This article was written by Sara McCord for The Muse, your ultimate career destination that offers exciting job opportunities, expert advice and a peek behind the scenes into fantastic companies and career paths. The Muse believes that you can and should love your job — and be successful at it — and they want to help make that happen. Whether you’re just starting out, changing career paths, or aiming for the C-suite, The Muse has everything you need to take charge of your career.
Applying for jobs takes a lot of time — to network, research companies,browse job postings, pull together your materials, prepare for interviews, and follow up. And then there’s also the mental aspect of psyching yourself up before each stage and then waiting to hear back.
Which is why you’re not all that excited when the hiring manager asks if you could complete a take-home assignment as well. It feels like a lot to invest even more time and effort into a job that you haven’t even landed yet.
But before you see it as just one more hoop to jump through, you should know that it’s not just for the company’s benefit. It helps you, too.
How Interview Assignments Help You
As an applicant, two of your biggest concerns are showing you can do the job, and beating out the competition. A take-home assignment gives you the opportunity to do both.
The hiring manager’s picked a task to weed out anyone who exaggerated on their application. So, think of this as an opportunity for you strut your stuff.
Anyone can say they’re detail-oriented, or that they think outside the box, or that they know how to code, but an interview assignment gives you the chance to demonstrate it. It really is worth taking your time to show that you’re (literally) up to the task. Turning in a perfect edit test or some ideas for how you’d take an initiative in a fresh direction can be just the thing to distinguish you from other candidates.
Additionally, these tests are reflective of the kinds of projects you could expect in your new role. So, if it’s incredibly hard, you have to get a mentor’s help, and it takes you all weekend to complete something you feel good about, it could be an indication that this role isn’t going to be the best fit on your end—which is a valuable lesson for you to learn before you sign on.
Unfortunately, not every assignment is above board. I should know: I got tasked with a major project to have my work stolen.
This misuse of the interview assignment is not normal, but it does happen. So, don’t ignore a gut feeling you’re being asked to work for free. One thing you can do if you think you’re being taken advantage of is to ask someone in the field whether this seems like a reasonable task. (You can also follow these strategies to protect your ideas.)
More often than not though, this assignment is there to confirm you really could do the job. So, take it as the opportunity it is, and hit it out the park.
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You’re progressing well through an interview process, and you think you’re close to landing that coveted offer, when the employer says, “One more thing—we have a little homework for you.”
This tactic is used by a lot of companies (especially startups), and with good reason: The hiring manager gets a firsthand look at your approach, creativity, quality, turn-around speed, and communication and presentation style and can gauge how serious you are about the position.
If you really want that job, your instinct will likely be to put your best foot forward and provide the most fabulous project the employer has ever seen. But there’s something else to consider: You may end up putting in many hours of work, creating an awesome deliverable—and at the end of it all, still not getting the job. There’s even a chance that the company will take the ideas you labored over for its own benefit, and you’re left not only without an offer, but without compensation for all that hard work.
It’s happened to me: Once, at the end of a second round interview, a hiring manager asked me for a list of quick-hit ideas on increasing user engagement for his consumer website. I spent almost half a day coming up with a list of 10 great ideas, including many examples from other sites. After I proudly sent over my recommendations, I didn’t hear from the company for over two weeks. When I finally got a response, he thanked me for all my hard work and said that the company decided not to pursue the position at this time due to “internal matters.”
Who knows if this really was the case; but to my surprise, I noticed a handful of my ideas were actually implemented within the next few months on their site. Maybe these were ideas already in motion and my assignment only confirmed what was planned, but I couldn’t help but feel that I had been somewhat “used” and regretted putting so much time and effort into this homework.
While there are times you may want to go to the moon and back for a job , it’s also important to be careful how you approach these homework assignments—especially if you’re investing your time into applying to multiple jobs. Here are some tips on how to handle this tricky situation.
1. Understand General Goals and Expectations
First, it’s important to get a sense of how this assignment will factor into the overall evaluation of your candidacy. Is this the final hurdle before the job offer? (It should be.) How will this be weighed with other elements of your interview? (You should get some positive reinforcement that the company’s very interested and just wants to get a sense of how you work.) How long will the assignment take? (Being asked to spend more than 2-3 hours on an assignment before getting hired is bordering on disrespect.)
Don’t be afraid to ask questions like, “Can you help me understand how this assignment will be evaluated?” “Are you looking more for big-picture ideas, or a detailed look at my recommendations?” “Roughly how much time do you recommend I put into this assignment?” It’ll help you understand what the company is looking for and how much time you’re willing to put forth.
2. Ask for Data
Next, remember that you have every right to ask for information that’ll help you better tackle the assignment and not start from scratch (if you were hired, that’s what you’d obviously do , right?). So, put some onus on the company to provide relevant data. For example, if the company is asking for your ideas on potential partners, ask questions that’ll point you in the right direction, like, “Who are your current partners?” “What types of partners are you currently pursuing?” “What are the key metrics that define a successful partnership?”
And if the company doesn’t provide any more information? Do your best, but also make sure you express where you’ve made assumptions based on lack of information—e.g., “Without knowing what your current metrics for successful partnerships are, I’ve made suggestions for partners that will boost both brand awareness and website traffic. Obviously, if the company has different goals, I would be able to adjust these recommendations.”
And then don’t worry—if the hiring manager doesn’t offer it, he or she will understand that you’re operating under lack of information and history.
3. Outline Main Points, Only Tease the Details
More often than not, the primary reason companies dole out homework is to get a better sense of your thought process, as well as how you structure and convey your thoughts and ideas. There’s not necessarily a “right” answer, nor is there a need to get way down in the weeds.
So, don’t stress about providing a ton of information—just outline the main points (bullets and numbered lists usually work well). You can tease out more details as you’re talking through your assignment in the interview without having to write down your specific plans and fully fleshed out ideas. Remember: You don’t want the hiring manager to have the blueprints for your fabulous ideas—you want him or her to hire you so that you can be the one implement them!
4. If You’re Worried, Get an NDA in Place
Depending on the type of job function and level you’re interviewing for, it may not be a bad idea to request a non-disclosure agreement. If there is any confidential information you do not want shared widely, your assignment involves using data from your current employer, or you just have a nagging concern that the company may steal your best ideas, take a precaution and get a simple mutual NDA executed (many template NDA forms are available online for download). Don’t make it too legally formal—the company may get turned off by this move—just let the hiring manager know you just want to make sure things stay confidential and you’d be more comfortable providing details with a simple NDA in place. If he or she refuses to sign, this may be another warning flag.
Knocking a homework assignment out of the park can be an amazing chance to show you’re the best candidate of the bunch, but you never want to get in a situation where you’re wasting your time or being used for free labor. Follow these guidelines, and you’ll be able to present a great deliverable while making sure you’re spending your time and effort the right way.