It still baffles me that people do applications so badly for jobs with pretty high salaries. An application generally includes two things — a cover letter and a resume. And people mess them up. Sometimes it is because they read a private-sector-oriented website about jobs and cover letters and try to keep it to a page — this is NOT how government applications work, so many people get screened out because they listened to the wrong advice. This chapter will tell you exactly what to do, some minor variations if you want to be creative, and some very clear things NOT to do.

You’ve seen an announcement of a “selection process”. You have printed out the list of qualifications (“merit criteria”), and you’re ready to start. If you look at the Statement of Merit Criteria (aka the “poster”), you’ll see a bunch of different sections in it. The five most important ones, and how they are tested, are listed below.

AREAWHERE TESTED
Eligibility criteria
  • 90% in your cover letter, online application
  • 10% with a language test (if applicable)
Essential Experience
  • 95% in your cover letter
  • 5% in your resume

* Officially it is 100% through the above two elements, but in practice, it is more like 80% cover letter, 5% resume, 5% written, 10% interview — I will explain what I mean by that where relevant below

Knowledge
  • 85-90% through a written test
  • 10-15% in an interview
Abilities
  • 10% through a written test
  • 80% in an interview
  • 10% through reference checks
Personal Suitability
  • 30% in an interview
  • 70% through formal reference checks

* Similar to the experience section above, this is for the official reference checks, but in a practical world there is approximately 5-10% that is through informal reference checks, and I’ll cover that in more detail below.

With that framework in mind, we now turn to the meat of this chapter — crafting your application with your cover letter, your resume, and information about applying online.

Understanding cover letters for government

The application process has changed dramatically in the last eighteen months as most departments are now insisting on applying online only, and not giving an option to submit a cover letter by email. However, the principle is the same, so I am going to cover the standard cover letter for government competitions in order to show you the standard of what they are looking for even in the new online application process.

We’ll start with a typical cover letter. You’ve heard of cover letters before, you have even probably written some. And you’ve vaguely heard those magical words of wisdom from 20 years ago that is all over the internet — “your cover letter should be no longer than a page”. If you listen to that advice, you will get screened out. You will fail the application process, and you won’t even get to actually show your skills. Why? If you look back in the chapter on the overall process, I said the cover letter is the first step for candidates in a very bureaucratized process that is governed by legislation.

And I want to scare you with something about the importance of your cover letter. If you do a PROPER cover letter, the first one should probably take you at least two to three hours to do. After you have several samples done for different competitions, you’ll see some of the elements start to repeat, and your time will drop, but it should still take you at least an hour. If you are doing it quicker than that, there’s a pretty good chance you are missing things.

If your Uncle Harry wants to hire someone to work om his ice cream store, he can run a quick interview, ask you some basic questions, and as long as he doesn’t ask any illegal or discriminatory questions, he can basically run whatever type of interview he wants. Heck, he can just put a sign in the window that says “Help Wanted” and whoever shows up first, if he likes them, he can hire them. Not so with the public service. The legislation says that every applicant must demonstrate they meet the merit criteria for the job. And over the course of the process, you will have to demonstrate the five things I mentioned above — eligibility, experience, knowledge, abilities and personal suitability. The first two are demonstrated through your application, most of which is your cover letter itself, and you cannot possibly do it in a single page.

Some housekeeping elements

Your cover letter should start off with the basics — the competition number that you are applying for, the title of the position, the classification and level, and if you have one, your Personal Record Identifier (PRI) number (a number issued by the Government if you’ve worked for them as a formal employee — it’s your master ID number for employment with the government). These are basic tracking elements, and it helps the HR person properly file your application, which of course you want to be mistake-free. Here’s the standard format I use:

I am writing to you in order to apply for the (title) (xx-xx level) position in the (section, department) (competition xxxx-xxx-xx-xx-xxx). I am sending this letter, and the attached detailed resume, in order to demonstrate my eligibility (A) and qualifications (B-Essentials & C-Assets) against the Statement of Merit Criteria. My PRI number is xxx-xxx-xxx.

All of the information you need for this paragraph is on the notice of the competition — it’s all there. You’re just copying it over. Verbatim. No ad lib, no creativity, make it exact. So, what would this look like in practice? A lot like this:

I am writing to you in order to apply for the Sr. Policy Analyst (EC-05) position in the Corporate Planning Division, Policy Branch, Health Canada (competition xxxx-xxx-xx-xx-xxx). I am sending this letter, and the attached detailed resume, in order to demonstrate my eligibility (A) and qualifications (B-Essentials & C-Assets) against the Statement of Merit Criteria. My PRI number is xxx-xxx-xxx.

That’s it, that’s all. Your intro is written, with all the tracking info the HR person needs in order to file anything, and more importantly, if it gets lost somehow or mis-filed, where they should file it if/when they find it separated from the rest of the files. Basic housekeeping — a place for everything, everything in its place.

Eligibility

The first substantive item you have to address in the cover letter is that you are even eligible to apply. This divides itself into three components — core eligibility, conditional eligibility, and language profile. Let me start with core eligibility. I’ll spend a bit more time than is necessary on a simple part of the core, your address, because it will demonstrate how core works — it is either yes you’re eligible or no you’re not, very cut and dried.

Most postings for jobs are limited by geographical area (called the “Area of Selection”. It will likely say something like:

OPEN TO: [Employees in] the [Department of Employment and Social Development Canada (ESDC)] [occupying a position at the EC-07 level or equivalent] in the [National Capital Region (NCR).] 

* The [xxx] brackets in the above indicates the four separate elements to prove to show you’re within the area of selection for this process.

So, lots of jobs will be limited to the “the National Capital Region”. If so, you can’t apply unless your permanent address is in the NCR. If for example you are working and living in Vancouver, but you thought, “Hey, I’d like to apply for jobs in Ottawa”, you still can — but only those that were open to the entire country (some are limited, some are not). This isn’t meant to be discriminatory, it’s to limit the applicant pool to a manageable size. The goal for the hiring manager (remember him or her from the chapter on process?) is to be able to assess enough applicants to allow some choice of candidates at the end, not to assess every possible person in the universe who might be able to do the job. A large enough pool, and no larger.

If the government is hiring a fairly generic position, and they think they can get someone in the NCR, they’re not going to want to plow through all the resumes from people all over the country, incur the cost of screening them, interviewing them, selecting them, etc., only to have a large percentage of them say, “Oops, I don’t want to move across the country after all.” If you can find local workers, you can limit your pool of applicants to just that area. Same for people in Vancouver competing against other Vancouverites; no need to open it up to the world, if you can find enough local people who are qualified.

It’s a completely different world though when a department does a massive post-secondary recruitment (completely open for geography) or they have a very narrow field of study they want to recruit from and might have trouble finding people (veterinarians, for example). In those cases, they’ll go large on the geographic eligibility in order to get a big enough pool to guarantee some chance of finding qualified people. Just big enough, and no bigger.

How does the government know where you live? Because your application includes your postal code. If you’re in the appropriate zone, you’re screened in; if you’re not, you’re screened out. Nobody will even look at your letter or resume. It’s a strict yes/no test.

Now, would the government know if you’re lying if you put Aunt Sally’s mailing address instead of your own? Up front, probably not. HR will check the address you give them to make sure you’re in the zone, but at the start, that’s all they will do. It’s simple, it’s efficient, it’s low cost. If you give them an address that fits the criteria, they’ll screen you in. So you’ll think, “Hah, I’m in!”. Well, not really.

Suppose you get all the way through and make the pool. At that time, HR has a much smaller number of remaining people to deal with. So they’ll then double-check your address that is in the payroll system (since most applicants already work for government), and if you aren’t in the zone, you’ll get bounced from the competition. Yep, you might make it all the way through on a lie, and THEN they’ll bounce you. Some people have even made it all the way to getting a letter of offer, but when the HR people went to generate the letter, they noticed, “Hey! They can’t live in the NCR if their office is in Vancouver! Something’s not right!”. And the person was then bounced.

Now you might think, “Well, at that point, they might waive the requirement, since I’m the best candidate, and they’ll really want me then.” Here’s the deal — they can’t. It was a legal requirement of the competition. If you don’t meet it, you can’t be hired as you were never qualified to enter the competition in the first place. You’ll be tossed, because they have to toss you. No choice at all. Not only will the hiring manager be ticked off, you’ll also have wasted their time and yours, and look like an idiot.

If you aren’t eligible, don’t apply. Yes you meet it, and you’re screened in; no you don’t meet it, and you’re screened out. That’s how most core eligibility works. Black and white, very clear.

When I have given presentations on this, people tend to think I’m over-explaining this one, and I tend to agree. I do it because I want people to understand that for core eligibility, you either have it or you don’t. And people understand postal codes and maps and zones. But even this has some exceptions, as most rules do. Here are three that come up, using an example of a job in Ottawa:

  • Your regular position is in Quebec, but you are working on a three month assignment in Ottawa…can you apply?
  • Your regular position is in Vancouver, but you are on leave, and living with your parents in Ottawa…can you apply?
  • Your regular position is in Ottawa, but you work for Foreign Affairs, and you’re currently assigned overseas…can you apply?

