May 3, 2022


By Alex Harrington, Executive Director

I’m not sure if today’s federal job applicants know much about the infamously long KSA narrative essays (Knowledge, Skills, and Abilities). Prior to President Obama’s federal hiring reform in 2010, most federal job applicants were required to submit long narrative essays—some were 8 to 10 pages depending on the number of KSA questions—along with their application for federal employment.

I remember many mornings sitting at the kitchen table cranking out long narrative essays for each job application. In fact, I created a swipe-file for all my KSA narrative essays for new federal job applications.

My own personal swipe file of KSA essays

Many federal job applicants welcomed the news about President Obama’s hiring reform. However, even though today’s federal job applicants aren’t required to provide separate, long narrative essays during the initial job application…don’t toss your writing tablets just yet. 

Despite the separate, long narrative essay being eliminated during the initial application for a job, your job application’s related knowledge, skills, and abilities may be assessed in the following ways:

Many agencies require KSA examples to be incorporated in the resume/cover letter

Under the How You Will Be Evaluated section of a federal job announcement, you may read: “In order to qualify for this position, your resume must provide sufficient experience and/or education, knowledge, skills, and abilities to perform the duties...” Essentially, you must make sure your resume incorporates the position’s KSAs, especially in your resume's “Summary of Qualifications” section. Also, if the job announcement indicates that a cover letter is optional, take advantage of it! You can address each required KSA in the cover letter. 

Online occupational questionnaires will have self-assessment questions, and sometimes required essay narratives

Today, many agencies use occupational questionnaires to recruit and hire candidates. An occupational questionnaire may consist of multiple choice, yes/no, or similar types of questions that cover a variety of KSAs related to the position. When you submit your application, the online announcement may take you to an occupational questionnaire. For some questions, you may be asked, “Choose the answer that best describes your experience” and then be asked to provide a short KSA narrative essay to support your choice.

Post-application screening may require KSA narrative essays

After you submit your initial application and receive an email for an interview, be prepared to provide KSA narratives essays. Agencies may give you an essay prompt with a set amount of time to write a KSA narrative essay about the topic. Personally, I prefer using impromptu KSA narrative essays when assessing candidates. In my past talent recruitment initiatives, I’ve used a “multiple-hurdle assessment” approach for assessing job candidates, which consisted of: 1) pre-screen interview, 2) impromptu KSA narrative essay and oral brief, and 3) behavioral-based interview panel.

The lesson here: As a federal job candidate, you have to be primed and ready to clearly display your KSAs in your resumes, cover letters, interviews, and possibly write a KSA narrative essay(s) before or during the interview.

So, my advice is to accept and embrace KSA narrative essays, and more importantly, prepare for them by using the Challenge-Context-Action-Result (CCAR) Model, especially for those targeting senior positions.

Also remember that KSAs give you a chance to describe your value and worth. One of the best advantages of obligatory/mandatory KSA narrative essays is that they afford you the opportunity to highlight your stellar qualifications even before you meet the hiring official. Moreover, each KSA narrative essay serves as excellent talking points for the interview.

To learn more about KSA narrative essays:

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Alex Harrington, GCDF, CCSPIs a Nonprofit Entrepreneur ● Community Leader ● Author & Blogger ● Certified Career Services Provider and Global Career Development Facilitator. Alex also served in the U.S. Marine Corps and is a Persian Gulf War veteran.

Alex Harrington
Chair & Founder
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