did I blow this written test in a job interview?

A reader writes:

I just had an interview today that involved a written test. The employer is a law firm and I was intertviewing for a legal assistant position. I was informed I would interview with 2 current paralegals and then take a written exam. I was given no information as to what the exam was about, only that it was timed.

The actual interview went okay (not glowing but not a total bomb at all), but I was a little intimidated once I started taking the test; it involved a lot of research I was not familiar with. I kind of had to wing it. I got to use the internet for about half of the test to do my research with. Needless to say, I did a lot of googling. I had to even google an abbreviation to make sure I knew what it was.

I didn’t finish the test, so the person interviewing me came in to let me know that my time was up. We then discussed what would happen next, I thanked her and then left… without exiting out of any of the browsers and web pages I had used! I kept some of them open in case I had enough time to go back and tweak my answers. I guess it wouldn’t be that bad if I knew where to find the information and didn’t use google so much. Did I blow it?

Well, it depends on your definition of “blowing it.”

Here’s the thing: They are testing to make sure that you have certain types of knowledge, because they’ve determined that that’s an important factor in whether you’re the right fit for the job. If you don’t do well on that test, that’s not just a sign for them not to hire you; it’s also a sign for you that this isn’t the right job for you. You don’t want a job that you’ll struggle in — and it’s reasonable to assume that if you were struggling with the test (and “winging it” counts as struggling), you’d struggle with the job.

(Caveat: I suppose that there’s a small chance that that’s not true. Some employers use badly designed tests that test knowledge of things that a good candidate could pick up in a day if given a chance. But in general, these exercises tend to be reasonable ways to assess whether a candidate has certain key skills/knowledge.)

My guess is that you’re not going to get this job — because you didn’t finish the test in the time they’d allowed, if nothing else. They’re looking for someone who can do that exercise and do it in the time they allotted. But if you’re not quite what they’re looking for (and it sounds like you probably aren’t,) it’s a good thing for both of you to find that out at this stage. The test did what it was designed to do — show both of you that this probably isn’t the right match.

In fact, assume that this exercise gave you information about the fit just as much as it did them. And you do not want to get a job if it’s not the right fit for you. You really, really do not.

{ 54 comments… read them below }

  1. Jen*

    Years ago I got a job on the back of an interview that involved a test – and it turned out the task I did in the test wasn’t part of the job at all. Ever since, if I do a test as part of an interview I ask how the task relates to the job. I think it’s a useful guide: if the interview says that this task is a key part of the job, I have a good sense of whether you’d like it; if the interviewer reveals that the test has nothing to do with the job and it’s just the standard test they give all interviewees, I think twice and ask some more probing questions about the actual role. If the interviewer doesn’t know, I run for the hills.

    1. JT*

      “if the interviewer reveals that the test has nothing to do with the job”

      Someone familiar with employment law was commenting recently that that sort of test is perhaps illegal, or at least problematic in terms of possibly illegally discriminating against groups of people for reasons unrelated to the job.

      1. Ask a Manager* Post author

        It’s not illegal in general. If it’s proved that an employer is using a test that isn’t especially relevant AND that the effect of the testing is to illegally discriminate against people of particular races, religions, genders, etc. (any protected class), then the employer could be found liable for discrimination in a lawsuit, if someone happened to bring a lawsuit. But (a) most hiring exercises are relevant, and (b) even when they’re not, they’re not generally discriminatory anyway.

  2. pidgeonpenelope*

    I agree with AAM’s response. At my job, we also apply a test on Excel skills. The ability to use Excel at my job is so important and people think that because they know how to do data entry, that they know Excel well. The problem is that if you don’t know other uses of Excel, and why/how to apply those, you’ll fail at our job. We could train but then you’ll be behind in all the other stuff we have to train and by then, you could be sinking.

    The score/ability with Excel isn’t the only skill my boss looks for even if someone totally aces the Excel test doesn’t mean they would get the job. Some of it has to do with personality (will you be a good fit for her team), work ethics, and stuff.. So, if someone really impressed her who maybe wasn’t the strongest in Excel, that person may still get selected.

