How to make the cut


When you apply for your next federal job, your application will likely first have to impress a computer. Before a human resources professional or selecting official decides whether to call you in for an interview, a computer scores your responses to short-answer questions to determine whether you have, in government lingo, “made the cert.”

Your answers to these questions — which will be formatted as true-false, check-the-boxes and tiered-response answers — may make or break your application.

Here’s why: Each potential response has a certain point value; the more types of experience and the more advanced experience each answer represents, the more points it is worth.

If the computer determines your total score, together with any veterans’ preferences points you have, falls below a predetermined threshold, your application will be rejected automatically, even before a human being has so much as glanced at it.

If your answers meet or exceed the threshold, your application will be forwarded to the selecting official for a possible interview.

Here is how to ace your short-answer questions: Troll through all of your educational and professional credentials, and interpret them liberally and leniently. Then give an answer — without lying — that represents your highest level of experience, biggest influence, most responsibility and most seniority. In tiered-response questions, this winning answer will not necessarily be positioned first or last in the list of possible answers. Then, in your résumé and application essays, support your short answers by further describing your credentials. Why? Because if you make the cert, a human resources official will cross-check your short answers against the rest of your application. If he determines that your answers aren’t corroborated, he will reject your application before forwarding it to the selecting official.

As you answer short-answer questions, remember that job applicants are not expected to judge themselves strictly or harshly. The heartless, soulless computer won’t give your application any points for candor; it will give your application points only for offering winning answers. Therefore, if you don’t judge yourself liberally and leniently, you may sabotage your own application.

This means that you should, for example, interpret vague terms in application questions to your advantage. So, where you are asked whether you are an expert in a certain field, answer affirmatively if you have significant educational or work expert in that field.

If you are asked if you have been a supervisor, answer affirmatively if you have allocated assignments and evaluated the work of members of a team you have led, even if you were not the first-line supervisor of team members.

If you don’t have a requested credential, give yourself full credit for any equivalent credential you do have. For example, if you are asked whether you took a course in a subject you never formally studied, answer affirmatively if you learned the subject through on-the-job experience, self-study or travel.

Your experience does not have to be earned on a federal job or your current job to count. Nor does it have to account for the majority or even a significant amount of your time to count.

If you cannot give yourself the winning answer for all or almost all short-answer questions on a particular application, your application probably won’t make the cut and will be rejected. Therefore, your time would be better spent applying for other jobs.

If you do apply and are rejected from your target job, call the contact person identified on the vacancy announcement, and ask for your application’s point score and whether you “made the cert.”

The feedback should help you determine if your application approach is on the right track or warrants an overhaul.

Lily Whiteman is a public affairs officer at the National Science Foundation and author of “How to Land a Top-Paying Federal Job.’’ Her Web site is The views expressed in this column do not necessarily represent the views of the National Science Foundation.


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Lily Whiteman is a federal communications expert and author of “How to Land a Top-paying Federal Job,” and a trainer of career advancement skills and communication skills. Her website is Ask your career questions by email to or by Twitter to @Lilymwhiteman.

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