Application Essay Questions and Tests

Original Content Created by Heather R. Houlton (heather dot houlton at gmail dot com)

Resumes, CVs, and cover letters aren't always the only types of materials requested as part of an application package. Since applicant tracking systems (ATS) can collect and save a lot of information about any given candidate in its database, oftentimes applicants come across other required materials. This page is going to cover two additional requirements often requested by HR in the job postings: 

  1. Short-answer essay questions (technical or behavioral)
  2. Cognitive or/and Personality Tests

Short-Answer Essay Questions:

Sometimes, instead of a traditional cover letter, companies have a section in the online application process where they ask a series of short-answer questions to assess your technical knowledge and writing skills. The questions are often found after you submit your resume and personal information, and are embedded in a web page where applicants directly type in their responses to the prompts (as opposed to uploading a word document or PDF, for example). Depending on the position, they may ask questions about your technical aptitude or ask questions about how you handle certain situations (which would be considered "behavioral" questions). Example short-answer essay questions may include the following:

  • Please describe your relevant experience as it pertains to this position.
  • Describe your experiences in managing and facilitating leadership development programs (and their target audiences).
  • Please describe your approach when speaking with varying audiences.
  • Highlight your experiences in leading indirect or direct reports.
  • What does “teamwork” mean to you?
  • What other skills, qualities, and attributes do you possess that would make you a great fit for this position? 

To answer these types of questions, whether they're technical or behavioral, follow the same guidelines that we learned about when writing a cover letter: Start with a topic sentence, make sure supporting sentences use specific examples, and recap what you said concisely to drive the point home. These are supposed to be concise, so we recommend that you take time to write and revise these as much as you would a cover letter. 

Cognitive and Personality Tests:

Companies use cognitive and personality tests to get an "objective" measure of an applicant's ability to be successful in the role. In reality, these tests are like any other standardized measure - they take practice. So let's do that. 

These tests are intended to rate you against other applicants in comparison to the employer's desired qualifications and traits. The cognitive tests take practice, just like the SATs and ACTs do. If a potential employer asks you to take a cognitive assessment, we recommend you practice a few times first with a few different tests so you get a broad set of examples of what you may encounter.

With the personality tests, applicants can read between the lines. Pay particular attention to the details and stated qualities desired listed in the job posting and answer the questions honestly, but also with what the employer has in mind. 

We hope that these examples of short-answer essay questions, cognitive tests, and personality tests help give you a more detailed picture of the amount of effort and hard work it takes to apply for a position. The more you know now, the more prepared you will be when the time comes in the future. These tips may also apply to internship applications too!