All three of them have the same answer — it depends. Depends on the wording, depends on the nature of your assignment / leave, depends on the department doing the screening and what their normal interpretation for handling such things is (if they’re strict, you’re out; if they’re flexible, you’re in). It’s a bit of a grey area, even when normally the questions are black and white. But each of those are not “lies” that aren’t remotely true, they are degrees of nuances that present some exception to the black/white world.

However, if you want to challenge or clarify an eligibility element, do it AT THE START. Ask for permission to be screened in, make it clear and transparent. Because the last thing you want to do is make it all the way to the end before you ask, at which time they are likely to be VERY strict and rigid with the rules. Not to mention that you’ll waste time even applying. Just ask.

But geography is not the only restriction. Back at the beginning of this section, I noted possible wording:

OPEN TO: [Employees in] the [Department of Employment and Social Development Canada (ESDC)] [occupying a position at the EC-07 level or equivalent] in the [National Capital Region (NCR).] 

Based on that, you are also required to prove:

Sample wordingRestrictionComments
OPEN TO: [Employees in] the [Department of Employment and Social Development Canada (ESDC)]
[occupying a position at the EC-07 level or equivalent] in the [National Capital Region (NCR).] 
[Employees in]Type of employeeUsually one of four headings, including:

 

  • Indeterminate employees of…
  • Permanent employees of…
  • Employees of…
  • Persons employed in…

The other alternatives are open to the public or recent graduates.

[Department of Employment and Social Development Canada (ESDC)]Department / Region  Usually one of two sub-criteria:

 

  • Candidates who work for a Department…
  • Candidates who work for the Public Service…
[occupying a position at the EC-07 level or equivalent]LevelOften reserved for deployments or assignments/secondments, it means you have to be “at the same level” already, i.e. it can’t be a promotion. Sometimes it is also for acting assignments or specific recruitments i.e. they’ll let you apply if you are one level below.
[National Capital Region (NCR)] GeographyUsually one of two sub-criteria:

 

  • Specific city
  • Specific region

Not surprisingly, if it says that, you have to be:

  1. an employee, not just on contract or casual;
  2. working for ESDC, not Health / Finance / Environment;
  3. an EC-07 or equivalent (this tells you you have to be at level, this isn’t a promotion or an acting opportunity); and,
  4. working in Ottawa/Gatineau, not elsewhere in the country — your actual office has to be in the NCR.

When you apply, your application first goes to the HR people. All of those four things are in a central database and HR people will check to make sure it matches, using your PRI number to look you up. If any of the bits don’t match, they screen you out and the hiring manager will never see your application. You’re just done. Lots of people try to be creative to fake their way past eligibility, and a few years ago, it was occasionally possible.

Except when they got all the way to the appointment phase, someone goes to do the paperwork, and HR would bounce it — kicking the person out of the competition at that point, because they were never eligible in the first place. There is no grey area on these points — in / out, yes / no. If you’re in a strange situation such as being on assignment with ESDC, ask HR if you are eligible or not — the rules will say yes or no, and you can then proceed or not.

Now, as noted above, 90% of eligibiity has to be covered in the cover letter and so you’ll tell me, as noted above in the example, that you are an indeterminate employee working in the department listed at the same level and working in the region specified.

If it says “indeterminate/permanent” employee, don’t apply if you are term or casual. If it says “employees”, then indeterminates AND terms can apply, but not casuals. If it says “persons”, some departments will consider casuals too, most won’t.

There are two other areas where it is not quite so black and white. First, under the educational requirements, it frequently asks you for a university degree. For example, it might say for the EC categories:

Graduation with a degree from a recognized university with acceptable specialization in Economics, Sociology or Statistics.

That seems like a simple yes/no, but there are variations on what constitutes “specialization” (often viewed by tribunals as at least 5 courses in undergrad and 3 in a graduate program, but managers can set whatever number they deem appropriate on a competition-by-competition basis). But more importantly, the advertisement will then say things like:

NOTE: Candidates must always have a university degree*. The courses for the specialization do not necessarily have to be part of a degree program in the required specialization. The specialization may also be obtained through an acceptable combination of education, training and/or experience.
* Degrees may include, but may not be limited to Political Science, History, Psychology, Geography, Criminology or other disciplines associated with social science.

Some people find that confusing, and rightfully so. The rest of the eligibility factors have no wiggle room, but this one is more about general skills than certification. So, for example, if you had a degree in Psychology or Criminology, but you could show that the courses were cross-listed with Sociology, the screening manager may decide that is sufficiently close to accept your application. Other times, someone may have done a degree in Urban Planning, but has a “minor” in economics with five courses in the field as “electives”. Or perhaps they did a degree in history, and then after they graduated, did some additional electives in Statistics. So they would have a degree + courses outside their degree program that meet the specialization requirement.

If you have been working in a field for quite a while (usually more than four years, the same time to do an undergraduate degree) and if you have been doing a lot of economics or statistics in that time, the hiring manager may decide that is equivalent experience and accept you. However, let me perfectly clear — it is YOUR JOB AS APPLICANT to convince them you have the educational background needed. I’ll discuss this in more detail below, but the burden of proof is on you. If you have a degree in Economics / Sociology / Statistics for this example, your proof is easy. You say “I graduated from University of Manitoba in 1994 with a Bachelor of Arts degree in Economics.” They will ask you later in the process for a copy of your diploma to prove it, but for the cover letter, that is sufficient. However, if you have a different degree and are relying on extra courses that you took to prove the specialization, or relevant work experience, you should list the courses you took or the work you have been doing that is relevant. If you don’t explain, they don’t have to come back and ask for more details — they can just screen you out. Your job is to prove it — the burden of proof is on you.

The second initially grey area is your language profile. It will likely say something like “BBB/BBB” — this means that you have to have intermediate english and french (in brief, X means no ability, A is basic, B is intermediate, C is fluent, E is exempt equivalent to native speaker). As with the first elements, the HR person will go into the PSC database and check your current results (good for 5 years at a time). If you have a current profile that meets or exceeds the level required, they’ll note it. If your profile is out of date OR you have no profile OR even if you have a current profile that is LESS than needed, they’ll note that you do not meet BUT won’t screen you out — they’ll send you for a language test, likely at the end of the process i.e. the last step before they appoint people.

Here’s the reason why you don’t get booted immediately — the legislation governing competitions says generally that you have to meet all the requirements at the time you apply (so just because you were planning to move to Vancouver, you couldn’t apply if you were still working in NCR). However, there is separate legislation regarding Official Languages and it says you have to meet the language profile of the position at the time of appointment. As a result, all of the other eligibility elements are tested at the beginning of the process, and you’re in or you’re out, but language levels are almost always tested at the end so that your results are as close as possible to the time of appointment. But it is still a yes/no element later — if you fail, you’re out. (With a minor caveat…a competition may say “various language profiles” which might mean if you get BBB, you’re eligible for a BBB job but not one of the other ones that requires CCC — the equivalent of being “out” for the jobs with higher language requirements and “in” for the jobs with lower language requirements.)

Here’s some sample text that shows how to meet the above requirements (if you’ve given your PRI previously, you don’t need to repeat it).

I am an indeterminate employee of HRSDC working in the National Capital Region as a substantive xx-xx, and my PRI number is xx-xxx-xxx. I have a Bachelor’s degree in xxxxxxxxxxxxx from xxxxxxxx (19xx) and a Master’s degree in xxxxxxxxxxxxx from Carleton University (20xx). I meet the official languages proficiency for the position, with a current profile of EBC.

A frequent question from people is what to do if you are taking language classes, know you’re close, want to apply, but don’t have a current profile. That’s simple:

I meet the official language proficiency for the position, but my profile is out of date and I need to be retested.

Let’s be clear though. If you are AAA, and the requirement is CCC (i.e. no indication of various language levels), you’re not likely to make that level by the time you are tested in the process. Unless you’re close to the level, and expect that you’ll actually meet it at the time to be tested, faking your way through the application is generally a waste of everyone’s time. It’s a yes/no criteria — you meet it or you don’t. Or if you’re hedging your bets on how effective your current progress is going, you will meet it or you won’t. The manager can’t get to the end of the process and say, “Oh, too bad, they’re a great candidate, I’ll drop the language requirement.”

Conditional Eligibility

I am slightly mis-using a term here, because it isn’t exactly what the Public Service Commission means when it says “Conditions of Employment”. I call them conditional eligibility because you can meet all the other elements, make the pool, and then when they go to offer you a position, be unable to take it. Let me explain, because it isn’t the same as you being “out”.

First, there is “reliability and security”. It isn’t always clear what this means on a poster, but it is your security clearance. There are proposals to change the way security clearances work, but there is generally “reliability” (looking a lot like a simple background check for criminal records), “enhanced reliability”, “secret”, and “top secret”. These are all variations on a theme, with top secret asking for the most detail, going into a full background check for someone who is likely to have access to very sensitive high-level materials such as policy proposals, Cabinet decisions, or security files.

