You scroll down to the supplemental requirements and see that you’re supposed to submit a writing sample. Now what? Should you submit a research paper you wrote as an undergrad, a persuasive email, a personal blog post, a speech that’s kind of boring (but that you gave at a prestigious event), or maybe a newsletter you co-wrote?
Too often, you’re told that writing samples are simply there to demonstrate your writing ability. Certainly, that’s part of it. And if you start with the process of elimination, this discounts anything with typos, or run-ons, or that’s boring (bye-bye speech).
But the trick is what you do next: Conceptualize your application as a complete picture, with your writing sample as a supporting element. Here’s how it works.
Step 1: Write Your Slogan
You know that the objective statement is wasted space on your resume (because obviously your objective is to land the job). However, you should come up with a tagline for yourself. Who are you as an applicant? Are you a leader? Are you over-the-moon creative? What do you want the interviewer to remember about you?
Get really clear about the impression you want to make—maybe even jot down a few words. Let’s say you decide you want your tagline to be “brilliant, thoughtful client services professional with a passion for politics and tech startups.” Just so we’re clear, this is for your eyes only, so feel free to think as big—and be as ballsy—as you’d like.
Step 2: See What Needs Reinforcement
Now that you know what you want to demonstrate, re-read your slogan, resume, and cover letter one right after the other. Do your desired attributes shine through?
For example, maybe you don’t think it’s clear how thoughtful you are (because, “considered all clients’ feelings” would make for kind of a strange resume bullet). Look at your writing samples: A paper on presidential succession—no matter how mind-blowingly well written—isn’t going to evidence how you work with people. So, in this case you’d want to choose a persuasive memo, or perhaps part of grant that you’ve written; something that shows you think through how programs influence people.
Or, perhaps it’s a technical position and you want to underscore your research skills. Take a pass on the witty blog post, and choose the well-researched paper. You can say that you’re a quick and talented study in your cover letter, but your writing sample is an opportunity to show (rather than only tell).
Step 3: Consider the Classic Advice
Now that you’ve targeted in on how your writing sample will present you as a candidate, it’s time to revisit the classic advice. First, never send a writing sample with a typo. I’m sorry if you love the document otherwise: Just imagine the hiring manager reading it with blinking sign overhead that says “poor attention to detail and doesn’t know the difference between there and their” (and then throwing your application in the trash).
Next, you’ve probably heard that a writing sample should be relevant. So, if you’re applying to an environmental think tank, a piece about climate change would be ideal. This is good advice—so long as it fits in with your personal slogan. If you want to emphasize your background in the field, by all means go with the climate change piece. That said, if all of your degrees are environmental and you’re applying for a fundraising role, a letter that you wrote asking major donors to fund cancer research might better demonstrate your ability to raise money.
Finally, do consider any consequences. Any documents containing confidential information or that were written with the assistance of others are no-gos. View them like lying on your resume: It might get you an interview, but once the nature of your writing sample is discovered, your candidacy (or job) will be in jeopardy.
SOUNDS LIKE YOU’RE IN THE MIDDLE OF THE INTERVIEW PROCESS
Step 4: Stick to a Reasonable Length (and Tone)
Just like your resume and cover letter, a writing sample should max out at one page (unless you’re specifically asked to send something longer, like a research paper). A hiring manager has a lot to read. If your sample is longer than a page, it’ll be skimmed (or perhaps not even read beyond a certain point). You’ll be more memorable with a document that’s concise and effective. So, if all of your samples are long, consider an excerpt, such as an abstract from a long paper or the conclusion of an exciting speech.
As far as tone, refer to the company’s website, blog, and marketing materials. A snarky blog post may catch a reviewer’s eye, but it likely won’t earn you an interview at a conservative firm. On the other hand, a stuffy sample may make the hiring manager at a creative organization wonder whether you’d be a culture fit. If it could go either way, lean formal, as you can always loosen up later.
Step 5: Write an Introductory Paragraph
You know why you chose the press release over the academic abstract (or vice versa). But if you’re applying for a job at a fitness startup, the hiring manager may need you to tell her why you submitted it (as opposed to an essay on running).
So, give her a roadmap. At the top of your writing sample, write a couple of sentences that state when you wrote the document, why (or if it’s an excerpt, what it’s excerpted from), and what you think it evidences. It looks like this:
Please see below for a press release I wrote in June 2016 to promote the launch of a new product. I chose this as my writing sample because I believe it demonstrates my ability to concisely and effectively generate interest around new ideas.
Finally, don’t see a writing sample as an additional burden. It’s your opportunity to help shape how you’re seen as a candidate—so use it to your full advantage.
Photo of woman typing courtesy of Marcy Milks.
Sara McCord most often writes about making a better professional impression. She's been published on Mashable (where she was a regular career contributor), as well as Forbes, Newsweek, TIME, Inc., and Business Insider. A Staff Writer/Editor for The Muse, Sara has experience managing programs; recruiting, interviewing, and referring job applicants; building strategic partnerships; advising executive directors; and supporting a national network of volunteers. See more of her writing on her website or follow her on Twitter @sarajmccord.More from this Author