Assuming you make it past the application stage, written exams are common for many competitions, and your preps can be divided into two tracks — what to write and how to write.

TRACK 1: What to write

I noted in the previous chapter that a statement of merit (i.e. the job poster) has multiple elements including eligibility (already addressed), experiences (already addressed), knowledge, abilities and personal suitability. For a written exam, the focus is on testing approximately 5% of your essential experiences, 85-90% of knowledge, and 10% of abilities. How does it do that?

Let’s focus on the largest component, which is knowledge. I’ll use an EC example as it is the simplest to understand. Generally speaking, there are likely to be three possible knowledge “elements” in the poster:

  1. Knowledge of broad Government of Canada policies and priorities;
  2. Knowledge of the Department’s specific mandate or its current policy or program priorities; or,
  3. Knowledge of something specific to the policy area relevant to the position.

In practice, this might read like:


K1. Knowledge of Government of Canada’s priorities;

K2. Knowledge of Canada’s labour market trends and issues;

K3. Knowledge of ESDC’s mandate, programs and priorities; and,

K4. Knowledge of the decision-making process in Government for policies and programs.


AK1. Knowledge of process for policy consultations with stakeholders

Now, as you’ll recall from an earlier chapter, the competition process has a double-edge sword — the hiring manager has to test you on every element of the poster (for Knowledge, Abilities, and Personal Suitability) AND can only test you on those elements. Which means you know at some point in the process you are going to be asked about GoC priorities, labour market trends, ESDC’s mandate / programs / priorities, decision-making processes, and (potentially) policy consultation process. Preparations for this are a lot like preparing for a test in school — you study, you memorize, you spit it back on during the test.

While Knowledge can be tested at the interview stage, most EC competitions will test you through a written test. Partly for another reason — almost every EC position also will have a requirement in the Abilities section about the ability to “communicate in writing”, so they’ll test if you can communicate in writing i.e. give you a written test.

So let’s assume I wanted to give you a single question on the written exam to test K1-K3. How would I do that? How about:

Assume you have a new Director in your group. She has asked you to prepare a background memo for her to help get herself up to speed, and the current state of play of your files. Write a memo (aka Ability to communicate in writing) to her giving the current state of the labour market (aka K2), and how it relates to broad Government of Canada priorities (aka K1) and more specifically to ESDC’s current mandate, programs and priorities (K3). The maximum length for the memo is three pages and you have two hours to complete the exam.

If you were an AS applying for a finance-related position, the poster might say:


K1. Knowledge of administrative procedures in ESDC related to financial approvals;

K2. Knowledge of broader GoC legislation and regulations related to finance;

In a written test, you might then see the following question:

Write a short email to your new Director outlining the procedures in the Department for obtaining approvals for at least three different types of financial expenditures (aka K1) and explain the relevant section of the Financial Administration Act that corresponds to the approval authority (aka K2).

Of course, the little clues (like aka K1, K2) wouldn’t be there, I just added them so you can see the links.

If you are not an EC and look at the first one, you might think “holy cow, that’s impossible!”. Except it’s the same thing ECs do every time they write a memo. Not quite so explicitly, but a lot of those elements are there every time.

Equally, if you’re not an AS dealing with finance, you might freak out with the reference to the Financial Administration Act, except anyone dealing with that type of file will know it’s a bit of coded language to say “tell me about s.32, s.33, and s.34 signoffs” (three standard signoff clauses for different types of expenditures).

Which is why I said above that the written test also partly informally tests your experience elements — if you haven’t done real finance before (i.e. you weren’t really a duck), you’re going to likely bomb that section pretty fast. If you are a duck, you’re going to simply say “quack, quack, quack” and swim merrily along.

How to prepare for a written exam

A lot of the jobs — AS, EC, PM — will have an element that basically says “knowledge of the Department” that is running the competition. Where are you going to find this information? The same place the hiring manager is going to find it.

Here’s the thing…if I’m running a test, I have to prepare that “rating guide” I mentioned way back in the early chapters about all the steps in the process. And in that rating guide, I will have a spot for “knowledge of the Department” and beside it, what I think a good answer will include. I have to write it down and share it with HR before I ever test anyone. Part of the whole transparency and accountability thing. Which means I, as the hiring manager, have to not only answer the question first myself, I have to have some pretty good sources that are defensible for a valid answer.

Let me explain that a little better. Suppose I ask you for the Departmental priorities, and I put down that I’m looking for the candidate to say A, B & C. Well, where did I get A, B, and C from? I got them from a document that says “The Departmental priorities are…”. I can’t just subjectively make them up. Is there a document or source that has that info?

