What is a talent screener?
EPSO introduced the use of the so-called Talent Screener in 2010 when its 'new' selection system was launched. This is in fact an online question-and-answer form that candidates of "specialist" (such as 'macroeconomist', 'nuclear decommissioning expert' or other) and internal EU competitions (such as the ones currently being organised by the European Commission) need to fill in.
The answers to the form are then read, checked and scored by members of the selection board of the given exam, with the caveat that only those candidates will be eligible for the next stage of the competition who "pass" the talent screener, i.e. obtain sufficient points that are higher than the passmark or those among the top x number of candidates in terms of scores.
It is therefore vital to optimise your answers in a way that reflects the best of you and increases your chances of passing this initial phase.
Who scores your talent screener?
As for every competition that EPSO organises, there is a selection board composed of EU officials of the same or higher grade than those being selected (e.g. if you are applying for an AD7 exam, the selection board members need to have at least AD7 grade). Moreover, given the highly specific nature of specialist (and most internal) competitions, the members of the selection board, who also act later as assessors, will be coming from the same field as the competition (e.g. if you are applying to be a macroeconomist, the members will have this background as well, likely coming from e.g. DG ECFIN).
This also means that they are very familiar with the diplomas, professional experience and overall context of that field, so you will not need to explain what your job was when dealing with 'quantitative easing'. At the same time, if you did something less 'ordinary', e.g. volunteer work in a 3rd country for an NGO, or obtained a diploma in a non-European MBA program, this will certainly not be obvious to them so it is worth adding further details. (For general CV-related tips, check our recent "14 Tips to Start an EU Career" webcast recording, especially its 2nd half from the 31st minute.)
What can you do to optimise your answers and increase your chances?
Here are a few tips to make sure you are not scored lower than what you would deserve based on your achievements and overall profile. Always make sure, nevertheless, to provide truthful and relevant information, and never invent anything that is not "rooted in reality".
Remember it is a subjective exercise: The EPSO talent screener, as mentioned above, is purely scored by humans and not by computer algorithms. While in certain private sector jobs computer programs would 'screen' your application or CV in search of industry-related keywords, EPSO will never resort to such automatic or automated methods.
At the same time, inserting relevant terminology or references to your job-related (or competition-related) activities can have an important impact on your scores. Moreover, the readability and communication factors will also influence assessors' understanding of your professional background, hence using a structured layout with bullet points, clear references and short, to-the-point descriptions will add a lot of value to your application, and hopefully higher scores as well.
- Less is more: to paraphrase Einstein, "everything should be as short as possible, but not shorter". This means that while you need to provide extensive information about your achievements, job-related experience and qualifications, no assessor will like to read a novel as an answer to the various questions in the talent screener.
Even if in most fields you have space for 4000 characters, this doesn't mean you will need to use it all up. Make sure you provide as much value and as many relevant answers as possible, and try to cut out comments such as 'This experience gave me a valuable opportunity to improve my analytical skills'. This sounds empty and takes up valuable space from more meaningful comments. Rather say "2 years' experience in DG MARKT, European Commission: analysis of mutual recognition of diplomas. Achievements: in-depth analysis, ability to draft a high-level comparative study, used as a reference materials by the European Commission".
- EU institutions and EPSO are formal and terminology-driven: many candidates, especially those coming from outside the "EU bubble" tend to overlook the fact that EU institutions, and EPSO especially, are keen on using the right terminology and expressions.
This in practice means that if you are requested to provide evidence of your experience in "developing social, economic or political studies in the area of….", then you are not supposed to mention conferences you organised or internal memos that you had been tasked with drafting. On the other hand, your contribution to a peer-reviewed journal or an analytical website would certainly qualify, and so may your MA thesis.
Another example is if you are asked to provide evidence of your experience in "contributing to the decision-making process of the European Commission", focus on the verb "contribution" and carefully consider its interpretation: the activities you list there may include not only specific files you were in charge of but a broader set of activities such as coordinating a stakeholder conference or liaising with Member States' permanent representations in Brussels. Or if your main activity was in the field of communication, make sure to mention how you contributed already to the formulation phase of a policy or legislation, not only to its communication once it was adopted.
Last example is a question on "your experience in managing a team", where you are cautioned against listing the projects or legislative files or clients you dealt with, and instead of focusing on the 'personal' and 'human' side of it: list how many people were involved in the team you worked with, how many units or DGs you coordinated with, and the level of responsibility you had. Also worth mentioning a few bullet points on the skills and competencies you gained as a result of such experience.
It is vital to read the question with extra care and focus on the exact wording of it, otherwise you may forget to mention related activities or answer it in a way that results in low or no scores at all.
- Repeat with care: the talent screener may ask you questions that seem quite similar to earlier questions, and as a result you may be tempted to repeat your activities twice or more just to provide an answer to all fields in the questionnaire.
