How to ace a job search test or spec assignment

Sometimes, the interview process can feel never-ending. There’s always one more piece of the application to submit, one more interview with the team.

That “one more thing” is often a spec work assignment or test, and it’s a crucial one to get right, because it means you’re being seriously considered for the position.

“I always use spec work with candidates,” says John Engel, president of executive recruiting firm Knowledge Capital Consulting in Charleston, South Carolina. “It's the final stage of recruiting. The top five finalists get a spec assignment.”

We asked career experts to offer tips on how to make sure your spec work gives you the best shot at beating out the other finalists and getting hired.

Reflect the company in your assignment

You know the old adage: Imitation is the sincerest form of flattery. To connect with a hiring manager at a company you’re largely unfamiliar with, imitation in spec work can work wonders.

“If you're doing a writing assignment, it helps to look at the tone of the copy or articles on the organization's website,” advises Deborah Hankin, VP of Talent, SYPartners, a consulting firm in New York City. “Is it formal? Casual? Authoritative? Your assignment should mirror that tone to show you fit that culture.”

It might be tempting to put your own spin on an assignment, but in most cases, hiring managers want to see if you’re able to produce the kind of work they’re already doing. If they want you to take things in a different direction, they’ll tell you. So even if the style of the work they produce differs from yours, your safest bet is to take your cues from it. This not only makes it more likely that your assignment will pass the test, it also shows that you’ve done your homework.

Ask clarifying questions

Unsure about the assignment’s directions? Having trouble understanding a specific sentence in the guidelines? Don’t just guess at what it might mean or wait until it’s too late. Address it right when you get the assignment.

“Ask smart questions—succinctly and judiciously,” says Hankin. “Remember, [hiring managers] are very busy. If you ask too many questions, you can be seen as not being able to navigate intentional ambiguity.”

For example, if your assignment requires sources, you might ask how many they’d like to see, or how the hiring manager would like them represented (linked in the body of the report or as footnotes or endnotes?).

“If you can't reach the hiring manager to ask questions, simply make a note in the assignment stating your assumptions,” adds Hankin. “At least if your assumptions are off-base, [the reviewer] can understand your logic in how you solved the challenge.”

Know when to be creative—and when to follow directions

Which is more important, completing an assignment by the book or putting your own spin on it? It depends on the type of role you’re applying for.

“In the creative professions, showing multiple methods to accomplish a task are often welcome,” says Elaine Varelas, managing partner at Keystone Partners, a career management company in Boston. “An accounting role may be much less interested in your creative approaches.”

You can never go wrong by delivering more than what they asked for, so feel fee to go above and beyond. Besides a few hours, there is nothing to lose by submitting more work than required in a spec assignment, and it elevates your work above other candidates who only submit the bare minimum.

And finally, what’s the one thing you should always get right? The deadline. Nothing creates a bad first impression like missing a deadline, so whatever it takes, if you want the job, don’t be late with your first assignment.