This is my guide to succeeding in Canadian Federal Government Competitions, part of a series of guides to government that I have planned. I have developed multiple versions of the guide over the last 17 years and I still consider it to be a work in progress.

Cover page - Be the duck
PolyWogg's HR Guide

Initially, I just had a PDF version (version 0.4) which is the version I used for presentations over the years. Version 0.5 was the first prose version on my site and only included a subset of the full list of topics. Version 0.6 followed with slight updates of some sections, as did version 0.7.

When I started posting versions online, I thought the best way to do that was to simply write separate chapters as individual blog posts rather than pages of a website. The problem with that approach was that some people would follow links to the old posts rather than the updated versions with the latest advice. As such, I have decided to modify my site and put the latest version here. I’ll keep links to previous versions, but only for archival purposes. The latest prose version will always be under the menu headings.

In the meantime, if you want the latest Powerpoint deck, you can click on the file name below to see a pop-up PDF version in your browser or click on the Download button to save a copy to your device.

2017 Prose Version

  • Welcome
    • Welcome — this page explaining the version that follows
    • Introduction — The five principles that underpin my approach to competing in “selection processes” aka competitions
  • Early preparations
  • The Process
    • Overview of the process — All the elements of a selection process from start to finish and why you should care about each stage
    • Find jobs — How you find out about jobs in government and where they are posted
    • Applications — How to fill out your application so you don’t get screened out
    • Written exams — How to prepare and PASS the test so you can move on to the interview
    • Interviews — How to prepare for a GOVERNMENT interview, not a private-sector interview
    • References — How to choose the right reference and help THEM prepare to help YOU
  • Other elements
    • Language tests — Tips and tricks to be ready for the language tests of the Public Service Commission
    • Special tests — Overview of different types of unique tests you may be asked to undergo as part of the process
Stylized signature block to say happy reading in most posts and pages


My HR Guide — 32 Comments

    • Hi Matthew…a very good question. I had hoped to have it done much earlier this year already, but I’ve struggled with some of the isolation issues and haven’t progressed very far. I rewrote the first couple of sections, haven’t posted yet, plus a couple of end sections (one about EXs is up in draft form). My new self-imposed deadline is October 31.


  1. Hi Paul,

    I just wanted to reach out and thank you for the huge service you’re providing here. It undeniably helped me get to the final stages of a couple of competitions, and succeed in another one down the road when I came into hard times and really needed it the most. I’ve recommended your guide to at least 15-20 people including those applying to non-Canadian government jobs, all of which have come back with praise for the content here. Grateful for your contribution, and keep it up!


  2. Hi Paul,

    Please I have an upcoming written test and two of the rated requirements under “Knowledge” are:

    1. General knowledge of evidence-based research methods and social media presence.
    2. Understanding of the impact of political, economic, and social factors on migration-related matters.

    Please, I do not understand what they mean by that. What and where do I read to for this?

    Can you please help?

    Thank you.

    • Hi Gigi,

      I have two reactions, the second more helpful than the first. The first reaction I had was that when you apply for a job, it tells you the knowledge requirements. So you’ve known ever since the posting came out that you need to know those two things at least and that you would be tested on them. Asking now because you have an upcoming test is a bit late to start studying, particularly if you don’t even know what they mean or where to start.

      My second reaction is, as I said, hopefully a bit more helpful.

      Evidence-based research methods is generally “what evidence will you use in your policy role”? So for example, if you were working on immigration issues, what sorts of evidence would you use to argue that something should be done, for example, to increase family reunification options over economic immigration? Standard examples of types of evidence are government pronouncements (SftThrone, budget), StatsCan reports, Industry reports, NGO reports, international (UN, OECD), etc. What sort of evidence would you have to support your argument and how would you get it? By contrast, you wouldn’t generally rely on “lots of people said it on FB so it must be true”. However, without knowing about the job, or what it entails, I don’t know why they would have “evidence based research methods” and “social media presence” together…depending on the job, it could be how you measure social media presence or how you use social media to share your research? Not clear, depends on the job.

      For the second, the process is more traditional. They’re likely to ask you what the various political, economic and social factors are that affect migration. Right now, obviously the biggest one for all three is COVID and health. People can’t travel, they can’t move easily, there are border restrictions everywhere, etc. But you can’t restrict everything…migration could include temporary foreign workers for example which has a huge impact on agriculture production. Farmers need TFWs and they need them now, not in a year when COVID is under control…how do those factors affect our migration policies?

      If you search on google for “Canada” and “migration”, and likely “policy”, you’ll find a bunch of links about the topic that will help you narrow down some of the big trends out there, likely with some of the implications. Unfortunately, as I said in my first response, this is not something you leave until you get invited to an exam. If you don’t already know it, you should have been doing some research and reading since you first applied.

      I don’t mean that to sound harsh, I just want to manage your expectations. The exam could be regrettably brutal — asking you for stuff you don’t know because you just don’t have enough time to learn it all. Most knowledge is assumed you have some awareness of already, since you’re applying in the first place. If you don’t have it, don’t be too disappointed or surprised if you find it really hard or don’t pass. If you don’t have the knowledge already, it can be really tough to crack that nut in a new area/topic.

