Writing to Targeted Questions – Job Application Top Tips

In this article we are talking about answering Targeted Questions in a 1-2 page covering letter, in line with the NSW Government GSE Act 2013 changes – but the same principles apply for any limited length application (or any application for that matter) be it NSW/Local/Federal Government or Private Sector.

The principles especially apply to people who have to reapply for their own role, which may have changed in a restructure.

In our experience about 85% of job applicants (who are initially assessed by some sort of written application or interview) are ‘lucky’ when they get a job…

We know this, because we’ve had lots of practical experience. Our Job Application & Interview Skills trainers and coaches have sat on a multitude of Public and Private Sector panels and dealt with thousands of jobs and tens of thousands of applications. We’ve delivered our Job Application & Interview Skills training to over 6000 Public Sector employees. There’s not a lot we haven’t seen.

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One of the key mistakes those 85% of job applicants make is not writing the application/CV from the perspective of the job they’re applying for; in the context of the new role and what the new role needs.

You may write about a great example about what, in your current/past role, is considered for example ‘Communicating Effectively at an Adept Level’ (assuming that’s a Focus Capability you’re addressing in the new role). However, what the new role means by ‘Communicating Effectively at an Adept Level’ may be completely different.

 “One of the key mistakes 85% of job applicants make is not writing the application/CV from the perspective of the job they’re applying for.”

Why is that a problem? Well, your ‘great example’ may be way off the mark of what the panel are looking for and will not tell the panel that you can do the job. Consequently, you slip down the candidate scorecard list, or even fall below the ‘call for interview’ line – and your application stops there. End of the road for that role.

Put yourself in the panel’s shoes: they’ll be awarding the role to the person who best fits the requirements and Focus Capabilities of the new role. So, do your research!

To make that decision, the people on the panel read your 1-2 page application/covering letter addressing the Targeted Questions, and then make an informed decision as to who most matches the requirements and Focus Capabilities of the new role, based on the information you’ve given them, and on the story you’ve told them.

What they want to see is evidence which demonstrates that you have been ‘Communicating Effectively at an Adept Level’ in a situation in the old role, that is similar to ‘Communicating Effectively at an Adept Level’ in a situation in the new role. That way you will not just ‘get lucky’, but you have proven to them that you are the best person to fit the requirements and Focus Capabilities of the new role.

“What they want to see is a great example that’s similar to what you’ll be doing in the new role….that’s told from a similar perspective to how the capability is used in the new role.”

However, what applicants tend to do is write a great answer to the Targeted Question based on a experience from their current/past role, which they think demonstrates their ability to (for example) ‘Communicate Effectively at an Adept level’. But often it’s actually very different to what the panel are looking for in the new role.

As I’ve said, people often are ‘lucky’ in that sense, without thinking about it, because the story they’ve told in their application/interview just happens to match the capabilities the role needs. Phew!

The problem of course is that, if what you write doesn’t match what the panel are looking for, you are unlikely to be ‘lucky’ in getting the role. Especially if it’s a “Comparative Assessment requiring competition between applicants”, which is a major assessment method under the new GSE Act.

So, what you need to be doing to give yourself the best chance of success before you start writing anything, is to picture yourself in the seat of the new job. Envision yourself in the chair, at the desk (or wherever) doing the actual job. Then, from that perspective, ask yourself “what are the Focus Capabilities and Targeted Questions asking in relation to this new role?”Role?

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This is particularly true when people have to reapply for their role, which may have changed due to a restructure, and they can’t be directly matched because the role is different in some way. People applying in this situation often write directly about their experience in the job during the previous couple of years, because that’s what they’ve been doing. But they often don’t get the role. Why?

Sometimes it happens because they haven’t got the required Capabilities, or the role capabilities have changed, hence you have to reapply for the role. Often it is because what they’ve written is not coming from the same perspective of what’s needed in the new role. Therefore it doesn’t demonstrate the new capabilities required, even though they may have those capabilities.

‘Communicating Effectively at an Adept Level’ may have a slightly different meaning in the new role than in the old role, e.g. a deeper customer service focus, more detailed or formal language reporting, communicating to higher level or different stakeholders, etc.

“Do your research!”

The new role may require ‘Display Resilience & Courage at an Adept level’, by which they mean ‘being flexible and responding quickly when situations change’. The new role may be different to the old role, in that they want you to ‘Display Resilience’ from the perspective of being flexible in office location, what job you are required to do i.e. counter/phone/admin, rather than being flexible in dealing with different types of people on the front counter. Obviously if you write an example about how flexible you are with dealing with different people on the front desk, but not about how you’re happy to switch tasks at the drop of a hat (and someone else has written about that), you’re unlikely to get the role (and they will!).

So, ask yourself:

  • What’s changed about this role that makes it different from the role I was doing (bury any cynicism you may have, it won’t help you!)?

  • What angle are they looking for? What’s different about the specific capabilities they actually need in this new role (compared to the old one)?

  • What are they really looking for in this role?

