When you read the initial request, it can make you cringe. In most cases, filling out a job application is relatively painless, but if a company then requests that you include an application essay, also known as a writing sample, it's not uncommon for your nerves to kick in. Such on-the-spot exercises can illuminate a prospective employer, especially if you're applying for a job that requires frequent writing under deadline pressure; however, it's understandable that such a request might make an applicant feel anxious. Fear not. You can prepare for this task by following some sensible, straightforward guidelines. By learning how to put your best foot forward, you can dance your way through the exercise with grace and flair -- while making a lasting impression.
Budget your time accordingly. Most employers allot a certain amount of time for an application essay, such as 30 minutes. In this case, you might want to allocate 5 minutes to reading the directions and your essay choices, 20 minutes to writing and 5 minutes to proofreading and editing.
Choose the topic of your application essay carefully. Employers often give interviewees their choice of three or more topics, so follow the writer’s maxim and choose a topic with which you're familiar and can address with comfort and authority.
Read and highlight the instructions carefully. Take note of the number of paragraphs required, the word count and whether you are asked to incorporate quotes. Particularly if writing is part of the job description, focus on clarity, specificity and a logical progression of ideas.
Avoid topics, words and even punctuation that make you uneasy. As tempting as it might be to want to impress a prospective employer, you might do just the opposite if you misrepresent an idea, misspell a word or punctuate incorrectly. For example, if you're uncertain about how to use a semicolon, use a period instead. Give yourself every opportunity to succeed.
Write an engaging introduction for your job application essay. Strive for creativity, but don’t stray from the topic. Try to relate to the reader. Think of how you would verbally “speak” your essay and follow your instincts.
Write a strong topic sentence and illustrative follow-up sentences to form each paragraph. A strong topic sentence sets the subject and tone for the sentences that follow -- each of which should amplify that first key sentence, one building upon the other. There is no set number of sentences to include in a paragraph, but a good rule of thumb is to strive for at least four.
Close your job application essay on a memorable note, perhaps by tying it into your introductory paragraph. Endings are often the most difficult part of an essay to write, so consider closing with a quote or a provocative question. A good ending should bring an essay to a proper conclusion, without leaving out important information or raising new questions. It also should feel “right” and as such, read your entire essay again to see if the final sentence effectively concludes it.
Edit your words carefully, eliminating vague qualifiers such as “really,” “basically,” “probably,” “very,” “somewhat,” and “practically.” Pare redundancies, such as “future plans,” “first introduction,” and “free gift.” Strengthen your verb choices, but don’t forsake clarity for dramatic flourish.
- Try to have fun writing your essay, but invoke humor and wit only if you're certain they will enhance your essay. Sarcasm is often humorous, but unless someone knows you and your sense of humor, it might be best to avoid it as it could backfire.
About the Author
With education, health care and small business marketing as her core interests, M.T. Wroblewski has penned pieces for Woman's Day, Family Circle, Ladies Home Journal and many newspapers and magazines. She holds a master's degree in journalism from Northern Illinois University.
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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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