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The Dreaded Writing Sample

Poor writing samples trip up many a job seeker.

Strong writing and communication skills are highly sought after by most employers. Whether crafting short emails or lengthy annual reports, many workers use their writing skills every day. And for an employer seeking proof behind that ubiquitous candidate phrase, "excellent communication skills", a required writing sample is invaluable.

Writing samples need the same care and attention given to cover letters and resumes. Candidates with otherwise impeccable credentials are routinely eliminated by a poorly chosen writing sample. Notice I said "poorly chosen" not "poorly written." Because that's the rub: a writing sample not only reveals the individual's writing skills, it also offers a peek into what they consider important or relevant for the position. If you miss that mark with your writing sample, don't expect to get a call for an interview.

So how do you tackle that writing sample request? Here are 5 tips to make sure your writing sample doesn't end your chances of getting the job:

1. Know that a lot of people don't send a sample-- so if you send one, your chances of scoring an interview just improved. Requiring a writing sample usually drops the candidate pool in half-- only about 50% of candidates will take the time to send one. That makes it easier for the recruiter-- fewer applicants to consider. (Oh-- and if you're thinking you can ignore the request for the writing sample and still remain in contention for the position, think again.)

2. Make sure your sample is perfect and contains no spelling or grammatical errors. Employers aren't seeking writing samples for the fun of it. Most of us have learned that resumes and cover letters are not always written by the candidate. Short of plagiarism (which is never recommended!), candidates usually submit their "true" work in a writing sample. I work in a higher education setting, for example, and good writing skills are important. I can't afford to have staff members sending poor quality emails to faculty or employers, so I carefully read writing samples for obvious problems.

3. Understand that a writing sample request is another form of test. How well does the candidate understand the position and/or the field to which they are applying? Sending a sample educational report on a student to an advertising firm or a report about pregnant teenagers to a nonprofit environmental agency quickly demonstrates that the candidate hasn't thought about the position and the type of writing involved. Don't waste time wishing that the employer would give you more information about the writing sample: sorry, folks, that's part of the test. If the employer doesn't specify what they're seeking, perhaps that's because they expect you to know. If a length is not specified, generally speaking, one or two pages should be fine.

4. Always consider the audience and the position/job description. Who will likely read your writing sample? What field are they in? What type of writing would a person in the position you're seeking likely produce? (Hint: if you don't know, then you don't know the position well enough to apply for it. Time for more research.) If, for example, you're applying for a public relations job, sending sample press releases would make sense. If you're applying for a job as a counselor you might create a fake client progress report such as what you would send to an insurance company to ensure continued coverage. Or if the agency has a website, you might create a fake "Dear Abby" type letter where you present a common client question and answer it.

5. What should you not send? The list is endless. I've received everything from poetry to 20-page research papers (complete with the professor's comments and grade) to self-serving essays describing why the candidate is the best person for the position. Don't do that-- and don't just pick the first Word document on your computer. Unless requested, avoid writing an essay-- few jobs require you to write essays. Remember, the key word for all writing is relevance. Is what you're sending relevant to the job at hand? If not, why are you sending it? Don't include a sample that clearly states a political or religious agenda (unless you're applying to a political or religious organization) or a sample which disparages any person or groups. Avoid writing samples which contain humor, particularly if the humor is sarcastic and subject to misinterpretation (unless of course you're applying to be a joke writer or a cynical newspaper columnist).

The opportunity to send a writing sample doesn't have to strike fear in the heart of a candidate. Carefully choosing your sample and making sure that it actually sells your "excellent communication skills" can place you far ahead of other candidates who submitted equally strong cover letters and resumes. Bottom-line: if you can't send a good writing sample either find a job that doesn't require writing skills or build up your skills. Good writers are hard to find and strong writing skills can propel your career in a variety of directions.

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