If you go through the whole process, make the pool, and they go to appoint you but you fail the Top Secret clearance, it means you don’t get that job, but it doesn’t exactly remove you from the pool. They may have other jobs that require lower clearances that they can appoint you to, although technically it is supposed to negate your candidacy like having too low of a language profile. But it’s handled more as a grey zone than a black and white decision point. In addition, though, you may have to wait for your clearance to come through before you can start since you have to have it to be appointed. Foreign Affairs is well-known for this, with some people waiting up to a year to start their job once their top secret clearance is complete. Of course, if you apply to a pool to work at CSIS, where all the jobs require Top Secret, and you fail, well, you’re just out. There are no “lower” jobs to be considered for, they are all closed to you.

Second, there are “other conditions of employment”. Sometimes they are black and white (such as “a valid drivers license”), other times the employee wants to discuss what exactly the term means before accepting the position. For example, a common phrase is “willing and available to work occasional overtime”. Does that mean once a month or three times a week? Does it mean planned overtime or sudden overtime? This could have serious implications for someone who has to arrange childcare. Equally, there is often a requirement for “occasional travel, as needed.” Employees might be willing to travel, but there’s a huge difference between a short business trip to Toronto for 2 days and a 3 week trip to Bangladesh for a series of meetings. However, before the employee is appointed, they have to formally agree to the conditions. More and more, HR sections are asking for it in the cover letter when they apply or if not there, later when the appointment process comes along. Personally, I put it right up front in the cover letter so there is no doubt of my continued eligibility:

I am willing to work overtime as required, and travel within Canada and internationally as part of my duties. I have a Level II – Secret security clearance which was updated in 20xx.

Note that this last example is NOT required, but I still recommend it in the cover letter. Some HR people will tell you to completely take it out, waste of space, because THEIR department doesn’t work that way. Some departments do, and some HR people move from department to department and don’t always follow the new practices. I have been told too that some departments say not to mention the language part at all because they have to test that anyway; other departments have screened people OUT (even though they’re not supposed to) if the cover letter didn’t say it.

Here’s my bottom line — it costs me nothing to include it and if it avoids someone screening me out for no reason and avoids my having to “fight” to get back in, I’ll put it in my cover letter.

Quick summary of what you need to include:

  1. Title, Level, Competition, PRI
  2. Education, Employment status, area of selection, language, citizenship
  3. Security clearance, organizational needs (EE), operational requirements (relocation/travel/overtime hours), conditions of employment (travel/irregular hours/part-time)

Experience

So I covered eligibility, and it took a lot of space to explain why you need about two paragraphs to ensure you’re not screened out. Now we come to the actual meat of the cover letter — how you show that you have the experience the manager is looking for in the poster.

Remember I said that private sector advice books tell you to keep your cover letter to a page? This is fine for the private sector where your cover letter outlines a bit of the type of experience and jobs you have had, and with a short resume, acts as an offer to the manager to call you to discuss it in more detail. That’s not the way government works.

Government competitions are governed by legislation and rules, since you’re going to be paid by the taxpayer, and the regulations say that you have to demonstrate in the cover letter how you meet each experience element. I don’t have to invite you in to discuss it, and in fact, I can’t — I have to have you TELL ME in the letter how you meet it. The burden of proof is on you.

Now, some private sector people would read that and say, “Sure, but I can still do it in a page.” No, you can’t. Because you don’t know what proof means.

If you look at a poster, there are likely at least four separate experience requirements. And you have to prove to me that you meet each and every one of them. You can’t just say “I have it”, you have to show me how you have it, what you were doing, when you did it, etc. For most experience requirements, you’re probably looking at a minimum of about 8-10 lines of text in a cover letter, and 1-2 paragraphs. Multiply that by four separate experiences, add two paragraphs from before on eligibility, include a salutation + closing, and an address at the top, and to fit that in a page, you would need about a size 6-point font. Not the best strategy to impress someone.

While some competitions do impose some length restrictions, most don’t constrain you too much. Let me give you a specific example of what I’m talking about in terms of proof. Suppose it asked for experience in managing human resources. Some people have tried writing the following:

I have experience managing human resources as I have been a manager of a team for 2 years.

Great! But how big a team? Was it one person or ten? What kind of team? Were you leading a research team on a file, like a working group, or were you the boss of several people? Did you approve leave? Did you manage their workloads? Did you rate their performance? Was it full time for two years?

All you have done in the sentence is that you did “something”, but it doesn’t prove to me that you managed human resources. You can’t just say it, you have to tell me and give me details. Try this one instead:

Since 20xx, I have had extensive responsibility for human resources. I acted as deputy director within the policy coordination team at CIDA, assisting in leading a team of eight, directly supervising two policy analysts, and acting as director for extended periods of time. While working at SDC on international issues, I was the head of a team of seven analysts and one support staff on issues related to bilateral relations, multilateral engagement, and policy development. As manager in policy integration at HRSDC, I led a team preparing an integrated policy framework, implementation plan for creating a Centre of Excellence, strategic regional engagement, participation in medium term policy planning, branch coordination of corporate planning requests, and international benchmarking and comparisons; and I am now the manager of the performance team within Integrated Planning and Acccountability, as well as having acted as director for five weeks during the summer.

That’s better, it adds more detail, but it’s missing something huge, at least for government. Now try the following:

I have significant experience as a manager of human resources since 2002. From 2002 to 2004, I was the acting deputy director and then acting director in the xxx section of xxx department, for a team of six employees. This included assigning work and developing resource plans. From 2005 to 2014, I managed teams of varying sizes – five employees while at xxx on the international front, three employees in xxx department’s Policy Branch, and varying-sized team since xxxx in my current Branch (ranging from three to eleven employees) and currently a team of seven.

Since xxxx, I have undertaken the fully delegated HR function for all of my teams – establishing performance objectives and expected results including formal performance management reviews, assigning work and managing workloads across team members, identification of resource needs and approval of training, and leave management (including both regular leave as well as two instances of extended sick leave without pay).

Now we’re getting somewhere. Is it likely overkill? Absolutely. Because it is my job to prove I meet the criteria and I don’t want anyone to have to think about it when they read what I wrote — I don’t want anyone “deciding” if it meets the criteria or not. I want them to read it and think, “Yep, obviously he meets it, tick that box, move on”. Overwhelmingly convincing, that’s the goal.

But let’s dissect what you need to tell them:

  • What your job was (manager, deputy director, team leader, etc.);
  • When you did it (gives indication of duration); and,
  • What you did + what that means.

Most people skip immediately to the “what you did” part (i.e. I managed HR) without saying what their job was, or for how long. More importantly though, the manager needs to see the “evidence” of what you did — headings plus examples plus some context (i.e. deputy director, team of six, assigning work and developing work plans, performance management, approving leave, etc.).

I’m partial to the following structure as an example, but you can use whatever style you want:

I have experience in [xxx criterion from the poster] while working as [job title] at [department, branch, division] from [year to year]. One file where I had to do this was [yyy] where we were [context]. As such, I had multiple occasions to do [aaaa], [bbbb], and [cccc]. Another file was [zzz] where I also did [aaaa], [bbbb] and [dddd]. In [this other position], I also got to do [dddd] and [eeee].

Is that example perfect? Hardly. It’s simply functional. It makes sure you’re on the right track to populate your letter with the type of experience that people need to include to DEMONSTRATE / PROVE they meet the requirement.

Why don’t people do that automatically? Partly because they don’t know that they need to do it, partly because they often don’t do any preparation before writing the cover letter that would allow them to have the evidence, and partly because they don’t know how to structure their letter in the first place.

Now that you have seen my sample text above, you should realize something. I am going though the poster line by line and showing how I meet the criteria. No, it’s not flowery. No, it’s not creative. It is very linear. Why? Because the process of applying is linear. I, as candidate, have to PROVE that I meet EACH element. The easiest way to do that is to do it in the same order it’s listed. Because that way I don’t miss anything AND it is how the HR and hiring manager people are going to tick the boxes. In order.

Which means, if it asks me about my educational background, I’m going to write a sentence or paragraph about my education. If I have four experience requirements, I’m going to put a heading and then some text, like:

EXPERIENCE 1: MANAGING HR

[Examples of how I have managed HR]

EXPERIENCE 2: MANAGING FINANCES

[Examples of how I have managed finances]

That is why advice from private-sector cover letter examples doesn’t work, because that’s NOT how they do them. In the private-sector, your cover letter might look like:

Dear [employer name]

[Intro para to snag their attention]

[Example Job 1 with the giant results you achieved]

[Example Job 2 with the giant results you achieved]

[Closing]

Great, but now you’re applying to government. How does Job 1 and Job 2 relate to the four headings I’ve asked you about? Because if they don’t, you’re out. It is not my job to play forensic detective on your resume to see if you MIGHT meet, or even if you’re a wonderful person, it is YOUR job to PROVE TO ME that you meet my requirements or I don’t have to interview you. The regulations say so very clearly.