      Good luck,


      • Dear Paul,

        Thank you for your comments.

        I had already started studying generally on the topics. I was only asking for a further opinion and view as to what kind of questions I could expect.

        Anyway, I passed the test and have been invited for interview.

        Thank you.


  3. Hi Paul,

    I’m currently preparing for an interview. This interview I’ve heard is mostly situational questions. So a very difficult situation will be given to me and I have to explain how I will deal with it. I’ve formulated my response for this but I’m wondering whether I should give an example of when I’ve dealt with a similar situation. I’m worried that giving an example might look like I’m going off-topic aka the situation given. Also, I’m worried that ending my answer with an example will shift focus away from my conclusion of the given situation.

  4. Hi there Paul,

    I have been trying to get a govt job for about 3 years now and last competition I did kind of broke the camel’s back and I am here for advice. I am getting so tired and discouraged.
    I did a EPSI exam then a written examination on April 13, I wrote everything according to PM-04 guidelines and STAR method and after that I followed up two times and just found out yesterday that I did not make it for further consideration.
    What I disliked the most about this one was that the answer I got was just a generic DONOTREPLY email address telling me I did not meet the merit criteria assessed. On the email, also, it stated that if I wanted to contact them I could click on the link but that link only took me to the sign in page of the Canada Government Jobs. Did not list which criteria did I fail or anything and if I could get any feedback.
    So, I went to the original job posting and emailed the manager listed at the bottom asking for my written examination to be given a second look but I highly doubt it that it ever will.
    I put in so much time, researched the department, the merit criteria, the project management cycle, the mandate, you name it. I wrote that exam so well that when I received that rejection letter I wanted to reach out to the assessment board and tell them something I might later regret.
    Is there a process I can follow to request my written exam to be re-examined? What do I do different next time so I don’t make a mistake and get an interview?

    Thanks so much,


    • Hi Alma, I’m sorry to hear that you’re struggling.

      Unfortunately, you’re right, the info you got is not very helpful. However, the lack of info could be hiding something. For example, if one of the headings was interpersonal skills (guessing), it might have been scored on both EPSI and the written exam. Which means that you don’t know if you failed it on both, or only one, but combined it wasn’t enough. That’s a very different outcome. For things like EPSI testing, and all of the “online” options people are doing, not all of the people doing them find the results very, well, accurate. I will be honest that I hate them as I think the methodologies for much of it is HIGHLY suspect. Global Affairs has done this for awhile with their Situational Judgement Test, as it makes marking easy, but existing GAC officers regularly disagree about what the right answer should be. So you may have done great on the written, nailed everything you were supposed to, and missed it on the ESPI part. Without more info, impossible to know.

      The rejection email that gave you no info and only took you to the login link is odd. Depts are required to tell you which criteria you failed…if they don’t, you have no idea why or what to do about it. Even something simple as you uploaded your doc or answered the Qs, but the system only took part of your answer — a technical problem that they don’t know about until they get which part they missed.

      Asking them to remark your written is likely premature — you have no idea why you failed. Without that info, there’s no way to know if remarking would make any difference, and simply disagreeing with their score is not grounds to remark something. You essentially need a reason. Not a big reason, just something to link it too…if they say “You didn’t explain X well enough” and you thought you did, you can ask for informal reconsideration. They may or may not do that. If they don’t, you can wait for the process to be completed and file an appeal with the grounds that you feel they underscored your written exam.

      But again, if it turns out it was the EPSI you failed, that’s different reasons to pursue. Usually when people fail a written, it is for one of x reasons:

      a. Their writing is not very good — FWIW, your email seems fine, I don’t notice any major writing issues, but I don’t know how you were on the exam…some people get really nervous;
      b. You wrote about X but they were marking Y — this happens a LOT, someone answered the Q but was off to the side of what they were looking for…for example, they were looking for interpersonal skills but you focused on the project management aspects;
      c. You wrote about X, they were looking for X, but you only covered 1/2 of what they wanted;
      d. They had a really high cut-off score for the written;
      e. You missed a knowledge element;
      f. You went over the word limit or didn’t give enough detail;
      g. You copied and pasted stuff rather than wrote it in your own words;

      Whether you did any of that or not is impossible to know without that feedback. If they sent you the link for the login, login and then click the link again to see where it takes you…if you are already logged in, you may get a screen with more info.

      I’m working on an update to my current guide, and one of the things I’ll address is the STAR method. I don’t like it myself, although I know it is hugely popular.

      BTW, you’re applying for PM-04 but are you an internal applicant (and if so, what is your current level? Are you in the same dept?) or an external?


  5. Hey Paul! Thank you so much for writing such a helpful HR guide. I’m new to competitions and as an external applicant, your guide has gotten me to the interview stage of 2 competitions! I never knew I could get this far, and it’s all thanks to your guide.

    I have an upcoming interview and I had some questions that I hope you can address (if you have time!)

