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.”
Need more help getting hired? Join Monster today. As a member, you'll get career advice and useful tips sent directly to your inbox. Monster's expert insights can help take some of the job-search stress off your shoulders so you can concentrate on putting your best self forward.
Your resume is down to one page. Your cover letter is memorable, yet professional, and explains why you’re a great fit for the position. But, you’re not done yet.
You scroll down to the supplemental requirements and see that you’re supposed to submit a writing sample. Now what? Should you submit a research paper you wrote as an undergrad, a persuasive email, a personal blog post, a speech that’s kind of boring (but that you gave at a prestigious event), or maybe a newsletter you co-wrote?
Too often, you’re told that writing samples are simply there to demonstrate your writing ability. Certainly, that’s part of it. And if you start with the process of elimination, this discounts anything with typos, or run-ons, or that’s boring (bye-bye speech).
But the trick is what you do next: Conceptualize your application as a complete picture, with your writing sample as a supporting element. Here’s how it works.
Step 1: Write Your Slogan
You know that the objective statement is wasted space on your resume (because obviously your objective is to land the job). However, you should come up with a tagline for yourself. Who are you as an applicant? Are you a leader? Are you over-the-moon creative? What do you want the interviewer to remember about you?
Get really clear about the impression you want to make—maybe even jot down a few words. Let’s say you decide you want your tagline to be “brilliant, thoughtful client services professional with a passion for politics and tech startups.” Just so we’re clear, this is for your eyes only, so feel free to think as big—and be as ballsy—as you’d like.
Step 2: See What Needs Reinforcement
Now that you know what you want to demonstrate, re-read your slogan, resume, and cover letter one right after the other. Do your desired attributes shine through?
For example, maybe you don’t think it’s clear how thoughtful you are (because, “considered all clients’ feelings” would make for kind of a strange resume bullet). Look at your writing samples: A paper on presidential succession—no matter how mind-blowingly well written—isn’t going to evidence how you work with people. So, in this case you’d want to choose a persuasive memo, or perhaps part of grant that you’ve written; something that shows you think through how programs influence people.
Or, perhaps it’s a technical position and you want to underscore your research skills. Take a pass on the witty blog post, and choose the well-researched paper. You can say that you’re a quick and talented study in your cover letter, but your writing sample is an opportunity to show (rather than only tell).
Step 3: Consider the Classic Advice
Now that you’ve targeted in on how your writing sample will present you as a candidate, it’s time to revisit the classic advice. First, never send a writing sample with a typo. I’m sorry if you love the document otherwise: Just imagine the hiring manager reading it with blinking sign overhead that says “poor attention to detail and doesn’t know the difference between there and their” (and then throwing your application in the trash).
Next, you’ve probably heard that a writing sample should be relevant. So, if you’re applying to an environmental think tank, a piece about climate change would be ideal. This is good advice—so long as it fits in with your personal slogan. If you want to emphasize your background in the field, by all means go with the climate change piece. That said, if all of your degrees are environmental and you’re applying for a fundraising role, a letter that you wrote asking major donors to fund cancer research might better demonstrate your ability to raise money.
Finally, do consider any consequences. Any documents containing confidential information or that were written with the assistance of others are no-gos. View them like lying on your resume: It might get you an interview, but once the nature of your writing sample is discovered, your candidacy (or job) will be in jeopardy.
Talk to a career coach
Step 4: Stick to a Reasonable Length (and Tone)
Just like your resume and cover letter, a writing sample should max out at one page (unless you’re specifically asked to send something longer, like a research paper). A hiring manager has a lot to read. If your sample is longer than a page, it’ll be skimmed (or perhaps not even read beyond a certain point). You’ll be more memorable with a document that’s concise and effective. So, if all of your samples are long, consider an excerpt, such as an abstract from a long paper or the conclusion of an exciting speech.
As far as tone, refer to the company’s website, blog, and marketing materials. A snarky blog post may catch a reviewer’s eye, but it likely won’t earn you an interview at a conservative firm. On the other hand, a stuffy sample may make the hiring manager at a creative organization wonder whether you’d be a culture fit. If it could go either way, lean formal, as you can always loosen up later.
Step 5: Write an Introductory Paragraph
You know why you chose the press release over the academic abstract (or vice versa). But if you’re applying for a job at a fitness startup, the hiring manager may need you to tell her why you submitted it (as opposed to an essay on running).
So, give her a roadmap. At the top of your writing sample, write a couple of sentences that state when you wrote the document, why (or if it’s an excerpt, what it’s excerpted from), and what you think it evidences. It looks like this:
Please see below for a press release I wrote in June 2016 to promote the launch of a new product. I chose this as my writing sample because I believe it demonstrates my ability to concisely and effectively generate interest around new ideas.
Finally, don’t see a writing sample as an additional burden. It’s your opportunity to help shape how you’re seen as a candidate—so use it to your full advantage.