I have always done my applications exactly as I outlined above (heading 1, proof, heading 2, proof). So much so that early on in the changeover from the old application system to the new, consultants were flagging my application as “gold standard” formats for people to use. It just made the screening process for them so much easier. Yes, he has experience and there’s the proof all together. Tick.

And you might buck at this requirement. You might think it is stupid. So let me explain why it isn’t, with a very practical example.

Back in 2007, I ran a competition for an EC-06 position. You’ll know from the previous chapters than an EC is an analyst. Good at evidence-based analysis. And a -06 level is pretty senior. They’re not fresh off the street, they’ve likely been doing analysis for a number of years. Including writing memos to Ministers where they give some background, outline an issue, give their evidence and analysis, and make a recommendation. So they know what a basic argument in paper form looks like when you’re trying to convince someone of something. Which is what a cover letter is — it’s an argument in paper form to me as the hiring manager trying to convince me that you meet the experience requirements.

Of some 84 people who applied, only 25 did their cover letter the way I outlined above. Heading, proof, heading, proof. How many did I screen in? 24. Of the 25, all of them had the proof laid out very clearly and 96% convinced me. Because it was clear proof. The one who didn’t make it wrote a good letter, and they almost convinced me even though they were doing very different work than what I was looking for in the poster. Almost close enough. I even went so far as to ask for a second opinion from another manager because they were close.

Of the original 84, 20 people had no cover letter whatsoever. In the current climate, where the regs are much clearer now, they would immediately be rejected. No letter = no proof, they’re out. A resume is not sufficient. However, in 2007, the department I was in was not ready to be quite so harsh so I had to play forensic detective on their resume to see if they had, somehow, managed to demonstrate all the elements for the job in the resume. Do you know what NONE of them mentioned? Oral briefings. I had an element in the poster that asked for experience in providing oral briefings to management. But, by habit, almost no ECs ever think to include that in their resume. They think about written briefings, and that is documented out the wazoo. Yet most never mention oral briefings. They missed on some other elements too, but they all missed was on oral briefings. Since they never said they did it, I had no proof to base my evaluation on, and since it is THEIR job to prove it to me, they were automatically out. That’s not me being harsh or draconian or rigid — it is like an eligibility requirement. If they don’t work for ESDC, and that’s the scope, they’re out; if they give me no evidence in their application of oral briefings, they’re out. The regs don’t ALLOW me to screen them in. {Okay, small exaggeration there — the regs do say to screen them out, but there are ways to fudge the requirement and let them in, but officially, I was supposed to screen them out, and I did.}

That left 39 people who had done their cover letters mostly like the private-sector examples. They gave me lovely intro letters, mostly in a single page telling me they had experence, loads of experience, tons of experience, they were the Donald Trumps of experience, but gave me no examples or proof of how they had it. About ten recycled previous cover letters and didn’t even bother to make the effort to tailor it in anyway to my job. (Small tip — if I’m looking for an analyst, and one of the elements is “attention to detail”, and you send me a cover letter saying you’re applying for the “project manager” position, it doesn’t look too good). Again, as with those with no cover letter, I had to play forensic detective. Of the 39, I screened in about ten. Or approximately 25%.

Let’s recap:

  • With proper cover letter — 96% screened in;
  • Cover letter done badly — 25% screened in;
  • No cover letter — 0% screened in.

I did several comps around the same time, and they all had similar outcomes.

Somewhere around 2012, Health Canada started including a phrase in their posters. It said, basically, “Please note that it is the candidate’s responsibility to prove in their cover letter that they meet the criteria in the poster. Information in the resume is not sufficient. One way to do this is to use each experience as a heading and provide your examples under it.”

They ACTUALLY told candidates how to write the letter, and people still didn’t do it. Each competition, people would try and be creative and then wonder why they got screened out. By 2015, all departments were applying the same standard — if there was no cover letter, the application was tossed immediately. And the regs were updated to not only say they “could” toss them, they know say they “should” toss them. It’s the only way to ensure fairness across the process. We transparently evaluate what you tell us, we don’t go fishing.

Proper preparation

Yet, even with the proper format, people sometimes get screened out for jobs they are completely competent to perform. Why? Because they don’t give enough evidence in the cover letter.

Many candidates follow a typical approach of simply matching experience headings with the closest previous job that matches. So, here’s what that looks like:

Experience 1Job 1
Experience 2Job 2
Experience 3Job 1, 3

When they go to write the cover letter, they will talk only about Job 1 to substantiate / prove they meet the requirements for “Experience 1”. Similarly for Experience 2. From time to time, they might talk about two jobs, but not often.

Because we as candidates tend to think of our past experiences in terms of “what jobs I had”, not the sub-elements of each of those jobs. So when we prepare, we miss stuff. Contrast the above table with the following template. In my presentations, I have frequently called it “Secret Template #1”, but you’ll see that is a bit grandiose of a name for what I’m talking about.

Secret Template #1 – Quacking like a duck!
 Job 1Job 2Job 3AcademicVolunteer
Experience 1xxxxx
Experience 2xxxxx
Experience 3xxxxx

From that table, you should notice three things:

  1. I have put all the past jobs across the top so that you can see which apply to each experience;
  2. I’ve added any academic or volunteer experience you might have; and,
  3. I have put an X in every single box.

Why did I do this and what difference does it make?

Start with the Xs in the first row. Using this template, your preparation is a lot more rigorous. Rather than saying “Which of my jobs lines up with Experience 1”, you are now instead asking, “For experience 1, what did I do in Job 1 that was related to this?”, then “What did I do in Job 2?”, etc. Your goal is to put something in every box, no matter how minor.

Let me give you an example, and it will become a lot more clear why this helps. Suppose the experience requirement #1 was experience in managing financial resources. If you’re an EC, this may be a HUGE challenge for you to answer. You want to apply, but you’ve never been in charge of the budget before. Which might suggest you’re out before you even start (that happens).

Except, wait a minute. In Job 1, you were doing some research and you hired a contractor to help you. Contracts have financial components. Put it down. In Job 2, your boss asked you to do an analysis of research by the division for various research projects over the previous three years, and the project list included costs and totals for the division. Plus you “forecast” the expected projects for that year too, with the costs attached. Again, it’s finance-related. Put it down. Maybe your third job was when you were a waitress. Pretty sure you had to manage money, do totals, ring in expenses, right? Put it down. Oh, look, in your academic courses you took accounting and budgeting. And in your volunteer work, you were the treasurer of your church choir. Put it down.

You now have five separate examples for that experience requirement that you can combine into a single kick-ass paragraph. Will it be enough to screen you in? I have no idea. Depends on the person doing the screening. And what other people say too. But that isn’t your job to worry about — your job is to write the best dang paragraph you can about YOUR experience. Maybe something like this.

I have experience with managing financial resources throughout my academic, volunteer and professional career. During my academic studies, I studied accounting and budgeting, and was able to put it into practice as the Treasurer for the St. Alphonse Church Choir, 2003-2006. I was responsible for managing the budget, forecasting expenses, producing reports, and co-signing on all disbursements. While I was at university, I was the senior waitress for the ACME Diner (200x-200x), and had to verify all cashes at the end of the night, and balance the floats for each waitress. In addition, I regularly had to make the night deposits. Since joining government, I have also managed research contracts to do x, as well as analysed past costs against current budgetary projections for all research projects for our division (previous three years plus current).

Is that enough? I still don’t know. As I said, that’s up to the hiring manager to decide, and you should make HIM or HER decide. Don’t decide for them. Your job is to craft the best paragraph you can, without lying. You might embellish a little, make yourself sound a little more professional than you were, or more important than you were, but don’t go too far outside the lines. It’ll just bite you later.

But for each and every experience requirement, if you follow the template above, you stand the best chance of coming up with enough evidence to support your claim that you meet the requirement. You don’t have to use ALL the examples you come up with, just the best ones. You want to prove overwhelmingly you meet it, and often one single job isn’t enough to show it.

Be A Duck, Not a Swan

Yet people feel uncomfortable writing the above. They say, “But that’s not what they mean by managing financial resources!”. My response to that is two-fold:

  1. If you don’t think you meet it, why are you applying?
  2. How do you know what they mean?

Seriously, it’s your choice. If you don’t think you meet it, don’t apply. If you think you’re close, apply and LET THEM make the decision as to whether it is enough. Don’t decide for them.

But people don’t do that. You know what they do instead? They try to be self-deprecating and hedge their wording by saying, “While I have no experience in managing financial resources,…”. And then they write the para above. Because they think that’s more “honest”.

Except the hiring manager isn’t reading any longer. You told her in the first sentence you don’t meet the requirement. You said it VERY CLEARLY. So she stopped reading, put an X in the box for that element and moved on. You TOLD HER to do it. You SAID very clearly, you don’t meet that element. So why would she keep reading?

Ignore the specifics of the above, the financial or HR management stuff. Think of it as a random person who says they want to hire a duck.

Yes, a duck. Why they need a duck is not for me to judge. They said they need a duck, let’s assume they need a duck.

If you want the job, do you say “I’m not really a duck…”? Do you say, “I’ve never really been a duck…”? Do you say, “I have lots of friends who are ducks…”?

