There are lots of books on the market about “how to get a job”. Some emphasize resume formats; others tell you the best answers to the latest questions; others tell you which search engines or job services to use. Most assume that all employers are the same, all of them are in the private sector, and all techniques are transferable. However, almost none of the “business books” are suitable for preparing for a Canadian government “selection process”.
This book is designed to help you improve your chances of successfully applying for and getting a job in the Canadian federal government. But before we begin, we have to dispel two very big myths.
Myth #1: You Have To Know Someone To Get In
One of the biggest myths about working for government that drives me bonkers is when someone says, “Oh, I can’t get a job in the public service, you have to know someone.”
Sure, there are examples out there where someone hired their nephew, brother-in-law, or third cousin twice-removed, particularly in politician’s offices where the rules are more lax. Nepotism can and does exist, just the same as it exists in any industry. Yet most permanent HR hiring by the public service is subject to rules and processes that make such an outcome doubtful.
However, there is one aspect of that statement which is absolutely true. Information about how to prepare for an exam or an interview is rarely written down. So, sometimes it does help to know someone who knows the process and who is willing to share it with you. So, with that in mind:
Hi, my name is PolyWogg. Nice to meet you.
There. Now you know someone who’ll tell you what you need to know.
And I’ll do it right here, right now. Although there are some unique tips and tricks, it is not rocket science. No need to pay HR experts to “coach” you or take courses on how to write a resume. If this book can help you in the same way that the information and approaches have helped me and others, then my work here is done.
Myth #2: PolyWogg Is An Expert In Human Resources
I am NOT an expert in human resources. I don’t even WORK in human resources. Instead, I am basically you. I joined the public service and wanted to better prepare for competitions so I could advance – so I had to learn what to do and what not to do, what to read, what to say, how to prepare for an interview. Just as you need to do. In fact, the only difference between you and me is that I’ve already climbed the information mountain, and I’m willing to throw you a rope to make your climb a bit easier.
I do have a Master’s in Public Administration, have worked for municipal, provincial and federal governments, and have over twenty years of experience in the federal government including both competing for and running competitions myself. Plus I’ve been informally coaching people on HR processes on an active basis for the last fourteen years, with my “students” experiencing success of their own in applying my approaches and techniques.
But I didn’t start out looking to develop an expertise in this area. It just happened – because I needed to know the answers for my benefit. And the approach I outline in the following chapters is based on five principles that have worked well for me.
My Five Principles
I first became interested in formal competitions back in 1990 when I wrote the LSAT and GMAT exams for law school and graduate programs in public administration. I didn’t know anyone who had passed the tests or even who had written them (and the internet hadn’t been invented yet!), so I went out and bought some books and practice exams, and by doing repeated trials before the real test, I raised my score from 80th to 99th percentile for both exams. This confirmed my first principle:
P1. Solid preparation and repeated practice for standardized tests improves your performance.
I know, you’re thinking, “Well, that’s not exactly news.” True, it’s not news. But stay tuned for a second.
Subsequently as a graduate co-op student, I did a lot of government interviews in a short period of time, and I noticed that the interviewers asked me very similar questions over and over, even when the words were slightly different. So, with each interview, I slowly improved my answers. For example, I developed little “speech modules” I could use – strengths, weaknesses, policy development, legal principles, whatever they threw at me. There were always one or two questions that were unique, but after the first ten interviews, the majority of the questions were repeats. These conversations led me to my second principle:
P2. Interview questions for government interviews tend to be standardized.
That WAS news to me…I had originally expected every interview to be as unique as the department that was running it. After all, the written exams and interview questions that government managers use don’t really look like “standardized tests”, but they are. Trust me, you’ll see this in later chapters when you start preparing.
While doing a co-op at Foreign Affairs, I applied for the Foreign Service. At the time, you had to write three tests – the “Entry-Level Officer Selection Test (ELOST)”, the Written Communications Test, and the Foreign Service Knowledge Test. Out of 7000 applicants, only about 100 would be hired. I talked to other officers, and learned which things were good to say and which were not. I also found out that there was a former Foreign Service officer who offered preparation courses for the exams, similar to those offered for LSATs and GMATs. I signed up and learned a lot of neat little tricks on how to improve my score. I didn’t have time to re-invent the tips by myself, and they weren’t written down anywhere else, so his course helped me shorten the learning curve. I made it all the way to the interview stage on the first try, but didn’t rank high enough to be accepted. Since lots of people who work for DFAIT don’t make it that far on their first attempt, my experience led me to my third principle:
P3. Others have tips on how to improve and you can learn from them.
For me, this was really the beginning of my approach – standardized tests, solid preparation, and talking to others about what they had learned from previous competitions.
