FEDweek

Don’t Wing it: Preparing for an In-person Federal Interview, Part 2

By Nancy Segal, Solutions for the Workplace, LLC

In part 1 of this article, we discussed the basics of interview preparation—how to calm your nerves, preparing what to wear, presenting yourself as professional, and planning transportation; let’s now turn ourselves to the harder part of interview prep.

In the federal government, almost all job interviews are structured; each interviewee is asked the same questions in the same order. And, all questions are job related, consistent with the Uniform Guidelines for Employee Selection. While follow up questions may be asked for additional clarification, in most instances, questions are identical for each candidate and the candidate may feel that the interview is rigid and inflexible. This consistency is critical from the federal government’s standpoint, in order to minimize the opportunity and risk of legal challenges to the process. Notes are typically taken during the interview and interviews are evaluated, often using predetermined measures. Although interviewing in the federal government can be quite structured, there are some steps you should take to prepare.

Before the interview, candidates should review the agency’s website, including the strategic plan, to ensure that they understand the agency’s mission and goals. Every agency must have a strategic plan; that plan is posted on its website and is accessible to the public. Candidates should also spend some time learning about the customer the agency serves; this will help the candidate frame stronger responses to questions and demonstrate a broader knowledge and understanding of the agency and its mission. Agencies are interested in applicants who understand the agency, its customers and how an applicant can help them accomplish their mission. Applicants who do not demonstrate that they know something about an agency or its mission generally do not get very far in the process.

In addition to reviewing general agency information, applicants should review the vacancy announcement and occupational questionnaire carefully to identify the competencies, knowledge, skills and abilities of the position. Analyzing the job announcement and questionnaire is critical to preparing for the interview as all interview questions will likely be job related and consistent with the competencies, knowledge, skills and abilities identified in the announcement and questionnaire.

Once a candidate has researched the agency, learned as much as possible about the job and identified the associated competencies, knowledge, skills and abilities, the next step is for you to review their experience and education in the context of those competencies, knowledge, skills and abilities. You should think specifically about how your qualifications relate to the position for which you will be interviewing. What specific examples can you think of to demonstrate that you have exhibited each of the competencies, knowledge, skills and abilities required? Examples can be from past work experiences, internships, classes, activities or community involvement; anywhere that the competency, skill, knowledge or ability was demonstrated. In thinking about specific examples, applicants should utilize CCAR rubric[i] to best describe their experiences. CCAR stands for Context, Challenge, Action and Result. Applicants who can express their examples using the CCAR have a framework for telling their story in a powerful way.

For example, in applying for the position of Program Analyst, the vacancy announcement may have had a qualification of ability to make presentations and convey information orally. From this requirement in the announcement, the applicant can assume that there will be at least one interview question along the lines of Tell me about a time when you had to verbally present a status report on a project. How did you go about preparing for your presentation and then communicating it?  Describe how you handled any questions. In preparing for such a question, the candidate should first think about the Context of the example; what was the specific circumstance of the assignment? Had you been on the job a long time?  What did you need to do?  A possible context might be, “While working in a position as a human resources manager for a marketing company, I was selected to lead a high profile project to research, develop and implement a new performance management program company-wide.”

Once the context is established, the candidate should discuss the Challenge he or she faced in the situation. What was difficult?  What were the obstacles that needed to be overcome?  “The company had had the same performance management program for many years and, while no one liked the existing program, there was no consensus on the need for change—most managers were of the view that performance management was nothing but a paperwork exercise anyway, so what difference did the program itself make?  In addition, the company President did not set any specific parameters for the new program; only that it be better than the current program.”

Next, the candidate should discuss what Action was taken; what specifically did the candidate do to address the interview question? “As a project lead, I worked with my project team to put together a project plan with specific task items, and assigned responsibility and due dates. Once the project plan was complete, I made an appointment to meet with the Executive Committee to present the project plan and to seek preliminary approval for our approach. I developed a PowerPoint presentation outlining the major parts of the plan; I also developed supplemental materials that interested attendees could use for reference. In addition, I practiced the presentation before my project team and solicited their input on organization, clarity and content. I also let them ask questions as if they were the intended audience.”

Finally, the applicant needs to tell what happened, what was the Result of the action taken? Including a result allows you to demonstrate that not only can you do things, but also that you do them well. “Because I practiced my presentation and had an opportunity to practice responding to questions, I was totally prepared for my actual presentation; I was polished and relaxed. In addition, none of the questions asked by my audience was a surprise and I was able to confidently and completely respond to all concerns and requests. Afterwards, my boss told me that she was impressed with the professional way I presented the team’s progress and recommendations.”

I generally recommend that applicants be prepared to share 10 or so stories. Rather than trying to “outguess” the interviewer, instead make sure that your examples can be reframed to fit a variety of questions. For example, the above story is a good example of preparing presentations. However, it could also be reframed in a way that addresses your oral communication, leadership, and teamwork skills as well. Preparing examples that can serve multiple purposes is an effective strategy for good interview preparation.


Nancy Segal is a federal career and job search expert. Following her own senior-level federal HR career, she founded Solutions for the Workplace LLC to provide HR management perspective to astute applicants to U.S. government positions. Nancy is also one of our premier management and career development trainers for our online webinars.

If you have any questions for Nancy concerning your federal career or the federal job search process you can email her at fedcareer@fedweek.com.