Lessons from selection panel assessments

Feedback from APS selection panels gives clues as to what is important and what will diminish or enhance your interview responses. Here are 12 clues to consider when you next prepare for an interview.

Interviews are a performance

Feedback comments may include reference to ‘performing well at interview’. This is a generic description of a candidate’s ability to present information that is clear, relevant, pitched to level and role, complete, and confident. Any lapse in these qualities detract from a solid performance and will be used to justify panels’ decisions. Even if your referees give glowing reports, your interview performance may well over-ride their comments.

What this means for applicants: research the role and organisation; prepare responses to anticipated questions; rehearse responses; build confidence in presenting information orally.

Your demeanour counts

Panel members make judgements about a job candidate’s demeanour. The qualities identified may or may not be relevant and some, like nervousness, understandably impact interview performance. Words used to describe applicants include calm, composed, enthusiastic, friendly, engaging, personable, articulate, mature, courteous. Whether relevant or not, your demeanour will be noticed and possibly noted.

What this means for applicants: if you think your demeanour may undermine your interview, practice building appropriate qualities, particularly through stance, posture, walk, facial expressions.

Give complete responses

If responses are incomplete panels may prompt you to give further information. This is good interview practice, however it may be noted in feedback. Not needing to be prompted tends to be seen as preferable to panels following up with further questions.

If responses do not give sufficient details of what you did and what results were achieved, this will likely be noted and result in a downgrading of your response. For some roles, such as the AFP, responses also need to be methodical and chronological.

What this means for applicants: listen to the questions asked to ensure you understand what needs to be covered in the response; prepare structured responses to anticipated behavioural questions using the STAR or CAR model.

Applications and interviews are used to judge your communication skills

Regardless of applications and interviews being specialised examples of communication skills, panels tend to use them to judge your communication skills.

What this means for applicants: applications and interview responses need to be well-structured; applications need to reflect accurate spelling and punctuation, good grammar, appropriate professional language; interview responses need to be presented confidently.

Research the role and organisation

One way applicants can be eliminated from winning a job is showing they have limited knowledge of the job context, relevant government priorities, sector/industry issues, how the role fits into the branch and department. Applicants lacking this knowledge will be deemed to not understand the role, the key issues and how they impact the role, how team goals are linked to broader departmental and government objectives.

What this means for applicants: understand the work of the department and how it relates to the role; understand the relevant issues that impact on the role, which ones are of immediate interest, and how these issues are dealt with in policy; talk to the contact person before writing your application and read relevant corporate documents, such as corporate plans, annual reports, policy documents.

Articulate technical knowledge

Many roles list some form of technical knowledge as necessary or desirable. This knowledge can be ICT-related, but also includes knowledge of relevant laws, policies, procedures, regulations. Even if the subject-matter is new to you, you need to at least have a passing familiarity with the relevant material and use past experience to show how you can learn new knowledge quickly and have the skills to apply the knowledge.

What this means for applicants: research the relevant technical knowledge; think of examples where you have quickly learnt new knowledge; identify the laws, policies, procedures, regulations you use in your current role; identify examples of applying this knowledge.

Demonstrate capabilities at level

Panels will down-grade interview responses if they are perceived as not pitched at the level of the role. This is particularly relevant when applying for APS 6, EL1 and EL2 roles. Responses that are regarded as narrow, focused on tactical and internal considerations, or not demonstrating a strategic approach will be down-graded.

To avoid this examine the relevant capability frameworks and work level standards to understand what is expected from the level you are pitching for.

Understand the scope of management

If the role includes manager responsibilities, then you need to be prepared for relevant questions. Panels down-grade responses that are incomplete or don’t reflect the scope of manager responsibilities.

Applicants need to be prepared for manager-related questions and have examples that reflect the full range of responsibilities, but particularly the ability to manage people and performance, including conflict and under-performance. Applicants for more senior roles (EL2 in the APS) need to keep in mind that they may be managing managers. If unclear in the role description, find out about staff you will be managing, including size, diversity, professional backgrounds, geographical dispersion.

Reveal thinking processes

Panels may ask questions that seem to be about tools, process and content, but may also require revealing thinking processes, reasoning, and decision-making. For example, questions about handling a problem, analysing information to make a recommendation. Without this information panels may down-grade responses.

Applicants need to consider the level of the role they are applying for and what is expected; select examples that reflect the level of the role; include in responses details of what was taken into account, how information was assessed, what risks were identified and assessed, who was consulted, how a decision was reached.

Responding to scenarios

Panels may invite applicants to respond to scenarios, hypothetical situations that reflect some of the challenges likely to be faced in the role. Feedback may indicate that an applicant failed to approach this task in a methodical manner, and didn’t determine any priorities or order in their approach.

Applicants need to anticipate potential scenarios they could be asked. They also need to have a structured approach to tackling the scenario, so it has some coherence, and reveals both what actions to take and the reasons behind them.

Understand leadership

Panels may identify that an applicant failed to address questions from the perspective of a team leader. This is a trap for people applying for a role that involves leadership, when they are coming from roles that do not involve these responsibilities.

Applicants need to be clear about the leadership responsibilities of the role they are applying for and find examples that reflect their leadership abilities or potential. People at any level can show leadership, as several behaviours make up this concept. Even if your work does not provide examples, you may find material in your experiences outside of work.

Express your motivation

Panel feedback may refer to an applicant’s inability to express an appropriate motivation for working in an agency at a specified level. While questions related to why you are interested in a role may not seem linked to any criterion, it can still be of interest to panels to understand this information.

If the application invited you to state your interest in a role, then certainly you should be prepared to articulate this verbally. A satisfactory response may be what tips the result in your favour.

Applicants need to consider what is driving their interest in a role, an area, an agency, a level, and be able to state this at interview, preferably with some indication of the value you offer or contribution you wish to make.

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.