On the Job

Writing Samples: Providing the Write Stuff

By Kenneth Bredemeier
Special to washingtonpost.com
Monday, January 9, 2006; 9:00 AM

Different employers look for different things when looking to back up their impressions of a job candidate's work history. Asking for references is standard; so are multiple face-to-face interviews. Some companies even require a "tryout."

And it's very common for employers to request a writing sample. This, however, often puzzles applicants. Just what do they want? And what's the best way to provide it?

That question can become even more difficult in the case of workers who either cannot provide samples of their actual work because of confidentiality concerns -- or, especially in the case of younger applicants, who have no past on-the-job writing to share.

Here's one applicant's dilemma.

"My current job involves a significant amount of writing. However, I am not able to forward my work to any outside parties because of its sensitive nature. Can you recommend what I should supply as an alternative writing sample?"

It's good that this person is thinking ahead, says Karen Usher, president of TPO Inc., a Tysons Corner human resources firm, as requests for writing samples are common not only in creative fields such as publishing or advertising, but across the broad world of work.

Unfortunately, she admits, those who have performed only confidential or proprietary writing have the most difficulty responding to such requests. In such cases, Usher suggests, a good first step is to ask employers exactly what it is they are looking for. They may, for example, want to see the applicant research a specific topic, discuss a potential corporate strategy, or solve a problem. This information can frame the applicant's work as the sample is prepared.

If there are no such specific requirements, that leaves the applicant with lots of latitude. And it may be that the right piece is already sitting on your home computer. "It could be something independent of work, maybe something that was done for a volunteer group," Usher says. "Or maybe something from a book you're working on. Whatever the case, it has to be enough so they can get a sense of what your skill set is."

Recent graduates, meanwhile, may be able to furnish research papers or other academic reports.

Whatever you might submit, take care to double-check any submissions for spelling and grammar -- as if they were being prepared for actual professional work.

And if an employer won't accept student writing, consider a request for new work an opportunity to impress the company in a way a short resume cannot. "You can say, 'I don't have that, but I can produce it. This would be a good opportunity for you to see how I work,'" says Usher.

In both cases, Usher adds, each piece of written work created can be stored and turned into a "portfolio" that can make subsequent requests easier to handle.

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