The rise of writing tests in job ads (and what to do about them)

by Rachel Smith
16 July 2021

Being at the helm of a busy jobs board, you start to notice a trend or two. And one we noticed that inspired an entire section of our recent bad job ads survey was around writing tests – paid, and unpaid.

Suddenly, it seems to be the norm for many job-posters to bypass your more-than-adequate portfolio and make you do a writing test instead. Yes, even if you have 10, 20 or 30 years’ experience under your belt.

Why job-posters ask for writing tests

I’ve heard numerous reasons as to why this practice is okay and even required. Some job-posters have been burnt before, hiring someone on the strength of their portfolio, and finding that person wasn’t up to scratch.

One job-poster, when I asked if these tests were really necessary, said to me, ‘A great portfolio is nice, but not if that person is a mediocre writer and all their work in their portfolio been subbed to within an inch of its life.’

And I’ve heard from numerous editors about how the hiring process is expensive and time-consuming, and writing tests or technical assessments are required to ensure you short-list the most suitable candidates.

Okay. I get all that. But for a freelance gig? I’m of the firm belief that your portfolio should speak for itself and that writing tests are a bit of a red flag.

What do freelancers think of unpaid writing tests?

It varies hugely – especially if the job-poster is paying you to do the test or expecting you to write a piece of copy for them for free.

In our recent survey (full results on the way), almost a third of respondents said if a job or gig required an unpaid test they’d say no. “It’s a huge turn-off that feels like a whole lot of unpaid work, and when you don’t get the gig it feels like an insulting waste of time,” said one respondent.

And unpaid tests for full-time jobs also give the most experienced job-seekers pause, our results found. Said one, “I’ve done tests as part of the interview process and they’ve gained all my knowledge and suggestions for no money – and I didn’t get the job. It’s really bad form.”

Around 64 percent said whether they opted to do it would depend on the test, and how much they wanted the job. “It would need to be a high value job,” wrote one respondent. “For small or short jobs, I don’t want to spend any unpaid time in applying.”

Said another: I would consider a test that required a very small amount of my time, and was clearly a test of my skills, not a way of the job-poster gathering free content.”

Many disagreed, though, believing any tests to be a massive red flag. “I don’t work for free! Employers take advantage of this and end up with awesome ideas from a bunch of different people who they then don’t hire. ‘Devise a 6-month marketing strategy for our business’ – um, no. That’s literally a job. If you want to see what I can write (I’m a copywriter) take a look at my portfolio. You wouldn’t ask a plumber to do a free trial to check if he’s got what it takes to fix your toilet. It’s absolutely ludicrous.”

What about paid writing tests – does that change things?

It does, actually – especially when you’re working with freelancers who are already stretched for time. In our survey, 85.3 percent of respondents said they’d agree to a paid test if it was part of the criteria for a freelance job or gig.

“Yes, but I’d be wary that they’re requesting this from multiple people and won’t actually hire anyone, just use what they get cheaply.”

“I’d be more likely to do it if it was paid, and more likely to make an effort,” said one respondent.

However, we received two pages of responses that still showed just how poorly freelancers think of tests – paid or unpaid.

“Too many hoops,” said one. “That’s the point of a portfolio.”

Said another: “I have decades of experience. If I can’t do the job, I wouldn’t be applying. Tests are for graduates / newbies / inexperienced applicants to prove their capability. It’s infantilising and a disincentive for people with the experience for the role.”

While I respect any freelancer who doesn’t want to do a paid test or have time to, if job-posters include it as part of their criteria I’m fine with it IF they are paying the freelancer a full rate to do it.

If you’re going to do a writing test how much should you charge?

Full rate or a reduced rate? I had this question from a freelancer recently who thought it was probably the done thing to offer a reduced rate.

No, no, no.

Always charge your full rate for writing tests. If they want a 500 word blog post with sources and you’d usually get $1 a word for that kind of thing, charge that. It’s your time, after all.

I also put this to our Gold group to see what they thought and 63 respondents said they’d charge their normal rate for paid writing tests or trials.

“I don’t understand why you would consider a reduced rate. Wouldn’t that just set expectations with the client that that’s the rate they could expect?”

A further 31 respondents said they’d avoid any client who tried to slap a writing test or trial on them.

To wrap up

Writing tests are probably here to stay – but if you do want the job or gig, here are my tips:

  1. Negotiate with the job-poster to see if you can avoid the test, and send them samples that are as close to what they want as possible
  2. Refuse to do any test that’s unpaid (there are scripts in our ebook for this) and tell the job-poster you have to prioritise paid work
  3. If it’s a paid test, charge your full rate.

What do you think about writing tests? Do you often do them, or do you say no? Feel free to share your thoughts in the comments.

Rachel Smith

5 responses on "The rise of writing tests in job ads (and what to do about them)"

  1. Tom says:

    Whenever I get asked to do an “unpaid test” I refuse the job. Not doing it, never will. It is an insult. Do we ask any other industry to perform an “unpaid test” before I use their service? Like getting my car serviced, for example? They’d tell me where to go; and we should too.

  2. Sabrina Rogers-Anderson says:

    Great blog, Rachel!

  3. rijkardo says:

    A free test is certainly a red flag for me! The last test I did was for a full-time gig with a startup. I had a few paying freelance clients to serve at that time, so I didn’t think it right to spend more than a couple of hours on it, whilst still feeling a bit insulted in the back of my mind. In the end they said the writing was fantastic but I wasn’t getting the job because the piece didn’t display adequate insights of the company’s range of products and services. To which I tried to explain that this sort of knowledge investment would be made as and when I began to get paid, not when you only have a couple of hours as a result of working for no money! No reply, but it was a lesson for me that the whole concept of an unpaid test is flawed as the writer cannot justify the time required for best performance.

    I’ve been paid handsomely for a different writing test and in that case gave it my all — no surprises there! Companies get what they pay for from the very beginning of these processes, but few understand that.

  4. Jo S says:

    Definitely with you on this Rachel! I’ve done short subbing tests before but if it’s an actual piece of writing or other work I agree it should be paid. I went for a contract communications manager gig last year and after an initial interview was asked to create a strategy outlining how I’d promote their next annual event across their various print and digital channels. Oh, and write a speech for their chairman to give at the event launch! I gave them my freelance rates and said I thought it was only reasonable to be paid for the work, especially as these were live briefs. Their response was that they wouldn’t be using any of the work… hmmm! If job-posters are going to ask for tests they should make it clear from the start so applicants can decide if it’s worth their while… bit of a bugbear this one!

  5. Justin says:

    I recently did a writing test for a prospective client. It only took an hour of my time, which I didn’t mind, but I made it clear on filing that if I was successful that the time would be included on my first invoice.

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