We know that less than 1.3% of applicants land jobs at top organizations like the World Bank. So it’s competitive out there.
This makes the application process especially grueling.
Depending on the type of role and organization, the usual components of the hiring process look something like this:
- Find a job online or via a friend
- Submit the best CV and cover letter you can
- (Wait what feels like an eternity to MAYBE hear back)
- Deliver a time-based written test
- Get invited and do the interview FAST
A lot of attention gets pored into the CV, with big debates on how much it matters (in my view: it’s the most important part of the process). The interview probably ranks next.
While the written test is something rarely spoken about, it can play a defining role between getting the job — or having your hopes dashed so close to an exciting new opportunity.
It normally is used to fine-tune the short-list for the interview, so that it happens before the interview. Or it can also happen after the interview to help narrow down the final candidate. This just depends.
For my first job, I did both on the same day. For another one, I had to prepare the written test before hand and present it during the interview itself.
One thing that is almost always the case: the people doing the hiring don’t have a super clear picture on any part of the process. By this I mean, many of those on the interview panel and the hiring team may be hiring for the first time, and just learning the ropes.
This is important because, with few exceptions, there is nothing ever really standardized with written tests — even within the same organization.
Here are a few pointers for when you’re invited to the test.
Expect it to be highly time pressured
One of the most common patterns I have found across the many tests I have done over the years is: you have too little time!
The main challenge is you are often under extreme time pressure. Many tests take the form of:
- Analyze a situation
- Prepare a detailed strategy
- Assess the costs and benefits
- Provide recommendations for new actions to take
- Then write it all down clearly
…. in 1 or 2 hours.
The trick here is to not think there is an actual “right” answer.
Rather, focus on showing the way you would think through the problem they give you.
To do so, time management becomes very important.
If you have taken standardized tests for entry to universities, you can use some of the key strategies from there:
- Make sure you answer every question (and don’t get stuck and spend too much time on the first questions).
- A key way to do this is to divide your time by the number of questions and set your watch to this. When the timer hits, move on to the next question even if you’re not 100% finished.
- Relax and take deep breaths to calm your nerves – or they can get the better of you.
- Leave enough time to review your work and eliminate any obvious errors or mistakes. MISTAKES are something they always see and can break your application process.
They will expect you to already be an expert on the organization
It’s a bit paradoxical, but the written tests often seem to presume you know how people think, what the organization finds valuable, and how things get done — BEFORE you have actually worked there.
In the real world, these are important factors for being successful, so it can be really useful to demonstrate your mastery through the written test.
What you can do is research the organization, team, strategies, research, work plan, and so on.
Read everything the organization is doing on that particular issue. What do team members say publicly? What focus do donors have? Are there any new reports that lay out the key issues? Know them inside out and what the latest thinking is.
For example, when I was preparing for a written test for an advocacy role with CARE, I found an entirely new advocacy manual that was just published. This helped me immensely to learn the way CARE approaches advocacy issues – even the way it defines the term!
THEY CAN BE REALLY HARD!
Here is a sample written test for an economic advisor role with UNDP:
You have three hours (3) hours from the time you opened this email to answer the below question and email back your report/answer to firstname.lastname@example.org. You will be disqualified for submitting your report/answer later than the allocated time. For the purposes of this written test assessment, your candidate number is XXXX.
You may write your report in ENGLISH OR FRENCH.
Please do not write your name anywhere in your report/brief. Use only the candidate number that has been assigned to you XXXX.
The rate of inflation has major implications for how the economy functions and for the well-being of citizens. For example, high food prices inflation erodes the purchasing power of the poor. While small but positive rates of inflation are generally viewed as acceptable, if inflation increases there comes a point where it becomes excessive and starts having detrimental effects.
- What are some of the key drivers and causes of inflation in African economies? Include both structural and cyclical factors.
- What are the implications of inflation on different population groups? Discuss specific gender effects.
- What are some key responses from policy makers and how effective have these responses been? Cover both macro- and micro-economic policy responses.
If you wish, select one country or sub-region to make your answer more concrete, but ensure that the discussion illustrates general points. Please use a combination of theory and empirical evidence in constructing your answers. End with a reference to the specific role that UNDP can play in supporting countries in managing the challenge of inflation.
Your report should be around 2,000 words in total and needs to be written in a rigorous but accessible way. Illustrative graphs and tables can be included if they support the arguments. Use proper sourcing and referencing.
If you made it this far, you are likely an economist, and as a trained economist, you have a basic grasp on inflation.
But if you have not worked on gender issues, do you have much to say about the differential effects between men and women’s work and the intersectionalities of these with other factors such as rural/urban location, age or disability? Do you know the latest policy studies at BOTH the macro and micro response levels and what prescriptions they may provide to the specific country or regional context?
The key here is to NOT get overwhelmed. So take a deep breath.
From there, know where to look for answers.
Nowadays, you will almost certainly be allowed to use a laptop and the Internet to Google. But you only have so much time, so focus your search on the sources of information and data that the organization you’re applying to finds valuable.
Indeed, one of the most critical skills is to be able to learn, and to learn quickly, while on the job. Use it now.
Mind the details in being ready
Here are a few situations I have seen or experienced myself:
- They send you the test late and you panic
- You cannot open the file they sent you (because it’s in some encrypted, outdated version)
- Your laptop runs out of power
- You just switched from PC to Mac and have NO idea how Excel works any more
- The Wi-Fi decides to take an unscheduled break
…and so much more can go wrong.
These are huge factors when you’re under time pressure to give great answers to really hard questions.
So try your best to make sure your laptop and Internet are in good order, you’re in a quiet place where you can focus, and that you’ve done all possible to avoid any distractions.
Preparing for written tests is key even though no one talks about this or provides any real-world examples.
I hope the above helps guide you on your next test.