How to Write Your KSA Answers to Get That Government Job


Today’s volatile economic environment and expected layoffs means that many people will be searching for a new job. For many of you, a U.S. government job can offer security, excellent benefits, and interesting work. But be aware: competition for these jobs is intense and you have to stand out from all the other applicants to get a placement – that is where the KSA becomes a key opportunity you can use to get that government job.

What is a KSA?

The U.S. Office of Personnel Management maintains a searchable database, called USAJOBS that lists government job openings. Once you have signed up on line, you will find that specific position openings often require completion of a detailed description of your Knowledge, Skills, and Abilities (KSA) in addition to your resume.

Each job that requires a KSA will have specific KSA questions for you to answer usually in about a page of written content. This is not an optional task. You must do it and you must do it well. Each KSA answer is scored by human resources personnel on a 0-20 scale that reflects how closely your knowledge, skills, and abilities match the complexity, impact, variety, circumstances, and interactions that characterize the job for which you are applying. KSAs are frequently the deciding factor in your evaluation for employment in the U.S. government. So, what are KSAs? According to the CDC’s Help Page on KSAs:

Knowledge statements refer to an organized body of information usually of a factual or procedural nature which, if applied, makes adequate performance on the job possible. A body of information applied directly to the performance of a function.

Skill statements refer to the proficient manual, verbal or mental manipulation of data or things. Skills can be readily measured by a performance test where quantity and quality of performance are tested, usually within an established time limit. Examples of proficient manipulation of things are skill in typing or skill in operating a vehicle. Examples of proficient manipulation of data are skill in computation using decimals; skill in editing for transposed numbers, etc.

Ability statements refer to the power to perform an observable activity at the present time. This means that abilities have been evidenced through activities or behaviors that are similar to those required on the job, e.g., ability to plan and organize work. Abilities are different from aptitudes. Aptitudes are only the potential for performing the activity.

How should you answer KSA questions to improve your chances of getting a government job?

The most effective answers to the KSA questions reflect your understanding of the job requirements based on detailed analysis of the job description and typical tasking. You should pay careful attention to the key words used in the job description and use those words in describing your knowledge, skills and abilities.

In general, knowledge is more abstract than skills and therefore can be generalized over many different tasks and responsibilities. Knowledge comes from academic and life experiences including, but not limited to, education and employment. Any knowledge that you possess that is pertinent to the job you are seeking is something you should include in your the KSA response.

It is a good idea to brainstorm by yourself and with others, what “knowledge” you should claim because you can demonstrate it via your written answers. For example let’s say the position requires “being able to organize a project”. Although your work experience did not provide the opportunity to manage a project, your experience running the PTA’s funding raising for a year, although an unpaid activity, could legitimately be claimed as “experience managing a project”. It is up to you to describe the knowledge you acquired in a way that translates to the job for which you are applying.

Think of skills as capabilities that can be tested i.e., understanding how a spreadsheet program can help manage a budget is knowledge; being able to create an Excel spreadsheet to track expenses is a skill. Extract skill requirements from the job posting and offer evidence that you possess those skills. For example, the position of Pharmacy Assistant requires knowledge demonstrated by certified training and skills acquired from previous experience handing drugs and working with customers.

How to write an effective KSA response

In responding to KSA questions, you are making assertions about your knowledge, skills, and abilities. You must then backup those assertions with believable evidence. You need to develop your KSA responses with an eye on two key variables: relevance of content and quality of presentation. The National Forest Service provides an excellent tutorial on do’s and don’ts of writing effective KSA responses.

Describe your knowledge, skills, and abilities in terms that tie directly to the job using keywords that you extract from the job posting. Then “prove” by specific examples what you can do because of what you did in the past and the context in which you did it. Put your compliance with key job requirements at the beginning of the appropriate KSA answer or the beginning of a paragraph. For example: If the job requires a degree in accounting, the first place you can say clearly, “I completed my accounting degree at XYZ University” do it; then continue to describe your experience in accounting tasks.

Numbers can be your friend when it comes to providing proof to your reviewers. Instead of saying, “I wrote reports” consider saying, “I prepared monthly reports on six field trials with a lead time of two days”.

Knowledge and skills can also be demonstrated by using an overview of your previous responsibilities with examples of specific tasks, by describing training or certifications you received, and by citing awards or recognition for accomplishments. Reviewers like to see action words in your KSA answers and that requires that you write in an active versus a passive voice. You should say: “I analyzed data …” not “Data was analyzed”. You can find a great list of action verbs at Job Skills – Power verbs.

In conclusion your KSA answers must:

  • Be concise
  • Be relevant
  • Be specific
  • Have quantitative examples
  • Make it easy for reviewers to find your compliance with key job requirements
  • Be action and accomplishment oriented
  • Be well written with NO TYPOs and good sentence construction. It is a good idea to have someone else look over your answers before you send them because it is sometimes difficult to see your own mistakes.

Remember, KSA answers separate those who are qualified for a job from those who are most qualified.

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