companies that ask people to answer mini-essays before submitting resumes

A reader writes:

In previous posts you have written that employers generally shouldn’t require applicants to do work (assessments, tests, what have you) at the very outset of the hiring process because that’s asking folks to dedicate time/effort when the majority of them won’t even get an interview.

I agree with you wholeheartedly, but I’m curious about a trend I’m seeing now: employers are trying to promote equity in their hiring process by eschewing the traditional resume/cover letter and asking applicants to answer job-related questions instead (some do this in addition to a cover letter, but that’s a different conversation). The employer says that they will do a blind review of the essays and only request resumes afterwards, which they presume will provide them with a more diverse pool … I guess?

Do you think that this hiring process can actually improve equity? Employers are still assessing people on their writing ability and the content of what they say, which can be strong signals for characteristics that they’re trying not to pay attention to. Plus, not everyone has the time to write a bunch of original content just to be considered for a first round phone screen (and top candidates with many other choices probably won’t bother doing it).

Here are example questions from a job application I’m currently considering. They all have a 250-word limit, which makes the exercise even more difficult:

• What are your top three values that guide how you work?

• Please tell us about a time you successfully carried a project from start to finish with little to no supervision. What were the 2-3 best practices learned in order to be successful? What did you enjoy about the autonomy and what, if anything, did you think was lacking?

• You have a large task of identifying companies who could be interested in investing in our partners. How would you go about building out the list? Please explain your rationale.

• How do you see our industry’s landscape evolving over the next 5 to 10 years?

• What excites you most about the field?

What’s your take?

Not a fan.

I am strongly in favor of reevaluating hiring processes to minimize opportunites for bias (for example, removing names and other demographic indicators from resumes before they’re reviewed, ensuring you have a diverse group screening and interviewing candidates, etc.) and to more clearly assess candidates against the actual must-have qualities and skills for the role (like revisiting degree requirements, which often keep out less privileged candidates without correlating to what’s truly necessary to excel at the job, and ensuring all candidates are evaluated against the same set of criteria).

But asking candidates to do significantly more work up-front just to apply isn’t the way to make your process more equitable. And for most people, this will be a lot more work. Most people have basic resumes and cover letters ready to go that they just need to tailor a bit to the job. This is asking people to spend significant time writing answers to mini-essay questions from scratch, possibly for multiple jobs. This one alone asks for more than 1,000 words — and some of these questions would take real time and thought. It’s a significant assignment, and it’s way too much to ask from people before you’ve even done an initial screen and determined you’d like them to move forward in the process.

I get that they’re trying to use this assignment to choose who to move forward without being biased by things like an impressive school or a prestigious internship someone got through their uncle. But this isn’t going to accomplish what they want. Too many people won’t bother to complete this assignment (especially people with lots of demands on their time, like single parents or people working two jobs to make their rent, who are presumably among the people the employer wants their process to be more equitable for) … but even beyond that, it’s just unreasonable to expect of people at this stage, period.

If they want to experiment with ways to de-prioritize resumes in early screening — which won’t make sense for a lot of jobs, but can make sense for some — they’d be better off picking a single question to ask people to respond to. Two at the absolute most. And that question or two needs to be tightly tied to what it takes to succeed in the position. People’s values and motivations are important, but they’re probably not the biggest differentiator among candidates at this early stage. If you’re screening this way, the screen needs to be a lot more narrowly focused on early-stage must-have’s.

This is just far too much, when statistically speaking the majority of applicants, even good ones, aren’t going to make it to the next stage.

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