Candidates for many of the jobs at Amazon, those Level 5 or 6 and above, receive a writing exercise that’s due before their onsite interview. Amazon gives this test because candidates need good writing skills to work there.
What you need to know to answer the Amazon written interview question
If you’ve been learning how to answer behavioral questions for your interview, you’ve already got a lot of the information you need to answer the written question.
What topic will the Amazon written interview question cover?
The writing exercise gives you the option of answering one of two questions, and they’re the same two questions for everyone:
Written interview question option one
What is the most inventive or innovative thing you have done? Describe something that was your idea, e.g., a process change, a product idea, a new metric, or a novel customer interface. It does not need to be something that is patented.Do not write about anything your current or previous employer would deem confidential information.Provide relevant context for us to understand the invention/innovation.What problem were you seeking to solve, and what was the result? Why was it an important problem to solve? How did it make a difference to the business or organization?
Written interview question option two
Most decisions are made with analysis, but some are judgment calls not susceptible to analysis due to time or information constraints. Please write about a judgment call you’ve made recently that couldn’t be analyzed. It can be a big or small one, but should focus on a business issue. What was the situation, the alternatives you considered and evaluated, and your decision-making process? Be sure to explain why you chose the alternative you did relative to others considered.
Notes on option one
If you choose option one, here are some tips for what to include in the answer. I got these from a recruiter, and they might give you some ideas.
What is expected from the innovation?
What is the scalability of the innovation? How is it allowing for scale and automation without adding more resources / removing manual work?
What is the breadth of impact of the innovation?
Sphere of influence. What was the buy in and how was it achieved?
When is the Amazon written interview question due?
You have until 48 hours before your interview to submit your written exercise. You will often receive it a week or more before your interview, and if you don’t see it look in your spam folder before you write to the recruiter. Some departments only give you 48 hours to write it.
How long should the answer to the Amazon writing exercise be?
They say four pages, but you should try to keep it to two pages.
Other things you need to know before you start writing:
Use MS Word (rich text format).
Copy in the title of the question you’re answering at the top of the document.
Single space the lines.
What font to use? Use something that’s easy to read. Some people like Times New Roman 12 point, but I personally prefer Arial 12 point. This exercise is business writing, so keep the font simple. 12 point is the best choice for size.
Don’t use bullets.
Don’t use outline format.
Don’t include proprietary information.
How is the Amazon written exercise related to the behavioral questions?
If you’ve already been working on your answers to the behavioral questions, you may have noticed that the two written interview questions are both behavioral interview questions. These questions are asking you to tell a story about your past professional experience, like you would have to do in your interview in answer to a behavioral question.
Because the written question is a behavioral question, you can use the same guidelines and almost the same structure that you’d use to answer the oral behavioral questions.
Amazon writing sample answer structure
Once you’ve chosen a topic for your writing sample, use the following format to answer it. Note that it follows almost the same structure you’d use to answer an oral behavioral question but has an added introductory paragraph before the PAR sections.
Paragraph 1 – Introduction
This short paragraph (approximately 5 sentences) should include an introduction to the topic, a summary of the main points of what you’re going to write about, and the results. Also, you should provide a brief answer to the question – state explicitly the innovation or judgement call that you made.
Can be about five sentences. You don’t need to get into detail, b,ut I should be able to read this paragraph and know where you were working when you did this, what your job was, what you did (the innovation and judgement call), and the high-level results of that.
Corresponds to the P section (Problem) of the PAR structure – what is the background and the problem you were trying to solve?
Can be more than one paragraph but not more than half a page.
Corresponds to the A section (Action) of the PAR structure.
Should be the longest section.
Must say how you solved the problem that you mentioned in first paragraph: What was your innovation or your judgement call? You should get to this in the first page of the essay.
Corresponds to the R section (Results) of the PAR structure.
What is the outcome of your judgement call or innovative idea?
Did you answer the question?
Make sure you answer the question. If you’ve chosen the innovation question, make sure to say why whatever you did was innovative. How was it new? Why did it matter to the client or the business? If you chose judgement call, you need to explain why what you did required using your judgement. Often I will read an entire exercise and still not be clear on what the actual answer to the question is, i.e., what the innovation or the judgement call was. I know it’s easy to get off track when you’re writing, but your number one goal is to answer the question.
How good does my writing have to be? What if my English level seems low in my writing?
This isn’t English class in tenth grade where you had to write an essay with a five paragraph structure and perfect syntax and grammar.
Your language doesn’t have to be perfect. If your English is above average or average, you should be fine. If your English is below average, you can still get the job (unless clear writing is a crucial component of the job), but you may be asked to take a writing class once you start working there. They want to make sure your emails and reports are good enough for your colleagues to understand you.
Does this sound like I’m not being strict enough? I used to be an English teacher, so I actually have pretty strong opinions about language. However, I’ve also worked in corporate America enough to know that, the truth is, your language doesn’t need to be absolutely perfect, including your written language.
