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SOS On ECQs: How to approach application essays

Most people would rather eat ground glass than write essays for job applications. Nevertheless, if you apply for Senior Executive Service jobs, you will have to answer odious essay questions — called Executive Core Qualifications and Technical Qualifications.

Granted, writing application essays takes considerable time and effort. And any SES applicant who is unwilling to spoil an otherwise enjoyable weekend by spending it writing essays will probably be outcompeted by a more sacrificial applicant. But even when ruining a weekend, essay writing need not be so excruciating; guidance can help defang the process. To that end, some guidance:

  • Emphasize in your essays your academic qualifications, professional qualifications and success stories that most closely parallel the demands of your target job and had the highest impact (think BIG).
  • Hit them with your best shot up top. Just as people best remember the first items in a list, hiring managers will probably best remember and read most closely your first essay. So position your best credentials in your first essay, if possible. Also consider starting your first essay with some variation of this sentence: I am qualified to succeed as a [title of your target job] for the following reasons:
  • Write in short sentences and short paragraphs. Use headings and bullets.
  • Organize essays logically. Some organizing options: 1) Bulletize your relevant academic achievements under one heading and then bulletize relevant work experience under another heading. 2) Cover one or more success stories in an essay.
  • Consider structuring each success story around these headings: My goal and why it was important to my organization; My actions; Special obstacles I conquered; My results; Evidence of my success.
  • Evidence of your success may include positive annual evaluations; other forms of written or oral praise from managers; colleagues, clients, or attendees of an event; improved metrics; time or cost savings; evidence that your work impacted large numbers of people; publications; and press coverage.
  • Identify other types of relevant evidence of success by asking yourself questions, such as, “How do I know I am successful?”
  • Be understandable to hiring managers outside your organization. Define acronyms and “inside baseball” terms.
  • Proofread and solicit objective feedback before submitting.

Lily Whiteman is the author of “How to Land a Top-Paying Federal Job.” Her web site is IGotTheJob.net. Ask your career questions at lwhiteman@federaltimes.com.

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