How to tackle the written exam

In this module, we learn how to prepare for the written test.  

Key takeaways and extra info

Preparing before you receive the test

You want to prepare as much as possible before receiving the test so that when you receive it you are able to focus on the task at hand rather than familiarizing yourself with the subject matter. Make sure you do at least an hour or two of research ahead of time. 

Where to do research 

Using the example of a job with Crown-Indigenous Relations and Northern Affairs Canada, I would research here:

  1. The department’s website
  1. You should also identify if there is any legislation that is important to this topic. 
  • Don’t worry about memorizing it, but do make sure you feel comfortable with the general goal and the structure of the law
  1. Scan news and academic work on the topic. 

Additionally, look at the “Knowledge” requirement section in the job posting. This will tell you what you will most likely be asked to write about. 


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Hello, bonjour, welcome to module three. Today, we're going to talk about what I think is the hardest part of the job application process and what is the hardest to prepare yourself for - the written test. 

After you've been screened and you will most likely be asked to participate in a written test. I want to be clear here that my experience is in the EC and PM classifications. So I can't speak exactly as to what happens in the other ones. But be prepared to have a step in between the application and the interview stage. 

Now I have done a lot of written tests and every test is different. Both, in terms of the time you have to write the test and the structure of them. I once had to write two briefing notes in three hours, which just happened to fall from 2:00 AM to 5:00 AM, New Zealand time, needless to say, it was not my best.

But I've also had tests that gave me a week to complete. Sadly, I can't share the exact questions or structures of the tests that I've done before. As a candidate, you agreed to confidentiality when you submit your test. 

But what I can share now is my approach to deciding what to write and how to write it regardless of the topic. Before I jump into my tips, I want to emphasize two things. First, is do exactly what the instructions tell you. If they tell you to use a certain word count or structure, do it to a T. Don't stray away or expand on what is in the instructions thinking that you'll get extra credit. It might in fact disqualify you if you don't follow them. 

Second, do not copy and paste government websites without sourcing them, it will be counted as plagiarism. While you might be able to do this in your day-to-day work and it's fine. It won't fly for a written exam, even just throwing a little website link in as the footer will do the trick.

Now let's talk about what to write. So the first thing you're going to get is an email indicating when the test will take place and how long you'll have to write it. I would definitely recommend doing research in advance and the first place you should look to get an indication on what will be on the test is the job posting.

Okay, so let's have a look at the job posting. So we're going to want to go down to the section that says essential for the job and assessed at a later date. And under the knowledge section, this is the stuff that you're going to be asked to talk about in your written tests. 

Now, where are we going to find this information?

The first place you're going to go is to the department's website. On the website, you're going to look for a few different things. So the first is budget announcements because where money is spent is a huge indication of what a department's priorities are. Then you're going to look at the departmental plans and the mandate, as well as the minister's mandate letter.

Finally, have a quick look at the news or speech section. You can find a speech that was pretty general in nature. You'll find a really clear indication of what the priorities are for that department. 

Then you should also identify whether or not there's relevant legislation to this topic or issue. Don't worry too much about memorizing the legislation, but do make sure that you're comfortable with understanding the goal of the law, as well as the structure. Look for easy to understand summaries or explainers about the legislation as a whole. A lot of the time, NGOs that work in this particular space will make these to educate the public. 

Then to make sure that you're comfortable with the structure of the law go online and skim the headings. So that just in case on the written test, you're asked for information on a specific clause, you know, where to look. 

Finally, scan some news articles or read a few academic papers about the topic so that you're generally aware about what the public discourse is around it.

Now again, you don't need to memorize anything. It's just about being comfortable with the subject matter. 

When the test day comes, you'll receive an email with details, instructions about how to write your exam. And I cannot emphasize this enough, read the instructions, even if you have a really short amount of time to finish your test, it is super important that you follow the instructions to a T. 

Now let's talk about how to write the exam. With these tests, the structure can be almost as important as the actual content. In most situations, you'll be either asked to work through an issue or provide advice on a topic. 

Regardless of the subject matter, you should be working through these six steps. First, you start with your problem definition and identifying the issue. Second, you do your research to make sure you understand it. Third, you analyze your options or choices. Fourth, you choose one. Fifth, you implement it. Six, you evaluate and provide feedback to start the process all over again.

To help you with your test, I've provided you with two different templates that use the six-step framework. The first is for policy-related briefing notes and in the template, there are headings as well as descriptions of what should go under each heading. The second will help you with more project management or project development types of questions. And again, has the headings and the descriptions to help guide you. 

I will say this one more time though, please, please follow the instruction. Only use the headings in the templates, if you aren't provided ones in the instructions. 

My final piece of advice about what to write is focused on government sources and what is found on the department's websites, not academic papers. This isn't a university paper, you don't need to come up with 10 peer-reviewed sources for your work. You also don't need to come up with groundbreaking or innovative solutions to the policy problems you've been asked to write about. You just need to demonstrate that you understand the department's work, you can critically analyze problems, and you can write clearly. 

With this video and the templates, you should be able to tackle even the toughest exams. So I hope you found this useful, and I wish you the best of luck, please let me know if you have any questions and I'll see you in the next one.

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