The important thing is to use the PAR structure to keep your answer organized and clear and use the best English you can. Don’t obsess about your spelling and grammar. You want to think about the question like a behavioral question. Does your answer make sense? Did you say too much? Too little? Are you actually answering the question?
Sample answers with my comments
I’ve worked with many Amazon candidates on their writing samples, and I wish I could share with you some of the best answers I’ve seen. However, because Amazon candidates aren’t supposed to ask for help on their written exercises, I may get someone in trouble if I provide real examples. The examples that follow aren’t real, but they’re inspired by real answers from my clients, many of whom ended up getting the job.
Let’s look at some common mistakes that I see in examples and discuss how we might avoid those mistakes in your answers.
Mistake #1 – Failing to Add an Introductory Paragraph
I understand that it may seem tempting to follow the PAR structure and just jump right in with an explanation of the problem. However, your answer will be stronger if you take the time to include an introductory paragraph. In an essay this paragraph is called an introduction, but in business writing it’s what’s called the executive summary.
A common mistake that inexperienced writers make is that they “bury the lede.” Maybe you’ve heard this phrase before. It means that the writer fails to state up front the most important part of the story. When a writer “buries the lede,” the reader has to put in more effort to discern the main point of the story. Your introduction is an opportunity to orient the reader (your interviewer). What’s important about your story? What’s the main point?
Let’s look at an example. Notice how straightforward and to the point this writer is in the first paragraph:
“I recently had to make a very difficult judgement call about whether to release code to production that had not been tested with our typical rigor. I took a shortcut, and to be honest, I hacked together a solution so quickly I surprised even myself. But in my gut, I knew it would fix the problem, so I made the judgement call to deploy the code. My new code worked even though we didn’t have time to test it.”
This is a short, clear intro. With the introductory paragraph in place, the writer can transition into the PAR structure for the rest of the essay.
Mistake #2 – Failing to Provide Context
Here is an example of the situation/problem step from the written exercise innovation question:
“A few months ago, I took part in a company meeting about an internal product, which I was using for consulting services. I was a user of the product, but I didn’t have any formal role in this team and I had little knowledge of its inner workings.
The discussion at the meeting was about how to properly roll out the product to the customers. The tech lead proposal was to release it as a downloadable and runnable application with a license server in the cloud. As I listened in on the team’s conversation, they went into detail about installation instructions and how to implement the licensing process.
I didn’t like their plan. It seemed difficult for the customer in his buyer journey with potential issues on installation, monitoring, and debugging while simultaneously introducing new customer support issues. Also, with this approach, we were losing opportunities to scale and provide valuable services to our customers.”
My comments on this problem section:
There are some things that could be done better here. First of all, there is no background. Where was he working? What was his role? What is the internal product? Also, why was he in the meeting if he wasn’t on the team?
For the problem section to work well, you must provide clear context. Anticipate and attempt to address questions that your reader may have about this situation. To address the question of why he was in the meeting, he could have simply added, “While I wasn’t on the team, I was a stakeholder on the project and was included in the launch plan discussions.” You want to try to paint a picture of the situation for your reader.
Let’s rewrite the beginning of that problem section in a way that provides clearer context and helps the reader really see that problem from your unique point of view:
“A few months ago, I was asked to provide input on an update to one of our existing product lines. While I had no formal role on the product team, they were soliciting my input because, as an account executive, I sold the existing product as a part of our professional services package…”
Note that it doesn’t take much to provide context. The rest of the story makes much more sense now that we know this person’s role and why he was being asked to give feedback.
Here is another example of the situation/problem step from the written exercise judgement call question:
“One of my business mentors, whose opinion I value deeply, once suggested that I spend more time and a bigger budget to increase my conference and workshop attendance to enhance and diversify my pipeline of projects. As a self-employed consultant with a long project cycle from origination through execution to closing and billing, I couldn’t neglect business development efforts, in particular with high-level participants. Many high-level people cannot be accessed easily, even if you come up with a referral.”
My comments on this answer:
Her way of presenting this is pretty generalized and not specific to what her situation is – what is her business? How many clients does she have? Why are conferences the answer to this problem?
Just as in the previous example, this example fails to set proper context and doesn’t anticipate the readers’ questions. How can we revise this example to provide context? In your own answers, give some details that will draw the reader in. Don’t just speak in generalities.
Here’s my attempt at a revised version of the same “situation/problem”:
“At my previous job, I was struggling to build and maintain a healthy, diverse pipeline of projects. I had tried a few things to address the issue, but I wasn’t gaining traction, so I went to one of my business mentors for advice. He told me that I wasn’t using my budget wisely and that I should actually be spending more, specifically on building a pipeline by attending more conferences and workshops. I had thought that I was doing the right thing by keeping costs low. He helped me see, for high-level biz dev, sometimes you need to spend money to make money.
