Most applicants for the Senior Executive Service hastily slap together application essays that are long, disjointed lists describing general achievements. The problem? Their essays are about as interesting, impressive and memorable as a stranger’s mile-long “to-do” list.
My advice, based on my experience serving on many federal hiring panels and coaching hundreds of feds: Structure your essays around blockbuster success stories — descriptions of how you accomplished concrete, specific, important, big-picture goals or solved show-stopping, vexing problems that parallel the responsibilities of your target job.
Your success stories will be compelling because, unlike achievement lists, they will be conceptually united by a dramatic narrative that will wrap around and stick to managers’ brains like verbal Velcro. In addition, they will capture the uniqueness of your goal-reaching and problem-solving expertise and de-emphasize responsibilities that are indistinguishable from those of hundreds of other professionals who have the same title as you. Therefore, they will help you stand out from the pack.
Each success story should concisely describe:
- Your goal and its importance to your agency. Did you address requirements to do more with less;inefficiencies or gaps in expertise that damaged your office’s reputation or productivity; outdated procedures or equipment that increased costs or wasted time; bad survey or audit results; or criticism from Congress or the press?
Warning: Only give as much information about your target goal as necessary to provide context for your explanation of your achievement. Your essay should mainly be devoted to your problem-solving or goal-reaching success — not to inventorying your agency’s problems.
- Your actions. Explain what you did to address the problem or goal and why you chose your strategy. Did you overhaul or consolidate offices; pass or enforce a major regulation; improve a system or process; issue new grants; raise standards; run a public awareness campaign; manage an investigation; organize a conference; launch a new product; undertake a high-dollar procurement action; generate new partnerships between organizations; or create training or education opportunities?
- The special challenges you conquered. Don’t pretend your job is easy. Describe the tough obstacles you deftly surmounted, such as budgetary, personnel or geographic constraints; tight deadlines; a change-resistant bureaucracy; a sensitive political situation; data shortages; schedule or policy changes that required accommodation; technology glitches; leadership turnover; the lack of consistent commitment from senior management; racial or gender glass ceilings; hostile stakeholder groups or press; or the trail-blazing nature of your work.
Describe your challenges in objective, impersonal terms without resentment or bitterness. Emphasize what you did, not what was done to you — no matter how overly burdened you might have been. No grumbling!
- Results. Provide tangible evidence that you solved the problem or achieved the goal. Did your actions yield savings in costs or time; improved health or safety statistics; increased productivity; improvements in survey or audit results or other metrics; a product that drew a large audience and positive evaluations; acquisition of needed products or services; improvements in recruitment; or reductions in pollution or energy consumption?
- Positive feedback. Quote positive press and written or oral praise from managers, colleagues, associations, stakeholder groups, unions, government organizations; and cite any formal recognition or promotions or awards received because of your results.
Format each essay to jump off the page by giving it an eye-catching title and by labeling its parts with the following headings: My Goal; My Actions; Special Challenges I Conquered; My Results; and Positive Feedback. These headings will convince hiring managers that you produced results and positive feedback even if they don’t read your essay word for word.
See the worksheet for writing effective success stories on the Career Matters blog at www.federaltimes.com.