How to avoid 7 mistakes that undermine government job applications

Having guided people in crafting government job applications for several decades, I see patterns in the mistakes made that reduce the chances of being short listed. Here are seven common mistakes and how to avoid them.

  1. Misinterpreting the application requirements.

It used to be the case that government job applications meant writing responses to selection criteria. While some departments and agencies still use this method, most APS and several states and territories have moved to asking for a pitch or statement. In the public sector, criteria are still commonly used by tertiary education and local government.

It is essential for applicants to know what the application requirements are and what they mean. The wording can vary between APS agencies. In some cases the application requirements are only available in the online recruitment system, and there are cases where you need to create an account in order to access this information.

Application requirements are further complicated by role descriptions making reference to The Integrated Leadership System or other capability framework, the Work Level Standards, agency Values and leadership behaviours. Given there may be a list of requirements for an ‘Ideal Candidate’ and a healthy list of duties or responsibilities, an applicant may need to draw up a table and cross-reference all this material in order to manage a response that covers most of the requirements.

Avoid this mistake by making sure you have identified the application requirements and understand what they mean.

2. Under-pitching to the level of seniority.

Applicants for government jobs need to understand the hierarchy and what is expected from each level, otherwise the material provided may fit a lower level than the one being applied for.

To avoid this mistake, there are several documents to look at:

  • Capability frameworks: the APS continues to make reference to The Integrated Leadership System or an agency-specific adaptation of it. This document sets out how behaviours linked to five capabilities change as you progress up the levels.
  • Work Level Standards: role descriptions may reference this document which gives a broad description of how levels differ from each other.
  • Work Level Standards differences: this document compares levels to identify how requirements change.

In addition to these documents, it’s also worth considering the complexity of the examples provided in an application. Complexity covers many subtle and obvious factors, including risks, interpersonal challenges such as disagreement, confusion, misinterpretations, conflict, uncooperativeness, time and budget pressures, ambiguity, shifting priorities.

Pitching to level means using examples that use the language of the capability behaviours and making clear the level of complexity experienced in examples.

3. Not pitching to the role.

Application requirements may make reference to considering role responsibilities and organisational context. The mistake applicants can make is to write a generic document that doesn’t align material with the actual role.

To avoid this mistake, cross-reference the skills, experience, and knowledge asked for with performing the role, as described in the list of responsibilities and the section/branch/division/department where the role is located. Pick examples that fit with the role. If this is not possible, highlight transferable skills and knowledge so that you show an ability to deliver outcomes in the role.

4. Not answering ‘why’ questions

Application requirements may include answering several ‘why’ questions: why you are interested in the role, in the department/agency, why you should be selected, why you think you are a strong candidate. Focusing on whether you have the necessary skills and experience may mean you overlook answering these ‘why’ questions.

To avoid this mistake, make sure you understand the application requirements. (see mistake 1).  Then give some thought to what motivates you about this work and/or this role; what strengths you offer and why these will be of value in delivering outcomes in the role. Keep in mind that you are not only making a case for having what the role requires and can do the role, but you will be of value in making a difference and delivering results.

5. Poorly expressing social skills.

Social skills are relevant to most jobs. They include communication, customer service, teamwork, interpersonal skills, supervision and management, cooperation, collaboration, stakeholder management. Roles that involve problem solving, project management, leadership, while perhaps not focusing on social skills, still need these skills in order to do the job. Yet applicants may either make general comments about their ‘excellent people skills’ without identifying exactly how they use these skills, or forget to mention them.

To avoid this mistake applicants need to think about the people involved in a role, what relationships are important, what challenges and difficulties may be encountered, and what specific skills may be needed. For example, there are the subtle skills of diplomacy, negotiation, facilitation, team building, mentoring and coaching staff, conducting difficult conversations. Rather than simply claiming the skill (e.g. I communicated effectively with staff) any example needs to explain how social skills were adapted to the context, the people involved and the challenges faced.

6. Trying to answer criteria separately.

When applications have a page or word limit, it is usually impossible to meet these limits by giving a separate response to all the requirements listed. Even if the list is short, this may be difficult.

To avoid this mistake, find examples that demonstrate at least two, or more, role requirements. Use the language of the requirement in your response so it is clear to the reader that you are talking about relevant experience. Given the panel is likely to read applications quickly, looking for evidence against the role requirements, make it easy to arrive at a ‘yes’ response, namely, yes your application should progress to the next stage.

7. Wordy writing.

Since most applications have word or page limits, writing succinctly is essential. Applicants may be advised to avoid repeating any information that is included in a CV, so referring to lengthy role references, ( e.g. In my recent role as an administrative assistant with the Department of xxx, yyy and zzz …) uses valuable word space.

There are several commonly used writing patterns that use unnecessary words. Knowing these can help with editing a wordy application. Examples include:

  • using indirect speech. ‘I was required to organise the project.’ This can be edited to ‘I organised the project.’
  • writing irrelevant material about skills that are not mentioned in the role description.
  • writing empty words and phrases, like ‘going forward’ and ‘all things considered’.

For extended discussions of the above issues, you may wish to consider reading:


Dr Ann Villiers, career coach, writer and author, is Australia’s only Mental Nutritionist specialising in mind and language practices that help people build flexible thinking, confident speaking and quality connections with people.