  3. Hannah*

    Just leaving open the tabs showing that you googled a lot doesn’t seem to be a deal breaker to me. There are jobs where searching the internet for information is a big part of the job, and google is a tool for that. Presumably they gave you a topic you wouldn’t be familiar with, along with internet access, to gauge your online research skills. So if you did poorly on the test, that is probably the deal breaker, not specifically the tabs you left open.

    1. K*

      Yeah, I was going to say, it’s possible the test was to find out how good you are at dealing with unfamiliar information on the fly. God knows as a lawyer I google unfamiliar acronyms all the time; and one thing that is a huge liability for staff at our firm is if they’re thrown off by unfamiliar terms and information (instead of looking it up or working around it).

      So even if that’s not what this particular firm is looking for, there are firms that will be and that will be a good fit, I suspect.

      1. ChristineH*

        That’s a good point – I too thought it might be at least partly a way to gauge online research skills.

    2. Michael*

      Leaving the tabs open shouldn’t be a deal breaker, and is probably irrelevant anyway. The interviewer probably looked through the browser history to see how the work was completed; it would be a benefit if the candidate jumped straight to some relevant legal database instead of googling. (If it was me, I might even rig up a screen recording software gizmo or watch it remotely from a different computer.)

    3. Rana*

      Agreed. My thought was that if it was supposed to be a test of what you knew off the top of your head, then they’d have made it “closed book” and turned off access to the internet (or told you not to use it).

      And not finishing? Not ideal, no, but unless you know what the expected result is, even that is difficult to gauge. It may be one of those tests where even getting through half of it is doing better than the average person, for example. You can’t know unless they tell you.

  4. Heidi*

    I just realized something…in my hustle to find work and be employed…I never once have stopped to think about the job and if it would be a “good fit” for me. Now, looking back at my past interviews, I realize that I was too worried about impressing the company I was interviewing for and that I negated what would be right for me!
    As a single woman who has financial responsibilities; ie, mortgage, car, cost of living, being unemployed causes you to be anxious!! And THAT is extremely stressful and depressing. I’ve applied for anything and everything but have not yet gotten that job. Now I wonder if my desperation was obvious and that’s the reason why people have been unwilling to hire me.
    Very much enjoyed this post. It has given me a lot to think about. Thank you!
    I don’t know if AAM has addressed this, I will have to search, but it may be something worth writing about?

    1. Ask a Manager* Post author

      Oh yes, lots! I’m not sure if I can find one particular post to point you toward, but it’s definitely a running theme in a lot of what I write. It’s much better to lose out on a job in the interview stage than to get fired from it later, or to be miserable because the work or culture or people aren’t a good fit. The goal definitely should be to find the right job, not just a job.

      1. Long Time Admin*

        Oh, for sure. I’m having lunch with an acquaintance who is retiring (very early) from her job, to wish her well and to find out about her job, the office, the culture, etc. The posted job description sounds pretty good, but that’s only part of the story. If I think it might be a good fit, I’ll ask her if she would feel comfortable about mentioning me to her boss and I’ll apply right away.

    2. ChristineH*

      I’d say this is a very common mistake job seekers make, myself included. To be sure, some may have no choice but to take *a* job, but it’s so easy to get caught up in just wanting to be employed. That’s where the questions you ask at the “Do you have any questions for me?” portion are key.

      1. Elizabeth West*

        Well it doesn’t help when everyone keeps telling you “Just take anything; you can find a better job when you have a job.” I took a bad job last time I was unemployed and only lasted a couple of months. It was a poor fit and a poor workplace, and both me and the employer agreed it wasn’t working out. I wished I hadn’t wasted my time on it, because while I was there, I was too busy to keep looking and go on interviews.

    3. Anonymous Accountant*

      I know how difficult it is to be unemployed. My heart goes out to you and others in similar situations.

      What helped me when I was unemployed was to create a LinkedIn profile and email former coworkers, collegiate classmates, etc. Make a “master list” of all the skills you’ve obtained from your jobs (advanced Excel skills, wrote press releases) and this can help you narrow your search to a job that’s a good fit. Are you active in your college alumni association? If not, see about joining. Professional societies and organizations are excellent for networking opportunities and job postings.