No, if you want the job, you say “Quack, quack, quack!”.

If you want to be a bit more verbose, you say, “I’m a duck, I’ve always been a duck, I’m the best damn duck you ever saw, quack, quack, quack!”.

Because they are hiring ducks. If you say “I’m not really a duck”, they move on. They’re busy and you just told them you don’t qualify. Why are you wasting their time?

I know, you’re a special swan, but you could be a duck if you only had the chance. Fine, tell them you’re a duck. Tell them you flap your wings. Tell them you speak duck. Tell them you are slightly off-yellow. Tell them you have webbed feet. DO NOT TELL THEM YOU’RE NOT A DUCK. That’s their job to decide i.e. if having wings, speaking duck, being off-yellow, and having webbed feet qualifies you as being a duck?

You’re still not completely comfortable with this, I know. But you already decided you think you can do the job or you wouldn’t be applying. You think you can be a duck. This part of the process isn’t evaluating whether you’re actually capable of being a duck, it’s seeing whether the experience you have is enough to qualify for an interview to be a duck.

Maybe for you, off-yellow is enough. For them, maybe you have to be fuzzy and bright yellow. You don’t know. The only way to know if you meet their threshold is to apply.

Now, if you do the above chart and you have NOTHING in that row, yep, you’re probably stretching too far. Or if you feel like you’re stretching two or three elements. But, other than that, it’s up to you if you want to try to be a duck or not. They said they’re hiring ducks. If you tell them you’re not a duck, they move on.

Completing the cover letter

So now that you have Secret Template #1, you can go through and do a bit of analysis of what experience you have for each element. Then craft a paragraph or two for each one. In the end, your cover letter probably looks like this:

Dear xxxx,

[Opening] — I am writing….(info about comp, number, your basic eligibility, conditions of employment, etc.)

Education:

xxxx

Experience 1:

xxxx

Experience 2:

xxxx

Experience 3:

xxxx

[Closing]

So that is your basic cover letter. Wait, what do I mean by “basic”?

I mean there are two other elements that you have to address. First, there are “asset experiences”.

The ones I mentioned above are the first part of the poster and are considered “essential experience” requirements. But often posters also have what are known as “asset qualifications”. So, for example, suppose a hiring manager is looking for an office manager, AS-04 level.

The essential experience might be having worked as office manager previously, managing some staff, handling correspondence, and coordinating a calendar for a senior manager.  Standard stuff, and often core to the position.

Yet the hiring manager might also look at the position and think, “You know, they also have to help with staffing, managing the budget, and our internet site. It would be great if they had that too.”

To put it simply, the first elements were “must haves” and now these three are “nice to haves”. So, the first four would go in as Essentials, and the last three might go in as assets:

  1. Experience in coordinating staffing actions;
  2. Experience in coordinating a budget for a directorate;
  3. Experience in managing an external website;

The wording might be better in an actual case, but you get the idea. These aren’t REQUIRED to apply, so they are listed separate.

But if you have them, you HAVE to tell them in the cover letter. Not later. In the cover letter. Because a hiring manager might get 100 applicants for one position. And they can say, “Hey, that’s a lot. Let’s see how many have the asset 1 on staffing.” And do an additional screening. Suddenly that “asset” looks a LOT like an essential. Because they might now only interview those who had that asset. Why not? If they have enough applicants, they might as well only interview them.

Separately however, it is also a reason later for them to choose you at the end. Suppose ten people make the pool, but you have an asset they don’t. Why wouldn’t the manager choose you?

In both examples, it only helps you to tell them you have it and to craft the same paragraphs as you did for the essentials. Yes, it’s more work. But do you want the job or not?

You would be surprised how many people don’t bother addressing the assets. Or doing so in the barest of terms. And then being surprised later when they get screened out because they didn’t bother to tell the manager they had that experience too. And later is too late.

If you meet the assets, INCLUDE in your cover letter. Every single one that you meet.

Don’t freak out if you don’t meet something in the assets, this is the manager’s “Christmas wish list”, nobody is likely to have all of them. That’s why they are assets, not essentials.

So how long is your cover letter at this point? Three to four pages is not uncommon. I once had a first draft that was 17 pages and I cut it to 6. Usually there isn’t too much restriction on the length of a traditional cover letter, although this is changing (see notes about digital applications below).

Don’t forget your resume

You just wrote four pages about yourself, tailored to the specific job, and yes, it took you a long time. But you also have to include a resume. There are lots of exciting models out there, and there are books and books about possible models. Again, mostly for the private-sector. Few are useful for government jobs.

For example, lots of resume formats suggest having an upfront “skills section” where the candidate lists the skills they have acquired. Not surprisingly, the books recommend this list match the skills list for the job you are applying for, so the manager can “see” what skills you have.

Except listing them is irrelevant to government competitions. You had to PROVE them in the cover letter, so why re-list them again? Similarly for things like “goals” or a “description” of yourself. That’s not part of this stage of screening.

A resume has one purpose and one purpose only in a formal competition. It validates the information that you included in the cover letter by noting the jobs you had, where they were, the duration and times, and what duties you had. Think of it like it is a “supporting reference document” that acts in support of the cover letter.

Which means the simplest design is to have:

  • Job title 1, Organization, Times, Experience/duties
  • Job title 2, Organization, Times, Experience/duties

Here’s an example from when I was working at CIDA:

Sr. Policy Analyst, Corporate Secretariat, Deputy Minister’s Office, CIDA: December 2004 – August 2005

Responsible in newly-created analyst position in Deputy Minister’s office for horizontal analysis of broad corporate initiatives; coordination and liaison with Branches seeking project, program or policy approvals of the President and Minister; representing the Agency at internal and external meetings with Minister’s staff; coordination and liaison with sub-units of President’s office (Corporate Planning and Analysis Group, Canada Corps Unit, Business Operations Group, Parliamentary Relations, Cabinet Liaison, Correspondence Unit, and Executive Briefing Unit) for input into Agency-wide exercises; leading on Agency input into requests from central agencies; acting as Executive Assistant to the Deputy Minister during absences of the EA; and corporate analysis of Treasury Board submissions.

It tells the reviewer my title, where I was doing the job, and when, plus gives a flavour of the types of duties I performed. While it is obvious from the above descriptions of a cover letter, each cover letter is relatively unique. And equally, a resume of your past job can be rather static.

Except for one thing, which is a best practice stolen from the private-sector. In the private-sector, they advise you to sprinkle key words liberally into your cover letter and resume, using the same words as are in the job description.

For government, you can do the same. So, for example, the above resume example was one I used in my resume for a job that required experience with “horizontal analysis”, “coordination and liaison”, “Central Agencies”, and “Treasury Board submissions”. If another job required “collaboration”, I could change the “coordination and liaison” to “collaboration with…”. It’s a “nice-to-do” if you have time, as it helps validate things a little more strongly.

I consider a “nice” addition, beecause as I said at the beginning, if you do your cover letter properly, it can take you several hours to apply. Which means more time spent tweaking your resume as a “supporting” document may not be the best use of your time. The cover letter is critical, the resume is simply needed to be solid.

Applying Online

I confess that I had a large debate going on in my head for this whole chapter. I kept wanting to write phrases like “But now they do it this way…” because the online system has a completely different interface than what I just outlined. And probably 90% of the applications today HAVE to be done online, the Departments won’t accept an email version of your cover letter and resume.

So, if you’ve been paying attention, you could be really angry right now. It seems like I just spent thousands and thousands of words to explain how to do a cover letter and you don’t even use them anymore. Trust me, I wasn’t leading you astray.

Yes, the online system has automated the process, but the content is still the same. Here’s what’s different:

AreaTraditional paper or e-applicationOnline system
Basic Eligibility Criteria (PRI, address, etc.)Top of the cover letterSeparate fields, pull down menus, able to be stored and “auto-filled” by the system
Conditions of EmploymentTop or bottom of the cover letterSeparate fields, pull down menus to say yes or no, different for each job
EducationIn the cover letter under separate headingCombination of pull down menus and supplmentary text boxes, some of which can be auto-filled
Essential ExperiencesIn the cover letter under separate headingsSeparate text boxes, one for each experience
Asset ExperiencesIn the cover letter under separate headingsSeparate text boxes, one for each experience
ResumeSeparate e-file, properly formattedSeparate text box, no formattting, can be auto-filled from saved versions

There are three problems with the online system, which is why I spent all the time explaining the above. And why I think you should use the above approach, even if eventually you copy and paste it into the online system.

It’s online through the internet, and thus the online system can and does time-out or crash. You can save drafts as you go, but there have been people who were working on their application quite diligently only to lose their connection or have the system time-out on them. Bye bye carefully crafted content. A giant pain-in-the-patootie. If you do it off-line first, you can just recopy and paste it.

The interface is pretty, well, basic. It looks like it was generated to be compatible with a Commodore 64. It isn’t very pleasant to look at, and people start getting focused on “I need to put something in every box” rather than “I need to answer this question with overwhelming proof that I meet the criteria”. It isn’t uncommon for people to start typing, feel constrained by the basic text box, and craft much shorter examples than they should. The threshold of proof hasn’t changed, just the way you send the info.