The following year, I applied for work at the Canadian International Development Agency (CIDA). Just before the interview, I met up with a friend who had been hired the year before, and she told me the types of questions she had been asked. I was still somewhat nervous, but the interviews were just like the other ones I had done – fairly standardized questions. I aced the interview, with only one question that I wasn’t expecting, but I was able to create a solid answer for it too. And, with that process completed, I became an indeterminate employee of the federal government. I also gained my fourth principle:
P4. Even if it takes multiple attempts, it can and will come together for you.
It may not be the first interview, it may not be the second, but you can improve if you’re willing to take the time to learn. Like I said above, it’s not rocket science, but up until now, I have talked mainly about “getting in”. However, one of the most surprising things for me was finding out that some people who are already in government don’t know how to prepare for competitions either. Lots of outside people think that once they are “in”, the curtains will part and the mysteries of managing your career or passing competitions will suddenly be revealed. But the curtains do not part so easily.
Human resources (HR) processes continue to be dark and mysterious for some, and not a lot of the information that you need to properly prepare for promotion boards is formally documented. Even people participating in formal career development programs often complain that it is “too loose” and “unstructured”, not enough guidance to tell them what they should or should not do. If you look for rules, you’ll find them – but almost all of them are about what you CAN’T do; there are very few guides for employees on what they SHOULD do to prepare for formal competitions. And formal competitions are still the main way to enter or advance within the government once you are “in”.
I felt a bit lost when I started at CIDA. Even though I was in a career development program, it was relatively new. Information wasn’t documented, there weren’t even templates for how to write an appraisal properly to get your next promotion. But I managed to struggle through. I moved from an IS-03 (term information officer) at Foreign Affairs to an indeterminate PM-01 (project management) position at CIDA, and then passed paper-based promotions to subsequent levels PM-02 and -03. Then came time for my first internal competition – an ES-04 (policy analyst) position.
So, based on my first four principles, I talked to people, asked what kinds of questions had been asked for similar positions, talked to HR people to get advice, etc. And suddenly, for the first time, I found out there is a two-part HR code that the people working in HR assume everyone knows.
The first part of the code is obvious – the jobs are described in a formal poster that tells you the experience, knowledge, abilities and personal suitability elements you need for the job.
The second part of the code, though, is more subtle – not only does the competition test you on those elements, but it also ONLY tests those elements.
No surprise questions, no off-the-wall, out-of-the-blue, navel-gazing questions. No asking you, “If you were an animal, what kind of animal would you be?”, because the poster doesn’t say “Ability to analyse personality traits as if you were an animal”. Instead, it will say something like “ability to write briefing notes”. Guess what? That means they’ll test your ability to write a briefing note.
Put differently, government hiring processes are governed by legislation and the legislation requires transparent processes that can be appealed and adjudicated. So most managers follow linear processes to avoid being over-turned by others. Which leads to the most important principle of all…drum roll, please:
P5. Government competitions are predictable.
So, for example, ask yourself, “The poster includes initiative, how will a manager test initiative?”. Answer: “They might ask the candidate to tell them of a time when they have demonstrated initiative.” Or “They might give the candidate a scenario and ask them what initiative they would show in the situation.”
And since it is predictable, you can prepare your answers in advance. Not necessarily word-for-word, but you can prepare some pretty good outlines / speech modules in advance.
Successful Application Of The Five Principles
Using these five principles, I ranked first in my ES-04 policy analyst competition. And then an ES-05. And then an ES-06. I had already figured out how to write proper cover letters to get myself screened in – from 1993 to 2013, I was never screened out at the application stage of any competition, and I participated in a lot. I was even screened in for Director-level positions while still being three levels below and had consultants flag my resume as a “model application” for managers to help them explain to others how to write their application.
As I’ve become more senior, I’ve also worked the other side of the table and conducted interviews for ES, PM, AS, co-op and FSWEP positions (all these acronyms will become clear later). I’ve also attended conferences to get the latest in HR trends and issues.
But, most of all, I have never stopped asking other people the golden question. “So, what types of questions did they ask you in your last competition?” Because it is STILL not written down, and if you don’t ask, you don’t find out.
Ultimately, that’s why I’m writing this manual. It’s a waste of everyone’s time if people are struggling to prepare for a competition – it isn’t rocket science, it’s knowable, it’s predictable, and you shouldn’t have to reinvent the wheel every time you go to prepare for a competition. Someone else has already done the basic research – in this case, me! And it’s equally a waste of time to lose out on a good candidate who could do the job but who didn’t pass the exam because they suck at “surprise” tests.
There are little things you can do to better prepare for an exam or interview, and you can learn them. You still have to do the work, you still have to answer the questions, and there are no guarantees of success. But if you can give yourself even the smallest of edges, you dramatically raise your chances of success.
So, let me tell you what you need to know…and the rest of this guide is geared around the things you need to understand.