How should I fill out a self-evaluation?

Our advice columnist outlines the best way to critique yourself objectively, in order to get ahead

As the space between work and not-work becomes ever more blurred, questions about how to do this thing we plug away at for 30 or 40 or 70 hours a week become all the more expansive. In Work Flow, we delve into the novel dilemmas created by the new ways we work, as well as timeless questions about ethics, gender assumptions, and toxic work situations (and how to escape them). How we work is an important component of how we live—and we’re here to help you do better at both.

Something messing with your flow? Unload your work problems here, and you’ll not only feel heard but you’ll also get unbiased, real-world advice. (That’s something your work sibling/spouse just can’t offer.) Tell us everything:

I’ve been at my first job for about a year now, and I’ve just been asked to write my first self-evaluation, in the lead-up to my first performance review. I’m not sure how to start. Is there a checklist of things I should be sure to include? Am I expected to say I’m doing great at everything (and if I don’t give myself a glowing review, will that prevent me from getting a raise or a promotion)? I think I’m doing a pretty good job, but I’m not perfect (I see some places where I could probably do better, and my guess is that my manager does, too). How do you even begin to accurately evaluate your own work performance? Help! 

Ahhh, the performance self-evaluation, a stressful moment for everyone! Let me tell you the very short story of how, when I was running for treasurer of the fifth grade, I struggled mightily with whether to vote for myself. Somehow it felt uncouth, and I just wasn’t sure about the propriety of casting a ballot for myself. I ultimately did, and I won (by more than one vote, thank you). But the point is, we—especially women—are often brought up not to feel all that comfortable tooting our own horns, fighting for ourselves, making the point that we are doing a really freaking good job and we deserve acknowledgement for that. 

Your job is more important than my treasurer position in the fifth grade (I’m not really sure what I actually did back then). And it’s important that you learn early on how to strategically evaluate yourself, because a lot of companies use self-evaluations, and if you learn how to do them well, they’re a great way to set up the foundation for a productive conversation about where you are, and where you want to be in the future.

So let’s get started. 

Step 1. Figure out the basics

In most places where you have to do a self-evaluation, you’ll typically receive a form—online or otherwise—to fill out, and this will help you to identify generally which categories of information you should address. If that doesn’t happen and you’re expected to free-form it, you may want to have a quick conversation with your supervisor to make sure you’re covering all the bases. What do they expect from this self-evaluation? Do they have examples they might share with you for guidance? Generally, a self-evaluation should at the very least include where you see yourself excelling (and how) with regard to your job duties, where you feel like you might improve, some quantifiable or clear examples of your successes, and what your next-step goals are. 

Make sure to ask your supervisor how the form is being used and what will happen to it after you turn it in. Is this something that lives forever with human resources, or is it an informal jumping-off point for you and your supervisor to discuss your work? Will a promotion or raise be directly tied to it? How much impact does it have? This will help you figure out how much time to spend on it and the sort of tone you should take—which also depends on the style of your workplace, your relationship with your manager, and what everyone’s expectations tend to be. For example: Are you in a really buttoned-up sort of place, or is it more of a carefree say-what-you-will office? Is creativity rewarded, or are you expected to stick with the way things have been established? Basically: Read the room.

Step 2. Go back to your job description—and then beyond it

What, exactly, were you hired for? Hopefully, you have a job description from back when you were interviewing or first got the job. Take a minute, dig it up, and look at it. You’re going to create a master list for yourself, which you can then use to fill out the self-evaluation. Start by breaking down the duties in your job description and address them one by one. You may find that some of those tasks no longer apply—perhaps you’ve taken on more work, or your duties have changed significantly. But have answers for each of those items in the job description, including how well you did at them while they were part of your role, and why you might have stopped doing them. Also, list any new duties you’ve taken on, and how you feel you’ve measured up to the goal of the stated task (more about this in a bit). 

Also, make a quick list for yourself on how you typically spend your day. Include meetings, brainstorming sessions, any errands you handle for your manager, any mentoring or managing you might have done, responding to emails, or anything else that might otherwise fall through the cracks. So much of our work lives include time spent on things that might not make it into the job description—but if they’re part of what you’re expected to do or how you get your “real” work done (e.g., checking out the competition on social media; working with your company to set up a better system for trash management in the office; etc.), you should list them! These might turn out to be duties you could off-load to someone else, so it’s worth knowing what they are before you have a conversation with your supervisor about goals and your future at the company.