      Let your friends and family know what type of job you’re seeking. You’d be surpised who may know of job openings. Good luck!

    4. Anon*

      I was that woman once. I think I interview well – but at some point, I think I was focusing so much on that, I wasn’t picking up on clues that jobs were a bad fit, the culture wasn’t right, etc. It was about “getting the job,” i.e., winning. And it came back to burn me twice.

      Since those painful lessons, I have focused less on my Dog and Pony show and more on interviewing the company and hiring manager too. And believe me, I have picked up on lots of things that told me in the middle of the interview that I DIDN’T want to work there!

  5. JC*

    I aggree with AAM as well. I wish I had seen a red flag in my last job that involved a written portion to the interview. My interviewers didn’t give me a heads up about the skills part – they simply sat me down in front of a computer and asked me to draft a professional letter and email with only 20-25 minutes to complete. They also left a third task for me to do within the same amount of time. The third task was fair and I passed that well…but the email and the letter? Not so much. Mainly because it required more time to draft and context to actually write up. I didn’t finish it, and the wording was embarrassingly simple. The only thing that saved me was a verbal explanation of what I would have written if provided more time/information. They weren’t terrible tests on their own. They were simply not executed well (as was the rest of the interview process). I wish I had taken it as a sign that 1) I wasn’t a good fit for the position and 2) My potential employers were terribly disorganized. I should have run the other way…and fast!

    So take this as a sign, like AAM said, that this might not be the best fit for you. I know it sounds or seems like a low-blow to the self-esteem, but it’s really not. You’ll find the right job for you soon enough.

    1. dejavu2*

      I’m curious if you wouldn’t mind saying more about why you thought the test was poorly administered and reflected disorganization…? I used to work admin jobs, and after building some experience, I could have probably written a professional letter and email in less than the time allotted. It seems like a decent test to weed out people who aren’t experienced enough to work efficiently, and/or have difficulty writing professionally.

      1. JC*

        It was mainly the issue of context. During the interview process, no one gave me a clear understanding of what I would be completing on the job or the type of work my potential boss did on an everyday basis. The instructions on writing the letter and email were vague, so I struggled more with what to actually type up than drafting something in the time allotted. I would have done fine if I was provided with more information. I actually write very well professionally, and luckily I was able to prove that when I accepted the job offer. But being new to real-life jobs and interviews at the time, I should have trusted my gut from the get-go (it’s a long story about the other red flags) and walked away.

        1. Long Time Admin*

          You can’t write a decent letter if you don’t know the subject! I agree, this test was very poorly administered.

          I took a “real-life scenario” admin skills test, with about 10 other applicants, once. It was very well done and very fair. They gave the same test to every batch of admin applicants.

  6. Anonymous*

    The OP didn’t mention if the test was related to the job. Also, It may very well be that you’re not expected to finish the test – they may be testing how well you work under pressure and seeing if you care more about accuracy and getting it right than simply rushing through something, without any care for content. I’m not a paralegal, but I imagine the job involves working under pressure, but also it’s critical that the information be correct. So i agree that just because you didn’t finish doesn’t you mean you blew it.

  7. Steve G*

    What was the test like? Was it a fill-in-the-blank written test or an essay? Was it a combo essay-research skills test?

  8. Girasol*

    OTOH, is it possible that they weren’t looking for the right answer but to seeing the interviewee take the right approach to finding it?

    1. Ariancita*

      Yes, this could be. I’ve asked interviewees test questions where I wasn’t looking for the right answer (and didn’t expect them to know it), but was looking for how they solved problems and at their analytic skills.

      I wonder why the OP didn’t ask more about the exam as they seemed to know ahead of time it was coming.