Of course. Two of them in fact. The first is the Department’s website. The second is a corporate document that each Department has to send to Parliament each winter to say “Hey, Parliament, here are the Department’s proposed priorities for next year”. This document used to be called the “Report on Plans and Priorities”, but was recently renamed to be called the “Departmental Plan”. Every Department has one. And it’s publicly available.

Which means you KNOW in advance where the hiring manager is going to get his/her list of priorities from and can look at the same document. It’s almost like an open-book test. You know in the poster it said you would be tested on the Departmental priorities, and you know where they’re written down. Ergo, go read them. Study them. Memorize them somewhat. Cuz you’re going to be tested on them.

Similarly, if you want to know other info about the Department, the website will have sections on Vision, Mandate, etc. Easy to find, easy to see where the hiring manager will pull THEIR expected answer from for the test.

Special tip: One area that is rarely used by people preparing for exams is the speech section of a Departmental website. These are the formal speeches delivered by the Minister in recent weeks, months, etc. While some of them will be on very specialized topics, some of them are the equivalent of a standard “stump” speech where they talk about all the things that their Department is doing. Think of it like “Intro to my department”. Often, these are speeches given to general audiences like a Chamber of Commerce, for example. And in it, the Minister frequently will give a high-level description of all the priorities of the day. Crisp and clean, easy to read. So if you find a general one by the Minister, such as to a Chamber of Commerce, you’ll have a pretty good overview.

If you want to know the recent priorities of the Government of Canada, you’ll likely read the Budget announcements (each February or March), read the mandate letters from the Prime Minister to each Minister, or the Speech from the Throne by the Governor General (each fall). All three have the latest overarching priorities.

All of the above items are what I call “macro” documents…they are good for any high-level overview in any of the job categories. But what about more specific items? The “micro” documents?

For those, it’s impossible to tell you in detail what you need. If you’re going for an AS finance position, I can tell you that you’ll need to know the FAA. Or if you’re going to be working on Memorandum to Cabinet or TB submissions, you’ll need to know the decision-making processes of the Privy Council and Treasury Board (respectively). Or if you’re going to be a PM, you may need to know the latest approaches from the Centre of Expertise on managing Grants and Contributions (Gs&Cs).

If you’re qualified to apply, you’re qualified to figure that out for yourself. You know what the job needs, because you have experience in the area. You might add some info around finding out what the specific division does, i.e. it’s mandate or description, but that is usually a “nice to have”.

Just because you know a lot, it doesn’t mean you can pass the test

There is a huge incumbent trap for jobs. By incumbent I mean someone might be already acting in the job, or working in the same division, and they think, “Well, I don’t really need to study, I know this stuff, I do it every day.”

Except they don’t do it every day.

If you are working as an EC in the area, and someone says, “What’s the Departmental Mandate?”, you will go to the website and copy it over into the memo. You don’t have it memorized. You don’t need it for your job.

But you DO need it for the test. Most written tests do NOT have access to the internet or other source materials. So someone who doesn’t do it every day will study, and come up with short reusable modules to explain the priorities, or mandate, or a process, and they’ll pass the test. And the expert in the area who is already doing the job will bomb the exam because they didn’t study and they don’t have those short little modules / paragraphs memorized.

Under the old system where candidates had to rank first to get hired, 50% of incumbents did NOT rank first, and a hefty share of them didn’t even pass the exam. Someone from outside the group who didn’t know the job as well came in and wrote the exam, and explained the content better than the people in the division.

So, what is your goal?

Short reusable paragraphs or headings that you can throw into a memo or exam question to show you do know the priorities, or mandate, or process.

Even if you can memorize well, it doesn’t mean you’ll pass

Let’s go back to the EC example where the candidate has to write a three-page memo about priorities, etc. What’s the most important element? Most people will say “content” since they’re testing knowledge.

But they are not ONLY marking knowledge. A robot could regurgitate facts. Siri could find the departmental mandate. The test is whether or not you can feed it back in a useful, logical, clearly understandable memo. In other words, the marker has to understand what you wrote.

Which means the MOST important part is structure. Structure is King for written exams. A poorly constructed answer with great content will always get lower marks than a well-constructed answer with average content.

How do you ensure a good structure? You memorize those little modules that you need, and you figure out good headings to use when you feed it back out in the exam. In fact, the headings may get you most of your marks.

Every once in awhile, you’ll get a question in the written exam or the interview where you have no idea what to say. You might have a whole bunch of ideas bouncing around in your head, and you just can’t figure out how to structure a response. It happens.

But there’s a way out. If you prepare properly for the unexpected.

Expect the unexpected

I think it always a good idea for AS, PM, and EC candidates to have something in their back-pocket to use as a structure if they get a question where the appropriate structure to use is not evident. Essentially, you should have a generic structure to use in any situation. What is it?

