The Office of Personnel Management Wants Your ECQs to Pass

I know, I know. Many people would disagree with the title of this article.

“They ate my ECQs for lunch,” they’d say.


“They make it so difficult because they don’t want anyone to pass. It’s virtually impossible!”

I would argue that even if the Office of Personnel Management (OPM) doesn’t realize it, OPM has given you a number of parameters that a) make it easier for you to provide the kinds of impactful career stories it wants, and b) make it easier for OPM to find what it’s looking for in your ECQs.

Consider these:

The 10-year rule: If an example happened more than 10 years ago, don’t bother. The board won’t like it.

The Challenge-Context-Actions-Results (CCAR) format: Some people, such as those in the Public Affairs community, like to write starting with the “bottom line” up front. OPM wants your stories told in a logical format on the page, using Challenge-Context-Actions-Results.

Executive Essays, not project management descriptions: It is easy to simply share detailed and overly technical write-ups of projects, but that’s not what OPM is looking for. OPM wants specific career stories, yes, but ones that are impactful and executive in scope. That means you are dealing with senior officials, crossing organizational lines, and creating results that have widespread and long-term strategic impact on customers and stakeholders. It’s best to keep the reader in mind, and assume (rightly so) that they don’t share your background. In other words, you must express your stories in a way that any executive can understand and appreciate.

Two pages per ECQ: Check each vacancy, because there is sometimes a little bit of a restriction on length or character count, but for the most part, OPM gives you a two-page limit per ECQ. That’s good, because without this parameter, some people would write a single paragraph and other would write eight pages!

Two examples per ECQ: This is not a requirement, but a strongly recommended best practice. The boards would always rather see two examples per ECQ instead of just one.

Use the competencies as your guide: Before you write your ECQs, you should outline your potential topics and then compare them to the competencies for each ECQ. And then ask yourself, “Will I be able to address most, if not all, of these competencies effectively in my write-up?” If the answer is yes, you are probably on the right track. However, if the answer is no, or if it is unclear, then your topic is probably not a good fit for that particular ECQ. The boards will absolutely be looking for the competencies in your ECQs.

Finally, I would argue that it shouldn’t necessarily be easy to get your ECQs approved by OPM. Don’t we only want highly motivated and dedicated people in these important Senior Executive Service positions? Don’t we want people who can write relatively short essays on five broad categories about their careers? Doesn’t seem like too much to ask. Considering the influence SESers have, and the important leadership oversight role they play, I say if the application process “weeds out” the faint of heart, then so be it.

If you provide impactful career stories that are executive in scope and make sure you follow these “parameters,” your chances of being approved will increase dramatically. And since OPM is the one providing these parameters, doesn’t it make sense that they actually want your ECQs to pass?

Lee Kelley is an Iraq war veteran and former Army Captain who now serves as the senior writer on CareerPro Global’s writing team. Leveraging the company’s vast expertise in assisting thousands of SES and federal job seekers, Lee has personally developed hundreds of resumes and more than a thousand ECQs. He is also the Director of Training and Veteran Transitions, and has provided USAJOBS resume-writing workshops to hundreds of federal employees and our military. In addition, Lee is an author and executive coach. He co-authored the book Roadmap to the Senior Executive Service: How to Find SES Jobs, Determine Your Qualifications, and Develop Your SES Application. His latest book is titled, Inside Marine One: Four U.S. Presidents, One Proud Marine, and the World’s Most Amazing Helicopter.

Visit Career Pro Global’s website to learn more.

Posted in Career Tip of the Month

Tags: ECQ, career advice, federal human resources, federal HR



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