A job search is a comprehensive undertaking. It takes soul searching to identify and target a fitting role. Updating your materials requires reflection as you capture new skills you’ve honed, experiences you’ve garnered, training you’ve attended, and connections you’ve made.
If you work in a creative field, like marketing, content writing, public relations, research, or journalism, providing writing samples is another dimension of job search preparation with which you’re likely acquainted. As part of your job interview, you may be asked to develop a sample according to the interviewer’s instructions.
This exercise showcases your skills in a context that is relevant to the employer. Maureen McCann, Executive Career Strategist describes it: “Samples are a ‘taste’ of what the employer can expect from you.” The interviewer uses the sample as a diagnostic piece that is part of your candidate profile; aside from this, it has no professional purpose. It is a work sample, not a work product.
Inviting a job seeker to submit a work sample is nice opportunity. McCann explains: “As a job candidate, you can use this as an opportunity to showcase your abilities – stand out from your competition and demonstrate why you’re the best candidate for the job.”
Asking candidates to submit work samples that a company then repurposes as work products is inappropriate. Job candidates are not employees. They are not being paid to submit work products for the company that’s interviewing them.
It can be challenging, as a job candidate, to interpret what is being asked of you. Afterall, you’re focused on making a good impression with the aim of securing employment. Here’s what you need to know about writing samples and how to proceed if a prospective employer asks for too much during the interview process.
The purpose of a writing sample.
When the role you’re applying for involves a hefty writing component, a prospective employer may want to see more than clips of past written work that you’ve done. While it’s helpful to see these snap shots, in the final rounds of their interview process, employers may want to see how you manage the content directly relevant to their company and their open position.
McCann explains that this is a screening process:
“Often employers are testing, assessing and analyzing your ability to do the things that you:
- Said you could do on your resume (vetting)
- Need to do in the job (testing, assessing)
First and foremost, the employer wants to know whether you can complete the task well. Can you do the job?”
It’s helpful to consider this request as a screening-like the initial phone screenings that generally proceed in-person interviews. While this process is important and job seekers are usually glad to submit to a phone screening if invited, the conversations adhere to a framework which limits the time commitment for both parties.
McCann points out another objective of the writing sample: “Second, it will give indications about how you - your skills, communication, leadership and style of doing business - align with the way the employer currently conducts their business.”
Inviting a sample writing project or a similar job simulation is another way for a company to access potential fit. Are the candidate’s writing skills a fit for the company and the position?
It’s a way to go beyond the candidate’s on-paper persona. McCann uses this metaphor: “Think of work samples like the employer test driving a car. Yes, the engine looks good (your resume has all the right words and you appear to be a good hire), but how does it drive (will you be able to/ how will you perform in our current environment and with our stakeholders)?”
A test drive is an important part of the process when it comes to making decisions about the car one is considering purchasing. It’s a professional courtesy to have the opportunity to test drive a car. But there are parameters. Clearly, you can’t go off roading or take an out of state road trip when you’re test driving a car.
The same is true with a writing sample. As a job candidate, you’re extending a professional courtesy so that a prospective employer can test drive your writing skills, but there are parameters that govern this request.
An appropriate ask.
It’s appropriate and strategic for a prospective employer to assign a project that directly relate to the role for which a candidate is interviewing. “It’s literally called a work sample, so it must be a ‘sample’ that is clearly related to the job you will be asked to do.” McCann shares.
If that’s a development role at a non-profit, for example, this may mean interviewing a staff member and writing two paragraphs about a new program. If it’s a marketing role, it could mean writing a sample social media post. The writing sample is a snippet, a “taste,” of how your professional skills might look if you were hired to work for this interviewer.
McCann points out that an overview is also an appropriate ask. She elaborates: “In most cases, you’ll be asked to share an outline or an approach vs. a detailed strategy. You might be asked a ‘how’ question. ‘Demonstrate how you would do X’.” She uses the example: “Demonstrate how you would or how you have written a briefing note for a government official.” Presenting an overview gives you room to develop and share relevant ideas and provide evidence of your approach, without getting too bogged down in time-consuming details.
Finally, the details of what job candidates are being asked to submit are also important: at what point in the interview process are you being asked to do this work? How long will it take you to produce?
McCann explains: “You’re not being paid to complete this task, so beyond the task being job-relevant, it also shouldn’t take you a whole day to complete. . . Keep this in mind while setting time aside to complete this work sample. What is your time worth? What is your ROI? (great if you get an offer, but what if you don’t get the offer?) How many other candidates are doing a work sample? What are your odds of getting an offer?”
An inappropriate ask.
McCann points out that it’s inappropriate for a company to ask a candidate to submit a sample that is beyond the scope of the position they’re targeting. She uses this example: “If you’re being hired as a painter and you’re asked to demonstrate how you would re-wire a house and bring it up to code – that’s an inappropriate ask because it’s outside the scope of your job as a painter.”
Likewise, McCann points out that tasks that would take all day are similarly inappropriate. It should only take a couple of hours to complete the sample.
Finally, McCann emphasizes the importance of job seekers’ intellectual property. She notes: “You want to balance between showcasing your capabilities and being taken advantage of (having your ideas stolen).”
Next steps if too much is asked.
- Check Interview Reviews
If you feel like too much is being asked of you, check Glassdoor’s Interview Reviews. See how other candidates have described their experience interviewing with the company.
- Adhere to your boundaries
Yes, it’s important to interview well, but if a company seems to be asking too much of you in the interview process, what will it be like to work there? Note your observations, and use them to inform any decisions you make about this prospect.
- Then ask follow up questions.
McCann advises: “Give people the benefit of the doubt. Have a clarifying conversation with the employer to better understand how the work sample will be evaluated. Identify ‘what’ they are looking for from the sample, and how they’ll know they have the right candidate based on the sample.” If follow up questions are not possible, McCann recommends trying to do your best with what you have. She advises: “focus on what the employer is ‘really’ asking for - sometimes you might have to read between the lines. Identify the purpose of the work sample in the hiring process. (How will this work sample be used to help the employer choose the right hire?)” Finally, McCann recommends protecting your work: “Put your name on everything. Make it difficult to separate your name from your work. If pressed, tell the employer ‘I’m happy to share more details/specifics when hired.’”
- The bottom line.
It’s a good move for a prospective employer to invite top candidates to submit short writing samples to showcase their work as it relates to the company and role. But it’s unethical for a company to trick job candidates into doing unpaid work by telling them it’s part of their interview process.
Make sure to share your interview experiences, the positive and the negative, on Glassdoor which helps keep other job seekers informed. McCann advises: “Trust your instincts. If something about this situation doesn’t feel right, you already know you don’t trust this employer. If you don’t trust the employer, why continue in this hiring process?”