  9. Melissa*

    Been there, done that! Only it was 23 years ago. Upon reading the OPs letter, two things immediately came to mind. 1. If you are applying as a legal assistant, my gut tells me that you are young and just entering this field. 2. If number 1 is correct, then keep the faith …. years ago when I started down that path, many firms I interviewed with were totally willing to train new hires. As long as I was personable, got along well with my interviewer(s), and could type well (96 wpm), they were willing to take a chance on me. In addition to written tests, I remember being tested on a dictaphone for the first time (I don’t think attorneys use them anymore) and was scared to death. Not to mention that back then, you tested on a typewriter, not a computer (good grief, I’m old). But I could type fast and that saved me … even though there were a few typos in my final product. I could be totally wrong …. you could be older and just trying to find a job … any job, but that wasn’t my impression of your letter. I guess what I’m trying to say is I had some strengths and some weaknesses, and even though I fumbled some of those written tests, I played up my strengths and got the job. Good Luck!

    1. Jamie*

      Hey – not old…just experienced in past technology. :)

      Says the woman who also used an electric typewriter when I couldn’t get on the WANG and yes – an internship way back when with a Dictaphone machine.

      I live for the day the fax machine will be in that same camp…relics of a bygone age.

  10. DA*

    Given how much a lot of employers actually suck at the interview process, I would put more weight on a poorly designed test/exam.

    But, that can’t be depended upon given where the OP stands. I’ve had so/so interviews that turned into job offers and I’ve had fantastic interviews turn into never hearing from the firm again.

    At this point, just use Alison’s often given advice and continue the job search. What’s done is done and there is no use getting hung up on what happened.

  11. ChristineH*

    This is something I touched on in a recent post about skills testing – I don’t remember if it was a “fast answer” thread or not, but I talked about how I wish my previous employer had tested me on my knowledge of community resources. I really struggled in that job – 200 calls, 200 completely different situations (at least it sure felt that way!). I think both the employer and I had thought I had the appropriate knowledge given an internship I had about a year or so prior. But I found myself second-guessing a lot of the information I was providing and asking many questions.

    I thought maybe I’m just being unrealistic about what employers can/should do to assess fit, but I’m glad to see that there ARE employers who administer this sort of testing. I’m sorry to see that it probably won’t work out for the OP, but in speaking from my experience, I think it’s for the best. However, that doesn’t mean that you can’t brush up on the information/research you were tested on if this is indeed the type of work you want to pursue. If that’s the case, that is my suggestion.

    Good luck!!

  12. PEBCAK*

    I’m intrigued by the statement that she got to use the internet for half the test. What was she supposed to do for the other half?

  13. Tests*

    I am also interested in what the test was about.

    Sometimes the actual result in these tests does not matter and they are designed in a way that they cannot be finished in the allocated time. When I was looking for graduate positions then I went through a lot of tests – some really tested your knowledge but for others there was no way a graduate would know everything they expected me to know. so the tests were in fact testing skills in finding information, prioritisation, how peple cope under pressure (as you realise you are not able to finish the task), etc. Part of the test might have been how you responded to the interviewer as he/she came to tell you that time was up…

  14. franky*

    Maybe I’m being optimistic but it’s possible that they didn’t expect you to finish. They may have been testing how you work under pressure and, when time constrained, what areas of a report you focus on.

    I was asked once in an interview what I would do if I knew I wouldn’t have time to complete a report. This sounds like a practical version of that question.

  15. L*

    I took a test at an interview. Had to write a letter and do a mail merge. I am a journalist so writing was fine but I didn’t have a clue how to do a mail merge. I left there with tears as I walked out the door extremely frustrated. I was hired and have been with the same organization in different roles for 12 years.

    1. ChristineH*

      Mail merge is so tricky, especially since it seems like the steps change every frickin’ time a new version of MS Office comes out.

      1. L*

        I went and learned how to do it right away. And I don’t know if this was a good idea or not but I did leave a note saying I was more than happy to learn all the steps of mail merge. I was on the right track and left the appropriate spaces for the merge fields. I just hadn’t used the wizard before. They don’t necessarily teach you that stuff in college!

