Congratulations! You’ve reached the part of the hiring process where you’ll be judged on what you can actually do, rather than how well you talk about what you can do. It’s an interview assignment—some sort of task directly related to the role you covet (most of the time this is normal and legitimate, though it can be misused).
Granted, the assignment can’t always mirror exactly the kind of work you’d do if you got the job. But in most cases, it comes closer than sitting in a room in clothes you don’t usually wear with a stranger who might become your boss, explaining why you would be the best choice.
Think of this as your best chance to show off your skills. And along those same lines, you should think about all the mistakes other people make that you can easily avoid.
1. You Didn’t Follow Directions
In fifth grade, my teacher handed out a pop quiz. It contained a list of questions and instructions at the top that told us to read through the whole thing first. A note at the bottom of the page directed us not to answer anything, and instead to put our pencils down and wait to see how many of our classmates passed the test. I was the only one who did.
At the time, my success did little but cement my status as a full-fledged nerd (and, yes, earn me some brownie points with my teacher). But it was an important lesson for a bunch of 10 year olds that job seekers would do well to remember.
Do what the assignment asks you to do, at the very least. Your potential bosses don’t want to hire someone who will do only half the job or a different job entirely. This is how you can show them they can count on you to get it done.
2. You Didn’t Ask Clarifying Questions or Check Your Assumptions
It’s hard to follow directions if you don’t quite understand them. If you’ve made an honest effort to parse what’s being asked of you and it still doesn’t make sense—or you’re missing information that would allow you to drastically improve the quality of your assignment—reach out and ask!
For some roles, such as sales or client services, the hiring team is actually looking for you to ask questions as part of the process to demonstrate curiosity and communication skills.
The same goes for assumptions you make about the assignment or the company or product you’re discussing. To revert to some fifth grade humor, remember that when you assume, you make an ass out of u and me.
No one expects you to know the ins and outs of a company you haven’t yet joined, but try to identify whether you’ve made any fundamental assumptions. Would it make your assignment that much better if you know whether those are right or wrong? Ask!
3. You Didn’t Show You Know the Company (at Least the Basics)
Chances are if you’ve gotten to this stage, you’ve made it through at least one previous round in the hiring process. And since you passed, you probably did some research about the company. Don’t forget that now!
Whether your assignment’s a writing test, a video-editing sample, a programming task, or a sample teaching lesson, make sure you understand and reflect what you can of the company’s values, style, and tone. You might get a style guide or an example to model your work after, and it never hurts to ask for one. You can also always do some research to glean what you can on your own.
I recently wrote a sample article about the best career advice I’ve ever received as part of my take-home project for this very job at The Muse. The recruiter didn’t send a template or specify a format, but I referred back to the website and built my story based on an intro-list-conclusion format I saw come up frequently (the same one I’m using for this article).
And it probably didn’t hurt (right, new boss?) that the tidbit I chose to write about—don’t be a jerk—was in line with The Muse’s no assholes value, which appears on every job posting.
To help you pull this off flawlessly, we created this handy little worksheet to fill out as you go.
4. You Didn’t Do More Than the Bare Minimum
These assignments aren’t just about giving an answer or even a right answer necessarily. They’re a chance for you to show how you think, how you approach problems, and how you could contribute to the company.
If the task, for example, is to say what you would change, think beyond minor tweaks to ideas that explore new possibilities you believe are in line with the company’s mission and goals and explain why. Or, add a brief note that delves into what you would do next after implementing whatever suggestions you gave or to explain your thought process.
You could be completely wrong (because you’re not yet immersed in the industry or aware of all the context or past decisions), but it’s a chance to showcase your creativity and ability to take initiative.
5. You Didn’t Reread, Proofread, and Review the Details
You finished the assignment! Great, but you’re definitely not done.
If any part of it is written (like my edit test, title cards for your video sample, your lesson plan or handouts, your PowerPoint presentation, your code, or even the email you’re sending with your submission), spell check it, fact check it, and read it again with an eagle eye. Now set it aside for a couple hours, or overnight if the timeframe allows, and read it again (and use these proofreading tricks while you’re at it).
6. You’re Not Excited About the Role, the Company, or Both—and it Shows
By this part of the hiring process, you should have a good sense of what the company does and what the role you’re applying for is. Try to take advantage of this opportunity to demonstrate your enthusiasm. In practice, you can do that by avoiding all the mistakes above; your efforts to turn in a stellar finished product show that you care.
When you send it back, include a message that reiterates your interest. Tell them how much you enjoyed the assignment, how it got you even more pumped about the role, and how much you’re looking forward to the next steps.
If you’ve reached this stage and realize you wouldn’t want the job under any circumstances or hate the company, it might be time to take yourself out of the running, politely. Save yourself, and the hiring team, some time.
Every part of the hiring process comes with its own challenges. While the assignment can often be done in your pajamas, while sitting on the couch (unless it’s not a take-home assignment, don’t show up for a sample presentation in your robe!), it has pitfalls that are just as easy to avoid as these common interview mistakes.
One final tip (that should really go without saying): Make sure you submit your work on time!
Photo of person with laptop on couch courtesy of franckreporter/Getty Images.
A longtime word nerd and bookworm, Stav studied history and dance at Stanford and later journalism at Columbia. Before joining The Muse, Stav was a staff writer at Newsweek, where she wrote about everything from Nazi hunters to Chinese adoptees to Good Girls Revolt, the real story and fictionalized TV show about a 1970 gender discrimination case at the magazine. She prefers sunshine and tolerates winters grudgingly.More from this Author