How to Prepare for Your Next Federal Job Interview

Structured Interview Preparation

My young friend Kelly has an accounting degree. She’s a recent graduate and she just received a job offer to become the bookkeeper for a local construction company. She’s considering the position, but she doesn’t know if she will accept it. She’s just not sure that the company or the job is a good fit.

“The interview and the offer weren’t what I expected. I was naturally happy to receive a call after they received my resume. The company has a good reputation, but the interview was really kind of unprofessional. They asked a few questions and they seemed to like me, but then they did all of the talking. I obviously made a good first impression, but they didn’t really dig into my qualifications. They made the offer at the end of the first interview and I’m afraid that it was for the wrong reasons.”

Kelly’s concerns are reasonable, but it’s the managers at the construction firm who should be worried. The old-fashioned “get to know you” interview, followed by quick decisions, can result in expensive hiring mistakes. First impressions are important, but HR professionals and recruiters understand the importance of an objective approach to interviewing. A structured approach to interviewing benefits both the hiring company and their new employees by matching capable people with positions that allow them to excel.

As a job seeker, how do you prepare for an interview? If you’re talking with the managers of a local construction company, you might encounter the kind of freestyle interview that Kelly experienced. If you’re interviewing with a larger company or the federal government, you should prepare for structured, behavior-based interviews. That’s the topic of today’s post.

Structured Interviews and Behavioral Interviews

In a structured interview, the questions are planned in advance and asked of every candidate for the position. They relate directly to a specific job description, and they’re designed to allow decision makers to rank the quality of each candidate’s answer against a predefined qualitative scale. It’s easy to see the advantage over the old-style interview, where questions come “out of the blue” and may vary according to the whim of the interview and the personality of each individual candidate.

Structured interviews provide a fair and legal approach which benefits both the employer and the prospective employee. Title VII and EEOC guidelines require interviews to be based on specific job requirements. Both the content and method of the interview must be developed to accurately determine which candidates are best qualified to fulfill the requirements of the position.

Structured interview questions come in several flavors:

1.  Definitional Questions – evaluate knowledge of terms, concepts, and tools.

2.  Consequential Questions – ask “what happens when?” to determine logical processes.

3.  Hypothetical Situations – gauge decision making skills and emotional intelligence.

4.  Experiential Questions – ask a candidate to provide an example of how he or she has solved a problem in the past.

Increasingly, larger employers and the agencies of the federal government are building their interviews around experiential questions. This technique, called a behavior based interview, works on the principle that past experience indicates future behavior. The assumption is that actual situational behavior can demonstrate competencies and decision-making skills that relate directly to the requirements of the job description. The answers are evaluated (typically on a 5 point scale) and candidates are compared objectively to find the most likely fit with the position requirements.

In a 2003 report to Congress the U.S. Merit Systems Protection Board provides a chart that can provide you with some useful insight into the process that federal agencies use:

Structured Interview Process

Preparing for Behavioral Interviews: It’s the Stories

How should you prepare? If you’re interviewing for a USAJobs or SES position, your preparation actually starts with your resume. Federal applications require you to focus on KSAs (knowledge, skills, and accomplishments) and ECQs (executive core qualifications), along with additional technical qualifications (TQs) for SES positions. At CareerPro Global, we work with our clients to prepare narrative statements using the CCAR approach – challenge, context, action, and results. In essence, these are stories that illustrate your responses to difficult situations that you’ve encountered and solved in the course of your career.

The same approach works to help you prepare for behavioral interviews. As you prepare your illustrative stories, attention to CCAR will keep your answers clear and exact. Each story narrative should illustrate:

1.  The Challenge – the specific and relevant problem that demanded a solution.

2.  The Context – the background to the problem.

3.  The Action – the solution or solutions you chose – why and how you came to the decision.

4.  The Results – the positive and measurable outcomes that ensued.

There’s another element that you should also weave into your narrative. Increasingly, employers are looking for indications of emotional intelligence (EI), the soft skills that you innately know and use to interact with people as you implement solutions. EI can be difficult to quantify, but your stories should also illustrate how you build consensus, deal with problem personalities, and bring bosses, other managers, and associates into agreement.

Getting the Stories Straight

Structured InterviewPreparing the stories is an important part of your preparation for a behavioral interview, but it’s obviously important to match the right narrative to the questions you’re asked.  You’ll want to  anticipate the questions and provide answers that will rank highly as you’re compared to other candidates. You’ll get some clues by carefully inspecting the job description posted by the agency or the employer. There are some obvious questions that you can expect. Here are a few examples from the Department of Veterans Affairs website:

Describe a situation in which you had to use your communication skills in presenting complex information. How did you determine whether your message was received?

Share an example of an important personal goal that you set, and explain how you accomplished it.

Lead me through a decision-making process on a major project you’ve completed.

Have you ever had many different tasks given to you at the same time? How did you manage these?

Give an example of a time you had to make a difficult decision.

The VA is also kind enough to provide a downloadable list of questions that will give you more insight into the kinds of questions you might hear in a behavior based interview. Another list of federal government interview questions and interview reviews is available on the Glassdoor website.

Prepare for Your Interview and Rehearse

Anticipate the questions, get your story narratives straight using CCAR, then rehearse your answers. You’ll find that actually practicing the way you tell your story has a lot of value – your answers will be familiar and natural when you get to (and through) the interview.

If you’re considering a career move, you’ll also find excellent value with CareerPro Global. Since 1986, we’ve helped more than 58,000 people with federal resumes, corporate resumes, and military transitions. We’re proud of the successes we’ve seen and of our 98.6% approval rate from those we’ve served. Our focus is always on you and your career. If you’d like to find out more, please give us a call for a free career consultation.


Postscript: My friend Kelly decided to accept the job at the construction company. She took the initiative, did some research, and met again with the owners of the company to ask some structured questions of her own. She starts next week and has her fingers crossed!

Good luck with your interviews!



Arthur, How to Use Behavior-based, Structured Interviewing, Workforce, 1999.

The Federal Selection Interview: Unrealized Potential, U.S. Merit Systems Protection Board, 2003. (Chart: Appendix D, p.43).

Performance Based Interviewing (PBI), U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs website.

Photo Credits: Wikimedia Commons,

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