  16. Ann*

    I once had a timed writing test. It was given at the end of an interview as a surprise. I had a short period of time (30 minutes) to write a 2 page presentation outline about a very specific topic. The topic was a story that had been in the news, but was not a major headline grabber (think business opening). I knew absolutely NOTHING about the topic, certainly not enough to write a 2 page presentation in 30 minutes. I didn’t finish the test. My presentation outline was barely a page, didn’t have a conclusion and wasn’t even close to fleshed out. I was utterly devastated after the test. I knew I had the ability to write a presentation outline, and a very good one at that (give the appropriate amount of time and some background information). I ended up getting the job. The test was nothing like what was actually expected of me. Yes, I write presentation outlines all the time, but I’m never expected to do one in 30 minutes without use of a computer, without research or hints of the purpose of the presentation. Some tests are just poorly designed.

  17. Elizabeth West*

    I got tested for NewJob. I was given bits of reports to edit, and at first I wanted to cry, because I had no idea what they were talking about. Of course, it helped that I was given this BEFORE the interview and had a week to complete it, not having it shoved at me and told “Do this in twenty minutes.” I don’t know what I would have done if the latter had happened. Probably bombed totally.

  18. Yako*

    I would think as a test in a legal position the point of it was to test your skills at finding the information you need online. A friend of mine works at a legal firm and her job mostly consists of doing this kind of research.

  19. Laurie*

    I agree with AAM – maybe this job isn’t the right fit for you. Also, you can use the test in some cases to make inferences about the company and the team.

    I had one such experience.

    One time, I was asked to come in for an Excel skills test at a large company. This interview was in late 2011-early 2012, which you will want to keep in mind as you read this.

    I am (and was) very confident about my Excel skills so I went in fully expecting to breeze through the test. Turned out, they were testing my skills on an installation of Excel 1997. I stared dumbfounded at the screen for 10 minutes then slowly went about completing the tasks. One of them was creating a pivot table and displaying subtotals. What would’ve taken me about 1 minute in Excel 2003 – 2010, took me about 15 minutes of fiddling and clicking around to complete. Needless to say, I didn’t finish the test.

    The interviewer came in, saw that I hadn’t finished the test, and told me that she would let the hiring team know. I knew there was nothing I could say about the failed test that would impress the hiring team, and complaining about the test seemed like a bad idea. So, I pulled out a printout of an Excel dashboard I had created and brought with me, handed it to the interviewer and told her that I failed the Excel 1997 test, but I had skills in Excel 2007 and if she would be kind enough to pass the printout to the hiring team and let them decide.

    Sure enough, I did get the follow up call and went on a couple of 2nd round interviews, and was asked back for the 3rd round interview. During the 2nd round interview, I asked the employees in that team about the version of Excel they were using for their day to day work and apparently, they were using Excel 1997 and were scheduled to upgrade to 2003 sometime soon.

    I ended up declining the 3rd round interview primarily because I had gotten another offer I liked, but the fact that they were using such outdated software for their day to day activities was a big red flag for me and I only found out about it because of a failed Excel test.

    So, moral of the story – sometimes failing can be a good thing.

  20. Editor*

    I was recently exchanging some address lists with family members and it turned into a griping session about our employers. All of us happened to be using Microsoft Office 2007 on our home computers and we all had employers who were stuck in the 1990s, as though it wasn’t possible to upgrade software after Y2K.

    As far as I can tell, most employers are totally unrealistic about budgeting to replace software and computer hardware and are also unrealistic about training people to use new software.

  21. Liz in the City*

    When I was interviewing this past fall, I had to take proofreading tests each time. The one place (where I am now!!!) had a very reasonable test. The other place told me that the test I’d be taking would be indicative of the work I’d be doing there. Worst. two. hours. of. my. life. Even if I had been offered the job and didn’t have a backup and had to stay at Awful Previous Job, I would not have taken it. So if this test was related to the work, ask yourself if this is something you’d like to do all day, every day. (Plus, when Bad Test Interview called to tell me my results, they were SO condescending, but that’s another story.)

  22. Nester*

    We had a working test for job applicants that involved some intermediate level Excel and Access tasks (VLOOKUP, joins, etc.). None of the candidates did very well, but one person used the time to read the online help and do the best they could. We hired this person, and they were promoted to management within 2 years. So always try!

