Help me concoct the essay portion of this test
February 15, 2007 2:10 PM   Subscribe

I want to give a job applicant a writing test.

I'm looking for someone who can write promotional copy for a professional audience. It's fairly technical subject matter (healthcare), but what I really want to find out is "can this person write?" The person is unproven, with only a few unpublished samples, but a good background for the subject matter he or she would be writing about.

I want to get a few different things from the applicant - a few headlines, a 0:30 script, and copy for a product home page. How much time should I allow the applicant? I think the person should be allowed to take the "test" home, but maybe not. I was thinking of allowing 2 days. Sound OK? Should I use an existing product or make one up? Is there some huge obvious thing I have to do that I am forgetting?

Any other advice is welcome.
posted by Mister_A to Writing & Language (15 answers total) 3 users marked this as a favorite
Ahh and I just heard that, if I ask this person to do a writing test, I must also ask other people who applied for the position to do a test as well. That complicates things a little.
posted by Mister_A at 2:14 PM on February 15, 2007

Could you just tell all the applicants that you're looking for a sample of technical writing, and if they don't have something that's already prepared, to write something "fake" and bring it in?
posted by muddgirl at 2:17 PM on February 15, 2007

I did this for a community radio station I was on the Board of, once - we sent all the applicants a pretend complaint about us airing profanity/obscenities, and asked them to bring to the interview a response to the complaint geared at the complainant, and another geared at the CRTC (Canadian oversight for radio stations). Several candidates who interviewed well turned out to be unable (even with a week's preparation time) to write a decent letter, which was a huge part of the job. It was a really valuable process to have gone through.

I think you should make up a product, because you don't want the applicant to think you're just trying to get some free work out of them.

Whether you let them take it home or have them do it on the spot would depend, I would think, on how much time they generally have to do this stuff once they're in the position. If they frequently need to produce last-minute brilliant copy, then do it in the interview. If they'll pretty much always have at least a day or two to prepare, then give them that. You want this test to reflect their skill at what you'd actually be hiring them to do.
posted by joannemerriam at 2:18 PM on February 15, 2007 [1 favorite]

Ahh and I just heard that, if I ask this person to do a writing test, I must also ask other people who applied for the position to do a test as well. That complicates things a little.
posted by Mister_A at 5:14 PM EST on February 15

At least in Canada (the only country I've been involved in hirings), all prepared interview questions and tests have to be the same for each candidate. Follow-up questions to clarify don't have to be, though, but you can't judge candidates on different criteria.
posted by joannemerriam at 2:21 PM on February 15, 2007

Can you limit the number of persons you need to test by doing it as a secondary screening? Thin the herd down to the top two or three candidates and only test them.

And I agree with joannemerriam- make the test match what they'll be expected as close as possible.
posted by InfidelZombie at 2:25 PM on February 15, 2007

I was asked to write something for my current job before I got to the interview. I received a letter explaining that I was a finalist, as well as some materials and specific instructions of what work needed to be complete and when it needed to be back in the hands of the hiring folks. I had 2-3 weeks. That might be a way to try it.
posted by croutonsupafreak at 3:30 PM on February 15, 2007

You are right about the need to ask all applicants the same questions.

Moreover, in the writing/marketing community, it is often considered unethical to ask someone to write something as part of the job interview process, unless there is no way it could possibly apply to anything you could ever need for your company.

Since you are interested in one particular candidate and you want to see the quality of their writing, why not contract them to do the work? When I was starting out many years ago, I got $15 an hour from one employer for this purpose. (This was around half of what I would have typically made as a freelancer, but I agreed that it was a fair gesture, given that the employer was unsure of whether I could meet his criteria for a full-time job.) Surely $20 or $25 an hour for the work would help test the candidate's writing and project management skills, without putting you in a bind over the interview process.
posted by acoutu at 3:47 PM on February 15, 2007

I ask candidates to write a one-page formal business letter responding to Mr. So-and-So's request for more information about a particular program. I provide the candidates with relevant pages from our website on said program. There's more info than they can use in a one-page letter, which requires them to look at the provided information, decide what's most important, and do some combining & paraphrasing.

I give them an hour. This test is administered during the pre-interview HR stuff.
posted by desuetude at 4:27 PM on February 15, 2007 [1 favorite]

yeah. work for no pay is cheesy. Personally, i would walk away from any interview process when that was requested of me, unless i was truly desperate.

Either ask for existing samples, or bring them on as a contractor like acoutu said.

Do anything besides putting them in a room at the interview and asking to write something in 30 minutes under ridiculous pressure. That doesn't measure much of anything about a real world writing situation.
posted by drjimmy11 at 4:55 PM on February 15, 2007

> That doesn't measure much of anything about a real world writing situation.

