Career Matters

By Lily Whiteman

How to write essays that will get you into SES

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If you’re like most applicants to the Senior Executive Service, you would rather eat glass than answer those odious essay questions in SES applications. Nevertheless, answer them you must, and it is virtually impossible to do so quickly and succeed.

So if you’re unwilling to spoil an otherwise enjoyable weekend — or longer — with essay writing, you will probably lose your SES competition to a more self-sacrificing competitor. Conversely, if you give your essays their due, you’ll probably vault ahead of your competition.

Tips for crafting winning SES essays:

Read essay requirements and sample essays in the Office of Personnel Management’s Guide to Senior Executive Service Qualifications.  Ask your SES colleagues to show you their essays for inspiration.

  • Identify which credentials to cover in your essays.

While you’re overburdened by current priorities, it may be difficult to remember previous achievements and objectively gauge their relevance to your target job. So ask your trusted advisers to review your achievements and target job with you so that  they may remind you of achievements you may have forgotten or dismissed as insignificant.

An example of the importance of this principle: An agricultural executive from Central America who has a doctorate from an Ivy League university consulted me on his rejected SES application. The problem: The executive had loaded his essays with descriptions of ho-hum, dime-a-dozen administrative responsibilities rather than with his Superman-like achievements — including his success in single-handedly negotiating the safe rescue of several of his staffers who had been taken hostage by rebels in the wilderness, even negotiating alone and unarmed with the rebels face-to-face in a remote forest.

Brilliant though the executive was, he had omitted his negotiating triumph from his essays because he had not realized that it brandished his courage, leadership, grace under pressure, strategic planning, conflict resolution abilities and other sought-after management qualities. But once the executive armed his essays with this and other important achievements — some of which were truly worthy of a Bruce Willis movie — he landed a top post at a large federal agency.

  • Inventory your achievements — from your résumé and annual evaluations; written and oral praise from politicians, political appointees, journalists, executives, colleagues and subordinates; your publications; presentations and events you led; media campaigns covering your work; evaluations from trainings and speeches you delivered; your awards and grants; fellowships, detail assignments and special projects for which you were handpicked; your academic transcripts and certifications.

Note the number of people or sizes of jurisdictions you managed and the size of your budgets; survey results you improved; your streamlining programs that saved time or money;  the ways you promoted diversity through hiring and mentoring; your high-stakes decisions; high-dollar contracts you authorized; ways you modernized office practices; and crises your managed.

  • Triage your successes for inclusion in your essays via these rules: The bigger your achievements, the better.

This means the more people you managed and were affected by your work, the more life and death, health and safety, job-creation and financial implications of your work and the more positive media it garnered, the better.

Also, recent successes usually trump ancient ones.

  • It can be tricky to parcel your credentials among your answers to SES questions because these questions are maddeningly redundant and overlapping. But here’s a strategy: Write down each question followed by all of your big relevant academic, professional and volunteer credentials that parallel the demands of your target job. If a credential fits multiple questions, use it only to help answer the question that provides the best fit — unless you need to use it to expand another answer that would otherwise be lacking.

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