Then scroll through your year. Look at your calendar entries and emails. Make sure to note anything here that you haven’t already included. Did you attend a conference or a training program? Did you get special praise for anything you accomplished? Are there things that you’re just really proud of? List it all! Print out any special commendations and include those with your self-evaluation. Also, take note of anything that was a particular challenge and how you dealt with it.

Step 3. Toot your own horn, strategically

Once you’ve got your master list, start pulling out key accomplishments. When you’re bragging about yourself to an employer, it’s not enough to say you did a fabulous job. Say how, exactly, and connect it to the company’s bottom line (however that may apply to you—as in, “By doing X and Y, I helped my manager work on a new campaign that brought Z dollars to the company”; or “I wrote A blog posts that garnered B views and were linked in C outlets”). You get the idea—anything that you can describe quantitatively is great; if you need to describe things qualitatively, try to include some of those emails of praise or external commendations for backup.

Note those instances when you’ve gone beyond your job description and made progress since you first started (include moments where you struggled at first but have since become quite skilled). Don’t forget to mention anything you’ve taken it upon yourself to do or institute. Think about it this way: When you look back over your year at this company, what are you most proud of and why? Be honest and clear and concise. Without being self-deprecating, don’t try to spin or exaggerate accomplishments that weren’t really there in the first place. Consider this self-evaluation a moment to truly evaluate yourself, for yourself. What are your strengths—emotional, intellectual, even physical, as it applies to the job—and where have you seen them come into play with regard to that longer list of your job duties? Ideally, you’ll come away from this feeling pretty good! And if you don’t, you have grounds to discuss what you need from your manager to help you improve.

Step 4. Consider moments where you might have done better

This section isn’t quite as fun as listing accomplishments, but it may be even more valuable. Think about the experiences you’ve had in the past year that didn’t go according to plan, where you felt you could have done better. These might be one-offs or repeat situations; chronicle them accordingly. Are you often late for deadlines? Do you feel like your presentations aren’t as thorough or persuasive as they should be? Do you wish you could do more in the time you have? Do you often get stuck on a particular thing or feel something is holding you back? Return to your master list of job duties and consider honestly how you measure up.

This is not a cue to hate on yourself or self-flagellate. It’s about considering where you might improve, and then, how: Do you know, for instance, that you’re late with deadlines because you have a hard time getting the information you need? Might your presentations improve if you had some training in public speaking? Are you finding your time frittered away by meetings or things that aren’t specifically in your job description? Identify not only what you might do better at but also some practical ways in which you might improve. This is about development (and how your company might develop you further), not criticizing yourself. If you can suggest steps that you and/or your team might take to remedy the situation, you’re doing that very positive career-forward thing: being proactive. This is also an opportunity to identify your longer-term career goals. Where might some of your weaknesses be turned into strengths in order to get you where you want to go?

Step 5. Be positive

Just as you shouldn’t cut yourself down in your self-evaluation, don’t throw other people under the bus, either. Don’t point fingers or assign blame. The idea is that you’re a human with room for improvement and evolving career goals. Take a moderate, objective stance, almost as if you’re looking at yourself through the eyes of an impartial party. Be honest but smart. You got this! 

Step 6. Double-check

Once you fill out your form, take a second—or, better yet, sleep on it, but don’t turn it in past the stated deadline—before you hand it over. Do a spell-check. Read it over. Ask a trusted friend to read it. Correct any typos and grammatical or conceptual issues. And then…press send. 

Step 7. Inquire about next steps

Once you’ve filed your self-evaluation, if you’re not sure what’s next, ask! Will you and your manager sit down to talk about what you’ve written? And what comes after that? It’s great to lay out some goals from that conversation that you can work on implementing immediately (like signing up for a training program, or becoming more proficient with a system), in addition to some more broad, ongoing hopes and dreams (pitching a client on your own; getting X results from something you’ve implemented; receiving a promotion; finding a mentor). It’s all about identifying what you want, which is best seen through the lens of how you can help your company—and how your company can help you help them (and therefore, you too!). A self-evaluation seems scary, but if used well, it can be a valuable part of that journey.

Jen Doll is a journalist and the author of the memoir Save the Date: The Occasional Mortifications of a Serial Wedding Guest. Her writing has appeared in The AtlanticHarper’s Bazaar, the New York Times, and other publications.

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