as an additional tool at the end of the hiring process to complete the candidate’s profile. “It’s a tool that our clients value.”

The popularity stems from a heavy emphasis Argentinians place on psychoanalysis, which is not used as much anymore in Europe or the US.

Stockinger says different countries put greater emphasis on different types of testing for their employees. Germany, the US and some Northern European countries, among others, tend to favour aptitude tests and conduct studies on whether their tests are effective, whereas many companies in Latin America, Spain, Italy, Greece and France still rely on personality tests and “soft science” assessments.

Argentina is far from the only country with unusual recruitment tests, however.

The writing’s on the wall

In France, handwriting experts called graphologists sometimes analyse a candidate’s handwriting.

Sylvie Chermet-Carroy, a graphologist for more than 35 years, says “a graphological study will determine different aspects of the personality, whether it be their sociability, the type of communication they use [or] what kind of intelligence they have”. To determine this, they look at everything from handwriting pressure and writing speed to inclination and regularity.

The most recent independent study was in 1991, and found 91% of public and private organisations in France had used handwriting analysis

It’s hard to determine exactly how many companies use graphology today – the most recent independent study was in 1991, and found 91% of public and private organisations in France had used handwriting analysis. Today, graphologists claim that 50 to 60% of French companies have used graphological testing to evaluate candidates.

It seems a lot, but Bertram Durand, director of recruitment firm CNPG Conseil, says the proportion could be higher – he estimates 70% to 80% of companies still use graphology to evaluate candidates.

He says graphology is less common now because people are more likely to apply for jobs with email rather than handwritten letters, so there are fewer writing samples available.

"But it remains an important tool in the decision-making process." 

Chermet-Carroy is adamant that graphology works, but admits that to her knowledge there are no studies that prove its effectiveness. In fact, multiple studies from the 1990s onwards have found that graphology is not a reliable tool to predict job success or intuit a candidate’s personality. The French Ministry of Labour even likens graphology to astrology, and states on its website that while neither of these hiring practices is illegal, “their scientific validity is largely debated.”

One among thousands

While not leaning as much on psychoanalysis, the recruitment market in China relies heavily on unique aptitude and intelligence tests, according to Vincent Van de Belt, Hong Kong-based head of third party channels at Cubiks, a global human resources company.

China stands out for its high-volume recruitment. Thousands of people can apply for a single job, so these tests – designed to sift out all but the strongest candidates – also need to be much more difficult than in other countries, Van de Belt says.

Firms can test thousands of applicants in the first hiring round, often online, allowing them to weed out unsuitable applicants without taking too much time or effort.

As technology gets more sophisticated, it will begin to play a bigger role in this weeding-out process. Some companies are already exploring alternative options to select candidates: in 2015 L’Oreal China chose to forgo CVs in the first round of hiring, and instead asked candidates to answer three questions by video on their website. They used a computer program to analyse the results and select the top 500 candidates for a Skype interview.

Testing times

As research in to occupational psychology gets more sophisticated, and competition for the best talent gets fiercer, international firms are leaning towards tests backed by data and away from “soft science” personality tests.

But hiring practices are still very much influenced by cultural preferences, which can be slow to change. So if you’re looking for a job in Argentina, whatever you do, don’t forget to draw the ground.

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