Employers are increasingly using sample work assignments to narrow down their list of candidates during the hiring process. It could be as simple as a test that’s part of the online application, or you could be asked to spend several hours analyzing data after an initial phone screen.
Some job seekers may find that they’re asked to do a take-home assignment before they have even had an interview. So, is it really worth it to complete unpaid (and sometimes lengthy) sample work during the application process?
Potential benefits to job seekers
There are certain benefits to this type of work audition. Just as a stellar writing sample can showcase your talents, acing the the assignment could help you to stand out among the applicants.
Aside from giving you the chance to show off your relevant skills, sample work can also provide a window into the position, offering you an opportunity to see what types of projects you can expect in the role. If you find the assignment tedious or simply not what you had hoped for, then you may want to reconsider whether the job is a good fit. On the other hand, if you have fun doing the assignment, then it's probably a good sign!
What you should be wary of
There may be times when what you’re being asked to provide just doesn’t sit right. It’s useful to remember that you’re essentially working for free. You should consider whether the amount of time you’re expected to devote to the sample work corresponds with where you are in the hiring process. If you have yet to speak with a recruiter or phone screener, it’s unlikely that your work is going to be carefully considered when there are many other applicants still in the running.
And if you’re asked to provide unique content, such as graphic design or a sample grant application, you should be aware that the organization could potentially use this work without giving you credit.
Pro Tip: Is the organization often reposting the same position? It may be a sign that the hiring managers aren’t seriously considering filling the role.
Weighing the pros and cons
Ultimately, you need to consider whether you feel the process is worth the effort, whether it is a reasonable request, and how badly you want the job. Before spending a significant amount of time on a work sample, consider whether the job is really a good fit for you—you don’t want to be bogged down doing free work for organizations that you’re not really interested in. And if you’re at all concerned about where your work products are going to end up, it is completely within your rights to ask what the work will be used for.
If you are keen on the position but opposed to completing any sample work, you could say something like, “Due to time commitments, I’m unable to work on any unpaid projects, but I would be happy to provide you with an alternate example of my work.” While you run the risk of the prospective employer cutting you out of the running, you're offering a good option by which to evaluate you if they’re truly interested.
But if you’ve already interviewed and have a good idea of where you are in the process, a lengthier sample assignment may seem more reasonable (sometimes, an organization will even offer a small hourly reimbursement). You might consider asking how much time you’re expected to spend on the project, and make a decision from there.
Have you had to complete an assignment as part of the application or interview process? Tweet at us!
Lakshmi Hutchinson is a freelance writer with experience in the nonprofit, education, and HR fields. She is particularly interested in issues of educational and workplace equity, and in empowering women to reach their professional goals. She lives in Glendale, California with her husband, twin girls, and tuxedo cat.