It may simply be something like a much greater flexibility and adaptability to change; different ways of communicating with a newly appointed Director; new Agency values or a Mission which require a more collaborative way of working, etc.

The first thing to remember, whatever the situation, is that the Targeted Questions have been chosen because they are the most important aspects of the role. They are the most important outcomes you will need to achieve in the job, while using and demonstrating the Focus Capabilities. That’s why they’ve specifically asked you to demonstrate your capabilities against them.

“Research – what are they really looking for in this role?”

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So, as much as practicably possible, you need to be absolutely crystal clear what they have in mind and what they’re looking for when they ask the question. Otherwise, how can you effectively write about a relevant example from your experience that demonstrates your capability, until you know exactly what the role needs, and what a relevant example of a Capability would be in the new role.

As an example, let me use a real job that I found on Jobs NSW (Human Resources and Recruitment) to demonstrate the overall principle. I’ll take just one of the Targeted Questions and briefly note the Focus Capabilities to keep it short:

Targeted Questions

In this role, you will need to build and strengthen relationships with other stakeholders both internally and externally to improve services to mutual clients. Please describe your experience in building and maintaining successful relationships.

Focus Capabilities

Manage Self (Adept), Communicate Effectively (Adept), Commit to Customer Services (Intermediate), Deliver Results (Adept), Think & Solve Problems (Adept).

You may write to address the Targeted Question, and correctly use a real life example from a past/current role, succinctly saying how you built and strengthened great relationships, etc. You may even have used a great result that demonstrates clearly your expertise (which all successful applications MUST have).

You might be less likely to get the job if in the example you chose to write about; the methodology of how you went about it; the ‘stakeholders’ you dealt with; the ‘mutual clients’ you ‘improved services for, or how you’re expected to operate in the new role, are significantly different in your story compared to those you’d be required to be deal with. Because what you’ve written isn’t specifically what the panel are looking for. Especially in a Comparative Assessment when another applicant has tailored their story to be very similar to what the new role requires. That applicant will thus get the job over you every time

The same thing obviously applies when reapplying for your role after it’s been reclassified following a restructure. If what you’ve written about isn’t written from the perspective of what the panel are looking for in the new role, you’re unlikely to get an interview, or the job.

Let’s use the Targeted Question above as an example to demonstrate the overall principle. You may talk about how only last year you used your amazing communication skills and superb ability to solve problems and give awesome service to an internal Executive Director (internal stakeholder) who was finding it difficult to get the right assistant. And how you built great relationships with the external recruitment agency (external stakeholder), so they sent the best people to you before anyone else could. Which enabled you to successfully fill the role within 2 weeks, while previously  they had been looking for 6 months. Which resulted in the new recruit passing their 3-month probation period for the first time, which none of the previous 7 recruits had. And the ED’s team (mutual stakeholders) were over the moon, because they actually got much more timely replies to questions from the ED, and achieved more as a result (a great example and a great outcome!!).

But, if the context of what the new role needs, is for you to build relationships internally with 8 very busy and cynical grade 9/10 team leaders (internal stakeholders), as well as source people from an excess of internal employees (mutual clients), especially by liaising with HR/Recruiters in other agencies (external stakeholders), then what you’ve written is unlikely to get you the role.

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So, before you do anything, our Top Tips are:

Break down what the Targeted Question is asking in relation to the new role. What do the Targeted Questions and Focus Capabilities really mean?

  • Who are the internal/external stakeholders?
  • Who are the “mutual clients”
  • What do “improved services” look like? What does that look like in this particular role?
  • What do they expect “successful relationships” to look like in this role? What’s a good result in that context?
  • What has worked well in the past? What hasn’t worked so well? What have the challenges been?

Thoroughly research the role. Make the effort to seek out as much information as possible about the context of the new role. Imagine you’re sat there in the chair doing the job, what do you need to know now, to truly comprehend what you’ll be doing in the new role?

  • Talk to the contact person ask yourself what do you need to know from them? Remember that person may be on the panel too, so asking obvious questions about stuff you could easily have found out about from elsewhere, i.e. a new article, may not give a great first impression!
  • Who else can you talk to (other than the contact person)? Can you talk to previous incumbents? The manager? Someone who knows someone?
  • Remember if the information is difficult to find or may make you uncomfortable in getting it, Great! Difficult means less people do it, which means instantly a better chance of you getting the role if you do it! Plus finding out what you need to find out may be demonstrating the Focus Capabilities required (or role requirements for a Private Sector job).

Once you have the best understanding that you can have about what the new role actually looks like (given the timescale and practicalities of when you have to apply), then you chose the best example from your experience that matches with what the role requires. Write a STAR answer with the key focus (around 50-65%) on the result, and relate it to what the Targeted Questions and the Focus Capabilities are asking.

Then you’ll be lucky in the “I put in the work and have a great idea what they want and gave them the best example I could” sense, rather than a “phew, the example always use and  I think is great, just happened to match what they’re looking for” way.

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