From STAR answers to strength talk: making the most of your SCS application

Mon 30 May 2022

From STAR answers to strength talk: making the most of your SCS application

Former senior civil servant and Success Profiles trainer Richard Hillsdon on how to pass the sift and impress the interview panel

By Murielle Gonzalez

"Why didn’t my application pass the sift? If it made it through — how can I impress the interview panel?" These are questions that cross the minds of anyone going through a recruitment process, and we put them to Success Profiles trainer, occupational psychology consultant, and former senior civil servant Richard Hillsdon (pictured below) ahead of Unlocking the SCS Leeds conference on 6 September. Hillsdon will present the sessions Preparing for the SCS Success Profiles Selection and Making the most of your Application and Interview Performance. We had an open conversation about the dos and don’ts of moving up the career ladder in the civil service. 

More than 10 years as a selection psychologist in the civil service — and many more as a career coach — have given Hillsdon the knowledge to become an expert in the field, the know-how he demonstrates every time he speaks at our conferences. “I have learned not from a textbook but from the experience of coaching people. I have seen what made them fail, what made them good at this, and why some get promoted easily,” he explained. 

From STAR to strengths 

The civil service has been using the Success Profiles framework since 2018. Hillsdon said that though the new emphasis on the applicant's strengths was welcomed, it was nonetheless “a profound shock” for many civil servants who were used to the STAR-based answers — Situation, Task, Action, Result — that were required in the previous model based on the Competency Framework.

He explained: “Now, [civil servants] are faced with a blank screen where they have to submit a CV and write a more free-form personal statement about how they meet the job selection criteria —  that can be quite intimidating. The change was as big, if not bigger for recruiting managers who were also used to structuring the process around the competencies.

The invitation for them to re-think jobs around five Success Profile elements, which to score, and to ensure that diversity was fully incorporated, was new territory. To Hillsdon, alongside Success Profiles, selectors being given this freedom, though again welcome in principle, has taken a lot of getting used to.
 Portrait photo of Richard Hillsdon

What makes the process so challenging for the candidate? 

Thinking and speaking about your strengths can be difficult. Civil servants were comfortable with competencies because it was all about their performance in their current and previous jobs. And they had lots of examples to prove it. The process was very structured — they would write 250 words, and for each job they applied for the process was standardised and familiar.

Now they had to write an 800- to a 1,000-word personal statement about how they met the challenges of the job, and these could draw on the new behaviours, their experience, qualifications and strengths — which is much scarier. They not only have to write well but make impressive connections between their track record and what they could identify as the core of the new job. So, people fail because they struggle to draft their personal statements. It may be factually okay, but maybe not very persuasive — not written in a way that makes it interesting and compelling.
What would you say is the key to passing the sift? 

Demonstrating in the application evidence of your capacity to write things quickly and clearly is really important. Particularly when you move to roles that are closer to policymaking. Working with ministers always had a marked emphasis on your ability to draft. That is just how the civil service operates.

The question is: is there one way of writing in the civil service? There is not really, but many panel members have experience with how clear the writing is. They will have a template built up over many years. For example, if a minister is sitting in the back of a car on the way to the Parliament and they have only a few minutes, could he or she read this one page, and would it be crystal clear for them what they should say and do? That is the sort of unspoken test that will be in their minds.

The vast majority of the civil service is not in a policy job, so they may not have developed the capacity to draft clearly or been required to do so, so they can often struggle a bit when it comes to writing a personal statement.
Is that the reason people fail? 

People do not pass the sift or fail to impress the interview panel for various reasons: they may be highly competent in some areas, but they are trying to go for a role that requires more experience, so it is too early for them to demonstrate that.

Some people of course are successful because they can put themselves in the shoes of the panel and understand what will impress. But most people who fail do so because they are not prepared enough or in the right way. They do not know what they are really offering or what strengths they have that suit the role.

Alternatively, they may have done all the right things in their past career, but they cannot necessarily communicate that clearly. And of course, there are others who do not believe in themselves and dread the process because of their lack of confidence. They may be terrified of being in a room with people like those in the interview panel — and they cannot talk about themselves very easily. They are too nervous! They struggle to put things across. All these can be addressed, and I will show how on 6 September.
What is the civil service looking for in candidates aspiring to be senior leaders? 

The civil service wants somebody who can stand in front of a group of people and command respect — the interview panel tests that skill, which is why most candidates have to deliver a presentation to the panel.
So, is it about proving that you can be a leader? 

Leadership is part of it, but what do we mean by leadership? Leadership does not mean managing people necessarily. It can be about inspiring, strategic thinking, coping when things get tough and so on.

The civil service wants people who can be innovative, who are prepared to be curious and bring in new approaches. People that are team-based who realise that the best solutions come from a group of people and how we put them together. The civil service wants people who can bring a diverse team together and do things differently. I think we have a way to go yet to achieve this.

Unlocking the SCS fast approaches

Hillsdon’s sessions at Unlocking the SCS are always popular with delegates because he dives deep into the practical aspects of standing out with your application. ”Many sessions you get on conferences are about the civil service and its ways. And that is important. My sessions, though, are unashamedly about how you navigate the culture and become successful, but above all, are real and persuasive at putting that across," said Hillsdon. "I think many civil servants like that I am just talking about them in a no-nonsense way,” he concludes.

Book your place for the next Unlocking the SCS and gain actionable advice on how to think about your job application and be prepared to demonstrate your leadership skills and the strengths to do the job. Secure your place today

Upcoming dates and locations:

  • Leeds, 6 September 
  • Online, 27 September 
  • London, 6 October 

Visit the dedicated event website to register online.



Murielle Gonzalez, content strategy manager at Dods Diversity & Inclusion, is an experienced journalist and editor. She can be reached on

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