This blog looks at formatting selection criteria responses. This is important because selection criteria and position descriptions have no standard format across governments; nor do how you (and other people) respond to them. How you respond however shows your written communication skills and your attitude.

Clear Space

The Basics of Formatting Selection Criteria Responses

Whatever the instructions say – do that.

Sound obvious? It is so why can’t people follow instructions!  I cannot count how many selection criteria responses I’ve read that were not what was asked for. Two-page criteria response and a resume up to five pages is not that hard but ¼ – ⅓ of responses to those instructions are not what was asked for; maybe more.

The first impression that gives is one of two things. I’m lazy, or, I don’t follow instructions. If you’re an employer do you want those qualities in an employee? The answer is no.

Most commonly it is just supplying a resume. When the requirement for the panel is to assess your selection criteria responses against other applicants; that makes it almost impossible to get shortlisted. If you are taking the time to apply, take the time to write something.

To make it crystal clear – first and foremost – do whatever the instructions say. No more and no less.

The Details


It is okay to use headings, just keep them short. If you are limited to two pages, and you have five two-line headings restating the criteria, that is a lot of content about you that you’re not writing.

Headings will help with white space (see further on) and give your document structure. None of that is bad. Just don’t overuse them and have headings, subheadings, list headings, sub-subheadings.  You’re not writing a 100-page thesis with a table of contents.

Dot Points

It is also okay to use some dot points. Keyword there is some. There are two reasons for that:

  1. The written application is an example of your communication skills; especially written.

If all you do in your written response is have a page or two of lists of stuff you’ve done, that tells the reader you can make a list. It does not tell me you can write in sentences. The second point is an extension of that…

  1. Your criteria response is not your resume.

A resume is a list of your key roles, education and achievements. A list. Your criteria response needs to be different otherwise why would they ask for it?  The application does not say please submit two slightly different copies of your resume.

When do you use dot points?

To make short lists and emphasise points. Like explaining the two reasons why you would not submit a selection criteria response full of lists.

Stack of books, top book titled WHY FONTS MATTER

Font Size

There is a trend to insisting applications are submitted in a 10-point Arial font these days with margins.  Why? So the reader can read it.

If you have so much to say that you feel the need to use an 8-point Calibri light font that is telling the reader a few things. It says the only way you think you can say what you need to is to make the font size so small that you ‘technically’ kept it to two pages but didn’t care how hard it was to read. It also says in a not so direct way that you’re willing to bend the rules to suit yourself rather than make a genuine effort to say what you want to say succinctly. You can certainly fit almost twice as much text doing that, but that means you’re submitting a four-page application when it says two.

It is hard to read, and my eyesight is already not great. Please don’t make the job harder than it needs to be. In case you’re wondering if it matters, it does get noticed and adversely commented on. If you’re in that grey zone between getting and not getting an interview, doing it is not going to tip you toward getting an interview.

Do not ever forget that the person reading you application is not you. That person may be visually impaired or have a learning difficulty that makes it hard to focus or concentrate. Doing things that make it harder for them is not going to help you either.

It is going to be quite striking when you address a diversity and inclusion question when you say you consider people’s needs; when your application clearly doesn’t. Diversity and inclusion, including visual differences, are not as common as they should be, but they are also not uncommon.

Margins and White Space

Can you believe people still print documents and write on them? I don’t personally but I know people who do. When you do not leave white space, margins, space between paragraphs it makes it very hard to make notes on.

It is also visually unappealing. You may think that web design and writing documents are vastly different things, but they’re not. As we spend more and more time on browsers, navigating websites, we are all being unconsciously trained to change what we are “used to” and find visually appealing (and not). The more we see good web design, the more we want to see good web design and rebuff at poor design.

Websites need good design for functionality and conversion, not just screen appeal. Your written document has aspects of conversion to it too; you’re trying to get the reader to buy you. If the reader is faced with a wall of text, no spacing and no margins they are going to have the same initial reaction as you would if you came across a poorly designed website; roughly speaking ugh.

Don’t undervalue white space and margins; they’re free after all and add value.

What if There is no Information on Formatting Selection Criteria Responses?

There will be that one position description that doesn’t specify how you should format your selection criteria response.

First step is to read very carefully and double check, or, get someone else to read it and check.

Next perhaps try to find another position description from the same department/organisation and see if the other(s) do or do not contain instructions. It may just have been missed.  Things do get missed from time to time.

It is an option to call the position contact (if there is one) and ask what the formatting should be. Just make sure you have not missed something obvious because doing that leaves a lasting impression planning call to contact (which I discuss in “Selection Criteria – Asking Questions” in the Completing Selection Criteria course). Online applications are becoming increasingly common and may simply require you to paste clear text into an online form. I’m not a fan of those because it removes the opportunity to use headings and spacing and show you can communicate, but, if it is like that then that’s what you need to do.

If you cannot find the instructions and cannot call someone and there is no web-form then…err on the side of less is more. Don’t take the opportunity to write 10 or 20 pages about yourself that is less likely to be read than one or two pages.