Picture this: You’ve just applied for your dream PR job and everything seems to be falling into place. The company likes your resume enough to call you in for an initial interview. You nail it, so they bring you back to meet the senior executives, who also give you the thumbs up. But just when you think you’re home free, the recruiter utters two words that strike terror in your heart (cue the shower-scene music from Psycho): writing test.
Having graduated college—and perhaps even embarked on a successful professional career—you may have thought your test-taking days were safely behind you. But in today’s highly competitive job market, agencies and corporate PR departments expect candidates to possess a wide range of skills, including the ability to churn out basic press materials. That’s where the dreaded pre-employment writing assessment comes in.
“Writing tests are a very important part of the interview process for us,” says Dawn Miller, CEO of Miller PR, a bicoastal firm which reps digital and entertainment brands. “Typically we ask the applicant to prepare a press release, a pitch, a bio or a company boilerplate, depending on the candidate and the skills required for the position we’re looking to fill.”
And it’s not just recent college grads whose writing chops are being evaluated. “We use writing tests for every single hire—at every level,” says Amy Bermar, president of Corporate Ink, a Boston-based agency specializing in technology clients. “We began this more than 15 years ago, after the unhappy discovery that someone ‘senior enough’ to know how to write actually didn’t write very well at all.”
So whether you’re just entering the job market or you’re a seasoned pro considering a career move, here are five tips to help you navigate the PR writing test:
- Yes, spelling counts. So do grammar, punctuation and familiarity with AP style. “We are looking to see if a potential candidate is able to express himself or herself clearly, concisely and without errors,” says Alan Amman, chief operating officer at mPRm, a Los Angeles agency specializing in media and entertainment clients. The firm requires interviewees for entry-level and junior positions to bring in a mock press release announcing their hiring by the agency. Senior execs may be asked to write a client release, a new business proposal or a client strategy document. Amman recommends that before turning in their work, candidates double check for mistakes by printing it out on paper and reading it out loud to themselves—and then have someone else proofread it as well.
- Know your formats. “While we do not expect entry-level employees to walk through the door fully equipped with the skills to draft flawless press releases and pitch letters, we do expect candidates to possess a strong base knowledge of press release writing and formatting,” says Ryan Croy, partner and director, Brands Division of Fifteen Minutes Public Relations. Croy recommends that candidates spend time reading up on PR fundamentals and familiarizing themselves with published press releases by visiting the websites of distribution services BusinessWire and PR Newswire.
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- Practice writing fast. Banging out press materials on deadline is part of the job description for most PR pros. That’s why some firms administer timed writing tests in their offices. Croy says his agency gives candidates 20 minutes to draft a press release on an assigned subject. “It allows them to showcase their core writing competencies and creativity within a specified time period.”
- Be prepared to get graphic: These days, both social and traditional media are about more than just words. Corporate Ink is in the process of revising its testing policy to better reflect this shift. “We’re moving away from the news release, for instance, and focusing more on visual design,” says Bermar. “We recently asked two finalists for a digital-specialist position to work up an infographic for a client.”
- Strut your stuff. Yes, proper grammar and spelling are important, but they’re not enough to make you stand out as an applicant, says Miller. “We look for candidates who do that extra something,” she says. “Demonstrating a level of creativity or passion, or taking the initiative to demonstrate knowledge of our company or the industries in which we work—those are things that set candidates apart for us.” Corporate Ink’s Bermar also looks for candidates who take risks and offer a fresh perspective in their writing. “Our written ‘test’ is really just an outline,” she explains. “I could care less if you make up the content, as long as it’s interesting, creative and makes me want to take action. I like it when people color outside the lines.”
Following these guidelines should help you prepare for whatever writing test a prospective employer throws at you.
But just in case, you might want to bring along a couple of No. 2 pencils, too.
Andrew Hindes is a seasoned PR copywriter and the president of The In-House Writer, which provides PR writing workshops and pre-employment writing assessments for public relations firms and corporate communications departments. He can be reached at email@example.com. You can follow him on Twitter @inhousewriter.