How do I write this writing assignment for a job application?
September 24, 2020 6:01 PM   Subscribe

I'm trying to finish an application for a job posting, it's basically a writing sample, but I have no idea a) what to say, b) how to format it, and c) it's TANKING my self-esteem (and I feel like shit, now). I'm hoping to get some advice on how I should go about doing this! (or Should I actually even bother applying for this position?)

(First off, I realize that I'm contradicting my previous Ask from 2 days ago asking about taking a break from employment!! I'm sorry!)

Upon further reflection, maybe THIS is why I need a break?

I found a job posting at a really great library, for a position REALLY similar to my current one, but... it sounded too good to be true, and it WAS too good to be true! Through my "network" I found out that there's an internal candidate for the position. I've been convinced by a few colleagues at library I work at, that it's still a good idea to apply for this position because a) it shows I want to work there, b) it puts my name out there, in general, and c) it's just good practice.

Okay, fine. So, I've pretty much finished my cover letter, updated my resume, and NOW I'm supposed to submit a ONE-PAGE assignment along with my resume answering a question that amounts to "tell us about a time you showed leadership related to X." Well, okay, I tried to write something... (I had experience supervising a virtual summer student this year, due to COVID-19.) I sent it off to my director who gave me pretty harsh (well, probably good feedback -- but I was in a bad mood, so it sent me into this death-spiral of shame).

What I wrote sounded too much like it was a STORY. Well, it IS a story? I don't understand how else to write that? I'm honestly, not a very succinct or good writer. How else am I supposed to translate what I did without it sounding like... a story? What else is it supposed to sound like? She told me to work logically (intro, background, proof of leadership, successes, outcomes, failures)... uhhh... I don't really think what I did counts as "leadership" when you look at it in those terms, but she says it does. She also said that I should use headers, make it easy to read... what? I'm honestly not trying to be obtuse here, but I DON'T GET IT!!!

How do I explain what I did... without telling a story? I mean, maybe I can't? And therefore, shouldn't apply for the job? No doubt learning that there is an internal candidate knocked the wind out of my sails, for sure. And how am I supposed to be succinct? One page seems like A LOT for this? I can't even imagine how to structure it, format it, etc. with headings? Am I supposed to have a heading then write two sentences? Then move on? I am truly, truly, at a loss. I don't even have anyone who'd be willing to read what I'd write for this. I used to get a teacher colleague at the school I worked out, but we haven't talked in MONTHS and with being a teacher and COVID-19 going on... yeah, that's not happening.

And now I'm caught in this classic low anxiety, shame-spiral, ("I'm not a leader," "Maybe I don't deserve to work in libraries?," "are any other fields hiring?" "Ugh, I'm not a ~*rockstar librarian~*~ so why bother? I'm such an idiot.,"etc.) I haven't felt this way in a LONG time and since I've been working with my therapist, my self esteem has been getting incrementally better... in my actual personal life. But with work? This is something I have to work on with her, but unfortunately I don't have an appointment until NEXT week, and this sample is due before then, and I just feel like a shitty stupid person who has no right to apply for jobs. The director told me to not "doubt" myself, but... I feel like a fucking idiot!! Like, in my opinion, I haven't been some AMAZING rockstar at my current job and that's all libraries want. I've been... fine, with very negative feedback, but have I received any feedback to think that I've done some sort of OUTSTANDING job? No. So I've been pretty "meh," overall.

Oh boy, there's a lot going on here. So, I guess my 2 questions are A) How do I write something like this properly? and B) Should I even BOTHER with this position? They're obviously going to hire the internal candidate, so I might as well not waste their time.
posted by VirginiaPlain to Work & Money (17 answers total) 8 users marked this as a favorite
Go with the STAR format (a standard process for these writing tasks), and be broad in your definition of leadership.

This is worth doing merely for the paragraphs you'll have at the end of it, that you can cut-and-paste into the next applications you do. It's not about self-doubt or self-confidence—you shouldn't approach the task as having any kind of personal meaning at all, good or bad. It's just paperwork. Take it from someone who spent a lengthy time unemployed and re-writing these over and over again, every application is absolutely worth doing, and conversely, not a single one is worth worrying about at all. Slam it onto the page, send it off, never ever think about it again.
posted by Fiasco da Gama at 6:14 PM on September 24, 2020 [18 favorites]

Answering your second point first, it never hurts to apply. You remember how standardized tests used to say there’s no penalty for guessing? Same thing. The absolute worst thing that can happen is that they hire the other candidate without even looking at your resume, and so what? Meanwhile, the upside is pretty big. So do it. No reason not to.

As for the first question, well, I think the feedback you got might have been a little harsh. As the previous commenter noted, this is just bureaucratic paperwork, but I’m not convinced that telling a story is bad here. Would you rather read a personal essay or some robo-boilerplate? Being an engaging storyteller is a valuable skill in a public-facing position.