    Two months ago, I had an interview for another competition and in my opinion (still have not received results), it did not go as well as I would have wanted. I had examples prepared for each merit criteria they told would be tested in the interview, but I was a bit thrown off by the 4 part questions in each question. For example, the question would be to tell me about a time you displayed initiative. This question would accompany 4 further questions (ex. What was the situation? What was your approach? etc). I understand that these questions were probably meant to facilitate our answers and to make sure we answer every part kind of like the STAR method. I answered each question as they were. For example, I’d respond “The situation happened when I worked at XXX and what happened was XXX. My approach was XXXX). I’m answering each question directly and putting in my response. Is this okay, or does it sound a bit robotic and not having a good flow? I’m worried since the interview overall also assesses the criteria “ability to communicate effectively orally”.

    Another part that threw me off was the situation question. I couldn’t directly prepare for these questions since I don’t know the exact situation they would give, but I did prepare for some steps that I would take aka the process. This scenario was directly related to the job and I doubt I could ever predict this scenario. This also had 4 part questions to it similar to the previous question (ex. How do you interpret this situation? How do you assess it? etc). I answered it like I did the previous question, addressing each question directly. However, I did not use a specific EXAMPLE in this response. In the previous question I mentioned, they asked for an example so my entire answer was based around that example. But this one I was given a scenario so I based my answer around that scenario and I did not bring any examples of a time I dealt with a similar situation. Is this okay? Should I be explaining how I would respond to the situation but also go further and say, for example, “I encountered a similar situation when I worked at XXX doing XXX. The situation was XXX and I solved it by doing XXX”? I want to be giving detailed answers but also don’t want my answers to be too long.

    This leads to my concerns about the timing of the responses. Because of the pandemic, interviews are being done through an online platform where you complete a recorded timed interview. For each question, you are given a 10-minute time limit and after 10 minutes it will automatically stop recording your response. In one of my questions, I took the full 10 minutes in my response. Does this look bad? I’m not sure how they felt listening to someone speak non-stop for 10 minutes. This is much longer than the average 6-minute answer. Do you have any advice on how I can work on this? I just want to make sure I’m being clear and hitting every point but also not speaking for super long.

    Thank you so much for taking the time to read this. Any insight would be appreciated.

    • Hi B,

      Thanks for your comments. For your STAR-like structure that was pre-imposed, the reality is that just about all the applicants would have been in the same boat. It is only the very confident or very stupid applicant (!) that deviates when the questions are set up that way. I agree it’s a bit robotic for flow, and it is partly why I hate the STAR approach generally, BUT if they set it up that way, unless you have mastered your responses REALLY well, there’s not much you can do to avoid it. You still have to answer their questions.

      For scenarios, you are generally expected to cover the scenario. You don’t HAVE to add in examples, but it can be good to because it just leads to a more robust answer. Nothing long, but yes as per your text, if it says what would you do to lead a team, you could say, “I’ve led teams on multiple occasions, and while I would always adapt to the situation and team, I prefer when I can to start off with formal meeting with everyone and then an informal conversation with each of the team members to see their strengths and interests, etc.” or “I had a similar situation when I worked at X, and I found that starting with a formal meeting of everyone worked well, followed by informal discussions with each team member, so I would (likely) start with that.” It adds context to your answer, so it’s not just buzz words, which can be good. You have to be careful not to go off on tangents about past examples, you still have to stick to the scenario asked, but you can substantiate WHY you are choosing that action, for example.

      On timing, 10m is long, 6m is about right, but it totally depends on the Q. If they give you a question with six sub-parts, it’s going to be a challenge. In my view, the problem isn’t how much time you take, although as you say they can be bored listening for 10m, it’s whether that 10m is equally full of useful info and not blather, AND you are absolutely 100% NOT repeating yourself. As you’ve seen, structure is key, and one of the worst things people will do is go to do a simple summary at the end of an answer, and then just repeat everything they already said. We do it informally all the time when we have to leave a detailed voicemail, but in an interview, it just looks unfocused. If you take 10m but it’s a good solid substantive answer throughout, no major issues. If you included your Grandmother’s strudel recipe in the middle? Not so good. 🙂 The only real practice for this is actual practice out loud. There is a bit of an advanced technique that I’ll describe, but it’s hard to do on the fly.

      When you see people giving Powerpoint presentations regularly, you’ll see many that didn’t practice and don’t know themselves. Someone comes in to do a 10 minute presentation and they have say 20+ slides. Almost NOBODY spends less than 30s per slide. Which means guaranteed they WILL not finish in 10m. They’ll go over. And likely WAY over. So, a good way to time yourself in that type of presentation (Powerpoint) is to do up a set number of slides and time your overall presentation. Check yourself to see whether you adlib on a slide or you tend to speak to most of it or you just mention a couple of bullets. If you mention a couple of bullets, you might get through 10-12 slides; if you adlib and tell stories, maybe 6-7. For my deck that’s on the site, I talk to EVERY slide, so I know if I’m giving that presentation, I either need a lot more time (45m for half of it) OR I need to dramatically cut the slides down to a much smaller number. The shortest version I ever gave was 4 slides, and it still took 10m.

