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Acing a Trial Assignment or “Job Audition”

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It’s become common for employers to ask candidates to complete a trial assignment before a hiring decision is made. It gives employers a more comprehensive view of a candidate, which, in theory, allows them to make an informed choice. But there are obvious drawbacks for applicants. Depending on the scope of the assignment, the project might be time-consuming and offer little to no pay. 

If you’re asked to complete a trial assignment or “audition” for a job over a period of several hours, days, or weeks, it’s important to protect your interests. Here’s what you need to know about completing pre-employment assessments as part of the interviewing process.

Turning the Tide With a Trial Assignment

Your time and labor are valuable—and with the right conditions, pre-employment assessments are worth the investment. If you approach an assignment strategically and have a positive mindset, you’ll discover unique opportunities as a jobseeker.

Here’s how you can use a trial assignment to your advantage:

  • Level the playing field against other candidates. Interviewing for a job is a skill. If you’re not charismatic, it can put you at a serious disadvantage. Doing a trial assignment puts the focus on your work instead of your charm.
  • Add structure to the conversation. When you explain your approach, you’ll have talking points that you’re comfortable discussing with the interviewer—which, for some people, helps to alleviate their anxiety
  • Build bargaining leverage. Every interaction with a potential employer informs what they offer you for compensation. But it’s challenging to convince an employer of your value in a resume or by responding to standard interview questions. A trial assignment is an opportunity for you to prove your worth and command a higher salary.
  • Showcase your skills—not just your experience. If your existing or previous role had clearly defined responsibilities, you might not have had many opportunities to exercise all your skills. In that case, it could be challenging to explain those assets in the body of your resume. Having a trial assignment gives you the chance to prove you can perform a task, even if that hasn’t been a primary focus in your career. This is particularly beneficial for anyone who’s just starting in a new industry or has fewer years of experience compared to other candidates
  • It gives you an idea of what to expect if you work with the company. Accepting a new role is a big commitment. If you’re not interested in the assignment, you can save yourself some trouble and move on to a new target employer. 

Are There Any Situations Where You Shouldn’t Complete an Assessment? 

Free labor sets a bad precedent. If the assignment will take longer than 2 hours to complete, advocate for payment. If they refuse, you might want to consider how this reflects on the company. It could indicate that an employer will try to take advantage of you.

You also want to be wary if an interviewer expects you to complete the assignment in an unreasonable amount of time. If they only give you 3 days to complete the assignment, for example, they don’t respect your needs outside of work. This trend will likely continue if you choose to become an employee.

Standards vary based on the industry and position. For example, trial assignments are common in the technology, graphic design, consulting, communications, and marketing sectors. Use discretion when you’re deciding if you should do an assignment for an organization. If something makes you uncomfortable, you probably shouldn’t do it.

How to Win Over a Potential Employer During a Trial Assignment

trial assignment1. Gather information.

Collect information about the company, their products and services, the customers or users, and the objective(s) of the assignment. These details should inform the way you approach the assignment.

2. Follow the directions.

Pay close attention to details like file formatting, deadlines, and any other restrictions. If something isn’t clear, talk to the interviewer before you get started.

3. Understand the expectations. 

To ensure you know what’s expected, consider asking the interviewer the following questions:

  • Can you please tell me more about how my work for this assignment will be used?
  • How will the assignment be evaluated?
  • What level of detail do you want to see with this assignment? 
  • Do you have a rough estimate for how long you think this assignment should take?

4. Establish boundaries.

Track how much time you spend completing the assignment and communicate those points to the employer. Give the employer context so they know how to evaluate your work and can see how it relates to the tasks you’d perform on the job. Remember, the best candidate isn’t necessarily the person who spends the most time on the project.

5. Incorporate details that are specific to the company.

For example, use the brand’s color scheme and logo when you present your work. If you can find examples of similar projects on the employer’s website, emulate the same structure and style. 

6. Don’t try to be perfect.

The assignment is meant to showcase your vision for the organization. Even if your proposal doesn’t perfectly align with the company’s goals, the hiring manager will understand that you have limited information available as an outside candidate. Take measured risks to demonstrate your creativity and unique value to the role. 

What if You Still Have Concerns About Doing Work for Free?

It’s understandable to still have reservations about completing a trial assignment. Here are some suggestions on how to protect your interests (without disqualifying yourself as candidate):

  • Offer to present on a project you’ve already completed that’s similar to the assignment. This might be a good option if you don’t have enough time to finish a new project.
  • Offer to complete a portion of the project to showcase your skills. 
  • Negotiate compensation, just as you would as an outside consultant. 
  • Offer to perform a “whiteboard” or live assessment on-site instead of doing take-home work. This format might work better for you if you perform well under pressure and have time constraints.
  • Get a mutual NDA for the assignment (templates are available for free online). This ensures the company won’t use or discuss your work without your permission.

In the end, a trial assignment is an opportunity for you to distinguish yourself from other candidates. If you decide to take on the project, double-check your work and highlight the skills that are most important to the employer.


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About the Author

Rachel Lake is a writer, editor, and content manager with Ivy Exec. She regularly hosts free webinars on leadership, job searching, career advancement, and more. Based in New York City, Rachel holds an MFA from Sarah Lawrence College. To get in touch with Rachel, contact her on LinkedIn.