Please Take This Test—It Will Help Us Decide If We Want to Hire You

By Jack Limpert

Paul Stevens, retired from the Associated Press, has an email newsletter, Connecting, for AP staff and alumni and Monday he posted a news test that was given in the 1970s and ‘80s to prospective AP employees. Part A gave applicants notes for a story and asked them to use the notes to write a 250-350 word spot news story. Part B had notes for a 250-350 word feature story. Then there were examples of bad writing to be corrected and a spelling test. Finally, there were notes on a sports story and applicants were asked to write a 150-word story for the news wire and a 100-word story for the broadcast wire.

Stevens noted that in addition to the writing test, AP applicants took a vocabulary test and a general intelligence test—”the latter dropped in the ’80s as these tests fell out of favor when employment laws changed and the tests as used became legally problematic.”

In my first years at The Washingtonian we had no tests. We had a small staff and we hired based on experience and how little we could pay. Then in 1979 the magazine was sold to Philip Merrill, who owned the Annapolis Capital newspaper. The executives at the newspaper wanted to introduce good business practices to the magazine and one such practice was a test used to screen job applicants at the newspaper. The first part was simple adding, subtracting, multiplication, and division—about fourth grade level. Then a section on spelling—sixth grade level. Then proofreading—maybe junior high school level. Finally a 10-question analytical test.

The Annapolis executives (we called them the Annapolis mafia) wanted all Washingtonian job applicants to take the test. It was no problem on the magazine’s business side—advertising, circulation, accounting. And I was willing to use it for some low-level editorial jobs. But when interviewing writers and editors—many with solid journalism experience—I often couldn’t bring myself to make them take it.

I often was trying to lure a writer or editor into giving up a good job to join a magazine that was growing but with no guaranteed future. Was I going to ask someone I was trying to steal from another magazine if he or she could add 12 and 8 and get 20? If the words “varios” or “supirior” were spelled right. (Yes, I know some good writers aren’t good spellers—that’s what editors are for.)

The test’s 10 analytical questions were pretty easy:

A pen and penholder cost 11 cents. The penholder costs ten more cents than the pen. How much does the pen cost?

A basketball team played 25 games and won seven more games than it lost. How many games did the team win?

But in looking back at the test, still used at the magazine, I was baffled by the first analytical question:

Todd buys a cow for $90, sells it for $100, and buys it back again for $80. How much does he make on the transaction?

It took me some time and the answer I came up with was $10. I asked the Washingtonian if that was right. They said no, the right answer is $20.

It doesn’t seem right that someone’s career might rise or fall on getting the right answer to that kind of question. Sorry, you almost passed—good luck in your job search.

I asked another experienced magazine editor how he’d answer. I told him I got $10 as the answer because that’s the profit Todd has from the initial sale. Buying the cow back is irrelevant. The $20 answer assumes the cow is worth $90. Maybe, maybe not. Your only guaranteed profit is $10.

The other editor said he’d go along with $10 being the right answer, adding, “It seems like a very clumsy question because there are two transactions and the question seems to be about one transaction.”

I asked another editor—maybe the smartest person I ever worked with—what answer he’d come up with. He said $20, saying, “If you stop the clock at the exact moment when the repurchase is complete, Todd once again has his cow, and he has $20 more in his pocket than when he began. His net worth would vary with the value of the cow, but that’s another calculation.”

My response to smartest person: “After I bought the cow from you for $100, I discovered that it produced no milk so I sold a cow worth only $30 back to you for $80. You made a $20 cash profit but took a big hit to your net worth.”

I then asked a lawyer friend—he gets paid a lot of money for thinking clearly. He said, “For the same reason the magazine comes up with $20, you could say it is $30: he makes $10 on the initial sale, and because someone is willing to pay $100 for it, he gains $20 in value when he reacquires it for only $80—assuming he could sell it again for $100. Anything more than $10 profit is just ‘paper wealth’ and turns on the intrinsic value of the cow.”
The bottom line: I always looked for writers with interesting minds, and the test of that is what the writer had written. Is the writing interesting? Is the thinking behind the writing interesting?

Hiring editors is more complicated. But, again, you’re looking for an interesting mind. What do  you like to read? Your favorite books? Your favorite magazines and newspapers? Stories and writers you’ve admired.

Can you can add 8 and 12 and get 20 or spell the word various? Not relevant, but I might be interested in how you answer that cow question. I still say $10 is the right answer.



  1. Can’t resist. The guy who said there are two transactions is the best “editor” because he’s looking at the words, not the numbers. The way the question is phrased is, as he says, clumsy and imprecise. Hire that man! The “smartest person” is wrong. Todd ends up with $10 less in his pocket than the $90 he started out with when he first bought the cow. Anyhow, maybe it’s not such a dumb question after all if it makes a guy think– or try to.