      If you transpose that over to presentations, and you know you have 4 sub-qs to answer, and you tend to elaborate as you go, you know that you only have room for 1-2 points per option, or about 7-8 in total for the question. If you tend to go more slowly, maybe only 4-6. So when you plan your answer, it’s better if you group so that you’re only making 4-6.

      The challenge of course is that you’re preparing for multiple Qs simultaneously, and it’s hard to adjust on the fly in the 30m ahead, if you get them. It’s GOOD but HARD. If on the other hand, you know you talk fast but clearly, you could go up to 10 points in your rough outline. The only person who knows which you are likely to do (go slow and/or elaborate or go fast and short on points) is you by practicing. Lots of people will do an outline or write out an answer, none of which is the same as actually looking into a camera or mirror and talking for what you think is 5m and then realizing when you look at the timer that it was 15m.

      Good luck, and thanks for the Qs.


      • This was very helpful! The PowerPoint presentation example was great!

        I’m definitely the type to jot some points down and then when it’s time to answer, I tend to speak on it for too long and always miss something I really wanted to say. If I could write down the entire answer word by word, I know I can do much better and articulate what I want to say in a concise manner. The interview is done online through a recorded software, so I could technically type my answers on a document during the time we get to prepare. However, I don’t want it to seem like I’m reading off something and not making enough eye contact. Even though there’s no one on the other side listening to me live like a real interview pre-pandemic, I still get very nervous.

        • Hi B,

          The good news re: nervousness is that everyone is in (almost) the same boat. Groups like Toastmasters for example are also good ways to get used to speaking more pointedly, or with better organization, or even off-the-cuff. They have one event called “Table Topics” where you’re basically given a top to talk for 2-3 minutes on (I forget the exact length) and you have to talk about it in a knowledgeable way, casual, confident, comfortable. The more you do it, the less nervous you are if someone gives you something you’re unsure of…alternatively, there are also the speech modules in my guide that talk about “unexpected” questions where you need to apply a structure like a “problem solving loop” or “policy development cycle” to it just to give you a comfortable structure. The more comfortable you are with structure, the more likely you are to have half the marks before you open your mouth, which is often a good way to get your nervousness under control.

          For me, I confess I hate the recordings and the video-free interviews (audio only). It can sound like your talking into the abyss which gives people a really heightened sense of “no response = unclear” so they might repeat themselves, or worse yet, give off nervous laughter, etc. (I do this when I’m really nervous). Or talk too fast trying to get it all in.

          Ultimately everyone is different, but almost everyone is nervous/afraid of the public speaking/interview. There’s an old comedian’s joke that people are more afraid of public-speakign than death, so if you killed them on the way to a speech, they’d thank you. 🙂

          In the end, my view is that none of the outcomes are life / death. You miss out on one comp, even if you really want that one, you’ll make it through another. It just takes time and practice, assuming you’re qualified in the first place.

          Good luck!


  6. Hello Paul,

    I appreciate your details and excellent description of government job preparation.

    I am currently preparing for one position in GC Jobs, and I have some questions.

    1) The position I would like to apply says essential, and asset qualification, but there is one more description for some others: assets knowledge, knowledge, abilities, personal suitability, qualification. There is also mentioned “assessed at a later date(essential for the job) and assessed at a later date (may be needed for the job)” under these items.
    Have you ever seen this description? I am not sure that I need to cover all those items in my cover letter.
    That is because those 3 categories belong to “assessed at a later date (essential for the job)”, and one belongs to “assessed at a later date (may be needed for the job)”.
    In addition, there are several sub-categories under those 4 categories, for examples personal suitability has 5 items (effective interpersonal skills, dependability, initiative, team player, and adaptability), “abilities” has 4 items, and knowledge has 2 items.
    How should I cover all those items? Do you have any suggestions?

    2) Follow up question from above, if listed 2 (or more) experiences (or any other sub-categories) are connected in my experience, should I separate them to describe each? or would it be okay that I put one long story that contains 2 experiences?
    For example, in case of experience managing or working as part of teams and experience developing collaborative partnerships, should I state separate two story to describe each experience or make a one story to include two experience

    3) How to write “Knowledge of SOMETHING”?
    I can wrote the specific knowledge of BACKGROUND OR CONCEPT. I just wrote my educational information, and I added what I learn in my study. That would be very short, though.
    However, the concept that I didn’t learn from university or can’t be taught from educational institution is tricky to cover. For example, “knowledge the principles and practices of scientific investigation”. I do not know how to start writing of this. Should I write what they mean? or write something others?

    Thank you very much.


    • Hi Chris,

      Thanks for your questions. I’ll start with your last Q first, as the answer will clarify a few things. So, when you apply, you only have to respond on the elements that are used for screening, namely eligibility (Education, Experience, Security, location, etc.), but not on Knowledge, Abilities or Personal Suitability. So you don’t have to demonstrate “knowledge of” in your application. You might want to show that somewhere in your cover letter in general (as an experience element in x or y), but not as an element. Knowledge, abilities and PS all have to be *tested* during the process.

