Skip to main contentA logo with &quat;the muse&quat; in dark blue text.
Advice / Job Search / Interviewing

Here's What the Hiring Manager's Actually Looking For in That (Dreaded) Take-Home Assignment

Just when you think the you’ve nailed your interview, you hear this dreaded line:

As the next step in the process, we’d like for you to complete a short take-home assignment.

Suddenly, instead of doing a celebratory dance that you’re one step closer to the position, you’re thinking, “I’d better cancel my dinner plans for tonight, and tomorrow.” Quickly followed by, “Oh no! This is where they find out I’m a complete fraud!”

Before you panic about the assignment that’s standing between you and your dream job, take a deep breath and stop beating yourself up over it. It’s not exactly what you think—seriously, I used to assign them to candidates all the time, so I know.

Here are a couple things you need to understand about what hiring managers are actually looking for in this project.

Don’t Agonize Over Finding the “Right” Answer

If you haven’t been hired yet, you shouldn’t be expected to know all the nitty-gritty details about a company. And hiring managers know this!

Sure, the assignment is a great way for the company to see how you would address a real business problem, but it would be unrealistic to expect even the most qualified candidates to present a solution that could be implemented immediately. Again, I can’t reiterate this enough: The person who assigned this is completely aware of that fact!

And because of this, you shouldn’t stay up late focusing only on getting the “right” answer. Odds are, there isn’t only one right answer.

Depending on your expertise, this might manifest itself in a number of ways. If you’re a programmer who’s being asked to write some sample code, the hiring manager is going to be way more interested in how quickly you identify the mistakes you’ve made. And before you say, “Well, I won’t make any mistakes,” don’t worry, you will. The same goes for those of you who are writers, marketers, or sales people. You will mess up somewhere in the assignment.

When you’re brought in again (fingers crossed) and asked to discuss where you went wrong, be open and willing to find and acknowledge any errors. Bonus points if you can bring quick fixes and solutions to the table as well. One way to prepare for this conversation is to look at your take-home test before going back in to the office—you’ll almost always find a spot you’d like to revise.

Don’t Psych Yourself Out

How many times have you looked at the email outlining the requirements and thought to yourself, “If I can’t do this, how would I possibly excel in the actual job?”

Here’s the thing, though: If you weren’t capable of doing the job, you wouldn’t have been sent home with it in the first place.

In fact, the take-home assignment should actually be a huge boost to your confidence. When you’re asked to complete one, it’s a clear indication that the hiring manager’s excited to see how you’d tackle a problem similar to one the organization’s been dealing with. In other words, the company’s struggled with the issue in the past and would love to hear your input!

Of course, depending on exactly what you’re being asked to complete, you’ll want to take some additional precautions before diving in. But the mere fact that you’re moving to this step is a good indication you’re a top contender.

Keep in mind: The person who will review this assignment’s often juggling multiple calendars, interviews, and never-ending inboxes. No one adds more to his or her plate for fun. You’re in a great place!

Don’t Forget This Is Just as Much for You as it Is for the Hiring Manager

Most job seekers can’t count the number of times they’ve been told they should be interviewing a company as much as a company interviews them. There are a number of reasons for this, but the biggest reason is to make sure you actually want to join the company (how many of us have taken jobs just because we’ve needed them—only to regret it on day one?). However, as tired as you might be of hearing this kind of advice, it also applies to the assignment:

If you find it boring or not suited for your skills, don’t ignore this.

While it won’t be completely indicative of what your day-to-day will be like, many elements of it are probably pretty close. It’s OK if it’s challenging, but it’s not OK if you’re miserable from the minute you start it.

Back in my recruiting days, I worked with each hiring manager to develop take-home assignments that would give us clarity on whether or not a candidate would thrive in similar challenges. We didn’t always expect people to nail the assignment. In fact, in some cases, we liked a candidate so much, we just wanted to make sure he or she met our deadline. But, we did try to give the person an idea of what to expect. If that doesn’t line up for what you’re hoping to do in your next role, take that into consideration, especially if you’re ultimately offered the job.

Yes, an interview assignment can be daunting, but it’s nothing to lose your mind over. Take a deep breath, remind yourself that you can do this, and remember that while it’s an important piece of your candidacy, it’s not the only piece. You’ve gotten this far—now you only have a little bit longer to go.

Photo of stressed worker courtesy of Shutterstock.