    I began job-seeking as an English major who didn’t know a lead, or lede, from a tomato. I was also, it turned out, a careless reader. When I applied for an editorial opening at Medical Economics, they gave me a sheaf of doctor’s notes and told me to fashion them into a story. I worked on it for 2 days and thought the result was great. A week later I was informed I had flunked the test. I was incredulous. Why? Because I had written the story in the third person, failing altogether to notice that all Medical Economics stories were told in the first person. Way to go, Jimmy!

    Eventually I caught on and became the editor of a national magazine for school administrators. I was 27 and desperate for help. Relying on resumes, personal interviews, reference checks and my own infallible insight, I hired in rapid succession a hopeless drunk, an illiterate, an imposter and three or four incompetent nitwits. That’s when I began requiring applicants to rewrite a flagrantly bad manuscript in a way that would be right for my magazine. (Not in the first-person, by the way.) Turned out to be an okay way to separate the wheat from the whatchamacallit. Never occurred to me, Jack, to ask interviewees questions about cattle buying although, come to think of it, an awful lot of the stuff we published in that magazine was bullshit.

    • You’re wrong — the purchaser of the cow ends up with $20 more than he started with. The magazine and the “smartest person” are correct. It’s a test of logical/analytical thinking, which some people are incapable of.

      • Help me out with this! The purchaser makes $10 on first sale. Right? He doesn’t make anything when he buys the cow back for $80– unless he resells the critter for more than $80. Right? Until he does, the cow’s only worth what he paid for it, which is $10 less than the $90 he originally paid. Right?
        If you assume the value of the cow he paid $80 for remains $100 . . . you may be making a faulty assumption. In which case, the lawyer is– or could be– right. Right?
        I still say the editor who found fault with the wording is the guy I’d hire. But as noted earlier, I hired a lot of losers over the years.

        • 1) has $90 + no cow
          2) spends $90 – now has $0 + cow
          3) sells cow for $100 – now has $100 + no cow
          4) buys cow for $80 – now has $20 + cow
          5) went from number 2 ($0 + cow) to number 4 ($20 + cow), thus making $20

          • Good morning JRL. Glad you’re still with me. As I told Jack yesterday, this is like bickering with pals over morning coffee, which I can’t do out here where I live.
            How about this alternative scenario.
            1) has $90 + no cow
            2) spends $90– now has $0 + cow
            3) sells cow for $100. $100 minus $90= $10 profit+ no cow
            4) buys cow for $80, spending the $10 profit earned earlier + $70. Has not realized any profit and won’t until he sells the cow again for more than he paid.. As the lawyer points out, an asset is not a profit.
            5) now has $0 +cow that may be worth $100, more than $100, $80 or less than $80 depending on the livestock market–notoriously volatile– when he sells it. Meanwhile, he has to feed the damn thing and dispose of the manure.
            6) Bottom line? As a neighboring farmer is always telling me, raising beef is a big gamble.
            You may argue that he paid less for the cow the 2nd time ($90 minus $70) and therefore made a $20 “profit” but those were two separate transactions. The initial $10 profit was washed out in the second transaction. A profit, if any, on the second transaction is unrealized.

          • Oops. The light just dawned. My (5) is wrong. He has $20. I owe you a cup of coffee. A mind is a terrible thing to lose . . .

  2. Chris Connell says

    Great question. Probably invite a lawsuit if you put it on the SAT today. I would have answered $20. Assuming this guy is shrewd — which he is — he’s walked away with a $90 cow for $80 with his $10 wheeler-dealer gravy in his pocket. This isn’t empirical, but I think $20 was probably what the test writer had in mind with this tricky question.
    PS: I hope you didn’t hire anybody who couldn’t figure out the pen cost a penny.

  3. The writers I worried about most were those too eager to find simple solutions to complicated problems.

  4. James MacPherson says

    He has an initial $10 profit, booked as cash, followed by a $80 debit from cash for a physical asset, which can only be valued at $80 (marked to market). His main hope for additional profit is either a cash sale for more than $80, or a calf, in which case he books a stock dividend. Hehehehehe. In accounting terms, he starts at $90 in cash, ends at $100 in cash and physical assets (assuming the cow price doesn’t fall/rise further).

    God, I’m glad I was a business major. By the way, he’s only up $10 until he feeds the cow, and I don’t think you can depreciate cows, so his expense simply reduces his gross before taxes. Fortunately, Chuck Grassley has his back, so he comes out ahead via his farm/dairy subsidy.

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