Tuesday, November 04, 2008

How to Write the Canadian Public Service Exams

More than a year ago, I applied for jobs within the Canadian Public Service, including the Graduate Recruitment inventory and the Foreign Service.

Leading up to the three tests, I studied from the Public Service Exam Prep book, as well as an associated website. The website had five exams for each type of Public Service test.

On the practice website, my marks were in the following range.

Situational Judgement Test (SJT) - 70-85%
Graduate Recruitment Test (GRT) - 80-92%
Written Communication Proficiency Test (WCPT) - 86-98%

I hoped to get near the high end of those marks on the exams, however when I wrote them, they seemed harder than the practice exams, particularly the WCPT.

I ended up with the following results in 2007:

Results of Public Service Commission Tests

Test Your Score Test Date
Graduate Recruitment Test 43.0/55 2007-10-30
Written Communication Proficiency Test 41.0/50 2007-10-30
Situational Judgement Test 76.0/100 2007-10-30

I later heard rumours that people needed to average 86% to get into the foreign service. The marks seemed enormous, especially considering the best I could hope for was probably an 80% on the SJT. I could possibly reach that level if I wrote each test more than once. Your marks are good for five years and a test writer has to wait 180 days before they can retake the test. I was curious to know how many people did just this, rewrite until they got an easier test and maybe a couple of lucky guesses to boost them up five to ten percent from their average marks.

My wife applied for the same jobs this year and we went to write the tests together this Saturday.

Some comparisons to the previous tests.

1) In 2007, I wrote the tests at the Canadian Embassy in Morocco. The advantage was that we used big desks and could spread out and work comfortably. Here in Kingston in 2008, there were 300 people crammed into a University lecture hall. We were all bent over in uncomfortable seats with those tiny sliding desk pallets. These desks are good for scribbling a few notes during a lecture, but not for writing five hours worth of tests. If I could suggest something to the government, look into alternatives. In University exams, they usually give students actual desks in the gymnasium.

2) Despite the discomfort, I found two of the three tests easier, particularly the WCPT. The GRT seemed slightly easier, while the SJT was still a lot of arbitrary guesswork and could potentially be anywhere in my typical range of 70-82%. I wouldn't be surprised if I scored near the high end of my practice test marks on at least two of the tests.

If the foreign service magic number remains at around 86%, then I think everything hinges on a couple percentage points, particularly in the SJT. If like last time, I score 76% on the SJT, I need to average 92% on the other two tests to pull off an 86% average. Difficult, but not impossible.

I'm curious to know the average number of times people applying for the foreign service and the Graduate Recruitment Program write these tests before getting offered jobs.

Worse still is what an applicant is up against. The Foreign Service doesn't give exact numbers on how many people they hire. I think it's around fifty per year.

Over 300 people were writing in Kingston. Most of them had probably applied for the foreign service just because it is a checkmark and they obviously need a job or they wouldn't apply. To compare, Statistics Canada displayed, for one day only, a recruitment ad for a hiring initiative. Over 5000 people applied.

There are over 70 test centres across Canada. Kingston is probably the smallest. Montreal and Toronto surely have more than ten times the number of applicants.

I would guess 100,000 people wrote the tests. If there were 1000 graduate recruitment jobs, you'd have to be in the top 1 percentile. If it was just for the foreign service, you'd have to be in the top 0.05 percentile.

Then there is the possibility that some applicants have a way to get their hands on the tests or answers. No matter how hard the government tries to protect the tests, it's an enormous task to protect one-hundred-thousand documents. The window of opportunity to cheat, take photos, or whatever, is likely there for a few test writers. If you were presented with the test/answers, would you turn it away? If a genius offered to hoodwink the system and sit next to you and slide the answers over, would the administrators be able to pick up on it?
It's a bit like the Olympics. An athlete trains all their life only to see someone catch up and surpass them just as the biggest event of their lives takes place. They've always been better, faster, and stronger than their opponents. They've trained equally as hard, if not harder. Therefore how can they possibly lose?
Who knows how many Olympians really use performance enhancing drugs?
If one doesn't cheat, someone else does.

This is my biggest fear over what I'm up against. How many people got the answers vs how many jobs there are.

If I was presented with the test answers, I'd have to think hard. "I have the test right here. There are fifty jobs. There are 50,000 applicants. How many other applicants have a cheating plan? 10? 25? 100? If I have the opportunity to cheat, surely someone else does. If I have a friend on the inside, and their are a few hundred people on the inside...

Enough said of the potential dark side to this competition. If I get in, I get in on my brainpower.

I hypothesize that my marks can be broken down to the following, with mental errors, difficult questions, computer error, and lucky/unlucky guesses all coming into play.