      Working backwards, knowledge and abilities tend to be a test mainly of you directly through written and/or interview. Personal suitability is often tested, so to speak, through reference checks. Not completely…some abilities are in ref checks, some PS are in interviews, but generally speaking, although all three are tested slightly differently, all three have to be tested.

      So we come back to your first Question, which is essentials vs. assets. As I said, you’re tested on the other three (K/A/PS), so you are focusing on how you meet the experience requirements. For that, even though it says they may use the Assets later, you will not be asked later, you’re only being asked now. So you have to answer all assets that apply to you now. If you say nothing, they assume you don’t have them. We’re only talking experience though, as that is all that you cover in the application of the four major elements.

      Where it gets a bit tricky though is an Asset Ability, Knowledge or PS. Let’s say you’re applying for a job at Health, and they have knowledge of scientific principles as an essential to be tested, and THEN have four separate assets for knowledge like Stats, Epidemiology, Environmental Health, and Carcinogens…if they invite you to be tested, are they really going to ask you about all four? If you only have Stats — you’ll feel ridiculous on the other three. There is no GOOD way to administer that. If it’s K/A/PS, they HAVE to test it somehow, but they don’t want to test you if you don’t say you have it. I once applied for a job way back in University where they were looking for a Envtal Policy person OR a law person OR a computer person for a job doing envt regulations with a bunch of computer stuff. And they invited a bunch of people from all three groups and gave us the SAME exact test. It was a waste of everyone’s time and our school actually banned them from offering jobs again because it also makes you feel stupid. But there’s no fair way to test without offering the test to anyone. Now, generally speaking, what they’ll do is narrow the group way way way down on the main elements, and when they get to maybe 10-20 people, they’ll say, “Okay, we have one job that requires Envtal law knowledge, so you’re all invited to write that part”. Or they’ll say above, “Okay, we’re doing a subtest to see if you have knowledge of carcinogens, write if you’re interested in that job”. So kind of a single path for most of the comp, right up until the assets and then they give you a few different parallel paths for the assets. Or they’ll invite you to one written exam with multiple sections and you write whatever seems relevant to you.

      Hope that helps…but for now, you only need to cover the experiences (plus the broader eligibility like education, selection area, etc.)


      • Thank you Paul your kind response!

        It makes lots of sense to me.

        Then, could you back to my questions #2 and give me some comments? As you know, there are bunch of items I need to cover them on the cover letter, but I am not sure I need to tell them individual example of them or writing few stroies, including those items.


        • Sorry, Paul,

          I wanted to ask you follow up question from your answer my first question.

          So should I write down all PS/A to my cover letter with STAR method, or just specify those items in my resume would be okay?


          • Oops, sorry about that Chris…

            So I know it sounds pedantic, but I would definitely not combine one long story if you can help it, for two reasons.

            First, if you apply through a portal, you CAN’T combine them anyway, so there’s always that challenge…two separate boxes.

            Second, it is way easier for the person to mark it and mark it fairly if you separate them out. One of the risks of combining it is instead of giving a full answer to #1 (noting the reqt is for YOU to PROVE you meet EACH element) PLUS a full answer to #2, most people when they combine end up with say 1.25x or 1.5x instead of 2x. Which may make it seem like you don’t really have that much experience for two separate requirements. While you CAN do it, it’s safer NOT to combine them. It can seem stupid, as you’re often repeating the same info from one to the other, but repetition that gets you screened in easily is better than combining them and risking getting screened out.

            Good luck,


          • As I said, there’s no reqt to cover PS/A in your cover letter at all. I used the K example, but if you want to cross-reference, you COULD cross-ref with PS…for example, if it was about writing, you could cover different types of writing in your other elements and your resume. There’s no real benefit to listing them anywhere, as they are looking ONLY for experience elements. Everything else has to be tested…


          • Thank you Paul!

            Now I feel comfortable everything.

            I have one last question.
            Which one HR prefer to read, writing few paragraphs (more than 2), 1-2 paragraph(s), ,header and “bullet point like” ,or combining (some items are written paragraph like, some items are written bullet point like) in a cover letter?


          • Hi Chris,

            So I’d break it into two questions:

            a. Headers — If you are not using the online portal where you have to break everything into boxes anyway, and you are actually sending a cover letter, then you should absolutely use headers like “Experience #1: Providing advice…”.

            b. Content — I don’t know that there is a universal preference, but you’re applying for a professional job, and I would recommend paragraphs. You can, if you need to, use a combined style, but I wouldn’t use a lot of bullets.


  7. Hi, thank you for providing this. I have always been very unsuccessful when it comes to the Situation Task Action Result interview. Alot of government interviews within the last year (about 10) and all have not passed the interview stage.

    I never knew why until the last interviewer said i lack explanation on the “results” the hiring manager mentioned most candidates would spend 2 to 5min answering this question more so than the Situation, Task, and Action. Is this true to put more emphasis on the results instead?

    • Hi Alex,

      I confess, I don’t find the STAR method that helpful, however popular it is, precisely for the part you refer to, but perhaps not quite the way you mean it.

