Give the right answers


Some job seekers see a federal job application and fear they’ll be hit by the full force of the government’s punitive power — including armed marshals and IRS audits — if their application provides anything less than a full confession of all of their professional deficiencies and liabilities. But remember: As long as your answers to application questions are honest, you are within your rights and well advised to keep your faults to yourself and to evaluate your credentials liberally and leniently.

As I wrote in my March 30 column, your application will likely first have to impress a computer. How the computer scores your application will determine whether you are invited for an interview. So your answers should represent your highest level of experience, biggest influence, most responsibility and most seniority.

To help you claim all of the credit you deserve on the short-answer questions included on federal job applications, here are three examples of such questions with explanations of their winning answers.

*Example of a check-the-boxes question:

I have independently written, without supervision, the following:

  • Newsletters
  • Magazine articles
  • Technical and/or status reports
  • Non-technical correspondence
  • Congressional testimony
  • Fact sheets and/or brochures
  • Briefing packages
  • Position papers
  • Policy analyses
  • Press releases

I do not have or do not meet any of the choices above.

As is usually the case with check-the-boxes questions, a winning answer to this question would feature checks next to all of the boxes except the last one. Why? Because each answer to check-the-boxes questions usually describes a type of experience that is required by the opening. So to be a top contender for the position, you ideally would be able to claim to have all, or at least most, of the types of experience asked about.

When you answer, interpret the language in the question broadly. For example, consider the term “fact sheet.” Almost any type of short, pithy document you have written that contains facts may qualify as “a fact sheet.” And policy analyses you wrote in school — not just those you wrote on the job — may qualify as “policy analyses.”

*Example of a yes-no question:

Have you appraised employees’ job performance through activities such as evaluating their performance against performance standards?

You could honestly check “yes” if you supervised employees in any previous job no matter how long it was; in an acting position; in a non-federal job; in a freelance job. You could check “yes” if you supervised employees as a manager of contractors or as a team leader without serving as a first-line supervisor. Also, because of the inclusion of the phrase “such as” in the question, you may substitute other appraisal methods for the use of performance standards. These other methods may, for example, include simply observing employees’ work.

*Example of a tiered-response question:

Select the response that describes your highest level of experience analyzing operational problems or issues and recommending solutions:

1. I recommended and implemented a solution that permanently resolved the systemic operational problem or issue.

2. I have successfully implemented solutions that I recommended to resolve systemic operational problems or issues.

3. I have recommended solutions to systemic operational problems or issues.

4. I have identified and gathered information addressing an operational problem.

5. I have not performed this job function on my job.

As is usually the case with tiered-response questions, the winning answer to this question covers a larger number of high-level activities — i.e. recommending and implementing solutions to problems — that address a larger number of problems. In this case, the winning answer is No. 2.

If your answer to any short-answer question warrants explanation, include your explanation in the body of your application.

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.


About Author

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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