Best case scenario - 94%
Worst case scenario - 80%


Best Case Scenario: 82%
Worst Case Scenario: 67%


Best case scenario - 98%
Worst Case Scenario - 86%

I mention computer error because it instructs test takers to completely erase any errors. I find that it's almost impossible to do this. Usually, at least once or twice on a test I answer then change my mind. I did it four times on the SJT, and if the computer marks all four questions wrong, well, there goes four percent that could have boosted me to the next level.

One of the secrets to doing well is pacing. I'd written enough practice tests to know that I can finish within the alloted times, but sometimes just barely. The tests are designed to push you to the limit, so a person who isn't prepared or has English or French as a second language might not finish. For the GRT, pacing is particularly important for certain types of questions. The sequence questions, for instance, once you've practiced enough of them you can figure out all the possible patterns and fly through them in no time. If not, they can really hang you up and slow you down. Same goes for the algebra questions. If you can't organise the variables efficiently into equations, then they really slow you down. This is when panic sets in.

I used my stopwatch to see exactly how much time had passed, and whether I was ahead or behind schedule to finish the exam. I've learned that if I don't keep track of the time, I'm prone to start rushing through questions unnecessarily.
If there is a question I don't know, I lightly mark a best guess (so I can erase it later). I also leave a little dot beside the question and go back to it at the end.

The GRT breakdown

There were two sequence questions I couldn't get on the first try. I went back at the end to figure one out. I guessed on the other. I also double checked half a dozen other questions I wasn't 100% sure of.

I found the math formula questions fairly easy, however I fear being prone to mental error on these questions more than most.

The most difficult GRT questions for me are the word association. They're not time consuming, just frustrating. On one there was an unfamiliar word, and on at least two others there was no obvious answer that jumped out at me.

The SJT breakdown

About sixty percent of the questions are easily answerable, especially when you've studied the basic logic and scenarios. That leaves forty questions to chance.

On some, it could be a fifty/fifty or a most probable guess. The worst were the ten to twenty questions where I felt clueless as to which decision was the best or worst. That leaves my SJT test score the least predictable of all. I feel some of the questions are almost arbitrary in the way you answer them. I'm sure there is some logic they use to justify the answers, but I might see the situation from a different angle and get it completely backwards.


When I first wrote this test in Morocco, it seemed really hard. This may have been due to the fact that I felt rushed to answer the questions because I didn't pace myself properly. This time round, and paced, it felt like a much easier test. Two or three really tough questions can throw a test writer into a panicked rush, and this can drag their mark down an additional ten percent or more. I felt there were no such difficult questions this time around, and pacing myself also really helped...

In summary, in lieu of not having the test presented to you by a friend on the inside, or cheating some other way, there are five things I suggest to improve your marks.

1) Study. Practice any exams you can. The best way to prepare for the Public Service exams is practice, practice and practice. A lot of the practice questions will be similar on the actual exam and you'll fly through them.

2) Pace yourself. Bring a stopwatch. Write down how many questions there are. Write down how long the exam is. Check to see the time. If you are ahead of the game, relax, think things through, and enjoy the challenge of the exams.

3) Bring ibuprofen (or whatever painkiller/relaxant) and some water. Just under five hours of exams is grueling. I needed an advil in the middle of the second exam (SJT) which I'm sure contributes to why I feel I did so poorly on it.

4) Rewrite. If your like me, your bound to screw up at least one test on the first round. Either that, or you get a tougher one. A couple extra tough questions combined with some bad luck could mean as much as ten percent. If you have unlimited shots at writing a test, why not aim for the mark you think you need, and if you miss, try again and again. Aim till you hit the bullseye.

5) Mark your answers on the extra paper provided and transfer them to the answer sheet afterwards. This will avoid any erasing answers that leads to a machine error.

Best of luck

One last thing. My average from last year, just under eighty percent, has recently gotten me one email regarding a job in Toronto. I replied that I was interested and am now waiting for the next stage.


Anonymous said...

Interesting post - I also did the exams last year, and then again this year. Here's the best information I've been able to come up with regarding what constitutes a "pass" (by which I mean getting an interview with DFAIT).

First of all, the PSC seems to make changes to the process pretty frequently, so I'm basing what I write off of last year's requirements - who knows if it'll be exactly the same this year! The first stage was to drop everyone who didn't make the minimum cutoffs for either the GRT, the SJT, or the WCPT. Then the GRT and the SJT where somehow combined into a composite score. A top percentage of these candidates then had their WCPT looked at, and again, the top percentage of these were selected to have their resumes looked at. Anyone who's resume held up to scrutiny was then invited to an interview.