Ultimately, though, I agree that it doesn’t matter. If you get the job, it’ll be because of your experiences and your references. If you don’t, it’s most likely because they went with the internal candidate. This writing sample wont make a difference either way. They’ll forget it as soon as they read it. I’ve spent more time writing this comment than you should spend on the whole thing.
posted by kevinbelt at 6:24 PM on September 24, 2020 [1 favorite]

Take a step back. If you were in the hiring library's shoes, what are the top 3 things they would want to see in a candidate's leadership? Is it leading others? Is it being able to convince others to do X without formal authority? Is it being an expert in X topic b/c they're focused on X topic? Is it doing something proactively, without being asked?

Once you decide on what are the likely top 3 things (based on what you know of the library, the job description, your networks' tips), work to find a way to tell 3 stories (or so) that describe how you've done this.

Then, write 3 little stories. The STAR format mentioned above is great. I also really like, Context, Actions, Result and Learning/Self-reflection.

And then write a intro paragraph and a closing paragraph.


I heard a joke from a comedian that if there were a job requirement that to be CEO? (President?) where you needed experience in breast feeding, then men would write about how they supported their wife in breastfeeding and thus have all the experience in breastfeeding to do the job, and women would talk about how they breastfed in an OK way, but there could be improvements.

I don't like the gendered stereotypes in this joke (and I'm not assuming your gender), but it reminds me that it is OK to paint yourself in the best light, because everyone is doing it, and it may feel uncomfortable, but it can be a good experience to push through it, get it done, and then next time this comes around, you'll be even more comfortable and prepared to do it. You can do this!
posted by ellerhodes at 6:32 PM on September 24, 2020 [8 favorites]

This kind of situation is a perfect one for the Opposite Day brain hack I describe here. "Sure sure, you're a terrible leader and this kind of one-pager is odious bullshit. I mean, just look, it would sound horrible, like This. Oh look, it's not too bad." I think your adviser gave good advice about adding some structure. And yes, use 12-point font and just aim to write 2-4 sentences per paragraph, and it's okay to have only one paragraph per section. You can use memo style to use up 4-6 lines at the top, and then if you give a full line to your headers with 12 point space before and after those headers, you only need about 4 sections to fill most of the page. I've seen shoo-in internal candidates end up in second place, so go for it.
posted by salvia at 7:01 PM on September 24, 2020 [2 favorites]

It sounds like you’re putting a lot of pressure on yourself here! I like the idea to just treat this essay like the bureaucratic paperwork that it is. I’m also wondering if you can trick your brain a bit; I mean, this is just practice anyways, cause the other candidate is going to get it, right? If you can approach it that way does it help relieve the stress and pressure so you can put your head down, start revising, and get something together that you feel ok about?
posted by stellaluna at 9:45 PM on September 24, 2020

You’re overthinking here a little. Your director’s point is *probably* that your tone is too florid and maybe not professional enough. In my experience, this a spot a lot of people get wrong. They want to be passionate and a little entertaining and it ends up being overwrought with too much narrative, when the person reading is really looking for direct, concise and convincing. Way more show, way less tell.

That said, done is better than perfect, so just read it out loud to yourself 4 or 5 times, clean it up and send it.
posted by vunder at 10:23 PM on September 24, 2020 [2 favorites]

make it easy to read

In the hiring manager's shoes, I would want to be able to glance at your page and be instantly able to spot:
HERE is what the challenge was
HERE is what the candidate did to resolve it
HERE is the proof of success
HERE is the conclusion that reiterates why this is an example of leadership skills

Personally, for each of these, I would probably use bullet points and bolded first words ("Conclusion:") rather than headers. But headers serve the same purpose: they're a big fat arrow saying "HERE is the information you are looking for about X."

I love stories. I write stories. But when I need to get information across to busy people, I try to bullet point it as much as possible, keep to the important "need to know" bits (no extraneous detail, nothing to make it a story arc) and clarity before beauty.

Also, when I read your post I wanted to virtual hug you. There is NOTHING wrong with you. Code switching from storytelling to different formats is hard. Applying is hard. EVERYTHING is hard. You are doing it, and surviving. Don't beat yourself up.
posted by Omnomnom at 11:33 PM on September 24, 2020 [3 favorites]

> You’re overthinking here a little. Your director’s point is *probably* that your tone is too florid and maybe not professional enough.

Also, that it might be a good idea to put it into a bit of a business format, where you use headers and other such things to highlight important information, and where you make a major point of stating major conclusions prominently and in brief. (Exactly what Omnomnom said.)

I'm guessing if you edit the perfectly fine thing that you have already written, to tighten it up a little bit, maybe replace a few words so it is a bit more business-like than artistic/playful/overwrought emotional or that type of thing, and then maybe add some headers or bullet points or highlighted type things to highlight a couple of your main points and your main conclusion.

(And when I say "add"--probably not actually add anything new, but rather reformat and repurpose some of the things you've already written to make one important bit a little header, and little list of things you did a list of bullet points, etc. In short, more of a minor editing job with slight re-writing than throw this horrible thing out and start again from scratch.)