      If we step back for a second, and think about how people tell a story, they frequently will talk a lot about situation. I don’t mean in an interview, I mean ANYTIME you tell a story. It’s natural. So people often will spend a lot of time on the situation. I’ve had candidates tell me stories that look like a Dickens’ novel where he describes thew wallpaper. Tasks might sound good for planning, but a bit boring to hear. Actions are great, I want to see your actions, but people also want to self-aggrandize when telling stories, and it’s easy to risk it sounding me, me, me. And then they wind up with the results, and to be honest, people leave it out. They focused on the story telling (Situation, Actions) and left the other two out. Because in regular talking with your friends, you tend not to talk that way. It’s easy to leave stuff out.

      It’s why STAR is so popular, it’s a good structure generally and you answer “most” elements by using it.

      But with the exception of perhaps “initiative” and being asked about the past, it isn’t the best storyline in my opinion. I think the *elements* are good, but people tend to use the *order* too. Take instead an example where I ask you tell me of a time where you had to resolve a situation of interpersonal conflict. And so you say:

      a. Situation was conflict
      b. Task was to meet with them
      c. Action was doing so over coffee
      d. Result was it was resolved.

      (A little simplistic, I admit). Now, on their marking sheet, it does not say STAR anywhere. Instead it says:

      1. Understands the perspective of the other person
      2. Tries to find common ground
      3. Looks for solutions / compromises that are win-win
      4. Uses a mix of informal or formal styles
      5. Listens, reframes what they heard to confirm understanding
      6. Shows respect for diverse views

      Did STAR help you with those headings? Not really.

      In my opinion, you’re much better off using that type of structure i.e. the headings you know they have, and working them into your answer. If you WANT to still use STAR, then use them together:

      1. Situation — Much interpersonal conflict is about misunderstanding or not understanding the other person’s perspective. In my situation, blah blha blah
      2. Task — I felt we had to find a way to work together and to look for common ground.
      3. Actions — We had met lots of times formally, so I wanted to try a more informal setting to see how it would work. During the conversation, I wanted to really listen to their views, and I asked a lot of questions, including reframing what I heard to make sure I was understanding properly, and validating their explanations.
      4. Results — I think the fact that it was obvious I respected them was the main catalyst for us to find a compromise. They knew I wasn’t trying to override them, and that we were both looking for a solution that was the best for everyone. We built some trust, and we managed to work together for 3y. We have very different views on life, and we might not ever be bosom buddies, but we work well together as professionals who respect what each of us bring to the table.

      The first gets you about half the marks, the second will get you most of the marks, and the third will get you all the marks.

      If I narrow my answer to your question, and just talk about results, I have a slightly different take. I don’t need you tell me it was the greatest outcome ever, but I do need you to tell me what outcomes you got, and to close off the question. It can be short, but I need something. Without it, it’s like reading a mystery story where they tell you all about the investigation techniques, and leave out who killed the King or if they were caught. I need the “so what”.

      It is true that it is frequently the weakest part for everyone, we don’t tend to think in those terms naturally. I have had two candidates in the same process tell us about a past project they led, they went through it all, talked about their big efforts, and at the end, one of them basically said it was a waste of time and it didn’t work, and for another, they said they created this big database that when they left, their boss just deleted it and went back to the old method. Sigh.

      I’m updating my guide in May and June, and as I do so, I’ll be paying a lot of attention to the STAR structure and it’s pluses and minuses as a tool. Some people find it useful, and if they do, that’s awesome. Others find it less useful, and then it doesn’t work.

      Stay tuned!

      aka PolyWogg

  8. Hi!
    First of all, just want to thank you for the amazing work you did here and it was extremely useful. I truly appreciated it because it helped me get the job (almost).
    I have a couple of questions after the interview part.
    1) Can you negotiate for the salary and/or benefit once you get your offer? I know it is a government position and everything is set. But I heard mixed experiences with salary negotiation.
    2) It is related to the first one. Could you ask for a higher category during the negotiation? For example, the position I applied for it is an EG 04 position. I applied for it 2 years ago and it is lower than my current position title. So it is possible to make them offer me a higher one like EG 05? Again I heard mixed experiences about it.
    3) Do you think it is hard to get promoted in the government system? Is this going to be a dead-end job like most people described?
    I thank you for taking the time to reply to my email. Again, you have done great work here.

    • Hi Ying, great questions. And something I need to add to my guide. Negotiation flexibility depends on three factors — a) if you’re already in government, b) what the original poster said, and c) your specific situation.

      Just to confirm a bit of terminology first. Your pay is set by three things — a) your level (sets an upper and lower limit called the band); b) the pay increment you are in (there are usually six or seven per band); and how many years you’ve been in the level (you move up 1 increment per year). You don’t get raises for good performance, etc., you get annual bumps and move up within the level/band until you reach the top and then only after that through promotion or contracts being renegotiated by the union.

