silly hiring practices: essay questions on job applications

A reader writes:

I’m curious about your experience with the trend of longer and longer job applications. I’ve completed plenty of applications lately, and I’ve noticed that the online applications have grown quite a bit.

At first, you would just copy and paste your resume into the tiny form fields. Tedious, but okay.

Then came the 45-minute personality-behavioral tests. Pretty worthless when everyone knows the “right” answers. (“I never steal!” “I love working late!”)

Now I’ve had several applications with essay questions. Some are stolen from college essays (“What was your funniest moment?”), some are psuedo-philosophical (“How would you describe customer service?”), and some are trying to interview before the interview (“What is your greatest weakness?”).

Have you ever used the essay question format? Does it have any real purpose, or should employers be saving these questions for the interview? What do you think?

Ugh. Not a fan.

If I’m hiring a writer, I’ll definitely have them do a writing exercise, but it would be later in the application process, not right up-front before any initial screening has even been done. And the exercise would be representative of the type of writing they’d be doing on the job, not the type of writing they had to do to get into college. (Good call there, by the way — that’s exactly what that reminds me of.)

There are multiple problems with the approach you’re talking about:

1. It’s inconsiderate, because it wastes the applicant’s time. The majority of the people sending in an initial application aren’t even going to get interviewed (or might not even get the courtesy of a rejection letter). Do some initial screening and determine that you have an interest in a candidate before asking them to spend their time like this.

2. It’s rude. It reeks of “we’re doing this just because we can, because look at this economy! You can’t say no and we know it!” There’s a reason you didn’t see as much of it in a good economy.

3. It’s silly. It really doesn’t get at how well the candidate will do the job, which is what this stage of screening should be about.

4. It’s not particularly useful for the employer. Who’s to say that the candidate wrote the response herself, rather than having it composed or heavily edited by someone else? (Or, as we learned this week, the whole application could have been filled out by a spouse.)

At the initial stage of contact, what I want is a cover letter and a resume. Period. And I am suspicious of an employer who wants anything more before they’ve even determined if the candidate is a match at the most basic level.

{ 19 comments… read them below }

  1. Anonymous*

    The only time I've ever had to task such as this is when I've already come in for an interview. Well…I have seen a couple of the personality tests on an application, particularly when applying to low end retail jobs. I've always wondered why the hiring managers think it's useful. If I'm applying for retail why wouldn't I say that I like being around people?


    Thank you so much for posting about this. I desperately want there to be a universal application, that I can fill out once and submit over and over. I've been out of work for over a year now, have filled out countless applications, and all of that information is on my resume to begin with. UGH!

  3. TheLabRat*

    I've been seeing this on even BS retail online apps. First they make you take a Unicru test (the 45 minute personality test and you might be surprised that the right answers aren't as obvious as you or the OP thinks). Then the writing questions. I took one last year when I filled out and app to work the register at either and Office Max or Office Depot. There were six essay questions in total on that app and not one of them was, "how do you count change if the power goes out on the registers" (i.e. the only relevant essay question I can think of for the position at hand).

  4. TheLabRat*

    I should read other comments before I post my own. To anon/first commenter, those personality tests are, as I mentioned, Unicru tests. They are by design intended to weed out the too smart/ambitious to reduce turnover. Examples of why they are BS include:

    1. Saying simply agree/disagree instead of strongly agree/disagree is ALWAYS considered a wrong answer and can be an automatic fail

    2. Answering no/false/disagree to any questions along the lines of "I enjoy going to large concerts and sporting events" is an automatic fail regardless of your answers on the other questions

    3. Finishing the test by taking more than 10-20 minutes (this part seems to vary) is an automatic fail in most places that administer them.

    The list goes on and one. And again I must point out that the correct answers to the questions are NOT as obvious as you would think they are. The tests are designed to find extroverts with no ambition and just enough intelligence to be trainable.

