< Sprint 5: How to Approach Interviewing

Step 5

Handling Take-Home Assignments

We recommend spending 40 minutes on this section.

Take-home assignments can be stressful – but if you keep calm and remember a few key tips, there's no reason let them get out down. Remember, a take home assignment is a really positive sign. It means you are a strong candidate, and the hiring manager wants to hear what you have to say. You wouldn't be getting this assignment if you weren't qualified. With that in mind, don't obsess over getting the perfect answer. You'll make mistakes, but that's okay – hiring managers care way more about seeing your process than getting the "right" result. You don't have to spend forever fine-tuning your work. Budget some time, and then stick to it. Your interviewer knows you have work with limited time, and they'll take that into account when they evaluate your work. We've pulled some of our favorite tips from Interview expert, Exponent, on how to nail the take home assignment:

Clarifying your assignment

1. Deliverables/Answer the question:
The first thing you should do is make sure you fully understand the deliverables. If the recruiter is asking for designs, a file format, etc. make sure you take all of those things into consideration.

2. Timeframe:
Next, clarify with the interviewer when they’d like the assignment completed by and how long they typically expect interviewers to work on the assignment. Now is the time to ask for rescheduling if you think you can’t commit to the assignment at this time. While no one will be keeping track of the exact time you spend, you still want to be somewhere in the recommended ballpark. Additionally, this will help you block out the appropriate amount of time to work on the assignment.

3. Assumptions:
If you have any major assumptions, feel free to ask the interviewer or recruiter to clarify them at this point. The answer may lead you to completely different approaches when it comes to your assignment. Don’t be afraid to gather this extra intel if the opportunity presents itself.

Clarifying your assignment

The take-home assignment usually requires a few hours of dedicated work time. Depending on your work style, I would recommend blocking out the anticipated time to complete the assignment. Here’s how you should organize your time:

1. Minimize interruptions:
While working on your take-home assignment, I highly recommend minimizing any interruptions and focusing on your deliverables. The assignment requires you to communicate a lot of information and interruptions to your thought process may reflect in your deliverables. It’s important that you keep your writing direct, contextual, and concise - staying focused will help accomplish those goals.

2. First draft mentality:
While you want your final product to be polished, try and take an agile mentality when completing your take-home assignment. Spend the minimal amount of time to work through your first draft as you’ll likely make multiple changes as you go. Once you’ve completed your draft, you can always go back in later to make changes, add details, and improve any areas that may be lacking.

3. Save time for review:
I recommend not spending all of your allocated time in one sitting. It helps to come back to the assignment with fresh eyes and clear thoughts (after you’ve completed a full draft of course). Plan to come back to the assignment a few hours later to reevaluate the state of your responses.

Working on the assignment

The meat of the take-home assignment is actually sitting down and going through the thought experiment proposed by the interviewer. Here’s some tips on working on the actual assignment itself:

1. Be concise:
A mark of a good interviewees is knowing when to add just enough detail without overloading the document with details. Use your best judgement in determining what topics can be skimmed over and which require precise explanation.

2. Fully articulate your decision-making process: ****
While you want to aim to be concise, make sure you organize your thoughts in a way that helps the reader understand your decision-making process.

3. Utilize visuals:
The old adage is that a picture is worth a thousand words. If you’re good with mockup and prototype software, utilize that to your advantage if it responds to the prompt. Don't be afraid to showcase your creative skills

4. Show what you know:
This is a great opportunity to playback what you've learned in the interviews to date. Refer back to your notes and weave in specific pieces of data, anecdotes, or assumptions to demonstrate you are learning and listening through this process.

5. List out open issues or possible doubts:
Somewhere in your project, I highly recommend listing out any open questions, risks, and dependencies. This demonstrates to the interview a level of awareness that your solution may depend on some key assumptions. Additionally, the recruiter will appreciate your transparency, and likely applaud you for knowing the limitations of your solution.

Review Your Work

When you’re done with your assignment, it’s time to review your work one last time and make any final adjustments. Here are some ways to really polish up your work:

1. Ask for someone to review: ****
It’s always a good idea to have fresh eyes take a look at your assignment and see if they can follow along. I not only recommend asking other people to review your work, but also friends who are not in the industry. If other people can follow along, then you know you’ve done a decent job of explaining your core ideas.

2. Play devil’s advocate:
While it’s good to be confident in your proposed solutions, it’s also a good idea to look at the other side of the coin. Review your work from different perspectives: would this be a viable solution if you had zero resources? Is this solution measurable? Why are your competitors not trying this? Think of novel ways to poke holes at your assignment and address them.

3. Answering the prompt:
At the end of the day, you want to make sure that you answer the prompt the interviewer gave you. It’s easy to get carried away in your work and forget where your end goal was. Take a moment to make sure you’re providing what the interviewer asked.

4. Submit your work/Gathering feedback
When all final touches are done it’s time to submit your work! If you’ve never done a take-home assignment before, pat yourself on the back. I like to keep a copy of all of the assignments I’ve done so that I can refer back to them whenever needed. Additionally, I encourage you to ask for feedback so that you can continue to improve your take-home assignment skills:

5. Submit your assignment on time: ****
This goes without saying. Deliver your tasks as promised and on schedule. You don’t want to be making bad impressions this early in the process.

6. Be prepared to discuss further:
Some interviewers may have a follow-up conversation for you to present your work or walk them through your assignment verbally. Be prepared to defend your decisions and discuss your process in detail.

7. Utilize feedback to improve:
If the interviewer does provide feedback, make sure you make note. As I mentioned before, I like to keep copies of my assignments along with these notes to refer back to in the future.

Key Reflections

Think back to your Time Check worksheet, did this take home assignment reflect things you want to be doing more of?

What skills do you feel more confident about now that you’ve done this assignment? 

What skills do you need to brush up on?

How would you tweak your quest and values criteria after this assignment?