Responding to selection criteria for jobs in the public sector can be daunting, frustrating and extremely time consuming. While this is particularly the case if you have not applied for public sector roles before, even experienced public sector managers and professionals find it a taxing exercise.

I have 10 years experience in the public sector in recruitment, selection and training roles during which I trained hundreds of managers in several agencies in assessing candidates against selection criteria. Subsequently, as a consultant engaged by the Public Service Commission, I played a key role in articulating and documenting the core competencies for the Senior Executive Service and the SES feeder group which formed the basis for the SES and executive selection criteria adopted throughout the public sector.

Every job in the federal, state and local public sectors, which includes all government departments, authorities and agencies, government owned business enterprises, police services, emergency service organisations, universities, TAFE institutes, local and shire councils and publicly funded schools has a set of selection criteria which a person in that job must meet to be considered suitable for that job.

Can you simply use your resume to complete these? The answer to that is, "Definitely not".

Many people find it challenging and difficult to respond to selection criteria. I make it easy and provide people with confidence that their applications will address the selection criteria to fully reflect their capabilities.

When you apply for a position in the public sector you will need to submit a response to the selection criteria for that position. Your response to the criteria must provide evidence of your experience, skills, expertise, qualifications and achievements which demonstrates that you meet the criteria for the position to the extent necessary to do the job to the standard expected by the organisation. Responses to selection criteria provide the information against which you will be assessed by the selection panel for the vacant position.

Responses to selection criteria require more detail about your experience and achievements than you would typically provide in a resume. In many cases you will need 3 – 5 paragraphs (half to one page) for each criterion to provide sufficient detail. Responses to selection criteria therefore provide information at a much more detailed level than you would normally provide in your resume. Your resume is a supporting document which provides the reader with a summary of your career and less important than your responses to the selection criteria when applying for positions in government organisations.

Many organisations impose word, character or page limits to restrict the length of the documents submitted by applicants. This is probably because many candidates used to submit 15 or 20 page documents which were too detailed and time-consuming for the selection panel. You need to determine whether the organisation has imposed such limits before you start preparing your responses to the criteria.

Composing your Response

An effective response to selection criteria should:

  • Explain the nature and extent of your experience
  • Outline your responsibilities relevant to each of the criteria
  • Show your accomplishments relevant to each of the criteria
  • Provide concrete examples which demonstrate that you meet each of the criteria

Specific examples enable you to demonstrate that you meet the requirements of the position. If a job requires a person to have the ability to negotiate, provide the reader with two or more specific examples of successful negotiations in which you have played a significant role. Describe the context, your goal or intention, your strategy or approach, the reason or rationale for the strategy and the outcome of the negotiation. Draw particular attention to noteworthy achievements.

Levels of Criteria

You will find several commonly used phrases or expressions in selection criteria which indicate the type or level of skill or ability or experience required for the role.

  • Awareness of involves the least amount of familiarity with a subject and can mean little more than having a perception or realisation of something.
  • Knowledge of refers to familiarity gained from actual experience or from learning, suggesting you need more than a passing familiarity with these subjects.
  • Understanding is more than knowledge. It requires having comprehension and perception of the significance of it. For example, to say you understand certain regulations or legislation means you grasp why the regulations were established, why they are important and how they relate to the role.
  • Ability means having the skills, knowledge or competencies to undertake a task or role.
  • Aptitude suggests suitability to carry out a task or role. That is, you have a leaning towards a particular skill or quality, such as, aptitude for policy formulation.
  • Capacity can mean that you are able to or qualified to perform a task. It suggests that you have the necessary skill or quality but may not have demonstrated it to any major extent.
  • Background in is often used to refer to educational or professional or technical qualifications or areas of specialisation.
  • Experience in means you must have done the work.
  • A proven record means that you must be able to substantiate any claims to the experience or skill, preferably with outcomes that have been documented. For example: 'a proven record in achieving sales targets’, means that you must document what you have done and achieved in these areas.

The following expressions indicate to you that claims must be supported with concrete examples which demonstrate depth of experience and/or capability:

  • Well developed - as in ‘well developed understanding of immigration policy', ‘well developed interpersonal skills'.
  • Demonstrated - as in 'demonstrated ability to use a word processor', ‘demonstrated qualifications and experience in marketing’.
  • Extensive - as in 'extensive experience in journalism and leadership programs'.
  • High level of - as in 'high level of appreciation of OH&S practices', 'high level experience in the preparation of speeches'.

Support claims with relevant, concrete examples. Don’t make claims based on personal opinion with no supporting evidence. Provide evidence that shows achievement and examples of experience. Instead of saying: "I possess superior liaison skills." , expand this with: "My liaison skills are demonstrated by ..." and follow with examples to illustrate the demands and complexity of the tasks.