While using more of my budget made me uncomfortable, I pushed myself to take his advice. I built out a three-month conference schedule for me and my team, and we targeted companies and individuals that would diversify our pipeline. The approach was successful and created a model for how we built pipelines across a number of teams.”
Mistake #3 – Giving Too Much Background
Giving too much background is the opposite of Mistake #2, Failing to Provide Context. Providing too much context is just as bad as providing none. In both cases, you’re failing to tell your story in an effective manner. Ask yourself, “If I were reading this story for the first time, what is the minimum amount of information I would need in order for it to make sense?”
If you find yourself wanting to provide a lot of background information, go ahead and write it all, but after you’re done, try to edit it down to the bare essentials. If you’re still struggling, ask for help. There’s no shame in asking a trusted friend or family member for help in finding the balance between providing no context and too much background (as long as they’re good writers).
Mistake #4 – Failing to Detail Your “Action”
As I wrote above, the action section is the most important section. The Action section is your place to shine. You must describe what action you took to address the problem.
Here is an example of an action step from the innovation question:
“I contacted each carrier to re-sign the contract with a new billing cycle and set up the account management portals to enable the report downloading features. Then I summarized the cost analysis table (cost, usage for each device, fleet, and carrier weight) and had a weekly meeting with the DevOps team to fine-tune the load-balancing algorithms to improve the cost. Finally, I worked with the customer support team to monitor complaint ticket counts to ensure no impact on customer experiences. We enacted a throttle policy adjustment weekly to balance between the overage and user experience. I also adjusted the carrier’s data plan to ensure balance of demand and supply based on the device usage trend.”
While this section is a bit short (could she go through the steps in more detail?), I like that she gives herself credit for the actions she took. So often I see candidates write “we did this” and “my team did that.” This section is about actions that you personally took to effect change and fix the problem. It’s not a time to talk about your team.
However, as I mentioned, I recommend that this candidate build out the section further. For example, how did she work with the customer support team? What did she do? Did she meet with them? How did she monitor the case count?
To decide which details to dwell on in the action section, consider the job opportunity. Before you write this section, take the time to reread the job description. What qualities or skills are emphasized in the job description? If you can show examples of how your “action” matches the qualities or skills covered in the job description (without actually alluding to the job description), that’s where you want to give the most detail.
Mistake #5 – Failing to Describe Impact
So you’ve set up your story with a short introduction, you’ve provided just the right amount of context in the problem section, and you’ve detailed the steps you took to address the problem in the Action section. You’re done, right?
Wrong. You must describe the impact that your action had and be specific. Data is your most important ally in this section. How specifically did your action impact the business? Did you solve an important customer problem? Great, how much new revenue did that create? Did you improve or invent a technical process? Great, what were the proportional improvements in throughput? State the impact.
Here is an example of a Results section from the writing sample innovation question:
“I presented the document to the Finance Director, and he did not have any change requests and approved it to be used as is. He then shared it with multiple teams in the company. The recruiting team used it to plan hiring for upcoming new site launches as it provided job titles, head counts, and contractual maximum labor costs that they could reference. The accounting team used it to audit the payroll file to ensure labor cost billing and head counts were within contractual limit and any errors in the payroll system to be corrected as a result. The finance team used it for budget planning and to work closely with accounting and operation teams to plan any future financial needs of the company. It helped the operations team plan ahead to pursue change orders to support business change and growth and follow up on any pending contracts that were not signed by the client yet. This document is still being used to track the contract information and status as of today.”
Comments on this answer:
In general, this answer is a very good Results section. It has great detail and describes the long-term impact on the business. How could we improve it? The answer, almost always, is to add some data. For example, in this case, the candidate could add how much time or person hours this new document saved, and he could even take it further and attach a dollar amount to the time savings.
Here is another example of a Results section:
“At the conclusion of the pilot period, I met with the VP and we agreed that it was too risky for us to consolidate our desktop infrastructure with a VDI vendor. I directed my team to roll back the changes, and we did so in less than two weeks.
While this may have appeared to be a failure, I saw this experience as a great success for me, my team, and the company. We moved quickly to evaluate a modern solution and gathered empirical evidence in our environment. We took a calculated risk and were able to reverse the decision when we had the information needed to make a better decision, and we were able to validate some assumptions that have proven valuable in other ways. Through this exercise, we found that VDI is a viable solution for WFH users, and we’ve rolled out a recently developed WFH program leveraging VDI technology.”
Comments on this answer:
I found this “results” section very interesting because she described how failure leads to impact on the business. She turned the failure into a “lessons learned” section, which is good. You don’t have to do this but in a situation like this one, where something wasn’t successful, adding some detail about what you learned can add an extra layer of insight. My one piece of advice for this candidate was, as you can probably guess, to add some data or business metrics. For her, it was easy to add that information because the program that she described brought the company six figures in new revenue. By adding that last detail, she showed the true results of her actions.