      So, if you’re already in government, you would have zero flexibility. Every movement is regulated by the internal regulations of the government. For example, suppose you are working as an EC02 and get a bump to EC04, the salary will be the base level of the EC-04. The manager has ZERO flex to change that. The financial regs say it goes up by 4% at least, and into the next pay band that accomplishes that. Since an EC-02 to EC-04 is more than 4%, you’d start at the bottom of the EC-04 bands. If you were a PM-02 at the top of the band, and got promoted to PM-03, the top band overlaps a bit and so you wouldn’t go to the bottom of the PM-03 band, you would go to the next pay increment up that gives you at least a 4% increase in pay. It varies a little bit by collective agreements and regs, but generally, you’re bound by the govt rules. There is a *little* bit more flexibility if they are not subject to TBS rules (i.e. a separate agency, Crown corp, etc.).

      The one time, and one time only, that you have ANY flex to negotiate salary is when you start with govt. Let’s say you’re offered an AS-03 position. If you say nothing, you will be offered the base increment of that level’s band. However, if you have better than average experience, or a specific skill that is above what they asked for (like a MBA instead of a BA), you can ask the hiring manager to start you at a higher pay increment in the band. A friend was going to work for a separate agency, and their salaries were NOT set by legislation in the same way. She was officially an EC-02 BUT she was working as an acting -04. Since she wasn’t bound by the rules, she pointed out her ongoing pay, and on the spot, the HR person (not the manager) bumped her salary — by $5K. Just because she asked. Not bad for a single question. Now, the bad news, some managers have no interest in going above the base. They took the base, they’ve always taken the base, they’ve only paid the base, they’re not moving, and they may tell you they have NO flex. Maybe they don’t. But you won’t know if you don’t ask. But again, this is if you ARE outside govt AND you have a good rationale why YOU have an extra skill / credential that explains why you shouldn’t start at the base. Experience usually isn’t enough. You used THAT to get the job, you usually want something else to explain why you deserve more than the base offer.

      For EG-04, and asking for an EG-05, the general answer is no, you can’t ask for / be offered a -05. The poster was for a -04 position, that’s what they have. So 99/100, that’s it, that’s all that is available. However, some processes might say AS -04, 05, 06 or EC 02, 03, 04. In that case, you CAN argue for a higher level position, but you have less flex if you’re already in government too. If you were in the AS example, and you qualified for the AS-06, you would ALSO likely qualify for the -05 and -04 too. Which means they could offer you a -04 and you could say, but I qualified at thee -06 level. But that doesn’t mean they have a -06 job…maybe all the -06 jobs are taken. Maybe they don’t have -06 level work. Or maybe they don’t have the extra HR budget to hire a -06. While lots of people assume that you can be a EC-04 or 05 or 06 in the same division in the same job because they’ve seen it happen, it doesn’t mean it’s a universally option — as I said, some divisions have “scalable” jobs, but many don’t. They have an open EC-04 position, and that’s it. Take it or leave it. Doesn’t matter if you qualified in something higher, they don’t have a box. Now, going back to a specific post that was at EG-04 level, all they will see (usually) is that you’re qualified for THAT level, you haven’t been tested for higher. So you haven’t demonstrated the merit criteria for the higher level (they werne’t even testing you). While the answer is 99% no, there is a possibility of them offering you a position and you asking about higher level positions coming available. They may not offer it to you now, and probably won’t/can’t, BUT it will tell you what else is likely available in the future.

      For your last point, is it hard to get promoted? The short answer is probably no. I say probably because it depends way too much on your own situation and job classification, and even where you work. If you are in Ottawa, in an EC category, there are lots of comps going on all the time. If you practice and you’re good enough, you’ll move up. However, that is a direct result of turnover and availability of empty boxes. If you’re working in a region, say a processing centre in Halifax, there are a lot of PM-01s, a smaller number of PM-02s, fewer PM-03s, etc. (or AS). Most work there their entire life, so turnover is rare. Promotions are rare. And VERY competitive. If they have to hire a PM-03, EVERY PM-02 in the place will compete for it. Many of them will MAYBE see 1 promotion in their career. Maybe 2. In NCR, they could see perhaps 5 or 6. If you are an EC, and working in a region, there may be NO OTHER EC boxes anywhere near you. Which means whatever box you’re in, it’s pretty much it. You won’t go anywhere else. In the end, the three variables are:

      i) How many people are there in your classification and above it where you will be working?
      ii) Is it generally a mobile category with lots of movement or do people tend to stick in the same job for a long time?
      iii) Are you any good at your job AND competitions?

      For that last one, I know a guy who is TECHNICALLY really good at his job. But his interpersonal skills are TERRIBLE. He fights with just about EVERYONE he works with. Condescending, arrogant, rude. And ticked because he never passes an interview, because he’s rude to the interviewers and he acts like they’re wasting his time, they should just GIVE him a promotion already. But he won’t take ANY lessons learned from screwing up every interview he’s in. He won’t acquire any skills to figure out how to participate in a simple interview. He has even been in interviews where he has ARGUED with the interviewers that their Q was stupid. Umm, okay, well, good luck with that, I tell him.