Watch your verbs. Use direct, active verbs, rather than passive verbs and use verbs that indicate exactly what your contribution was. For example, to say - 'I assisted with the project' could mean you drafted a document, negotiated a deal, operated a photocopier or swept the floor! While such expressions can imply more than what your contribution was, they can also undersell your worth! Be specific and select a verb that properly describes your role.

Use plain English. Write clearly and concisely and make sure that what you write is direct, to the point and that there are no spelling mistooks!

Address all of the selection criteria individually. Do not attempt to address the selection criteria in a broad sweep, hoping to encompass each criterion. Address each element of each criterion clearly and precisely.

Be results oriented. Focus on what impact you have, what difference you make and what results you achieve.

The STAR Framework for Responding to Criteria

The letters STAR stand for Situation, Task, Action and Results.

I strongly recommend that you use the STAR framework to provide the structure to your responses to each criterion because this is the framework which almost every public sector organisation in Australia requires or expects people to use. People who use the STAR framework tend to get interviews, provided they actually meet the criteria to the extent needed in the job. People who don’t use the STAR framework tend not to get interviews. Although using this framework does not guarantee you an interview, not using it almost certainly guarantees that you won’t.

There is no need to retain the words Situation, Task, Action and Result in your response. These ‘sections’ or elements of your response are designed to guide your thinking and provide you with a structure.

Situation: Briefly describe a situation or set of circumstances or issue or problem you encountered which is relevant to the criterion.

Task: Indicate what you thought needed to be done to address the issue or problem or situation, why it was important to address the issue or problem or situation and what your role was.

Action: Describe what you actually did, how you did it and the level or extent of your involvement in resolving the issue or problem or dealing with the situation.

Result: Indicate the outcome or impact or result or benefit of what you did.

Example Response using the STAR Framework

Position: Branch Manager of a Bank (some banks are similar to public sector organisations and have selection criteria for certain positions).

Criterion: Experience in managing threatening or hostile situations where there is a significant probability of harm to customers and/or staff. (Be aware that selection criteria are often written in loose language which makes them subject to broad interpretation).

Response: (Note: you would not keep the words Situation, Task, Action and Result in the document you submit. They are included in this example to show you what is meant by each.)

Situation

When I was Assistant Manager of the Coolum Beach branch of the ANZ bank, two people wearing balaclavas and brandishing what appeared to be shotguns entered the branch about five minutes before closing. One of them shouted that it was a hold up, ordered everyone to lie face down on the floor and to do exactly as they said.

Task

As the most senior member of staff in the branch at the time, my responsibility was to ensure the safety of the customers and branch staff and to endeavour to alert the police and the bank’s central security service as soon as possible.

Action

Although I had wet my trousers, I managed to instruct all staff and customers in a clear and calm voice to immediately lie face down on the floor, to remain quiet and to follow all instructions given to them by the armed people. When one of the robbers was distracted by the sobbing of one of the customers and walked over to him to politely request his silence, I activated the alarm which alerted the police and the bank’s central security service that a robbery was in progress. One of the robbers instructed two of the tellers to put all the cash into the fake Louis Vuitton overnight bags the robbers had thoughtfully provided.

Result

The police arrived within a few minutes and apprehended the robbers outside the bank as they were exiting. No-one was physically injured and all the money was recovered. The bank’s trauma counsellors arrived and did their psychobabble thing. My dry cleaning bill was reimbursed by the bank.

Although the example above is not based on a real situation, it provides an example of how to use the STAR framework. The reader can understand that the applicant has been exposed to a dangerous situation, that they understood what needed to be done, that they took appropriate action and that the action they took contributed to a positive outcome.

Dos and Don'ts

Do

  • Provide clear evidence of how you meet each of the criteria by outlining relevant and specific examples which illustrate your experience and achievements.
  • Be specific and clear.
  • Use everyday business language: keep it simple and direct. Using fluffy, convoluted, verbose or unnecessarily complex language makes it difficult for the selection panel (they have to read many applications). This reduces your chances of being invited to an interview.
  • Use the active voice where possible by explaining what you did using strong action words.
  • Provide relevant examples to the selection criteria, and indicate that you have the types and levels of abilities, skills, experience that are in, and at the level required of the job.

Don't

  • Provide the reader with a summary of your beliefs, philosophy or knowledge (unless this is actually requested).
  • Rely on the sheer amount of experience you have in undertaking a task or doing a job. We all know people who have been doing a job for many years, but who are ineffective and inefficient.
  • Write a thesis on leadership, teamwork, communication, negotiation, change management or any other subject. Telling the reader what you know about a subject is not evidence that you have the skill or ability on the job.
  • Tell the reader things they already know. Informing the reader about what you think is effective communication or leadership or teamwork and so forth does not provide the reader with the information they need about your experience, skills and abilities.
  • Assert that you are committed to something. No matter how many times you say you are committed to the principles of EEO, equity, ethical practice and so forth, you can’t convince anyone of this unless you provide examples of experience or achievements which demonstrate you are. Being a member of a minority group does not mean you are committed to EEO.