What are employers looking for when they ask for a writing sample?
The answer depends, or course, on the type of employment you are seeking.
|Type of Employer/Position||What||Length (and format)|
|Journalism-related||Clips (3-5) of your journal/magazine articles in visual form (NOT a hyperlinked list of them) resembling what they look like in print or online||3-5 examples of your work, submitted in a single PDF|
|Communication/PR||Press releases, marketing pitch, brochures, flyers you designed (sample portfolio of your work)||3-5 examples of your work or depends on the specifics of the position description|
(think tanks, non-profits, law firms,
research centers, etc.)
Writing that showcases your think critically, analyze complex information, and make a persuasive argument.
Examples: position paper, policy memo, excerpt of larger paper as long as it is labeled as such
|3-5 pages, double spaced|
For journalism-related jobs:
If you’re looking for a writing-related job with a newspaper or magazine, employers want to see clips of your published work. These are more appropriate than academic papers or creative writing samples. For print journalism samples, the best approach is to submit clips. These would not be links to articles that you have written, but rather a single PDF with images from the printed magazines or online articles you have written in one document. You want your clips to look as much like the original publication as possible. In general, three to five clips are all that are required. Ideally you should send work that is solely your own, and not pieces on which you are a co-author or an assistant.
For communication/PR positions:
If you’re applying for public relations or strategic communications jobs, you’ll want to send samples appropriate to the work you hope to do. These can include brochures you have written or worked on, flyers you have designed, and most importantly, a copy of a press release or two. Press releases are a very specific type of document, with specific conventions about how to write them. If you are unfamiliar with how to write a press release, there are excellent sources on line. Do a google search on press release guidelines and you’ll find sites that outline what you need to do.
All other employers:
For virtually all other employers who are not media-related — these include think tanks, law firms hiring paralegals, non-profits, and research centers, among many others — what they are looking for when they request a writing sample is a paper, or other document written by you, that is 3-5 double-spaced pages in length, highlights your ability to analyze ideas and materials, and showcases your writing skills. Employers are looking at how you take information and make sense of it, how you present or analyze complex problems and issues.
The sample can be self-standing, or a section of a longer paper. If you decide to use an excerpt of a longer paper, you can indicate this at the top of the sample, including the name of the course for which it was written. The sample can be an answer to a take-home exam or essay question that have you compare or contrast things. It might be a paper in which you had to take a position on something and defend it, or one that looks at some type of evidence and analyzes its meaning. The materials should be accessible to someone who is not an expert in the field (avoid papers heavy with technical jargon). For example, an analysis of an obscure piece of music or a painting with which the reader might not be familiar may not work as well as a paper that examines something to which the reader can be presumed to relate. The writing sample should engage the reader from the get-go, so that they want to read past the first page. Papers which are filled with citations to others’ writing are less effective than those that reflect your own analytical thought and creativity.
Does the writing sample need to be related to the organization/industry to which I’m applying?
No, the most important criteria is that the sample showcase your ability to write persuasively and create a strong argument. Ideally, however, it will also relate well to the subject matter at hand.
What if I don’t have a current writing sample that feels like a good fit?
Write one from scratch. Particularly for non-profits, think tanks or other organizations you can easily craft your own new writing sample for that position by writing a policy memo on a topic that you already care and know something about. These are ideal for writing samples because they already fit the desired length and are designed by nature to be persuasive and analytical in nature.
Get additional guidance:
Advisors in career services are available to look over anything you’re thinking of submitting, and advise you if it is appropriate.