Send Candidates a Test Project
Asking candidates to complete test projects during the interview process has become a sensitive issue and for good reason. While I’m a huge fan of test projects, I rely on several guardrails to ensure that I don’t take advantage of applicants. For a position that’s highly strategic—such as a content-strategist role—test projects can ground the abstract in the concrete, but you need to approach their use carefully and thoughtfully.
First, when you’re defining your test project, make sure you’ve clearly defined what you’re looking for. You should have a clear purpose for using a test project. For example, when scaling my team, I decided I wanted to use a test project for a couple of reasons:
- To assess a candidates’ persuasiveness and strategic thinking. Both of these characteristics are essential in a content strategist. However, in reviewing the test project, I would not fault the candidate for anything beyond the lack of these two things. (For example, if they had made small typos, I would ignore them—giving them the benefit of the doubt.)
- To differentiate between candidates with similar resumes. Most candidates looked very similar on paper. I saw the same titles in their resumes and applications, including content strategist, content manager, and content coordinator. Sometimes they would throw the words marketing or SEO into the mix as well. The experience they described was usually vague—for example, “managed and planned content,” “brainstormed topics,” and “published content.” These phrases can mean very different things, depending on the context, so they gave me no real sense of the candidates’ work. I needed a consistent benchmark for comparing candidates to one another.
Second, you should never assign a test project in cases where you might use the candidates’ work—unless you pay candidates for completing the test project and make your intention clear in your request. You can partially mitigate the impression that you’re asking for free work if you base the project on a completely made-up scenario. But, if you think there’s any chance that you might use any of the applicants’ work, you should simply pay them for completing the test project.
Finally, be clear about the time commitment the test project should require. You don’t want someone to spend a lot of time on something with potentially little or no return. When you create a test project, ensure that completing it won’t take more than 30 to 45 minutes and communicate that expectation clearly. Then, candidates won’t worry about whether they’ve spent enough time on the project, and you’ll have an accurate baseline for comparing candidates.
For a test project for a content-strategist role, you might send candidates a user pathway for a Web site and ask them to make three recommendations for improving the user experience. Alternatively, you might send candidates a link to a Web site and ask them for three recommendations for improving the site’s structure. You could send them a link to a blog and ask them how they would approach categorizing its topics. In any case, the candidates’ work should be illustrative of the work they would be doing in the role.
Different hiring managers use test projects for various reasons. As I noted earlier, I use test projects to compare candidates to one another and to understand how their skills would apply to the work they would be doing. Therefore, I send test projects to candidates before I interview them. If someone’s application looks promising and we want to set up an interview, we first have them complete the test project. That way, we can discuss the project during the interview.