  23. TL*

    Ugh. Speaking of failing on tests, I once had to write a thank you note for a job interview…as part of the pre-interview application materials. Talk about nerve-wracking! Writing ordinary thank you notes is hard enough for me, but this was worse. I didn’t want to write anything about THAT job, since I still had to write a real thank you note after the interview. However, the question didn’t define any specifics about the imaginary job that you were supposed to be writing about. (The question was something like “write a thank you note for a job interview with clear handwriting” – nothing more.) It took ages to write, since I was trying to come up with an imaginary job/qualifications/interview before writing, and I managed to make a couple of spelling errors, which rarely happens.

    Seriously; I would have been fine with writing a business letter, or even a thank you note for just about anything else. Why ask for an interview thank you note, especially before the interview?

  24. KNS*

    They ended up asking me to come in for a second interview! A few things I didn’t mention in the question: the job posting said it was entry level, and the person interviewing me said it would start out with me basically assisting/training and then transition into a full blown paralegal position, with my own caseload and everything. I am starting to question now whether or not I should pursue it after reading the answer to my question. She did also say that not everyone finishes in time, so maybe it was just a curveball. When I asked why the position was open, the interviewer said that the last person didn’t catch on, so that raises a red flag for me too.

    1. Ask a Manager* Post author

      Ask them about the test! Say that you weren’t sure of everything on it, and ask if a successful candidate would need to be, or whether knowing how to find the info is sufficient.

  25. Anonymous Coward*

    A few months back I interviewed at some company. Before the interview, they had a timed test. The test covered basic arithmetic word problems, basic logic (mainly syllogisms), and a few sequences. The test also had a disclaimer that most people didn’t finish all the questions. (I did, with time to spare.)

    I have no idea what the company sought to accomplish with that test. Does anybody have an idea?

  26. KNS*

    I will for sure be asking about the answers! I’m curious about that more than anything. The second interview is Friday and I’ll be meeting with the two attorneys I would work for. They are making a decision over the weekend,

    To the people asking about the test: It had 3 parts. The first part had 4 different internet research questions. The second part had 5 difference people/scenarios and I had to read a provided statute and say whether or not the statute applied to the person/scenario. I know that sounds really weird but I don’t want to write a book or anything. The third part was me using the previous two sections to fill out a form applying for something related to that area of law. I had 45 minutes to complete it. I think I got the middle section 100% correct, but I never even got the third part.

    I do currently have a job, I’m just not 100% satisfied with it. I’ve been there a few years and know that I could remain there for more years to come, I just don’t know that I’m fulfilled right now.

  27. Pete Zaria*

    Well to be honest, I’ve worked in computer programming business for over 15 years.
    I was asked to work on an application coded in a technology I hadn’t worked with for about a couple of years so I missed a bit of coding syntax and what I compare to quiz definition you find at the end of book chapters , so if I was asked to take a written exam, well… chances are I might have failed completely…
    Now the big question is, does that mean I don’t have an expertise? Of course not…IMHO Too often those written home tests are pretty irrelevant to real world context…
    The truth is that is most of temporary blurred notions quickly came back in less then a couple of weeks. The application was completed ahead of deadline and was fully functional .
    I even added more functionalities than the client asked and overall they were overwhelmed with the final product.
    So the bottom line is, if the main criteria to check my expertise at the time would have been strictly been focussed on a written exam with questions… well sorry to say, but the client would have never ended up with what they wanted.
    Generally when I speak to a real professional in the experts Community, it’s pretty straightforward… I mean you pretty well know if the guy you’re dealing with is bluffing… no need for written exam…

  28. Fayaz*

    Hi, I had a written skills test a couple of months back for a managerial position, there were different scenarios and being chief operating officer of the company, you had to reply to different emails sent by site or operating officers and update board of directors. this was my first test for a job, I didn’t know what is going to happen. Can anyone help and let me know if I write the situations? Thanks (by the way I failed the test).

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