The exact numbers required to get your resume looked at are a big mystery from year to year. In the past several hiring cycles, I've heard of scores as low as 36 on the GRT or 78 on the SJT getting someone to the interview process (although this changes drastically from year to year and I'm not sure how it would be effected if the GRT and SJT and combined again into a "composite" score). Obviously, these scores seem to represent among the lowest scores possible that might ever get you an interview under the best of circumstances. Higher = better. As for the WCPT - the best I've been able to figure out is that you'll want to get over a 40 at the minimum.

The numbers that I've heard bounced around for the number of candidates who take the test vs. the number who make it to the interviews: 7000 to 11000 start the process, with maybe 600 getting interviews.

Good luck to both of us!

Anonymous said...

This is all really good info. Will you let us know how you did? Many of the test scores are in now.

Anonymous said...

Did you only apply for DFAIT last year or did you put your name in the general inventory as well? I wrote the tests for the first time this year and put my name in the general inventory, but I don't have the marks yet. I think I passed, but I'm not sure what kind of marks are needed to get interviews.

Daniel said...

Yes, I applied for the Foreign Service and General inventory both years. I assume the cutoff was higher than the marks I received. There is the possibility that the recruitment departments disliked my CV, although this is relatively small.

Anonymous said...

Hey thanks this is quite useful,
I just got my WCPT score back (41/50). Also I just realized on the application that you must explicitly state in your resume what position you are applying for....I didn't say anything. I know that's the stupidest mistake to make but do you think I will still be considered?

Amar B said...

Dammit! I have the same scores as Daniel. Time to move on.

If you thought Kingston was bad, you should've been in Toronto. I would say there were around 900 people in a massive hall at the convention centre downtown. Next door was a high-octane fashion show with decibels to boot.

The examiners handed out ear plugs to no effect, then offered us the opportunity to leave, with an indeterminate future exam date. Less than 10% of us took them up on their offer. I mean who knew when the rescheduled exams would take place.(Unfortunately they took place last weekend)

From the information I've gathered online, approximately 7000-8000 people will write specifically for DFAIT in a given year. Of that, there will be around 400 interviews, with 120 hires. So less than 2% of those who write get a job.

I suppose you could send away for a prep test and wait another year, but there really will not be that much fluctuation between scores, maybe 5% - 10% in either direction, not enough to get you in unless you're already in the mid to high 80s.

There seems to be a strong correlation between test scores and GPAs. Anecdotally, I was always a 75%-80% student, and that was reflected in my results.

Less conclusively, it seems that if you check negative to any of the experience questions, you are filtered out of the selection process. The powers that be don't appear to even check your cv until you've met the departmental minimums, which in the case of DFAIT are through the roof.

Requirements do change from year to year, but what we can all agree on is the talent pool gets stronger every year. For example, I have a Master's degree in International Relations and am conversant in five languages, including Mandarin Chinese. The woman writing next to me also had an MA in IR. In front of me was a U of T law grad who was in the process of preparing for the bar and beside him was a recent Master's graduate from LSE.

There aren't enough jobs for all of us. Consequently we can all expect test score cutoffs (posted or otherwise) will continue to rise.

Do I want to go back to Taiwan to teach English? No, not really. But I don't want to stick around slinging coffee for minimum wage either hoping against hope for a call from the feds.

Katie said...

fascinating stream of posts...

i'm sad (or relieved?) to say that i was among those who are newly graduated, freshly jaded and writing the PSR tests for the first time with little preperation.. However after reading this post I am relieved to find that additional preparation is possible...Does anyone know if the spring dates of the PSRs are also included in the fall recruitment campaign?

Anonymous said...

Very interesting contributions from all of you. I have recently received my scores after having taken the exams for the first time. Clearly, I should have prepared more seriously.
I fluked the GRT (29/55) but did well for the WCPT (44/50). Before reading your comments, I was also relatively satisfied with my SJT marks (80/100).
It seems I will have to try again next spring. I'm currently based in Brussels. I wonder where I could find a proper training? Any recommandation? Thx and good luck to you all.

Anonymous said...

I fluked the GRT (29/55) but did well for the WCPT (44/50). Before reading your comments, I was also relatively satisfied with my SJT marks (80/100).

Your WCPT and SJT scores are high enough for an interview with DFAIT and CIC, so there is no need to take those tests again and risk a lower score. Keep them! Just rewrite the GRT and aim for 38+/55. You will also feel better writing just one test instead of an 6-to-8-hour marathon of three tests in one day.

syed banoori said...

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I am expected to write my exam next in October and would like to know where can i find sample exams?


CISA said...

Hello All,

I am expected to write my WCPT exam in the nexte few days and would like to know where can i find sample exams of WCPT-351?

Best Regards.

My best wishes.

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