      But in my personal opinion, the vast majority of the time, people are not promoted because they don’t demonstrate they’re ready for promotion. Which is why I write the guide, I guess. 🙂 If they knew what to do, they wouldn’t need me!

      So I don’t know who thinks it is a “dead-end” job. But you might want to ask yourself who’s telling you that and their source of expertise about the topic.

      Good luck!


      • Hi Paul,
        Thank you so much for your very detailed reply. I really appreciate it. I organized my thoughts a bit based on your reply so if you don’t mind hearing me out.

        I am new to the government system. So I am glad to hear that there will be some flexibility based on your reply.

        The new government job is at an analyst level and I have been working as an associate in my current job. However, I think your said past job experience will not matter that much for salary negotiation. I am curious that if awards, or publications help with salary negotiation.

        However, in the end, the new job only requires a degree or diploma but I have a Ph.D. For that, I believe this is a leverage point.

        I gathered that my manager has some power over my pay and my position. Hopefully, he will be willing to give me something extra.

        I am happy to hear that it is not a dead-end job. I will be actively looking for a better “box” to jump into once I am in the system.

        Thank you again for your reply. It was very helpful.


        • Hi Ying,

          I shouldn’t be completely categorical about previous experience not being relevant to the starting salary. If we back up a second, the assumption is everyone coming in will start at the base of that level. Sooo, the question is what makes you different from all the others starting at that level?

          – Generally, experience determines if you’re a xx-02 or -03 or -04, so you’ve already leveraged that experience to get a -04 instead of a -03, so hard to re-leverage it again. On the other hand, if you’re applying for an -04 and you have 10y of experience as the equivalent of a -04, or even as a -05, you CAN ask for higher than the entry-level. You would be different from those who are applying for a -04 when most of their experience is as a -03. If you have a LOT more experience than others, perhaps it’s relevant.
          – Awards or publications could be beneficial, but generally only if it is for a researcher-type position.
          – Education is a clear “differential”…whether they agree it is relevant is up to them. For example, they’ve already determined that you don’t need it to do the job, so it’s hard to turn around and say you do.

          In a sense, the clearest leverage you have is where you have assets that go beyond the core requirements. If it said, for example, that a Ph.D. is an asset, then it is a good way to argue it IS relevant.

          For the manager, I agree with your interpretation, the manager does have say in what increment you start at, but it is VERY rare for it to go higher than the second or third. They might start you one increment up, perhaps two, but many won’t even consider it. They’ve determined you meet the level, but they may or may not be open to moving off that point.

          I will caution you on one aspect, and it is a hard nuance to convey. It is not uncommon for people to come in from outside government thinking they’re a star in the field. They may have been a great analyst in the private sector, a good consultant, great at producing reports and analysis. Maybe even awesome at research, talking to academics, etc. Then they’re thrown into the civil service, and they have to learn the culture, the basic processes for approvals, etc. and they falter. They aren’t stars out of the gate. I’ll use an example of someone I saw come in from outside govt, rated a giant brilliant star by some senior people, and they started as an EC-05. Sitting right beside them was a good EC-04 who had been in the govt for 3 years and had really good skills. The -04 was outperforming the -05 on a daily basis, and to be blunt, the -05 looked like a bit of a dud in comparison. They were bright, but they had no idea how to write a memo that would get approved quickly and move through the hierarchy. And hiring managers KNOW that. Coming in from outside govt usually involves several months to get acclimatized…which makes it very unattractive to give the person a raise before they even start. It will also limit you in finding that “better” box you’re looking for, because if you’re not knocking it out of the park in your box, you’re not going to get that better box. Don’t assume it will be immediate. Just like in academia, a freshly minted and newly hired doctorate is not the same as an experienced researcher.

          Put as bluntly as possible, and maybe more harshly than is fair, while you were spending 4-6y doing a doctorate, others were already working in government and learning the job. If the job doesn’t require a Ph.D., don’t assume that everyone is going to assume you’re “better” because you have one.


          • Hi Paul,
            Thanks again for the very specific and useful reply. I appreciate it.
            Your comments are very helpful for me to understand the process. All I really wanted is a-okay starting salary, so it would be a meaningful switch on my end. I understand it will take time to get used to the system and the culture and I am not expecting a promotion right away. I was wondering between waiting for a higher position available or taking this lower one. From your reply, I get the idea that it is better to be in the government system earlier, so that is probably what I am going to do.
            Thank you,

          • Happy to help…Lots of people have views about getting outside experience before joining, and there is no one “right answer”. I know some computer science majors who had a great time in the private sector getting a broader range of experiences and trying stuff out before joining. On the other hand, there are some who lament that external experience is rarely “rewarded” either in remuneration or promotions, and they end up taking “entry-level” positions to get in. Equally, once “in”, you qualify for a lot more positions than from outside, and many of the more senior positions are regularly filled ONLY internally. Plus we have a better pension than most external employers, and the sooner you start contributing to it, the better the result later. I see those who want the private / not-for-profit experience, but in the end, my view is that if your long-term plan is to work in government, you’re better off getting in earlier than later.

            Paul aka

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