Corporate Eye

(Hello and) Good-bye to KSAs


I admit that I hadn’t even heard of KSAs until today.  I’ve never worked for the Federal government, or even known anyone who worked for the Federal government, so I had no idea that most agencies require applicants to write extended essay answers (sometimes many of them) explaining specific aspects of their Knowledge, Skills, and Abilities.  These documents go by the nickname KSA, and apparently are widely dreaded by job-seekers.

For background:  KSAs are written not only by people trying to break into government employment, but also by government employees trying to advance or reroute their careers.  They are submitted in addition to resumes.  Each response is expected to be one-half to one page, and there may be a five or ten of them (or more) for a given job.

Here are some examples of generic KSA topics that might be required for many positions:   Ability to communicate in writing; Ability to manage a program; Ability to analyze problems and develop solutions; Ability to use and maintain tools and equipment.

Then there are more specific and/or complex topics, such as:  Ability to make critical judgments about biomedical research projects; Skill in applying engineering concepts and theories to the solution of engineering problems; Skill to function effectively in a stressful environment; Knowledge of anti-terrorist tactics . . .

And where did I find these examples?  Why, at one of the dozens of sites that sell pre-written KSAs and/or “custom” KSA writing services.  (I won’t provide links–just search on KSA and you’ll get pages of them.)

I stumbled into the wonderland of KSAs by reading Hiring reform: KSAs to be phased out within a year, a news story on  At first I was overwhelmed by the mere idea of all those papers–having taught freshman composition at one point in my life, this just seems like a nightmare.  How does the HR staff find time to read them?  Do they read them?

Many of those staffers are reportedly thrilled at the news that KSAs will go away.  But on the other hand, according to the FedTimes story:  “Some HR officials feel that if someone can’t be bothered to put time and effort into answering KSA questions, they may not be that interested in the job after all. ‘If you can’t address these KSAs, how thorough are you going to be on the job?’ asked one HR director at a small agency, who asked not to be identified. ‘If we do away with KSAs, we’ll be moving away from information we need to properly evaluate people.  I’m not sure this is going to work.'”

So do they NOT KNOW about the apparently thriving KSA marketplace?  That seems unbelievable, since I found out in less than five minutes.  Or is buying good answers interpreted as “addressing these KSAs,” thereby indicating the applicant would be “thorough” on the job?  Or in reality do most people write their own KSAs and this is not really a problem?

And by the way–I read several official government documents explaining the importance of KSAs and offering advice on how to write KSAs.  But nowhere did I find a basic statement such as:  “You must write the KSA yourself.”  So maybe that’s not even a rule?  But then–what’s the point?  It’s one thing to have someone else reorganize and reformat the facts on your resume for better effect, but it’s really different to have someone else write your writing sample.

That must be the most question marks ever stuffed into one post, but I really am flummoxed over this!  Even if KSAs do go away (which will leave some “writers” scrambling for a new product line, I suppose), the whole business seems to indicate a serious disconnect somewhere.  Or am I wrong?

Anyway . . . from the corporate side–this topic started me thinking about the whole matter of “candidate packaging.”  Is what you “see” what you “get”?  But that’s another topic.

(Thanks to Bryan Partington for the handsome stack of papers.)

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Cynthia Giles has followed a serpentine career path from academia to publishing to marketing and design to information technology and corporate communications. There’s plenty of detail about this journey at, but briefly--the common theme has been ideas, and how to present them effectively. Along the way, she became an accidental expert on data warehousing and business intelligence, and for the past ten years she has combined corporate contracting with an independent consulting practice that focuses on marketing strategy for smaller businesses and non-profits. Having spent quite a bit of time looking for work, and anywhere from two weeks to two years inside a wide variety of American companies—she has given much thought to what works (and what doesn’t) when it comes to creating a great employment fit.

Thank you for the comments on KSA’s. I too come from the industrial world, until last year. At that time I began to search for an EPA job and came up against KSA’s.

In my jaded view, KSA’s seem like something only a ponderous, Federal bureaucracy could create. They struck me as meaningless and useless. Your report confirms both.

As to “what you see is “what you get”, I think maybe not so much these days. Putting our best foot forward has now morphed into an additional game of finding the words the computer screening software wants.

I am old school, obviously, and with the proper setting prefer face to face evaluations from the outset. Since I am not as perceptive as my wife, I took her with me to every after-interview, casual dinner with new prospects. Her evaluation was 90+% of the decision; she never missed in 20 years! That’s the sort of KSA I like to bring to the process.

Thanks so much for the comment, Jim. I think many people shared your reaction to the KSA, and will be glad to see the end of that system. Your solution to the evaluation challenge sounds much more civilized!

And you make a very good point about the problem of over-reliance on keywords, from both sides of the recruiting process. I’d like to do a post on that topic soon–it’s an important issue, and not discussed enough.

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