I would certainly caution you against this practice as the same achievement will not lead to higher scores if it is used in the exact same form for multiple questions. On the other hand, if one question relates to your "experience in teaching or training (internally and externally) on topics related to the competition", you may use your experience at e.g. the Commission's DG TRADE when you gave regular briefings to your colleagues on the state of play of the anti-dumping case you were working on, even if you used this same experience in your answer covering your experience in participating at inter-institutional negotiations.
To sum it up, you can use the same experience twice only if you manage to present it from a different angle than before, in a way that corresponds to the question and does not serve as a simple copy-paste of the earlier mention.
If the question nevertheless requires you to repeat your earlier answer, don't just say "see above" as this may not go down well with the selection board, but list your previous answer's main headings instead (where you worked and the duration) without reproducing the details. This will give a clear indication that you are talking about the same experience as above but you are not trying to game the system, neither do you want tell them "I don't bother answering you in more detail, you can really do some effort and check my previous answer". (Remember point no. 1 above - it's a subjective exercise!)
- Dig deep and remember it all: when you are asked questions on your team-management skills or about "drafting reports" in a specific field, either via deep hypnosis or simply by going through your own CV thoroughly, you may find some hidden treasures that you can include in your answer. This may be your Master's thesis that you wrote on a related topic, a conference where you were a guest speaker, a short training course you followed and received a certificate about, or any other achievement or contribution that you can leverage for the purpose of the talent screener. Remember, you need to present all relevant information in a highly structured manner to make sure that the selection board can tick the right boxes, understand your profile better and give you a higher score based on hard evidence, ie. facts, figures, places and dates you list in your talent screener.
- What's in it for them: no selection board member wants to see an overconfident candidate who uses superlatives and "big words"... there is no need to say "I am extremely thorough, hard-working person who is committed to European integration." This sounds quite kitsch and will not result in higher scores. On the other hand, mentioning that "I have 3 years' work experience gained at the European Commission's Joint Research Center in Sevilla - my work has reinforced my commitment to the EU's role in advancing science and technology, and I am eager to effectively contribute to further research thanks to my PhD and the above work experience."
Even if the talent screener's question relates to "your" commitment, motivation, achievements or experience, always make sure that you link your personal background and work experience with the needs of the EU or institution you are applying to. You may think that the question is about you...but in fact, it's about how your background fits in the profile they are seeking to select and recruit candidates for. In short, mention what you did, but make sure to add in what ways is that relevant and beneficial for EU institutions.
- A small detail for you, an important information for them: candidates occasionally tend to "undersell" themselves. By this I mean that they may list various activities they did (e.g. "I was in charge of writing memos, articles and press releases") when they could spell each item out in much more detail, thus boosting their profile and revealing more about these achievements. In the above example, if the candidate wrote memos, that could be showcased as a standalone bullet point, adding more information about the kind and type of memos (s)he was drafting. Press releases are also important elements to demonstrate your ability to communicate EU policy and draft under time pressure, so why not list that as another standalone bullet? If you list these as part of a long collection of items, they lose their uniqueness and attract less attention from the selection board members. This is not "just" a drafting or presentation/communication issue: this can seriously impact your overall scores.
- Concrete vs. Abstract? Concrete wins each time: when you list various elements from your professional background, make sure that you don't fall into the trap of making it too abstract. For example, saying that you participated in "impact assessments", make sure to add a date when you carried out this task; you can also add the duration of the work; further numbers or figures that reinforce the importance of the file and the responsibility you had (e.g. "coordinating work with 6 Directorates-General", or "supervising a budget of 8.3 million EUR", or "having an impact on 73 economic operators in Europe") because this makes your claim far more credible and relevant.
If you were in charge of a scientific study, you can make it more concrete by adding information such as "liaised with 4 EU and 2 non-EU research centres", or "the project was financed by the Leonardo da Vinci program". Simply saying "member of an international research team" may have the same meaning from your perspective but it has a very different impact from the selection board's perspective.
Last, make sure that your role is crystal clear for each example you give: don't just say "participated in the working group on counterfeit medicines" but say "team leader of the working group on..." or "chief coordinator of the working group on...". This gives a clear indication to the assessors on what role you had in that project and you don't lose any point for being too vague or modest.
- Don't forget the relevance (and vanity) factor: as with every organisation, EU institutions are also keen on seeing job experience that is related to their own activities, in this case, European affairs. This is of course not to say that someone who has no EU experience would be disadvantaged when applying for a specialist EU competition, but bear in mind that if your experience was not gained inside or in relation to EU institutions, you need to make sure why it is relevant for the profile they are seeking candidates for. If EPSO is searching for food safety experts, and you have worked on EU-related files and cases, make sure you put them high up on your list when mentioning your field-related expertise. This will be regarded positively and can have another positive impact on your application.
Good luck for your application!
© EU Training & András Baneth