Tips for succeeding in european competitive exams
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“Has working for the European institutions always been your dream? Are you interested in discovering more about how the EU officials are selected, which profiles are more requested and what it means to work for the European Union?” More than 800 people answered “yes” and 200 of them joined the online conference on Zoom “How to start a career in the EU: the EPSO admission procedure” organised on Tuesday November 10, 2020 by the Association of the School of Public Affaires of Sciences Po Paris (AEAP).
The guest speakers were a great example of some future careers that the students would like to reach: Professors Luis-Planas Herrera, policy assistant to the Directorate General on Environment (DG ENV), Pierpaolo Settembri (DG MOVE for mobility and transport), Polina Khomenko (WTO policy and negotiations officer at the EU Commission) and Laure Baillargeon (policy officer at DG GROW for internal market, industry, entrepreneurship and small enterprises). Together with Andras Baneth, strategic communication and public affairs expert, author of the book “The Ultimate EU test book” – a guide to EU exams -, the participants had the possibility to exchange on the EPSO and how the procedure of selection to the European institutions work.
What does it mean to work for the EU institutions?
Luis Planas-Herrera (LPH): In a nutshell: a challenging job in an international environment. No risk to get bored with the same task over your whole career at all: the level of internal mobility is very high and since you have to remain constantly trained, you are offered continuous formation. However this doesn’t erase the difficulties of moving to Brussels, change your life and conciliate family and work, therefore great attention is put on well-being activities and life-work balance.
Where to start?
Andras Banath (AB): First of all you have to decide whether you want to work for or with the institutions. In the first case, the procedure is the EPSO one (even though some Agencies have their own exam to pass). On the other side, if you’d like to focus on an external entity operating around the institutions, then you have to convince the employer with your CV and an interview. There are different career options in this case, amongst them the national diplomatic services based in Brussels, or working as a MEP assistant, or in an advocacy group within the EU organs.
LPH: Regarding the admission to the European institutions, you’ll have to start from the EPSO website, that provides all information on vacancies, competition deadlines and inscription modalities, and the profiles needed. On a regular yearly basis some positions are opened and after the notice of competition, the phase of pre-selection starts.
AB: The real obstacle is time and organisation: you have to understand the process and the method of evaluation. This is why preparing in advance is fundamental. And studying with some colleagues, too! Not just because you could exchange on the different points of view on the same topic, but also because it can be particularly stressful: the whole process lasts between 8 and 10 months, therefore caring for your mental balance is fundamental.
Let’s say that I passed the first step, the pre-selection phase. What now?
LPH: After the computer-based test of the pre-selection, that will focus on verbal, analytical and abstract thinking, you will have an intermediate test in the second language that you indicated in the precedent phase: a fundamental requirement to work in the EU is in fact to know at least 2 European languages other than your mother tongue. Afterwards an assessment test based in Brussels or Luxemburg will be organised. This last step will be more specific: it will check your communication skills, you problem-solving ability, your public speaking capabilities and many other particular abilities.
But then, it will be impossible to pass it! There will be a lot of people, much more prepared than me…
AB: Not true, since there is no rule for the minimum (and even maximum) age when to do it! First of all, remember that the pre-selection is free of cost and there are no limits on how many times you can repeat it. Therefore you will find a big crowd of people trying to pass it, but don’t get too scared.
Laure Baillargeon (LB): I must admit I saw a true “evolvement” of the test starting from the year in which I took it, in 2007, until today. It’s true, it has become stricter, nevertheless this means that when you pass it, then you’re sure you are exactly the right person for that job, and that you will find yourself at your ease in the institutions because your forma mentis is the appropriate one. The competences examined in the last stage are not chosen by chance: they really reflect what the employers look for in a candidate. This is why in Sciences Po we offer a course that focuses on that part of the evaluation.
Pierpaolo Settembri (PS): The EU needs people prepared, like you are. As I entered the institutions it was a brand new world, everything had to start from scratch. On the contrary now, the EU has enlarged its power and its competences and therefore much more specialised people are demanded. Everybody will request a lot from you – not only in your office but also at the public opinion level!
If I got it right: the sooner I try the test, the better!
PS: The EU offers plenty of concrete advantages – like social securities and internal mobility – but on the other side I have to admit that it is quite a rigid career, in the sense that once in, it’s hard to move out and find another job in a completely different field. Therefore my answer to this question is a nuanced one: it’s a long process so once you’re sure of your choice, then start. But if you want to try something different before, then the right time to do it is before trying the test. It will take you a lot of time and energy, better not to waste them!
Polina Khomenko (PK): And we all absolutely recommend you to do an internship before! We had many interns which then had the opportunity to remain, or that on the other side understood that it was not their field. Moreover, the competences that you develop as an intern will be very close to what you will be asked for in the assessment centre in Brussels.
In a nutshell: is it worth it to work for the EU institutions?
LB: As I said I did the test in 2007. It’s been 13 years that I am in the Commission, even in the same DG. Am I happy with it? More than happy: it gets better every day.
Interview conducted by Silvia Panini, student of the Master in European Affairs at the School of Public Affairs, representative of the Europe in the World policy stream in the AEAP