How to Get a Job in the Public Sector

Council recruitment is at an all time low right now, but these tips apply to a wide range of public sector organisations and other areas that tend to be influenced by the public sector's methods, such as universities and charities. Just bear in mind that the latter examples are free to be a bit more individual in the way they work.

Of course, all the usual advice for job hunting applies, there's plenty of good tips on recruitment websites and similar: Do some research on the place you're applying to. Do try to guess what questions will be asked and plan some answers. Don't put your feet on the table during the interview. Do write your application form in blue or black ink. Don't use crayon or your own blood. That sort of thing.

Public sector recruitment follows rules and a formula that is supposed to make recruitment fair and open to anyone who has the skills to do the job, no matter where those skills were learned. For example, if you've done something as a hobby or as part of school work then in theory that's just as good as skills picked up in a proper job.

Thanks to this system, if you have the right skills and you follow the formula on the application process, you should be almost guaranteed to get an interview.

The Application Form

Forget CVs. The public sector never accepts CVs, they judge everything on how you fill in the application form. If you send a CV, they will ignore it. Most of the application form will be quite easy to understand - just follow the instructions. Most of it is simple personal details and the previous work history and education history sections are basically just in a familiar CV format anyway. The part where you really need to pay attention is the big blank boxes they leave for 'Any other information', or 'Information in support of your application', or similar. Sometimes these sections are split between a few different sections, such as 'Outside interests and hobbies relevant to the application' and 'Relevant work experience'.

Regardless of the format, the method is pretty much the same.

Supplied with the application form will be a 'person specification' or 'job description', or possibly both. The person specification is usually the one you need to pay attention to, but the application form (or the notes that come with it) should tell you. The 'person spec' describes the qualities and experiences that a suitable candidate should have, usually in categories like 'education', 'experience', 'skills', and so on. Some applications might have a another section underneath of 'desirable' skills and attributes they're looking for in a candidate. You don't have to have match these qualities, but it will help.

Part of a person specification for an administrative assistant at a local council might look something like this:


GCSE's in English and Maths
HND in a relevant subject, or equivalent experience.


Must be competent with Microsoft Word and Excel.
Able to produce professional letters and memos using MS Word.
Able to use MS Excel to analyse data and produce reports.
Good standard of written and oral communication.
Able to work as part of a team.
Able to work on own initiative.


Knowledge of MS Word and Excel.
An understanding of, and commitment to, the council's Equal Opportunities policy.

When filling in the 'Additional information' section, you must address every single one of these points, and show how you understand it, or give an example of something similar you've done in the past. For each point on the list, you will need to write at least a few sentences, perhaps even a paragraph or two. It's a good idea to follow the list in order, this makes it easier for the person reading your application to tick off the points against the list, which is basically what they do. Usually they will award a small number of points per answer, depending on how well you demonstrated that you fit that criteria (e.g. Did not demonstrate - 0 points, partially demonstrated - 1 point, fully demonstrated - 2 points). The people with the most points get the interview. It's that simple. So don't skimp on the answers, particular if you feel your experience might look a little weak in a certain area if you don't properly explain it. If the person specification seems to repeat itself, then don't be afraid to do the same in your answers.

Here's what a completed application form for the above example might look like:


I have GCSEs in English and Maths, as shown earlier in the Education History section of the form.

Although I do not have an HND, I have previously completed 2 weeks work experience training in an office, and have since worked for 6 months for Some Company Or Other Ltd, working as a general assistant. There I have performed all the usual tasks expected of an administrative assistant, such as photocopying, filing, typing letters and reports and dealing with the public.


In my previous job I have used Microsoft Word and Excel on a daily basis. I have used Word to write official company letters and internal memos, following the formal letter-writing techniques learned in GCSE English classes and according to the company's own style. I also know more advanced MS Word techniques, such as mail merge, which I have used to make bulk mailshots for advertising.

I have used Excel to produce spreadsheets listing company expenditure on stationery, and to produce reports and graphs predicting the likely spend for the year, based on current expenditure.

I am an excellent communicator both verbally and in writing, and I have used and practiced these skills daily in my previous role. My job required a great deal of letter-writing and speaking to customers, and it was important to make the message clear and avoid confusion, and to be a good listener when handling customers so that I could deal with their inquiry efficiently.

In my previous role I have worked as part of a team, and on my own initiative. I consider myself a team player, and I always have time to help my colleagues or boost morale with a joke or two. Equally, when I was left to my devices I could find useful things to do. For example, tidying the office or catching up on paperwork and data entry tasks.


As mentioned above, I have a great deal of knowledge and experience of using MS Word and Excel.

I have read the council's Equal Opportunities Policy and understand and agree with it.

Notice the 'Equal Ops' question above. You will find this in every council application form and it's important to answer it. The answer I've given in the example above is okay, but it's a very weak answer. To answer it properly, you should demonstrate that you understand it. Read anything the council provides on Equal Ops and bear in mind that providing equality of opportunity is not as simple as 'treating everyone the same'

The Interview

Congratulations. If you filled in your form carefully and you were one of the top-scoring applicants, then you've got an interview.

Interviews are similarly methodical, at least in terms of points scoring. The questions asked will be looking for things related to the things on the person specification list, and you'll be awarded a certain number of points based on your answer. You will be interviewed by a panel of interviewers, usually more than one, not usually more than four.

If you think about each question they ask carefully, you'll probably be able to figure out which part of the person spec they're working from, and that may help you. Don't worry if you can't. Just answer each question truthfully and at length, giving as many examples from your work and life as you can think of.

You will notice the interviewers will often scribble notes as you talk, try not to be put off by this. It's often a good sign.

Once all the candidates have been interviewed, the interview panel will meet at least once to compare their scores and total up the final agreed-upon points. Some questions may be weighted, meaning that some answers are worth more than others. If the interviewers seemed impatient to move on while you are describing in great detail how you got your Maths GCSE then don't worry, you'd probably already scored the top marks and they wanted to get on to the higher scoring stuff.

You'll normally find out if you got the job within a week or two. If you didn't get it, ask for feedback on where you went wrong. But bear in mind that sometimes you may be up against an internal candidate (I.e. someone already working within the organisation in a different role, or as a temp) and although the recruitment system in theory scores everyone fairly, someone already working there may naturally have skills and experiences that are very well-suited to the questions.

No-one's Recruiting - How do I Get a Job?

The formal process isn't the only way into the public sector. Private sector temporary employment agencies will often supply workers to the public sector, and this will give you some experience and a foot in the door. If a permanent job comes up, the council won't be able to just give it to you - that's against the rules. The council has to advertise the job and you'll have to apply just like anyone else. By then, you might have just the right experience and skills to fit the person specification.