And, done.

This would be easier if you could put it away for a week and then come back fresh. But, do what you can to look at it again from a fresh viewpoint, in the time you have.

Also, pro tip: If you don't change one word, one comma, one bit of formatting in your story, and submit it with your application just exactly as it is, the world will still keep whirling along on its orbit exactly as before, the sun will still rise and still set, clocks will still continue ticking, dogs will continue to bark exactly as before, your lungs will continue to breathe air in and out, your heart will continue to beat, and so on.

If you can spend 30 or 60 minutes making your page a little more concise and business-like, great. If you try that and you're not very happy with the result, or you just can't figure out how, just submit what you have already and proceed.

Good luck!
posted by flug at 1:23 AM on September 25, 2020 [2 favorites]

It is absolutely worth applying. I remember a previous Ask from you and I remember cheering when you got the job. You might not get it, but it will still have been worth applying. Every application makes the next one easier to write.

You don’t have to be perfect. Most working librarians are not rockstars who are keynoting at conferences. That’s not the bar for employability. That’s just who you see because it probably is the bar for high visibility.
posted by eirias at 4:18 AM on September 25, 2020

Without reading it ourselves it's hard to say, but likely you wrote what happened in chronological order. That, combined with what others said above about a less formal tone can make it sound like you're telling a story. While storytelling can be a powerful technique in the business world (what can I say, I'm a marketer) it's not what you want to go with here.

It's really hard to get out of that chronological mindset, so don't beat yourself up! How else are you supposed to explain what happened without telling it in order? I think some of the suggestions above should help. Basically, describe the background (I was given responsibility over a virtual summer intern with constraints x y and z); describe the approaches you took to overcome the constraints (I developed this learning plan, arranged for regular check ins, and coached the intern in ways a, b, and c); this approach was successful (as evidenced by intern accomplishments 1, 2, and 3 and department/org goals met); and a conclusion that includes some analysis of what worked best and what you would do differently next time.
posted by misskaz at 4:45 AM on September 25, 2020 [2 favorites]

Response by poster: Thank you so much for your advice, so far!

For those of you mentioning changing the writing style to a more business-like/professional style, what exactly do you mean? I know that might sound dumb and I took a business writing course years and years ago (that I clearly remember nothing from). I'm a bit embarrassed to ask, but is there a good place online I can read... samples of this style I should be writing it? I'm still struggling to envision how this should look.
posted by VirginiaPlain at 5:48 AM on September 25, 2020

A few samples

Another example
posted by salvia at 6:39 AM on September 25, 2020

Response by poster: Looking at those examples -- am I supposed to write this in the third person? Is it writing about my experience in the first person that makes it sound like a story?
posted by VirginiaPlain at 8:09 AM on September 25, 2020

I will go against the grain and say I find it very odd to put a one-page doc into formatted memo/heading style. Your boss gave an opinion, but it's not necessarily the only opinion or even what the job is looking for, just because your boss is in the field. We don't know!

FWIW, I've written dozens of these types of asks for job apps, and while mine are succinct, they are told in first person and "story style", that is "here was the problem, here's what I did, here was the outcome", but in narrative form.... and I've gotten plenty of interviews.

Final thought, it's different if you're not getting any interviews ever, but I also think... if you have to contort yourself to write the way they want, or the way you think they want, maybe it's just not a good fit? I would not really want a job where my app was thrown out because I didn't write it memo-style, esp when the prompt didn't specify. I don't mean to sound flip, I just mean... if the interviewers aren't happy with your mostly-authentic voice, I'd be a little wary of my fit in the org.
posted by nakedmolerats at 9:53 AM on September 25, 2020 [1 favorite]

Maybe it would help you to just write down your answers to questions, e.g. for the STAR format. Or record your answers and then transcribe them, like an interview.

What was the situation? This summer, our library started an internship program ....
What were you supposed to do? I was asked to supervise ...
What did you do, what was your approach? I thought about how best to .. and then I ...
How did it turn out? At first the intern ... the patrons... we even managed to...

Just giving some examples, you’ll fill in your own responses. And then instead of stating the questions in the document, you’d use headings, in the STAR case that would be situation, task, action, result. But you can use a different format of course.

Giving a first-person account is not the problem or what turns it into too much of storytelling. I suspect, like others in the thread, that it’s about tone and not being concise.
posted by meijusa at 11:09 AM on September 25, 2020 [1 favorite]

Ask A Manager is my go-to for all job questions. She has a few posts on behavioural questions (e.g. when you don’t have good examples) and some about applying when there is an internal candidate. She also has suggestions for cover letters and resumes including examples if you want to look at some to help with wording.

I’ll nth using the STAR method to outline your response.

Good luck!
posted by hydrobatidae at 5:34 PM on September 25, 2020

Response by poster: Well, I re-wrote it and submitted it. I did the best I could, we'll see! Thanks for all your advice!
posted by VirginiaPlain at 11:09 AM on September 27, 2020 [2 favorites]

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