Finally, the format in the boxes is ASCII text. Yes, I know that’s stupid. Yes, I know HTML at least would be useful. But it is basic text. No underlining, no bolding, no indents, nada. It’s just text. Even for your resume. That’s right, you don’t get to upload an e-file (since they might have viruses embedded), you just have to copy and paste into the text box.

THREE IMPORTANT TIPS

  1. Since you know it can time out, or crash, or just constrain you as you’re writing, do it offline first and copy and paste your text when you’re done.
  2. Left-justify everything, the boxes don’t maintain formatting at all.
  3. When you go to copy and paste, paste into a program like NotePad first as it will strip out any weird characters that Word sometimes leaves in text. Then copy and paste from NotePad into the HTML form on the website.

That last one seems stupid, I know, or not worth worrying about. Until you find out that you just applied for a job that pays $70K a year, and the manager is seeing your resume looking like:

]&; ]&; ]&; ]&; ]&; ]&; ]&; P. Sherman

]&; ]&; ]&; ]&; ]&; ]&; ]&; 42 Wallaby Way

]&; ]&; ]&; ]&; ]&; ]&; ]&; Sydney, Australia

The HTML site tries to strip all that crap out, and you may not see it on the screen, but some wordprocessing programs like to put weird codes in. Even trying to save as ASCII doesn’t really get rid of all of them. Pasting into NotePad and then recopying from there over will get rid of 99.9% of all of it. Just a thought.

In Conclusion

That was REALLY long, wasn’t it? All to tell you how to simply apply. I spent the time on it because it is the single simplest element to fix to stop you from getting screened out before you even get to the competition. If you do it right, you get to continue; if you do it wrong, you might as well not even apply in the first place.


Comments

Applications — 21 Comments

  1. Hi Polywogg,

    As a current government employee applying for assignments, this was tremendously helpful. I frankly don’t know how I got my first job considering what my cover letter and CV looked like then.

    Most of these assignment opportunities request a brief cover letter and CV. There aren’t really any essential/asset qualifications but more a “who we’re looking for” or list of responsibilities. I’m not sure how to craft my cover letter to these pretty vague requirements.

    Also a lot of my experience in project management/change management was from private sector experience more than 10 years ago. I really want to get back to PM work but none of it was in government. I’m focusing my CL on that experience and hope that will be enough.

    Thank you so much for this very thorough explanation. It’s very much appreciated.

    Anne

    • Hi Anne,

      You raise two really good points that aren’t well covered in my current version of the guide.

      a. The easier one is “project management”. There are a lot of references in different parts of government to “project management”, often in the form of “we really need to improve our project management capacity”. And for the initiated, one might think since there is a category actually called Program Management who manage “projects” (i.e. PMs), that’s what they mean. Almost uniformly? They don’t.

      They mean more often than not AS or CS people managing business or computer/IT projects. So, I flag that as you need to be specific when you say you want to go back to project management to mention (as you did) that you mean types of change management, business projects, etc. I worked at ESDC in corporate areas and regularly we kept seeing refs in HR docs to “we need project management” and the solution from HR was to hire more PMs. Except that wasn’t what they wanted most of the time and it would go through several edits before people would have it worded properly.

      b. The “cattle-call” assignments are a pain in the butt because, as you say, they frequently have no specific elements they’re looking for that you can respond to. And, to be blunt, they don’t even necessarily say very specifically what areas they’re hiring in. So you could write a great cover letter for someone in IT projects that would sail right by the person who leads HR projects because you didn’t know HR was even going to look at it. Or a generic “change management” one that the IT people skip over as it seemed too “soft” for what they’re looking for. In short? I’m not a fan. The end result is you pretty much are a hybrid of generic private-sector advice (key pitch information) and public sector (key experiences and abilities).

      When I update the guide in the next few months, that will be a primary area to address…

      Paul

  2. Dear PolyWogg, a very big thank you for such a lively, helpful demystification of government!

    I have two questions, and these are:
    (i) whether the Canadian government hires analysts who have worked similar positions for foreign governments? I know this is common in the UK – equally, that the UK might be unique in its rather free market approach to government.
    (ii) whether, after 10 years abroad, it isn’t wiser to return to Canada and cultivate Canadian experiences (though they may not be governmental just yet).

    I ask because I have spent nearly all of my twenties in Europe, first in the private sector, then for a PhD at Cambridge, which I am two months away from submitting. For all my analytical skills, I am acutely aware of the fact that my last Canadian experience was my undergraduate degree a decade ago! I am in the midst of behavioural and analytical testing for two ministries in Canada (Agriculture and Infrastructure), which is encouraging (though how much remains I cannot say!), but may shortly be faced with an offer from the UK government. It would be very relevant in terms of government, but very little in terms of Canada. Another option is to return home after the PhD regardless, and put all my efforts into becoming (re)acquainted with Canada – though this may mean not working for government immediately, or taking a job for which I may be overqualified.

    Probably worth specifying that I have no dependants, and am therefore fortunate enough to have a bit of leeway making these choices!

    Any insights would be very gratefully received.
    Very best wishes,
    Yasmin

    • Hi Yasmin, what a great combo of questions. I’m not sure I have anything resembling a definitive answer, but I’ll give it a go. 🙂

      So the first Q is whether GoC hires people with foreign government experience. Unfortunately, that is way too broad of a category. There is a huge difference between someone who, for example, was an IT person vs. someone who was an admin vs. someone doing stats work vs. policy. It also depends on the substantive sector such as fisheries vs. health vs. whatever. So let’s break it down a bit by the steps.

      Step 1 for hiring is often citizenship. It is harder for someone who has foreign citizenship to pass a security check than it is for a Cdn citizen. That’s not entirely “nationalistic”, sometimes it’s just info availability. If you have Cdn citizenship, and you’ve lived in Canada, we have tax records, bank accounts, etc, basically a paper trail for the person, and we can figure out where they were and what they were doing, including in-person interviews with neighbours or coworkers. If, instead, we have to do a background check on someone who lived in India for the last 5y, we can’t pull them up in our databases as easily even if Canadian, and even less so if they aren’t Canadian. So on that basis alone, I’d say you’re right, we are not as open to hiring those with foreign experience if they are not Cdn citizens, unless it’s some sort of formal exchange i.e. a UK civil servant or Australian civil servant comes to work for us, a secondment essentially. So those who are working for foreign govts generally as an open market have more trouble getting hired.

      Step 2 is consideration of their experiences when applying for jobs. As you noted, the best experience is the one that is closest to what they are looking for…so if you’re applying for an EC-05 position at Health, the person with the best chance is probably an EC-04 at Health. Doesn’t mean no one else has a chance, just recognition that they have to work a little harder for their experience to be couched the right way and perhaps “better” demonstrated in the application than otherwise. Each “step” removed from “in govt / in same dept / in same field / in Canada”, the harder you have to work to show you’re qualified.

      So if you’re applying to work in epidemiology for Health Canada, and you’ve been working in epidemiology for the Ministry of Health in the Netherlands, those are pretty good elements…the only “piece” you’re missing is Canadian experience. So you’ll have to work a little harder to show how the other 3 “checkboxes” stack up against the 4 they’re asking for.

      Step 3 and 4 (written and interview) are a bit more challenging still, but in different ways. And is, in my view, far more subtle. I can tell you that there are some managers who will not care one way or the other, they’ll interview you, they’ll look at the experience and think, “They’re great!”. Others will look at it and go, “Sniff, well it wasn’t in Canada, so it doesn’t count”. That isn’t a blanket reaction either way, and really depends on the manager. Sometimes it is ignorance, sometimes it is a bad experience with someone who didn’t have the local experience and needed more training to get up to speed, etc. Whatever. There’s little you can do about their reaction. However, what you can do is make sure any examples you give are as clear for context as possible. If you worked for the Dutch in their policy coherence unit, most depts would have no idea what that was…so you’d have to explain it was a PCO-like central policy unit with strong coercive powers for approvals like TBS.

      Step 5 is references, and while everyone is “open” to international references, hiring managers often want to talk to the references for the one they plan to hire. They might do questionnaires for references for a bunch, but if they’re hiring a more senior person (EC-05 or -06), they’ll usually want to chat with their current supervisor. That’s harder to do with a 6-8 or 12h time difference. I suspect that sounds really silly, and since I used to work at CIDA and DFAIT back in the day, plus domestic international shops, I know how some people talk global but only operate local. The idea that you could call someone in Germany is, like, calling an astronaut on the space station. Even with modern video calls, there are still people who are stuck in the old way of thinking we had with our parents that LD calls are for short conversations at Xmas or emergencies, not routine reference checks. Sigh. Man I feel old sometimes when I talk to these people.

      Sooooo, for steps 1-5, yes, I agree it’s harder. But as you saw, I would nuance it differently at each level and how serious it is. Plus how you respond is more about how you explain / couch things.

      Your second Q is even more difficult. Which is better:

      a. Equivalent experience at level in a foreign country; OR
      b. Lower-level experience in Canada.

