How to Select the Perfect Writing Sample

woman typing

Regardless of the type of position you’re interviewing for, the ability to write clearly and concisely is a huge asset. While some hiring managers will evaluate your writing skills based solely on your resume and cover letter, others may ask you to take a simple grammar quiz or writing exercise if you make it to an in-person interview, and others still may ask you to submit a writing sample along with your application materials.

What your writing sample should say about you as a candidate

So if you’re asked to submit writing, how do you go about selecting (or drafting) the perfect sample? First, you’ll want to take a minute to consider all of your professional skills and experience that you’d like for this sample to highlight. No matter what job you’re applying for, it will be important to illustrate the following:

  • You can follow directions. Be sure to give the hiring manager what they are asking for. If they request two writing samples, don’t offer one, and while you may think it will work in your favor, submitting too many can be a mistake as well.
  • You are careful and concise. Unless specifically requested, don’t submit anything longer than one or two pages (your sample should offer your potential employer a taste of your work, not the entire archive) and of course, no typos!
  • You can read the room. Sure, you won’t literally be in the room with your potential employer when you’re selecting your writing sample, but be sure to be aware of what they are looking for (and what they definitely aren’t looking for). Don’t submit a post from your fashion blog to an organization that works to end homeless, and your grad school paper on the gender pay gap may not be the best choice for that urban gardening nonprofit you’re interviewing with.

What makes a good writing sample

  • Relevant. While the piece doesn’t necessarily need to mirror the mission of the organization, make sure that there are lines that can be drawn between the job description and your writing sample. For example, if the job requires creativity, find a creative writing sample. If the position calls for organization skills, consider submitting a structured memo with a summary and bullet points along the way.
  • Recent. If the last thing you wrote was in college (and you graduated more than a year or two ago), I’d recommend taking this as an opportunity to draft a fresh product (see below for more on that).
  • Concise. As mentioned in the previous section, keep it short! The same way that your goal-length for your resume should be two pages (max), remember that it can very well be the same person reading this sample and whether they’re reviewing your writing or your experience, you don’t want them getting bored and skimming.
  • Error free. Even if you have used a particular document for countless job applications, give it another read through to ensure that it is completely, 100% error free.

If you don’t have the perfect writing sample on hand, create one!

If, after you have gone through your files, you still can’t find an example of your writing that feels like an appropriate and relevant fit, it’s time to consider drafting something new. Here are some ideas for what types of samples you can put together:

  • Press release. The beauty of a press release is that it is designed to tell a story quickly. Spend some additional time digging through recent news on the organization for which you’re applying (many organizations have a news section on their site, so this should be pretty easy). Identify one recent event, product release, initiative, report, etc. that you can draft a press release around, and get to it!
  • How-to. Select one (or several) responsibilities or required skills from the job description and draft a step-by-step how-to. If the role happens to include any training, teaching, or coaching responsibilities, use your writing sample to showcase both your writing and teaching skills.
  • Summary. If you do happen to have a lot of older writing samples on hand, but they’re just too long and outdated, select one that is the most relevant to the role or organization for which you’re applying and create a new executive summary based on the full piece.

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How do you select the right writing samples for the job? Share in the comments below!

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As a seasoned communications professional with 15 years of nonprofit experience and 6 years of experience creating engaging content and copy, I love the idea that a thoughtfully crafted piece of content can spark social change. Here at Idealist Careers, I'm eager to offer job seekers, game changers, and do-gooders actionable tips, career resources, and "social-impact lifestyle" advice.
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