    The good news is, answer keys are available online, mostly from HR people who have had to use the tests and think they are BS. The bad news is, they aren't just for us low end retail peeps anymore. In addition to the Office Max/Depot situation from last year, I also had to take a Unicru for two different admin. asst. jobs in conventional office settings.

  5. Anonymous*

    Retail businesses use this for the same reason that they use 'group interviews'. In group interviews, a manager asks twenty or thirty people to answer a question at the same time–the person who shouts down or otherwise beats other applicants out in answering the question first, wins.

    Of course neither group interviews nor essay questions provide any useful information about an applicant's customer or sales service abiities–but that's not the point. The point is to use people with no management or personnel skills to do the hiring, and to do that, they've got to have a measurement process that is idiot-proof.

    Room and Board is another criminal in this game–they ask about a half-dozen different ways what an applicant's 'customer service philosophy' is. Since when are there different philosophies about customer service? It's all BS.

  6. Anonymous*

    Every time I sit there starting out an application, I say the same thing to myself – "Why do I have to rewrite my resume when I have to submit it to them with it? Can't someone just read it?" It is annoying, and I wholeheartedly agree with AAM about the employers showing how much the ball is in their court during this lousy recession. It's an employer's market, and if we have to jump through hoops to get a job, then that's what we have to do.

    I can't wait until the economy is all better; of course I have other reasons besides the job situation. I'm sure others share the same sentiments.

  7. Unemployed Gal*

    Thank you AAM for answering my question! I�m glad to see that at least one manager out there realizes how stupid this is. The �funniest moment� one was for a movie theater. It actually said, �make us laugh.� Since when do ticket ushers need to be comedians?

    Unless it�s for an amazing, career-changing position that I REALLY want, I won�t complete an essay question application. If the employer is demanding this much unreasonable BS from applicants, imagine how much crap they must pile on the employees. No thanks.

    Oh, I also have the Unicru answers from the interweb. ;)

  8. Rosezilla*

    I recently filled out a 5 page (in Word) application that turned out to have 10 pages when I finished. They asked for 3 professional and 3 character references, which is just bizarre.
    Not 24 hours passed and they emailed me a 2 sentence rejection. Then I went to the local office and they said that they would have plenty of openings for the summer and I was more than qualified. I'm sure something in the 10 pages triggered some 'automatic disqualification', maybe they were even using a 'bot to screen.

  9. Anonymous*

    In my field (high school mathematics), I occasionally have to write HANDWRITTEN essays as part of preliminary job applications. In this modern age, I am expected to print out the page with the essay prompt from their website, nicely write an essay on some insipid topic in My Very Best Cursive and then scan it in and attach it to the online application. I am not making this up. In better economic times, I used this as a screening method for districts to avoid applying to. (They don't seem to actually be weeding people out pre-interview based on bad handwriting, because this year I caved and actually did one of these applications and still got an interview despite having a bad case of "engineer handwriting".)

    To be fair, I've also gotten actual on a dead tree and sent through the mail rejection letters from districts that didn't even select me for an interview (and have always gotten phone calls from those that did) so the field's hiring processes aren't all bad.

  10. Anonymous*

    I have never even heard of these Unicru Tests before. Well now I feel a lot better for not even getting calls from the retail employers that made me take those stupid tests.

    Thanks for the info.

  11. Anonymous*

    What I don't get is why a manager would be interested in reading all of those essays to begin with.

  12. Anonymous*

    I have to admit… I am a recruiter and I have helped my managers design essay questions. I work in the healthcare field and all of the questions have been directly related to the positions. We only use essay questions when the job is so specified that we feel we will have to train the person into the position. We want to know what experience and knowledge they may bring from education or life experiences because most people won't have the experience through previous employment. We want to know that they can demonstrate the basic technical knowledge. While you would think that people look online for the theory and info… they generally do not and give information that is either insightful or lets you know they have no clue and would be in over their heads.

