How to Ace Short-Answer Questions on Federal Job Applications

From Lily Whiteman of “How to Land a Top-Paying Federal Job” by Lily Whiteman. The book is available on amazon.com here. Lily’s website is http://www.IGotTheJob.net.


No matter what rung on the federal career ladder you are currently perched on, your application for your next federal job will probably include a series of short-answer questions. These questions will probably require you to rate your level of knowledge, experience and responsibility via tiered responses, true-false responses and/or multiple choice responses.

Make-or- Break Questions

Your answers to your application’s short-answer questions may very well make or break your application. Here’s why: Each possible answer to each short-answer question has a certain point value; the more types of experience and the more advanced experience an answer represents, the more points it is worth.

After you submit your application, a screening computer will tally your total point score from all of your short-answer questions, together with any veterans’ preferences points you have. If your total point score falls below a predetermined point threshold, your application will probably be automatically rejected — even before a human being has so much as glanced at it.

Getting an Interview

But alternatively, if your total point score from all of your short-answer questions, together with any veterans’ preferences points you have, meets or exceeds the predetermined point threshold, your application will, in government lingo “make the cert”. This means that your application will be forwarded, along with other top-scoring applications, to a selecting official. This selecting official will then review your resume and answers to essay questions to determine whether to include you among the relatively small number of top scorers who will be invited to interviews.

Steps for Acing Your Short- Answer Questions

* First, troll through all of your educational, professional and volunteer credentials, and interpret them liberally and leniently.

* Then, without lying, select the answer for each short-answer question that represents your highest level of experience, biggest influence, most responsibility and most seniority.

* Be sure to support your answers to short-answer questions by elaborating on your relevant credentials in your resume and application essays (KSAs). Why? Because if you make the cert, a human resources official will cross-check your answers to short-answer questions against the rest of your application. If s/he determines that your answers aren’t corroborated, s/he will probably reject your application before forwarding it to the selecting official.

As you answer short-answer questions, remember the following:

* The top-scoring answer for each question will not necessarily be positioned first or last in the list of possible answers.

* You are not obliged or expected to judge yourself strictly or harshly. The heartless, soulless screening computer won’t give your application any points for candor; it will only give your application points for offering winning answers. Therefore, if you don’t judge yourself liberally and leniently, you may sabotage your own application.

One way to judge your credentials liberally and leniently is to interpret vague terms in application questions to your advantage. So if, for example, you are asked whether you are an expert in a certain field, answer affirmatively if you have significant educational or work experience in that field.

Likewise, if you are asked if you have supervisory experience, answer affirmatively if you have allocated assignments and evaluated the work of members of a team you have led — even if you were not the first-line supervisor of team members, or if you supervised interns or supervised contractors on another full-time job or in a side-business that you have run.

* If you lack a requested credential, give yourself full credit for any equivalent credentials that you do have. For example, if you are asked whether you have ever taken a course in a subject that you never formally studied, answer affirmatively if you learned the subject through on-the-job experience, self-study, travel, volunteer work or via any other venue. Similarly, if you are asked whether you have ever held a particular job title, answer affirmatively if one of your previous titles is equivalent to the requested title and/or you have experience that is comparable to that conferred by a job having the requested title.

* Your experience does not have to be earned on a federal job or your current job to count. Nor does it have to account for the majority or even a significant amount of your time to count. Your collateral duties, detail assignments, part-time side jobs, volunteer experience and community service may all count. So if, for example you are asked whether you have experience managing a large budget, answer affirmatively if you managed a budget while serving on your condo board.

Know When and How to Fold Up

If you cannot give yourself the top-scoring answer for all or almost all short-answer questions on a particular application, your application probably won’t make the cert and will be rejected. Therefore, your time would probably be better spent on applications for other jobs.

Another tip: If you are rejected from your target job, call the contact person identified on its vacancy announcement, and ask for your application’s point score and whether you “made the cert.” The resulting feedback you receive should help you determine if your application approach is on the right track or warrants an overhaul.

More insider tips on how to land federal jobs and promotions are available in “How to Land a Top-Paying Federal Job” by Lily Whiteman. The book is available on amazon.com here. Lily’s website is http://www.IGotTheJob.net.

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Amanda Blount

And always remember – A Government Resume looks nothing like a civilian one. Forget the two page resume. Including everything I needed, KSAs, 214, etc, Mine was 26 pages long. Yes, that is a little long. But, I made sure I got points for every little thing I have done since my very first job at 15. There is no limit to the pages for resumes in the Government, so I took advantage of this, and started typing. I will give you an example of a conversation I had recently with a wanna-be govie. He was trying to get a Government job. And I told him all the little hints and tricks. He had applied for 10 different jobs, and he was not successful, so I talked to him about everything he was doing. I then told him about my 26 page resume, he laughed and asked me if that wasn’t just a little egotistical, and commented that only a female could have that much to say. Well, having only so much patience with silly people, I looked at him, and told him, “You may be right, but you are still unemployed and I am not.” So, to those who are not in the Government yet, you don’t have to write a 26 page resume, but, you also need to know that a civilian resume looks nothing like a Government one. Think of a Government one as the European CV. One reason for the CV in professional positions (and now others) is the tough European termination laws. With this in mind, they want to hire someone who they want to work with for years to come, so they have the CV. When you learn how to write a CV, you will be on the right track to apply for a US Government position.

Also, don’t forget to turn your civilian terms into Government ligo – “A Buyer” in the civilian world becomes an Acquisition / Contract Specialist on the Government side. Retail may become a property manager on the Government side. Accounting folks can work in the IR or Budget worlds.