Writing sample tips for a job application
Many job ads today require candidates to submit writing samples. Don't stress out! Follow these tips instead.
Get your writing samples in order by following these guidelines.
In today’s competitive job market, applicants for many positions—even those not related directly to writing—are required to submit writing samples at some point during the interview process.
Don’t let this request stress you out, even if you’re not a strong writer. Here are answers to frequently asked questions about writing samples for a job that will help you develop and/or select just the right samples.
What kind of writing sample should I submit?
Follow any instructions the employer provides—that’s part of the assessment process, says Diane Samuels, a career coach and image consultant in New York City. “If you have any concerns, it’s best to ask questions,” she says. “It shows that you are proactive in seeking advice before moving too far ahead with an assignment, which in a real-life job situation can save time, money and energy.”
If the company doesn’t say what it’s looking for, whenever possible, send something “drafted specifically for this job opportunity so the subject matter and writing style closely match what you might be asked to write once on board,” says Sally Haver, a former senior vice president at The Ayers Group/Career Partners International, an HR consultancy in New York City.
For instance, if you’re going for a sales job, you might submit sales proposals or customer profiles. If you’re applying for an administrative gig, sample memos would be appropriate. Management applicants might consider submitting samples of competitive analyses, reports or HR plans.
If you have little or no work experience or are applying for an entry-level job, submit a school assignment. It’s also permissible to send schoolwork “if you have applied for a position where the style of writing will be similar to something you would have prepared for school,” Samuels says. A lab report would work for a scientific research gig. An assignment from a business writing class would be appropriate for a management-trainee job.
Are certain types of writing samples inappropriate?
It’s a bad idea to turn in a paper from school if you have been out of school several years. “It says, ‘I haven’t written for years,’” says Thom Singer, a business-development consultant in Austin.
Singer also cautions against sending blog posts (unless your blog is professional and addresses business or industry issues), as well as “creative writing or a letter to grandma.” These forms are ill-advised because they’re not cogent to the type of work you’ll be doing if hired.
How long should a writing sample be?
Most employers seek employees who can synthesize large amounts of information into a short, concise, actionable summary. “Often a one-page memo is a more compelling example than a long term paper,” says Lynne Sarikas, director of the MBA Career Center at Northeastern University’s College of Business Administration. That’s because reviewers generally read just a page or two of a long paper, and are not concerned with the specific content, she says.
Can I submit a sample I co-authored?
A sample written with someone else may be appropriate if writing will be a collaborative effort at the job you’re applying for. Just make sure you list yourself as a co-author. But even then, a team-written piece shouldn’t be the only example you submit.
“The employer is seeking samples of your work, and can’t assume your role in a co-authored piece,” says Nancy DeCrescenzo, director of career services at Eastern Connecticut State University.
What about getting a little help with a writing sample?
It’s considered OK to have someone else review your submission for basic errors and clarity. Beyond that, though, and many employers feel the work is no longer representative of your skills and knowledge.
“If you’re really not much of a writer but your sample is great, that’s what they’ll expect of you when hired,” Haver says. “Unless you can keep your ghostwriter handy, that stratagem can boomerang.”
Should I take any special precautions with my samples?
When submitting a writing sample from a previous job, take extra care to keep confidential information confidential. “Mask or delete names, numbers and any other identifying markers from writing samples so the prospective employer will still be able to see the quality of your writing and thought processes but without learning privy information,” Haver says. Alternatively, you could make up a company name and change the type of business and geographic location, she says.
Sarikas offers one final angst-reducing tip: “Have a couple of samples prepared in advance so you don’t have to scramble to find or create something at the last minute.”
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You’re progressing well through an interview process, and you think you’re close to landing that coveted offer, when the employer says, “One more thing—we have a little homework for you.”
This tactic is used by a lot of companies (especially startups), and with good reason: The hiring manager gets a firsthand look at your approach, creativity, quality, turn-around speed, and communication and presentation style and can gauge how serious you are about the position.