      I would love to tell you (a) is better, and in many cases (particularly for sciences) it would be, but for a lot of policy work, I would say b will sway managers more easily. And perhaps that is the real answer…”a” is better if you can explain it well, but “b” is easier to understand. Let me give you an example from a friend. He was running a comp and part of the job was “forecasting” for finances. So he screened out a person from another dept who had said nothing about forecasting in their application (remembering of course the onus is on the applicant to prove they have the experience necessary and often the screening is done by HR people who may or may not know the subject matter). The person called to ask “WTF?” because he had clearly stated that he did the monthly “x” report for finances in his dept. That report ONLY existed in his dept, at least by that name. So he said “x” assuming the screeners would know that at his dept, “x” included full forecasting for the next 3y. They didn’t and he was screened out. It was easy to “fix”, but even within GoC, people are often terrible at explaining things across depts. They “assume” people understand contexts that they don’t, and then the markers are noting, “Answer was confusing, not clear what their role was or the challenge they were addressing 4/10”. In your case, I would say if you are planning on returning, I would be tempted to go for “both” i.e. your previous experience + some local experience (at whatever level) in Canada when you return.

      FYI, I would avoid talking (and thinking if you can!) as “lower level” or being “over-qualified”. I started my career doing a lot of stuff I was “over-qualified” for, with a full BA and MPA later, and yet I was doing stuff that had little ties to the policy stuff I had as skills. But later, when I was a more “senior” policy person, I had numerous times where I was suddenly involved in, say, a conference, and because I had 3y doing logistics work for DFAIT, I had a much easier time coordinating everything between policy and operations. Equally, I have a better understanding of Grants and Contributions than most ECs. I was “over-qualified” in one sense, but it was still new experiences. Heck, even doing data entry for some stuff may not have been the best use of my skills at times, but there are times when now I have to do it too. One way I often explain it is that your “level” is an average — it is the level at which most of your work should be. Sometimes I have been doing the work of an ADM at meetings, I’ve chaired meetings of ADMs and led discussions. Does that make me an ADM? Hardly, I’m not EX even. Much of the last 10 years, I bop between EX-01 level and EC-07 level files. But, once in awhile, I do CR-4 tasks too. Doesn’t mean I’m “over qualified”, it just means my activities vary by day. The majority are manager-type (as opposed to manager-level). I like the way you described it as “local experience” as opposed to “lower level experience”. Just a caution. Now, if we’re talking driving a cab, that’s not going to help you get “local experience” that the hiring managers will recognize. 🙂 Not “lower level”, just not the right type.

      Good luck!

      PolyWogg

      • Dear PolyWogg,

        I can’t thank you enough for such a quick, thorough, and helpful reply!

        Re. nationality – I should have mentioned, I’m a dual CDA/GB citizen, but grew up in Quebec. Your point about having to be even more deliberate in showing how foreign experience might be equivalent is a good one – as is the point that anything I do in Canada will inherently be more understandable to hiring managers.

        Re. jobs specifics – I’m in currently in the running for an EC-02 in Infrastructure and a Co-00 in Agriculture, so junior enough not to (yet) need subject area expertise. The UK job is roughly EC-03, but across a variety of areas (it is in a somewhat unusual, transversal team).

        The use of ‘overqualified’ was clumsy, thank you for picking it up. I suppose that while I can explain the geographical side-step of working in the UK, I can’t quite put my finger on the as-yet-unknown side-step of coming home should neither ministry work out. That said, I’ve just made the CAR for Agriculture! Fully intend to be as explicit, precise, and deliberate as I can to show that I’m the best duckie for the job!

        In any event, I was relieved that your practical advice tended towards (b) that is, ‘lower-level’ (to the extent that such a thing exists, as no job solicits a single, linear set of skills) and in Canada. As the PhD ends and the job hunt accelerates though, it’s dawning on me that employment pragmatics aside, I want to come home. As taking the UK job doesn’t seem to be an unmitigated advantage (which would otherwise justify another year or two abroad), I suppose I have my answer!

        Many thanks again,
        Yasmin

  3. Dear PolyWogg, first of all, your blog is a real time safer and is very well written, especially for people who have no experience in applying for government jobs. My question is the following: I am applying for a job as a FE engineer in Hamilton right now. I believe I meet all the required experience and knowledge criteria. Since I graduated from the Technical University of Vienna, Austria with an Engineering Master, my academic background is currently being assessed by the PEO. I am also waiting for my permanent residency. Both will most likely take a while. The dead line for applying for the job is the April the 7th. It is essential to be considered to have degree from a recognized post-secondary institution and I most likely cannot provide that evidence until the the 7th of April, but sometime in the next 4 weeks, will I be screened out for sure, or is it not an issue, since I will be able to provide that qualification, but just not right now.

    Thank you for your time

    • Hi ALexander,

      I could wax and wane about foreign credential recognition, recognized institutions, etc. and while interesting, all of it mostly irrelevant. The short version is you apply with what you have for the deadline you have. You can’t speed up your recognition or your PR status, and you can’t move the deadline. All you can do is apply and find out how they treat your situation.

      Generally speaking, you need the degree for the deadline. But you have the degree. Is it from a recognized institution? That’s a separate question. You should apply stating that you meet the criteria and providing your dates, etc. If they ask for more details, provide them; if they screen you out, well, that’s the break. But better they screen you out after you apply, then for you to screen yourself out before even applying. Because maybe they WON’T screen you out. Or maybe you have more evidence by the time they ask for it.

      It would be a different situation if you were in the process of graduating but didn’t have a degree yet — you’d likely be out automatically. For example, if you needed a special class of drivers license, you would need to have it when you applied; you can’t get it after the fact. All of the reqts for eligibility except language are on day of application, basically. You HAVE the degree, what you lack is your equivalency and recognition. But they didn’t ask that yet. Just if you have the degree.

      PR is another matter. If it is required on day of application, they’ll screen you out. But maybe they won’t require it. It’s a bigger obstacle in my view than your degree, but some comps rule you out immediately, others leave you in and screen out later, others are open to it all the way through. It varies by dept and even area.

      Good luck, but definitely focus on applying for April 7th as if you qualify. Let them tell you “no”.

      Paul

  4. Hi! Thanks so much for all this info in this and all the other posts you have, it’s been super helpful. Especially in my situation as an external candidate looking for my first gov’t job.
    Everything makes sense to me as I understand it, but have one question about security clearance I’m hoping you can shed some light on. I applied for an RCMP posting at AS-05 that was looking to fill 3 positions. I went through the whole process, and 2 weeks ago I received an email stating “you have been found qualified in the above-noted selection process. If it is determined that you have been selected for an employment opportunity, you will be contacted regarding your interest in and availability for an appointment.”, which I assume I will just have to wait until they contact me.
    But, these positions will require Enhanced Reliability, Secret, or Top Secret clearance. So, my questions would be: what’s next, if selected? An LoO and filling out the security request form? If so, would my start date be once the clearance comes back? Any general insights into the security clearance process? Given it’s been 2 weeks, are these questions I could ask the HR assistant that sent me the last email?
    Anyway, thanks so much, your blog has been very helpful navigating application process!

    • Hi Graeme, glad it’s helping!
      The answer to your question is surprisingly “it depends” on the department. You have three variables in the question…the LoO, the clearance, and your start date. In formal HR plans, the proper order should be:
      a. Clearance
      b. Letter of Offer
      c. Start date
      Which likely seems obvious to you, as it would to most people. The LoO will almost ALWAYS be before the start date as it says when your start date is, no surprise there. Yet there can be a couple of wrinkles.
      A secret or TS clearance can take some time. So occasionally, departments will say, “Okay, we’ll do the ERC now, give you a conditional LoO, and have you start, but just not show you any secret or TS materials until your clearance comes back.” When it does, they change to full LoO or if you failed, they terminate. But assuming it goes well, the order would be ~A~B~CABC. Two clearances, two LoOs, two start dates.
      Alternatively, some depts will say, “ERC now”, casual appointment to informally start until clearance comes through, then LoO, then formal start date. So an ~A~CABC as an order.
      For RCMP, I fully would expect ABC in normal order, they tend to be conservative on clearances.
      Going back to your situation though, you’ve made a pool. You do know, I assume, there is no guarantee of a job yet. They may have 20 people in that pool for 3 positions. They may only proceed on 3 of them. Or 1 now, 1 in March, maybe 1 in June depending on budgets. So you have made the pool, which is great; they may not do anything next, that may be it. Don’t turn down other opportunities or making life plans based on it, though. And yes you can ask the HR person “what’s next” and they’ll likely repeat what they told you already. You can ask how many people were found qualified (i.e. how big the pool is) to get a sense of how likely it is they will call you. Although, I will add one last negative thing.
      I’ll give an example where someone was trying to hire three IT people, one for hardware, one for software, and one for coding. They said they were hiring 3, and after they were done interviewing, they only had 3 in the pool. That doesn’t mean they necessarily will take all three. Maybe two were hardware, one was software, and none were coding. And then something else happened in the group, and they solved their hardware problem, and they only need a software person, so they take 1. Or they only need coders now with a change in operations, and they’re hiring none. In order to be selected, it is about right fit now, i.e. they think you’re the person that will fit their specific need, not just their general needs (which is mostly what the pool does). They don’t HAVE to hire anyone from the pool if the fit isn’t right. There still could be a hoop to jump to make them like you. AS-05 is probably okay to avoid that, but no guarantees. Again, not telling you it won’t happen, just cautioning you not to put all your eggs in that basket until someone says, “Here’s a job offer”. 🙂
      Paul

      • Great, thanks! One follow up question: what’s ERC? I haven’t come across that so far (I think).
        I’m definitely aware that there are no guarantees in the process until an offer is signed. I am taking it a good sign that I’ve made it this far since the process has been both “fast” relative to the government (close date was the end of Aug, “retained” within a week, supplementary submissions 2 weeks later, interview a few weeks after that, reference checks a week later, qualified 2 weeks after that), and thorough… the most thorough application process I’ve ever been through (2,000 word cover letter specific to requirements, submission of previous work, 3 hour interview, 5 page reference templates)!
        So, I feel good that I’ve passed all that and I’m not too worried about the security… I think? I’ve never been in what I consider trouble from a reliability sense. Anyway, definitely not counting on this until it’s signed.
        Thanks again!