Are you kidding? It measures how they perform in a real world writing situation: "We need this right away, do it." If you can't crank out something passable in that time, you are in the wrong line of work.

We use a coding exercise as part of our interviews of programmers and it helps enormously. Even if the sample code stinks, you get a chance to ask the applicant why it stinks and how to fix it.

Even if they can't work wonders under pressure, you get some idea what they can do. It is the fairest test of all because you are asking them to actually do something they will do in the job.

Anyone who whines about "working for free" for spending 30 minutes of their time proving their skills and abilities is somebody with an exaggerated sense of what 30 minutes of their time is worth. Nobody's first draft is worth suckering them out of.
posted by mrbugsentry at 5:57 PM on February 15, 2007

Thanks all, some great ideas.
posted by Mister_A at 6:25 PM on February 15, 2007

I had to take few writings tests recently.

The writing test that seemed to be the most relevent, did not appear to try to 'get free work' from me, gave me a good taste for the workplace, etc. was as follows (I can send you the exact question if you email me):
-Write an email for a pharmaceutical company with an outline for a medical education powerpoint covering such-and-such topic (limit the email to 250 words)
-Write an abstract for a review article for such-and-such product (limit the abstract to 150 words).

Limiting the words will save both you and the potential employee time. No one would probablyl 'steal' an outline.

The product was something actually used in the health/medical field and assessed research as well as writing skills.

I had the test for a day or two but was told to only work on the project for a few hours/max.

I actually liked this writing test it gave me a taste for the actual day-to-day work. A few hours was not unfair since I already interviewed for an entire day at the company, and knew I was interested.
posted by Wolfster at 8:16 PM on February 15, 2007

Anyone who whines about "working for free" for spending 30 minutes of their time proving their skills and abilities is somebody with an exaggerated sense of what 30 minutes of their time is worth. Nobody's first draft is worth suckering them out of.

Many, many unscrupulous employers use "writing tests" to generate campaign ideas, solicit improvements to existing collateral, gain new perspectives and so on. They may not take the writing and stick it in a brochure, but they may use the ideas or approach for other materials. And some especially desperate employers would take a 30-minute writing piece and use it. (I am a consultant and freelance writer and I *frequently* have wingnuts contact me about hiring me for 15 or 30 minutes of writing. I decline.)

However, 30 minutes is a good test of one's writing abilities. But make sure the writing is not connected to your products or company. Strong candidates, new or not, will know to walk away. In fact, many instructors/profs and mentors warn new grads of these situations. It's not just a problem in the writing world -- graphic design is another good example and I'm sure many other consultants can cite examples.
posted by acoutu at 10:41 PM on February 15, 2007

The thing to remember here is that this candidate does not have a ton of clips to show; only a couple of samples that were not published. I would not ask an experienced professional writer to take a test like this.

The issue now is that I have interviewed some candidates with more experience, and I think what I may do, rather than call it a test, is to ask all candidates to show me 3 examples of a, 2 of b and 1 of c, since the requirements have to be the same for every candidate. If the inexperienced candidate does not have examples of these, he or she will have to generate them (on his or her own time, not on my dime) in order to fulfill the application requirements.

Finally, I would like to remind the respondents here that this candidate has never worked as a professional writer, and I am going out of my way to give him or her a shot at this job opportunity. This is not someone with a ton of clips. This is someone with no clips who seems interesting and really wants to break into the industry. If this candidate is not willing to put in a couple of hours of time to generate a sample that I can use to make an apples-to-apples comparison with the other, more experienced applicants, I am not going to consider said candidate.
posted by Mister_A at 6:36 AM on February 16, 2007

Mister_A: This harkens back to the age-old question:

Is it better to hire someone with experience in a particular field (in this case, healthcare) and hope they can learn how to write well? Or should you hire a professional writer and let them learn the material?

Experience has proven time and again that the latter approach is much more successful. Professional copywriters (like myself) are accustomed to absorbing huge chunks of material before turning it into compelling content for a specific audience. That's why so many of us develop specialties in certain niches.

Unless you have 52 weeks of material to generate each year, a good freelancer will generally cost you far less than a full-time staffer who sits around half the time with nothing to do. In addition, if the candidate doesn't even have a blog, I wonder how dedicated he will be to becoming a writer. Take it from me, writing is very tough work.

My suggestion: look for a freelance writer (preferably someone with magazine experience) or a copywriter who specializes in healthcare, and hire them on a per-project basis. If you need a few referrals, my email is in my profile. Good luck!
posted by wordwhiz at 3:04 PM on February 16, 2007

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