If you really want that job, your instinct will likely be to put your best foot forward and provide the most fabulous project the employer has ever seen. But there’s something else to consider: You may end up putting in many hours of work, creating an awesome deliverable—and at the end of it all, still not getting the job. There’s even a chance that the company will take the ideas you labored over for its own benefit, and you’re left not only without an offer, but without compensation for all that hard work.
It’s happened to me: Once, at the end of a second round interview, a hiring manager asked me for a list of quick-hit ideas on increasing user engagement for his consumer website. I spent almost half a day coming up with a list of 10 great ideas, including many examples from other sites. After I proudly sent over my recommendations, I didn’t hear from the company for over two weeks. When I finally got a response, he thanked me for all my hard work and said that the company decided not to pursue the position at this time due to “internal matters.”
Who knows if this really was the case; but to my surprise, I noticed a handful of my ideas were actually implemented within the next few months on their site. Maybe these were ideas already in motion and my assignment only confirmed what was planned, but I couldn’t help but feel that I had been somewhat “used” and regretted putting so much time and effort into this homework.
While there are times you may want to go to the moon and back for a job , it’s also important to be careful how you approach these homework assignments—especially if you’re investing your time into applying to multiple jobs. Here are some tips on how to handle this tricky situation.
1. Understand General Goals and Expectations
First, it’s important to get a sense of how this assignment will factor into the overall evaluation of your candidacy. Is this the final hurdle before the job offer? (It should be.) How will this be weighed with other elements of your interview? (You should get some positive reinforcement that the company’s very interested and just wants to get a sense of how you work.) How long will the assignment take? (Being asked to spend more than 2-3 hours on an assignment before getting hired is bordering on disrespect.)
Don’t be afraid to ask questions like, “Can you help me understand how this assignment will be evaluated?” “Are you looking more for big-picture ideas, or a detailed look at my recommendations?” “Roughly how much time do you recommend I put into this assignment?” It’ll help you understand what the company is looking for and how much time you’re willing to put forth.
2. Ask for Data
Next, remember that you have every right to ask for information that’ll help you better tackle the assignment and not start from scratch (if you were hired, that’s what you’d obviously do , right?). So, put some onus on the company to provide relevant data. For example, if the company is asking for your ideas on potential partners, ask questions that’ll point you in the right direction, like, “Who are your current partners?” “What types of partners are you currently pursuing?” “What are the key metrics that define a successful partnership?”
And if the company doesn’t provide any more information? Do your best, but also make sure you express where you’ve made assumptions based on lack of information—e.g., “Without knowing what your current metrics for successful partnerships are, I’ve made suggestions for partners that will boost both brand awareness and website traffic. Obviously, if the company has different goals, I would be able to adjust these recommendations.”
And then don’t worry—if the hiring manager doesn’t offer it, he or she will understand that you’re operating under lack of information and history.
3. Outline Main Points, Only Tease the Details
More often than not, the primary reason companies dole out homework is to get a better sense of your thought process, as well as how you structure and convey your thoughts and ideas. There’s not necessarily a “right” answer, nor is there a need to get way down in the weeds.
So, don’t stress about providing a ton of information—just outline the main points (bullets and numbered lists usually work well). You can tease out more details as you’re talking through your assignment in the interview without having to write down your specific plans and fully fleshed out ideas. Remember: You don’t want the hiring manager to have the blueprints for your fabulous ideas—you want him or her to hire you so that you can be the one implement them!
4. If You’re Worried, Get an NDA in Place
Depending on the type of job function and level you’re interviewing for, it may not be a bad idea to request a non-disclosure agreement. If there is any confidential information you do not want shared widely, your assignment involves using data from your current employer, or you just have a nagging concern that the company may steal your best ideas, take a precaution and get a simple mutual NDA executed (many template NDA forms are available online for download). Don’t make it too legally formal—the company may get turned off by this move—just let the hiring manager know you just want to make sure things stay confidential and you’d be more comfortable providing details with a simple NDA in place. If he or she refuses to sign, this may be another warning flag.
Knocking a homework assignment out of the park can be an amazing chance to show you’re the best candidate of the bunch, but you never want to get in a situation where you’re wasting your time or being used for free labor. Follow these guidelines, and you’ll be able to present a great deliverable while making sure you’re spending your time and effort the right way.