  13. Unemployed Gal*

    @Anonymous 10:16 AM: Wouldn�t the applicant�s resume and cover letter tell you how her experience relates to the position? If the resume and cover letter don�t connect the dots between previous experience and this opening, I doubt that the applicant understands what the job requires or has the skills to make the transition.

  14. Anonymous*

    @ Unemployed Gal… this is Anon 10:16� We use an online applicant tracking system for our online application. Unfortunately each person can only have one cover letter and one resume attached to their profile which means if an applicant applies for two jobs in one weekend, the only resume and cover letter we will see will be the one submitted for the second job they applied for. A lot of applicant tracking systems do not allow more than one resume and cover letter and will overwrite the previous one you submitted each time you apply for an additional job with the company. To avoid this, we ask applicants to write about why they would like to work for our company and not the specific job� the small essay questions guarantee that we get the information we need.

  15. Eclectic Design Source*

    TheLabRat, your breakdown of the Unicru test is so interesting, thanks for sharing!

    I had to do essay questions when I applied for visual positions at Urban Outfitters like "Describe the bedroom of the Urban Outfitters girl" or "Who is your favorite designer and why".

    Being a decent writer, I never minded filling them out, but I think they are useless because 1) Not everyone is a skilled writer 2) Those type of questions are better asked in person.

    Hiring practices are getting so outrageous and silly… sheesh.

  16. Anonymous*

    I'm went back to school and I'm looking for part-time work searching a lot of Craigslist job postings.

    I am ASTOUNDED by the number of companies that have an anonymous email, don't say what they do (beyond, say, technology industry or something) or anything substantial about the job and then say "please respond with why you would be the best choice for this position"

    ummmm… I have no idea? I'm (thankfully) not desperate enough that I can't be a little choosy so I simply don't apply to those ridiculous wankers, but really, how the H am I supposed to know why I'm the best choice for a generic part-time admin position at an anonymous company?

  17. Anonymous*

    @ Anon 4:56 (vague Craigslist) — Ugh, I hate those too! Even postings to job aggregators that re-send posts out to listservs do that too and it drives me nuts. How am I supposed to know if I "fit" your position? I don't even know what the heck the job actually IS in the first place!

    As for essays — I see them a lot, unfortunately. A majority of government applications that are hiring above a certain level require you to write these KSA essays about certain knowledge/skill/ability questions to accompany your resume (generally for someone with a master's degree, but if the position looks like it'll get a ton of applicants, they'll do it even for things that don't require a college degree!). Sometimes I understand it, since they don't require cover letters, but… good grief. It's extremely disheartening to write 3-5 page essays for multiple applications per week only to get an automated rejection email two months later, at the earliest.

    It is really an employer's market. =\

  18. Anonymous*

    The essay writing practice is getting more & more common in UK. Recently on one single day I had choosen 3 offered vacancies that would require at least 5 days of "useless" work in order to fill the application form, tailor the CV & write the motivation letter.
    I write "useless" because as AAM very correct indicated why should canditates invest so much time for the case that they might won't even get a rejection reply.

    Labor market is getting tougher & tougher, folks!

    Nice blog, by the way


    ps. everything is so automatical that recently when I e-mailed a company asking them about the salary they were offering, they answered me that they are evaluating my aplllication – which I had not sent them!

  19. Anonymous*

    I hate essay questions on initial job applications. It’s an utter waste of time. Yesterday I spent a good hour or so writing answers to 4 essay questions and woke up this morning to find a rejection email in my mailbox. It does smart mainly because of the time invested. I had nearly applied for a positions before with this company but the essays always made me turn back.

    I completely agree with you, Alison on every single point you listed. It just seems like another layer of work tacked onto an already busy day if you’re a recruiter. Having another minute or so tacked onto going through a few dozen resumes (at least) is such a regressive task. If I were given that task, I’d certainly be wiggling in my seat after awhile!

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