        • Hi Graeme,
          Sorry for the acronym, ERC = Enhanced Reliability Check.
          Wow, 3 hour interview???? I assume that was a combo interview and preparing some materials for it?
          As an aside for your security clearance, have you lived abroad? It can slow down secret and top-secret processing while they wait for info. I was considered “amazing” when I got my secret in 6 weeks at age 25…for me, it was a no-brainer why — I hadn’t done anything, I hadn’t gone anywhere, I was a nobody, they gave me a clearance! Plus I had two relatives already working for the govt to cross-reference some of the info.
          P.

          • Hi Paul,
            haha yes, I had to prep a 15-minute briefing on materials they sent me. Plus, they gave me 30 minutes to prep for the q & a portion… it went smoothly but it was the longest formal interview I’ve been a part of!
            Unfortunately, I lived in Mexico City for 3.5 years, just having returned a year ago. Well, unfortunate for the process, the experience was great. I’ve heard that will take longer as they have to verify what I was doing down there and get official reports from the police down there, etc. My dad worked for the feds for 20 years, so maybe that’ll help?
            Adding complication, I was unemployed for the first year of that as we moved for my wife’s job and I made sure the kids and house were supported taken care of. However, we did register with Mexican immigration each year, plus we registered with the Canadian gov’t each year for voting, security, taxes, etc.
            So, if I understood what you said may be possible: they could do enhanced reliability, clear me, offer me the job conditional on a TS pass, and get me to work on stuff that’s not secret or TS in the meantime…?

  5. As a current government employee, I find it quite disheartening the number of my colleagues who have been screened out of processes on technicalities, or are acting in the position or otherwise doing the job, but can’t get the job because they fail one element of the process. It seems to me like the system itself is broken and needs to change.

    • I understand the frustration and the viewpoint, but I don’t share it. The difference between the private sector and the public sector is that it is not only based on merit but also a legislated definition of merit and the ability to demonstrate the merit. The part that is difficult to understand is that the manager has made a choice when they run a comp for someone who is acting in a position, which often doesn’t seem like a decision, but it is. The manager can:
      a) appoint someone without competition based on a general rationale that they can do the job, i.e., use their own discretion and judgment as the justification to appoint;
      b) appoint someone based on having met the criteria In a comp for a similar job, but again is basically appointing without competition and using the other results as the justification to appoint;
      c) appoint someone based on them having met the criteria of a development program;
      d) appoint someone based on being in a common pool of positions that are similar; or,
      e) appoint someone based on them having qualified in a position directly related to the job (i.e. they ran a comp for that job).
      In an abstract sense, everybody thinks a) is a terrible option because it is so ripe for abuse, people appointing people they know and not giving others a chance. But for someone who is acting in the position, it’s the easiest way to appoint them. It is also, in some ways, fairer than running what “looks like” an open comp but the manager is planning on hiring the incumbent. So a fake comp, and there’s not really a job open to everyone. Yet, the alternative is for you seeing people who are doing the job but can’t win a comp who want to be just appointed. Easy peasy, lemon squeezy.
      Some people hate people pulling from other comps i.e. matching in (b), and I have some sympathy for that. A few years ago, I saw someone appointed as a Director of Finance at a small org based on having made a comp at a large org. There are a lot of people who would have applied for the small org if it had been run as a comp, but who had NO interest in working at the large org. So they never applied to the large comp because they didn’t want to work there. And then missed out on an opening at the small org they would have liked.
      C, D, and E are just variations on a theme, but people (i.e. unions) seem to collectively agree that the open comp is the fairest process of all. Everyone can apply, everyone has a chance (real or not), and everyone gets assessed the same. But it isn’t a test if you can do the job, or if you can do it the best, it is a test if you can demonstrate your ability in a specific way that is measurable and justifiable so that anyone who is appointed can be defensibly said to have met the criteria. It’s proof that on that day with that test you rose to the challenge and were able to show your abilities.
      Some people think that is “broken”, others view it as the best of a bad set of choices and the most fair. And critics would argue that if you can’t demonstrate your abilities and pass the comp, you shouldn’t get the job. Remember too that acting in a position doesn’t always mean they’re doing the full job. Often, for example, when I’ve been acting in EX-01s or equivalent, I’ve been doing part of the job, but I’m not carrying the full weight of the division. Sometimes the DG is providing more guidance; sometimes some tough staffing is delayed until the permanent person is hired; sometimes the manager doesn’t delegate all the functions they COULD because the person is still “learning and developing”. A full appointment says “you’re fully ready on day 1”; acting says “you’re mostly ready and you are willing to stretch for the duration of the assignment”.
      But, as I said, you’re not alone with seeing the frustration of someone failing a component. But demonstrating merit is not a “technicality”, it’s the fundamental philosophy behind all staffing. And it beats the alternative of patronage and favoritism…it is one of the reasons I write the blog. Because some people “miss out” on a technicality simply because they didn’t know how the system works or what Qs are being asked, and they answer to the side of the question rather than directly to the elements being assessed.
      PolyWogg

  6. Hi! Well this was an amazing, indepth, so-kind-of-you-to-provide article, I was blown away at the detail! I am applying for a promotion in federal government and was searching for advise which is how I came upon your website. Applying really is an exhausting process and you have confirmed that for me – I think I was looking for a shortcut, lol.
    I started looking through your other pages and see that I have a lot of interesting reading to do. Looking forward to it and, truly, thank you for the HR Guide and the HR Guide for Interviews, you put in a lot of effort for strangers and it is very much appreciated!

  7. Thank you for demystifying the process!
    Could you confirm that each question might get the same, repetitive part, treating each answer independently.
    Experience 1 answer: As a widget designer in Widgets-R-Us from July 2014 to July 2015, I always X. For example… During my widget Big Boss job in Small Widget Inc., I also X…
    Experience 2 answer: As widget designer in Widgets-R-Us from July 2014 to July 2015, I had many opportunities to Y. For example… During my widget Big Boss job in Small Widget Inc., I did much Y…

    • Strange, I never saw this comment in my stream. Apologies for the delay in responding.
      So the answer is always a bit “it depends”, but generally “yes”. Take for example if you were applying to a AS-05 position after being in a similar position at the AS-04 level for 5 years. The likelihood is that most of your experience examples are going to be while at that AS-04 level — it’s the most relevant. There is however three small dangers to this outcome:
      a. If all of your examples are at the -04 level (i.e. no actings, no assignments, etc.), you’ll need to make sure that some of the examples you use show that you are capable of doing more than what the -04 requires i.e. you’re ready for a -05. An easy way to do that is showing where you did things at higher level such as actings, presentations while your supervisor was away, accompanying the director to briefings, initiative, taking on more work, etc.
      b. If your example is from the same job but the job was only of a short duration. So, if you were an AS-04 for only 1 year, that is going to show in your examples that you’re basing on your experience on a very shallow pool to draw from…Often it is more stark than that, i.e. somebody claiming a wealth of experience when they only did the job for 4 weeks and that just happens to be the timing for the new application. If so, you need to reach back to previous jobs to show this is not a “temporary” new you but a proven track record of performance.
      c. On the reverse side, some people might limit themselves to their current job. If you’ve been doing hte same job for six years, and it doesn’t include any financial resource management, you might not refer to it in your application or interview because you’re thinking only about your most recently-relevant experience. But if you managed a bar during your undergrad, or were treasurer for your church, or managed projects 10 years ago, you might want to dust off some other examples to show a history of experience with it, not just what you have done in your current job.
      I hate to give “rules”, but as a rule of thumb, I would say if all of your examples are coming from one job, you should have been doing that job for at least 3 years. Otherwise, you need to supplement it with other examples too. The opposite side though is if you have direct, on-point experience that is EXACTLY that experience factor, that may be enough. Personally, I always give more than one example, even if one is perfect.
      P.

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