  • AS — Steps in a problem-solving cycle;
  • PM — Steps in a project-management cycle; or,
  • EC — Steps in a policy-development cycle.

Now, take a moment, stop reading, and go Google one of those three. Maybe even find an image instead of a web-page that shows the cycle. Now do it for the other two. Did you see the trick?

They’re basically all the same steps.

  1. You start with problem definition / research / identifying the issue.
  2. You do some research to make sure you understand it;
  3. You analyse some options / instruments / policy choices;
  4. You choose one;
  5. You implement it;
  6. You evaluate it and provide feedback back to the starting position again.

Six headings that you can use for just about ANY question where you get stuck. Which is often, as I said, most of your marks. A good structure.

Depending on the job, you also might want to research things like steps in creating teamwork, partnerships, consultations, etc. Again, they’re all about the same.

You ‘re ready to write, now what?

TRACK 2: How to write

Your second track for preparations is a bit more about the physical setup and the actual time period for the test.

Most written tests these days are going to be written on computers, it’s just easier to mark. The problem is that not all departments are well set-up with computer labs for you to come in, ten or twenty people at a time, and write an exam. Some departments decide instead to do a “take-home” test in that they’ll email it to you at a set time and you have a set amount of time to return it to them by email too. Or some will have you come into their office, but instead of giving you a computer, they have you write it out. By hand. Sometimes by pencil.

No, I’m completely serious. I was invited to an EX-01 exam where I thought I was going to be writing on a computer, and instead was handed a sheaf of pages and some pencils. It was BRUTAL.

So, you need to ask some basic questions if they don’t tell you right up front when they invite you to the written exam.

  • Will it be take-home or will it be on-site?
  • If it is on-site, will it be on computer? Will you have access to the internet during the test or not? That last question is a bit of a tricky one. If you know, for example, that you will have access to the internet, do you need to memorize the mandate? Or do you just memorize “where” it is on the website, and go to the website and copy and paste it? But what if they tell you yes and then you arrive and the internet isn’t working? Is it grounds to appeal? Probably not.
  • How much time do you have to do the test?
  • Which elements are being tested?

This last one is important. Almost every competition now will tell you in advance when you are invited, in this case, to a written exam that they are testing K1 to K3, Ability 4 (writing), Ability 6 (judgement) and Personal Suitability 2 (interpersonanal skills). However, not all competitions do. Sometimes you’re assuming it’s all the knowledge ones, but there’s a chance it could ask you something about the others.

But let’s focus a bit more on the actual writing and some basic tips.

  1. If you are writing by hand, write EVERY OTHER LINE on the page. It will be more readable, and if you have to change something later, you can without turning the page into chicken scratch.
  2. If you do have access to the internet, usually you are NOT allowed to simply copy and paste. Certain things, like the exact wording of the mandate, sure. An explanation from TBS about the steps in the policy development cycle? No, you’ll have to write that in your own words.
  3. If you have a bunch of short modules memorized for different things, spend five minutes just “dumping” them out of your head in some sort of short notation form. It’ll stop you from worrying that you’ll forget them as you write, and when you need them, you can probably use the short notes as your headings anyway.
  4. YOU NEED TO MANAGE YOUR TIME. If you do not finish the test, you are likely not going to pass. Part marks are possible, but not enough to pass. Even if a couple of elements are a bit “weak”, you need to finish completely. MANAGE YOUR TIME.
  5. If you are writing detailed information, outline your answer as you go to make sure you answer EVERY question. If it says “make a recommendation”, your note has to make a recommendation.
  6. If you are on a computer, SAVE OFTEN. If it crashes, and you lose stuff, there is no whining to the teacher to get an extension. This is the real world with real consequences. If you’re too stupid to save often, you’re too stupid to be given a job that pays $60-70K per year.
  7. If you are writing a take-home test where they send it to you by mail, make sure you have a good infrastructure in place. You will need a reliable internet connection to send and receive your exam. If you don’t have a reliable internet connection, that is not their problem. You are just done. If you are writing in your office, make sure you have no interruptions. Put up a sign at work saying “WRITING TEST, DO NOT DISTURB” or better yet, book a quiet room or a Director’s office where you won’t be disturbed. Put up the sign on that door too. If you are writing at home, this is not the time to decide your kids should stay home that day. You are writing a TEST for a JOB. You cannot be distracted as if you’re running a daycare and writing the test.

YOU NEED TO TAKE THE TEST SERIOUSLY. Unless you don’t really care if you get it.

Then relax. Keep your notes you made when you were studying. The test is over, but some of the prep is still useful.


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