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How to Answer Essay Questions for Information Related Positions

I was skimming through listserv messages yesterday and one in particular caught my eye. A professional at a SI-related organization wrote a very nice statement on what they look for when screening applicants for a position. This particular application process includes essay questions and the writer shares what sort of level of review goes into this part of the application and how to best answer essay questions that ask for the applicant to demonstrate knowledge and experience. Read on....

..".its interesting that you posted this, as I have been spending much of the past 3 days scoring applications for a position we have open in our division. I get asked to do this a lot, as I am reasonably good at it, and was coming across a common problem that I wanted to point out to people.

Like many large organizations, [our organization] does not rely on resumes for job applications, instead having a structured system that generally entails an initial screening of minimum qualifications (years of related work, educational attainments, needed credentials). Applicants that pass that phase then get scored on their answers to a series of narrative questions. This is generally the phase I am involved in. Once scored and ranked, the top candidates are then interviewed. Note that the only point at which a resume actually plays a role is after the interviews:
if a number of candidates are closely ranked, then the resume may be an element that plays into the final decision.

This is not particularly unique to [our organization] - this kind of process is fairly common in both public and private sector HR systems.

The reason is related to the hundreds of applications received for every job opening. Such volume necessitates a fairly structured system that ensures consistency and fairness so that we are comparing apples and apples. Resumes alone would not allow for this consistency on such a large scale.

The most common mistake I see in the process relates to the narrative questions. These questions generally want the candidate to demonstrate knowledge and experience, not simply state it. For example: In answer to a question regarding retention scheduling, simply saying that you have done it for x number of years is not sufficient. Saying how you did it - mentioning, for example, how you analyzed the operational needs, legal and fiscal requirements, and potential historic value of the records being scheduled - actually demonstrates knowledge. Maybe you had to research HIPAA requirements. Perhaps your schedule resulted in significant volume reductions in a given operation. These kinds of details, which don't have to be long, can really make a difference, as they demonstrate knowledge and experience.

I'm amazed at how many people pass over these types of questions with the most cursory answers, assuming their qualifications/resumes speak for themselves. They don't. You may have the best resume in the world, but given the process described above, if you don't pay attention to the narrative questions and demonstrate knowledge, you probably won't get too far in the process.

Posted by kkowatch at July 23, 2010 11:17 AM

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